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Tuesday, August 3, 2010


For months now, I have been maintaining an elevated tone in this blog as I wrote my memoirs. But my friends know that there is a nasty little ideologue lurking beneath this gentlemanly surface, so the time has come to get some things off my chest. Let me begin with the 44%, or one hundred million plus, of adult Americans who, according to a 2008 Gallup survey, agree with the statement that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at sometime within the last 10,000 years or so." This comports well with a 2005 survey that showed roughly the same number [42%] claiming to be strict creationists.

These figures can in part be explained by sheer ignorance. This is, after all, a country in which very large percentages of adults cannot find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, even though those same people will wear little yellow ribbons to show their support for the troops. But as the recent decisions of the Texas Board of Education make clear, the embrace of so-called Creationism, which is to say the denial of the fact of evolution, is grounded in Christian beliefs as well as in just plain ignorance or garden variety stupidity.

Now, I don't want to enter into a serious conversation with any of these folks, in which I adduce the experimental and observational evidence. Let Richard Dawkins do that. I just want to see a law passed that mandates that hospitals ask whether patients hold these views, and then, if they say yes, requires a doctor to explain the scientific basis of any procedure that the hospital is about to use in treating the patient. Here is how it would work:

A Fundamentalist Christian is brought into the hospital suffering from life-threatening colon cancer. On the forms he fills out at Patient Intake, he says he is a Born-Again Evangelical Christian who believes that the world is ten thousand years old. The doctors then tell him that his best chance of conquering the cancer is radiation therapy. However, they explain, radiation therapy rests on the theory of radioactive decay, and that in turn depends on the fact that the half lives of the relevant elements are millions of years long, etc etc. So, before they violate his most deeply held convictions by beginning the radiation therapy, they just want him to sign a release acknowledging that he no longer believes that the earth is ten thousand years old.

I mean, these are the people who pass laws requiring doctors to show pictures of aborted fetuses to women who want abortions, right? What do you suppose would have happened if someone had put my proposed requirement into the omnibus health care reform bill?

Then I want someone to ask Sarah Palin what she thought she was doing when she had amniocentesis to find out whether her unborn baby suffered from Down's Syndrome. Did she recant her rejection of evolution before the procedure, which, after all, depends on Genetics built on that theory?

We could save a ton of money nationally if all the Fundamentalist Creationists would forswear treatment that conflicts with their religious beliefs, and just die. Of course, we would have to require them to permit their children to be treated, but since we are talking about maybe one hundred million adults, you have to think that's a lot of expensive high tech treatment that wouldn't have to be delivered.

And it won't do for these folks to say, "Well, I am still a Fundamentalist Evangelical Born-Again Inerrant Christian about most things, but I am willing to make an exception for radiation." That would be like a triskaidaphobic saying, "I have a deep-rooted fear of the number thirteen, so although I accept addition and subtraction, multiplication and division generally, I draw the line at any calculation that involves the number thirteen." You cannot pick and choose the implications you like and the ones hyou don't like of a proposition whose general calidity you deny. [I love the fact that hotels routinely omit the number thirteen when labeling their floors. Do they not understand that the floor after twelve is the thirteenth, even if you call it Fred?]

I know, I know. You will say that secular humanist rationalists just don't have the stomach to let people die a hideous, unnecessary death simply because they profess ignorant, stupid beliefs that contradict the medical treatment that will save their lives. But I am not a secular humanist rationalist. I am an atheistical anarchistic Marxist, and we are made of sterner stuff.

Just saying.


NotHobbes said...

A few details from the Theos theology think tank survey conducted in the UK last year:

• 70% of people questioned knew that Darwin is most strongly identified with
evolution, yet only 54% were able to correctly identify The Origin of Species as written
by him. Only 11% knew that he also wrote The Descent of Man.
• Just 37% of respondents agree that Darwinian evolution is a theory so well
established it is beyond reasonable doubt, with nearly a fifth (19%) believing it has
little or no supporting evidence. 36% state that the theory is still waiting to be proved
or disproved.
• An overwhelming majority of people (75%) believe that science can explain many
things, but not everything.
• Only 10% consider science and religious belief to be completely incompatible.
• More than half of the population (53%) believes in God. Interestingly, while 8% of
people say they used to believe in God but no longer do so, this is equalled by the
number of people who believe in God but have not always.
• People were asked to choose between four possible positions as described in the
questionnaire (see pages 26-27): Young Earth Creationism (YEC), Intelligent Design
(ID), Theistic Evolution (TE) and Atheistic Evolution (AE). When asked which position
they considered most likely, 17% chose the YEC position,11% chose ID, 28% chose TE
and 37% chose AE.
• Two thirds of people (65%) consider evolution (TE or AE) to be the most likely
explanation for the origins of human life.

The poll also revealed some extraordinary views on more recent writings, with 5% of adults thinking Darwin wrote A Brief History of Time

God only knows what those 5% would credit you with Professor
"Urrrm, didn`t he draw the pictures for the cover of Profokievs cd" ;-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Clearly it is a mistake to inquire too deeply into the state of mind of the general public. Now, what percentage of those polled could identify Lady Gaga?

NotHobbes said...

I was honestly just about to delete my first post after having almost identical thoughts in the bath tub.
I wonder how many folk just accept religious or political views without question; their parents views becoming their own, and so on.

ADG said...

Well said: The same procedure for the use of antibiotics as well :-)


Rosa said...

asking people to have totally consistent beliefs seems like a tall order though. are we supposed to throw out physics (including medical physics) because we don't have a good theory of quantum gravity? maybe it would be enough for them to just acknowledge that they could be wrong, given more data (and that their medical treatment working counts towards that data).

Chris said...

While I laughed heartily reading this post, and also wish your prescription were reality, I can't make it jive with our shared anarchism. I mean isn't there a contradiction here between our anarchism, and using the state to impose a measure through force; force because we are talking life and death! Granted, Christians are often daft folks, but there's a lot of Christian Anarcho-Communist I'd prefer to live over a lot of atheist free-market capitalist!

Chris said...

Sorry for the double post, had to chime in on:

"An overwhelming majority of people (75%) believe that science can explain many things, but not everything."

That isn't surprising, as an atheist even I don't think science can explain everything.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A word of warning. From time to time, I just go ape at the things I read, and I fulminate. I try to alert people to what is happening, so that they won't take me seriously. I mean, would I deny treatment to someone who was carried into the radiation therapy room proclaiming his refusal to believe in the science that underlies it? Of course not. I wouldn't even stick out my tongue at him and say, "Nyah, nyah." I would just wish him well. But I have to admit that in my dreams ...

Bryan Frances said...

Lady Gaga! I have a gag website on analytic philosophy and Lady Gaga that you might be interested in:

Let me add that I'm an analytic philosopher who loves Lady Gaga music.

Bryan Frances

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Bryan, I checked out the website, and I love it, even though I am not really a fan of anything musical after 1800 or so. When you get fired, let me know and I will write you a letter of recommendation.

Unknown said...

Bob: The case is stronger than you make. All of medicine is now based on molecular medicine: health and disease are a function of the interaction of genome, epigenome, and enviornment (or whatever precise refinement the formula will have as it develops). That is, modern medicine presumes and corroborates evolution, every day. This is not mentioned to patients, inasmuch as this information is not needed for the informed consent process for treatment. However, patients who are aware of it are at risk for non-trivial cognitive dissonance or even a crisis of faith (when the molecular medical treatment works). The human species that we have developed the powerful and useful adpative trait of living with contradictions (that would paralyze other species', such as dogs', brains in a flash). That is, the ability of such patients to live with cognitive dissonance only makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, which they reject. And, as Kurt Vonnegut nicely put it, so it goes.

Chris said...

I would sincerely doubt the ability to live with cognitive dissonance 'only' makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. One of the big problems I find with this evolutionary psychology is its self-aggrandizing pseudo-science. Just because we observe a trait today, we infer that it had to be selected for long ago, albeit it's often impossible to test, and then brandish dissent as un-scientific, ignorant, wrong, etc. I know this kind of reasoning would have Hume rolling in his grave.

Why not be as honest as possible. Humans exhibit cognitive dissonance. It's annoying, perplexing and intriguing. We probably can't/won't ever know why/when this suddenly became a homo-sapien attribute.

Scott said...

For the record, Richard Dawkins also refuses to debate with these people, with good reason:

By the way, Professor Wolff, since you're still venting about how ignorant and uninformed the masses are, I should ask if you've gotten around to reading The Myth of the Rational Voter yet? :)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Oh well, Scott, I guess Dawkins has had his fill of that sort of thing. No, I haven't read that yet. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Oren said...

I'm pretty sure that the reality is that most people think of modern medicine, electricity, ipods, wifi, etc. as magic. The idea that all that technology comes out of a coherent understanding of the universe in which many linked strands of evidence irrefutably lead us to know, among other things, that life on earth is ~3 billion years old, is far too remote for the average Joe Wurzelbacher. It just doesn't matter for daily life. So belief follows comfort, not reason.