Sunday, August 7, 2011

Josh Rosenau on science illiteracy

I've noted before that absolute cluelessness of atheists. They make assertions so vapid-- so easily refuted-- that you wonder what their thought processes really are.

Josh Rosenau, Program Director for the National Center for Science Education, is a particularly clear example.

Rosenau takes issue with the National Science Board's decision to categorize people who disagree with the central claims of evolutionary biology (i.e. materialistic explanations for life), but who have a good fund of knowledge about evolution, scientifically literate.


It is my contention that one cannot call a person who adopts these views [evolution 'denial']"science literate." And in a chapter aimed at assessing "knowledge and attitudes" regarding science, it is not sufficient to find that someone knows evolutionary biology says humans share common ancestors with other life, or that astronomers say there was a big bang. A person who thinks calling something "a theory" is discrediting is not science literate (having misunderstood key terms and scientific processes). A person who thinks scientists as a community would hide evidence to advance their theological agenda is not science literate (having betrayed a misunderstanding about how scientific claims are evaluated within the scientific community). A person who thinks it is appropriate to set their interpretation over empirical evidence when asked a scientific question is only arguably science literate (having substituted an untestable theological claim for a valid scientific claim; arguably, such a substitution is a value choice, not a matter of science literacy, but either way it is a relevant measure of attitudes toward science).

Science literacy has to be more than abstract knowledge. To be meaningful, it has to be integrated into a person's view of the world in some useful way. Someone who knows that evolutionary biology deals in common ancestry of life, but who rejects that idea is not able to integrate that knowledge, for instance by connecting new discoveries in roundworms and relate them to their own health, let alone to have a coherent understanding of newly discovered fossil hominids, or other new findings directly related to evolution. Such a person necessarily has an incomplete ability to read and understand science reporting such as would be found in Science Times on Tuesday, or to discuss new research findings and their implications for his or her own health with a doctor.

The NSB's decision to distinguish between knowledge of a theory and agreement with it is a good one. To be scientifically literate, a person should understand the claims that a theory makes and the evidence invoked to support/refute the theory. It is certainly possible, and in fact is relatively common, to understand a scientific theory quite well, and to disagree with it. Einstein's disagreement with some interpretations of quantum mechanics doesn't mean that he wasn't scientifically literate in quantum mechanics. One can understand a scientific theory, and disagree with it. There's no inherent contradiction.

There are many Americans, including quite a few scientists, who are quite well-versed in evolutionary biology (Jonathan Wells, Paul Nelson, Richard Sternberg and Casey Luskin come to mind) who don't agree with some of the theory, particularly the materialistic aspects. But they are quite scientifically literate.

What Rosenau is demanding from the NSB is a litmus test. He wants the NSB to classify people who disagree with the mainstream materialist interpretation of evolution as illiterate, not as scientifically knowledgeable people who disagree about the science.

It's Orwellian stuff. What Rosenau is saying is: 'if you don't agree with us, you're stupid'. They should rename the NCSE the NCMI: the National Center for Materialist Indoctrination.

But here's the funny part. If belief, rather than knowledge, is essential for literacy in a topic, then atheists like Rosenau can be labeled theologically illiterate. They don't merely disagree with theology's premise that God exists, they're illiterate about theology. And the only way they can rectify their illiteracy is to... believe in God. It looks like we'll have to be teaching more religion in public schools. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

But no. Rosenau isn't theologically illiterate. He understands enough about religion, I'm sure, to pass. But his argument suggests a rather severe case of logical illiteracy.

That goes with the atheism.


  1. I could understand his position if he were referring to people who had never heard of evolution, Darwin, or Natural Selection. It should also be applied to people who are philosophically illiterate and theologically illiterate too! How can they teach when they have no idea about the culture and traditions of their students? How can they work for the benefit of a society (like biologists or doctors) if they have no idea of it's foundations?
    But to assume the debate on Origins is over is delusional. This man seeks to censor his opponents and enforce his own ideology.
    You're right, Mike. This is Orwellian.

  2. For once, I am more in agreement with Mike than with Josh Rosenau.

    OK, scratch that. I find myself more in agreement with Chris Mooney than with Rosenau.

    No, even that would be considerable oversimplification. The issue is complex and, like Josh at the end of his post, I find that both Jon Miller (the author of the original questionnaire) and Mooney make good points.

    Jon Miller is entirely right to say that prepending "according to evolutionary theory" to the question about common ancestry is not warranted. It is not just the theory of evolution that asserts common ancestry of man and animals. Paleontology and genetics provide solid evidence of common descent. Viewed from that perspective, the new version of the question looks strangely defensive. It's like prepending "according to the big bang theory" to the statement "the Universe began some billions of years ago." A scientifically literate person should be aware that it's not just a theory (whether common descent or the big bang). There is plenty of experimental evidence for both.

    Mooney is right, on the other hand, that denial of common descent (or of an old universe) is not necessarily a sign of scientific illiteracy. People can have religious reasons to deny them. Mike provided excellent examples of those who are clearly scientifically literate but deny common descent. Kurt Wise is a great example of someone with a Ph. D. in geology from Harvard who nonetheless denies that the earth is billions of years old.

    What I don't like in Mike's post is his attempt to paint Rosenau as "logically illiterate." But Josh is clearly not stupid. He raises important questions and even acknowledges at the end that both sides can be right.

    So let's try to turn this umpteenth attempt at bashing atheists into something more meaningful. I don't think I know where Mike stands on the question of common descent. Perhaps he discussed it somewhere and I forgot. So here are a couple of questions that I'd like him to answer. Everyone else, feel free to provide your answers. I could use the original NSF questions, but I decided to modify them a bit as I think some of them are not well posed.

    True or false?
    1. The Universe began some 13.6 billion years ago in a bog bang.
    2. The earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago.
    3. Humans share common ancestry with other animals.
    4. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.

  3. 1_ Hard to say, I would have to take further look at cosmology and it's epistemic situation

    2_If our dating methods are correct, I would say that it is very likely, in other case... I guess is a bit less.

    3_ I don't think there is Universal Common Ancestry. Multiple trees model seems to explain better the fact that there is different genetic "commands" for a number of creatures.

    3_ O_O I thought it killed only Bacterias!

  4. 1. True
    2. True
    3. A strong and probably correct hypothesis
    4. False, according to my understanding of antibiotics, but maybe there is some corner case I am unaware of.

  5. Rosenau's position would relegate Darwinian biology to the non-science category if he is really stating that understanding it but doubting it is unscientific by definition. If no possible falsifier of a theory can count as science, then that theory is itself unfalsifiable and non-scientific.

  6. Oleg

    1 yes
    2 yes
    3 probably
    4 no- the question is an insult

  7. The only question I can see being a tru/false answer is 4 (false).
    The rest are based on current scientific understanding/consensus, which is vastly different than 'truth'.
    So agree, possible, disagree would be better form.

  8. As a materialistic atheist, my answers are:

    1. Yes.
    2. Yes.
    3. Definitely.
    4. How do you define 'kill' and 'alive'? There are effective antiviral drugs around (for viruses such as influenza, HIV, varicella...). Are these drugs antibiotics or just antiviral? A guarded 'false' because that's the expected answer.

    Personally, I'm opposed to changing the wording of the question, because it changes the answers midstream in a longitudinal survey of science knowledge.

    The wording of questions is extremely important, particularly when reporting of the results of the survey doesn't include the questions asked. With the proposed new questions, it's probable that the future results will have reporters stating that Americans' science literacy has improved, when it hasn't.

    A similar thing has happened in Australia with a Lowy survey (done yearly). In the question on climate change, respondents were asked whether they supported action with some economic costs (decreased from 46 to 40%), action provided there's no cost and no action because climate change isn't happening (19%) (I'm quoting from memory). So 81% agree climate change is happening, 19% disagree. All the newspapers reported that acceptance of climate change amongst Australians had crashed... Not true if you looked at the questions and the numbers.

  9. Oleg, now that any preconceptions you were holding on how we'd answer these questions have been confirmed or discomfirmed, do you have a followup?

  10. Thanks to all who participated in the survey. The results are not exactly surprising. Almost everyone agrees that the earth and the universe are billion years old, a position shared by most (though not all) proponents and fans of ID.

    The notion of common descent is met with less enthusiasm. This is typical, too. ID proponents usually take pains to stress that common descent is not necessarily incompatible with ID and point to Michael Behe as an example of an ID proponent who accepts it. After that disclaimer, they usually deny common descent. Here are Casey Luskin and Logan Gage, for instance.

  11. What of it, Matteo? Theory of evolution is considered dangerous by some conservative Christians.

    This NPR story is the latest confirmation: Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve.

    An excerpt for those who can't be bothered to click:

    "The evolution controversy today is, I think, a Galileo moment," says Karl Giberson, who authored several books trying to reconcile Christianity and evolution, including The Language of Science and Faith, with Francis Collins.

    Giberson — who taught physics at Eastern Nazarene College until his views became too uncomfortable in Christian academia — says Protestants who question Adam and Eve are akin to Galileo in the 1600s, who defied Catholic Church doctrine by stating that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. Galileo was condemned by the church, and it took more than three centuries for the Vatican to express regret at its error.

    "When you ignore science, you end up with egg on your face," Giberson says. "The Catholic Church has had an awful lot of egg on its face for centuries because of Galileo. And Protestants would do very well to look at that and to learn from it."

  12. And again I ask, what in the world does this have to do with the little survey you took?