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The Improbability Pump

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Imagine for a moment that a large proportion of Americans--let's say half--rejected the "germ theory" of infectious disease. Maladies like swine flu, malaria and AIDS aren't caused by micro-organisms, they claim, but by the displeasure of gods, whom they propitiate by praying, consulting shamans and sacrificing goats. Now, you'd surely find this a national disgrace, for those people would be utterly, unequivocally wrong. Although it's called germ theory, the idea that infections are spread by small creatures is also a fact, supported by mountains of evidence. You don't get malaria unless you carry a specific protozoan parasite. We know how it causes the disease, and we see that when you kill it with drugs, the disease goes away. How, we'd ask, could people ignore all this evidence in favor of baseless superstition?

But that's fiction, right? Well, not entirely, for it applies precisely to another "theory" that is also a fact: the theory of evolution. Over the past quarter-century, poll after poll has revealed that nearly half of all Americans flatly reject evolution, many clinging to the ancient superstition that the earth was created only 6,000 years ago, complete with all existing species. But as Richard Dawkins shows in his splendid new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, the theory of evolution is supported by at least as much evidence as is the germ theory of disease--heaps of it, and from many areas of biology. So why is it contemptible to reject germ theory but socially acceptable to reject evolutionary theory?

One answer is religion. Unlike germ theory, the idea of evolution strikes at the heart of human ego, suggesting that we were not the special object of God's attention but were made by the same blind and mindless process of natural selection that also built ferns, fish and rabbits. Another answer is ignorance: most Americans are simply unaware of the multifarious evidence that makes evolution more than "just a theory," and don't even realize that a scientific theory is far more than idle speculation. . .



There are many secularists who also reject global warming, not as some Godless conjecture, but as a liberal hysteria.

True - and although the case for global warming is reasonably strong, it is nowhere near as strong as the case for evolution driven by natural selection. Read the web letter on the Nation web site. It is truly pathetic that a reasonably articulate commenter offers such a stupid rejoinder to Coyne's review - only commitment to religion or some other extreme ideology can make a person like that. The guy argues that because we can't do the experiment of evolving humans again in a laboratory like we can do experiments that support germ theory, the evidence for human evolution for ape-like progenitors is not strong like the evidence for germ theory. We can't do any experiments to reproduce Jeffrey Dahmer's murder of any particular victim either. But somehow, I find the presence of a victim's head in Dahmer's refrigerator and the stench of rotting bodies in a barrel in his bedroom to be compelling evidence for his guilt.

The inability to do a controled experiment does not proclude one from testing hypotheses. That sort of experiment supports evolution and global warming. The part of global warmign that isn't as well supported as eveolution is the predictions about the future in a complex system. Similarly, predicting what changes humans will undergo in the next 100,000 years would likley have a level of uncertainty.

So the level of denying current reality based on distrust of informational sources is very similar.

FOr many both are based on religion, for some Global warming denial is based on a distrust of their ideological opposition and obsession with avoiding senarios that require Government intervention.

Oi - yup; the birthers and truthers are cults unto themselves. No matter what evidence is presented to refute their claims, they take up some tactic to say essentially "Well what about this? Has this been answered? Until you can answer every question I can think of, my point of view is right, and you're a fool to believe otherwise."

So a military doc just can't seem to use his brain to see past the BS and he's now dealing with a court martial hearing. Good for the military.

The inability to do a controled experiment does not proclude one from testing hypotheses.

Exactly. In the case of evolution, this is a particularly salient point since molecular-biological predictions can be made based on the evolutionary hypothesis. The predictions couldn't even be concieved of when the hypothesis was originally formulated since no one knew enough about the chemistry of life to even make the prediction. This is the exact opposite of the ID-creationist mode of operating in which one takes a myth, elevates it to the level of an unassailable axiom, and selectively (and pathetically) tries to twist a few crumbs of "data" to support the axiom. (All the while one has to pretend that the axiom isn't an axiom, because then you'd have to admit you aren't doing science at all.)


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