Posted tagged ‘Faith’

Getting Ready for 200/150: “How Many Removes From Charles?” Edition

December 16, 2008

As everyone with a pulse and an interest in science knows, 2009 is the big Darwin year — the 200th anniversary of his birth (February 12) and the 150th of the publication of The Origin.  I will in a week or so have some news about what Inverse Square — or a derivative thereof — is doing to join the chorus on that one; I think I’ve got something shaping up that the community will enjoy.

In the meantime, and as I get stuck into my prep for that project, just a quick thought as I peered at the Darwin/Wedgewood family tree Janet Browne helpfully included at the front of the Voyaging volume of her Darwin magnum opus.  There I found that Darwin’s latest-surviving child, Leonard.  Leonard Darwin was born in 1850, before the Crimean War, the Sepoy MutinyAme–the Indian Rebellion of 1857 — and the American Civil War; and he saw the end of World War II, India’s independence and the effective end of the British Empire, all before his death  in 1948.*  And, not to overlook the most important factoid, young Leonard would have been a curious eight year old just as his father was in the midst of his most intense labors distilling the work of decades into the book that became The Origin of Species.

That skein of history would be remarkable enough just for one man’s memory, but what struck me was the thought that my f Uncle David, born and raised in England, with an army background (and subsequent career of his own) that could have led him to Major Darwin (Royal Engineers), might indeed have exchanged a conversational commonplace or two with the son of the man whose birth and work we celebrate soon.

All of which is to point out the obvious — and perhaps one tangential thought not quite so banal. The distance between anyone reading this and Charles Darwin is not that great.  It is entirely imaginable to have had a conversation with someone you know or knew who could have heard the stories of life at Down House from someone who watched and listened as Charles Darwin assembled his argument.  The middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the very center of a revolution in ideas seem very far away when we toss around anniversary numbers like a bicentennial, or one hundred and fifty years since this or that.  They are not, at least by the measure of human memory.  She danced with a man who danced with woman who danced with the Prince of Wales; we are that close to Charles and his pigeons and all the rest.

Nothing new there — just a reminder of the numbers.  But the thought that crossed my  mind as I wondered if my uncle did in fact ever meet Leonard (as above–I had not known to ask, of course, until the chance-met glance at the bottom of the family tree) was that Richard Dawkins may have missed the point of his own reflection that he too would have been a believer before Darwin.

If you follow my sense of the slenderness of the gap that separates us in the passage of generations, of the transfer of ideas and culture that pass from grandparent to grandchild at so near a remove from Charles Darwin’s in his study in 1859, then the broken chain of belief that separates Dawkins from Victoria’s (or Emma Darwin’s) Anglican God is very short indeed.

And that thought made me wonder  if the heat and urgency I read in Dawkins’ atheism seems a little misplaced.  Without wandering too far into this thicket, it does seem to me worth remembering that it has been a very short time in the history of human society, and a still shorter time if the person-person touch of memory matters, since Darwin’s thought  struck its blow to conventional faith.

It takes some time for big ideas to sink in.  (For a biblical example, as long as we are on the subject, God through Moses affirmed the equality of women, at least as far as inheritance and rights of property go, in the Book of Numbers, which dates back 3,400 years ago or so.  That thought took a while to penetrate, did it not?)

There is no doubt in my mind that Darwin’s rigorous materialism takes some getting used to; that part of the point of 2009 is to confront not just Darwin’s thinking, but the success of the research program that his work (and that of many others, of course) set in motion.  I’m confident, that is, not angry — and I remember that we have not been inside this world view for any length of time at all.  One hundred and fifty years?  The lives my uncle’s life has touched — mine and those before me — stretch back before then.  Easily.

*Here from the Wikipedia entry on Leonard Darwin linked above, is John Maynard Keynes take on Charles’s son, who proves to have just a hint of the wasp about him in his turn:

Keynes explained the decision to publish the niece’s “very personal account”: “Leonard Darwin’s life covered so vast an epoch of change in men’s ideas, his own attitudes towards the problems of his age were so characteristic of the best and noblest intelligences of his time, and he grew up in the environment of a family of so immortal a renown …” (p. 439) Darwin expressed his feelings about Keynes in a letter to Fisher (Correspondence p. 141), “I neither like him nor trust him … But he’s very clever …”

Image: Auguste Renoir:  “La danse à la campagne,” 1883.

Sarah Palin Substance, Take Two

September 3, 2008

Most of the press and blog coverage today has focused on (a) the water torture nature of the story of what happens when you don’t vet the first significant “Presidential” appointment  you make — thus aiming the coverage appropriately at the real culprit in Palin story:  John McCain. If this election is in fact a “judgment” vs. “experience” choice, then for now, judgment is winning, as indeed it should.

At the same some folks are pointing out that the kinds of trouble Palin herself is in — and hence the sort of problem she is becoming for John McCain — may be the kind of briar patch in which the GOP ticket is perfectly happy to find themselves, the argument being that in a change year, a gut-level populist appeal may be just enough to turn the key states their way.

So, against that possibility, I want to take another whack at what a Vice President — or a President — Palin looks like from a point of view embedded in science.  As before, my argument is in essence that what Palin thinks about a specific issue for which there is a clear body of research — using scientific methods, producing reproducibly results — tells us not only about the rationality of her position on that particular issue, but also about the quality of her mind, her judgment, her ability to make decisions of the sort a President faces.

The obvious place to start here is, I’m afraid, with sex — in particular, with Palin’s judgment about the most effective way to education adolescents about sex.  As we now know, both through the usual political research process and because of news about her family I will not discuss, Sarah Palin believes that the correct way to instruct children about sex is to avoid what she calls “explicit sex education” and teach only that abstinence is the appropriate behavior before marriage.

OK — that’s a view a fair number of people hold.  But Palin, of course, is not just anybody — she’s been mayor and she is governor, and you would think that she has some responsibility to back ideas not only because they are comfortable, but because they are valid.

Not so here.  There is ample evidence that abstinence education does not work. See here for one recent take on this, and see this for my earlier whack at Mike Huckabee on this same issue.  Cruise the blogosphere to find as much more as you would like.  Bottom line:  abstinence education shows no improvement in the key parameters of sexual behavior or outcomes over control groups in repeated studies, one of the best of which can be found in summary here.

But  you knew that already, didn’t you?

Now it is something of a dog bites man story to suggest that an evangelical Christian would favor abstinence teaching for her own family, or even her own community; but the point here isn’t about personal choice or belief, it’s about the ability to perform evidence-based reasoning.

Put this another way:  there is a street definition of neurosis as repeatedly doing the same thing expecting a different outcome.  A scientifically informed policy would look at the grim statistics:  the US is the world leader among developed countries in teen pregnancies (h/t Dem from CT over at Daily Kos).  The good news had been that despite that dismal result, teen birth rates had been falling since the peak rate of 61.8 birth rates per thousand in 1991. That is to say, the decline began at exactly the time a Democratic adminstration took office — one whose record on evidence based policy is, by and large, exemplary.

So what happened over the last seven years, during which an administration whose full throated support of world wide abstinence education has had its chance to work its wonders on American women and girls?  What’d you’d naively expect:  the latest report from the Centers For Disease Control, analyzing the data from 2006, shows the US teen birth rate after a fourteen year decline, started to climb again in 2005, a rise that continued in 2006.  From 40.5 births per thousand, the 2006 data show an increase to 41.9.

So it goes, as the late KV would have said.  Idiocy, a lesser evil than the deaths to which Vonnegut referred, is also always with us.

But to the deeper argument:  we know some things.  We know that abstinence education does not work, that funding it is a kind of welfare scam to benefit the religious right, that the real world consequences of the totality of US policy in this area has produced a dismal record of preventing teen pregnancy (80 percent of them unwanted, according to CDC figures, btw).  We know that teen pregnancies have all kinds of deleterious social effects, as the CDC noted in this passage in one of their reports:

“The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy recently estimated that $9.1bn in public funding was expended on teenage childbearing in 2004. These costs include public assistance, healthcare, child welfare and other expenses.”

And let me repeat — we know that abstinence education does not work.

So what would a rational leader do here, one who understood the processes of scientific investigation and could interpret its results?

Try something else perhaps?

Or not.  Both Sarah Palin and John McCain have voiced their continued support for abstinence education as we know.  There are only two explanations that adequately account for such a choice.  One is that they know better — they know that this policy does not help and correlates with a development in the wrong direction, but they feel that they need to take this position to satisfy their base.  Or they simply do not allow facts to penetrate ideology.  (If anyone has any other possible explanations, I’d love to hear them.)

The first option suggests that McCain and or Palin are cynical and so hungry for power that the unwanted pregnancies of deliberately poorly informed teenagers are an acceptable price to pay for success in November.  The second suggests that either or both lack the capacity for judgment, the ability to analyze data, assimilate and interpret information, and come to conclusions for the greater good of the people they seek to represent.

That is — when you choose to reject the bits of science you dislike, you lose the abiltiy to distinguish between scientifically defensible conclusions and stuff you just would rather believe.  While such an approach to the world is comfortable — inconvenient facts cannot overturn settled assumptions, the real world has a way of biting such poor judgment in tender places.

I honestly don’t have a clue whether in either case cynicism or willed ignorance is the explanation for the two GOP candidates on the national ticket deciding to go all in for abstinence.  On their history — McCain has much less of a public commitment to the culture wars side of his party, so maybe pure hunger for power has an edge there.  Palin’s commitment to extreme religious views is also well documented, so perhaps hers is a sincerely chosen blindness.

But I will say that in either case, taken as a case study of a larger test of the way our candidates think and would govern, either explanation leads to the conclusion that this ticket does not think about the world in the ways Presidents need to do.

As for the question of simple humanity, it is worth noting that Governor Palin used her line item veto this spring to cut funding from the Alaska state budget that reduced support for Passage House, a transitional home for teenage mothers.  I have some direct knowledge of institutions in other states that perform a similar service, and let me tell you, the damage a loss of this kind of support can do to both young mothers and their children is immense.  While I fully agree that families are off limits, it does seem to me to be within bounds to say that it seems to me both socially sound policy and a moral good to extend as much of the support a loving family can give to an unplanned pregancy to all those who need it.

Image:  Ary Scheffer, “Greek Women Imploring the Virgin of Assistance,” 1826. National Museum of  Western Art, Tokyo.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.