Miss USA and Scientific Illiteracy

There are those who see the theory of evolution as a threat to the viability of their faith tradition.  Why they fear science is itself a question worthy of investigation.  Science can neither validate nor invalidate a faith tradition,  although it may provide compelling reasons to reconsider particular doctrines or interpretations of scripture. Whatever their reasons, these folks have waged a two front war on the theory of evolution.  On one front, they have called into question the evidence for the theory itself.  On the other front, they have advanced various Creationist alternatives, the most recent of which is the theory of “intelligent design.”

Although none of these competing theories have established themselves as scientifically viable, they have been culturally influential.  In particular they have exploited (and deepened) scientific illiteracy.  Put simply, the theory of evolution is not something that one “believes in” or does not “believe in,” as the contestants for the most recent Miss USA pagaent answered when they were asked whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools.  (Only two answered that it should be.)  The theory of evolution, like all scietific theories, is something that one evaluates the evidence for.

The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain an empirical phenomenon.  It is the prevailing scientific explanation of that phenomenon because the preponderance of evidence supports it.  That is the standard for scientific validity.  The arguments for creationism trade on a willful disregard for the application of the scientific method.  To say there are multiple explanations for an empirical phenomenon is a commonplace.  What proponents of creationism and intelligent design have managed to do is to transform the notion of competing explanations into the notion of competing, equally valid explanations.  If there is more than one expalanation, then fairness would seem to dictate that they all be given equal weight.  What this ignores is the all-important fact that the evidence for these various explanations differs massively.  There is no evidence for Creationism and substantial evidence for the theory of evolution.

And yet we have the vast majority of Miss USA contestants taking the position that both intelligent design and the theory of evolution should be given equal weight in discussions of the origin and evolution of species.  Now, Miss USA contestants are not generally known for their scientific expertise, and one might be tempted not to worry too much about their scholarly dispositions.  The reality is that these contestants were offering an opinion that is commonly expressed in American society (and in Republican primary debates).  Does it matter that so many people don’t understand science?  Maybe not, although I think it probably does–particularly with regard to environmental policy.  But, even if it doesn’t have much impact on public policy, I can’t help but be offended by (and feel some responsibility for) the prevalence of scientific illiteracy.