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Friday, Mar 24, 2006

Home-schooled Ben Feels the Science at Us

Young Ben Domenech, a Republican operative, has landed a blogging position with the Washington Post. Lefty bloggers have been marking this event by mining Ben's personal blog for its rich veins of idiocy.

Although Pharyngula and The Supreme Irony of Life have already mined this post about the value of home schooling, there's enough residual idiocy for another pass.

I personally don't have a problem with evolution being taught in public schools. I occasionally have a problem with the way it is taught - as a final, solid, unquestioned truth, as opposed to a still-changing theoretical approach that many scientists think best explains the way things came to be.

Yglesias speaks about Darwinistic evolution as if it was a solid, undebatable fact, like 2+2=4. But the whole thing's a lot more complicated than that. An academic survey a couple of years ago found that nearly a third of hard scientists believed in theories other than the typical evolutionary construct - either something involving genetic mutation, or intelligent design, or something inspired by Stephen Jay Gould, or the like.
Let's start with the "solid, undebatable fact ... 2+2=4". Yeah, sure, that's totally "solid", as long as you've never heard of finite fields. But before we get to that, I'd like to congratulate young Ben for mastering elementary arithmetic, and would like to offer him the Richard Cohen Certificate of Achievement in First Grade Mathematics.

While elementary arithmetic is a fine skill, the whole thing's a lot more complicated than that. Any mathematician and those engineers steeped in coding theory are familiar with the concept of finite fields, also known as Galois fields, and can easily explain why in GF(3), 2+2=1. (Duh!)

While I was lucky enough to be introduced to the concepts of rings and fields in the 9th grade, perhaps they are too arcane. How about another topic, boolean algegra? This is a fundamental tool for each of the hundreds of digital hardware and software engineers who developed the various components of the machine at your very finger tips. Hundreds of thousands of engineers across the globe are quite familiar with the boolean equality 1+1=1, which equality would, like, totally blow young Ben's mind.

Perhaps we can glean a generalized moral, or a rule-of-thumb from this object lesson.
Try to avoid speaking authoritatively on a subject about which you have only the most rudimentary knowledge, lest you embarrass yourself by looking like an idiot.
With that moral in mind, let's turn to the biology portion of young Ben's post. Ben claims that "an academic report" found some "scientists believed in theories other than the typical evolutionary construct ... something involving genetic mutation". Hmmm, something involving genetic mutation, like, oh, I don't know, could it be EVOLUTION?!! The moral already needs some fine tuning, for young Ben lacks an understanding of even the rudiments of evolution, yet is compelled to excrete words on the topic. Genetic variation, arising from causes that include sexual reproduction and genetic mutation, is one of the pillars of evolutionary theory. That variation provides the inputs to the process of natural selection. Selection among identical clones doesn't result in evolution.

Young Ben offers the alternative of "something inspired by Stephen Jay Gould". Hmmm, could he mean Stephen Jay Gould the outspoken proponent of evolutionary theory? Perhaps Ben is confused by the notion that Gould's advocacy of punctuated equilibrium is inconsistent with Darwin's work. Richard Dawkin's dismantled that mistaken idea quite effectively in chapter 9 of The Blind Watchmaker ... some twenty years ago. Rather than being completely clueless, perhaps Ben is just slow on the uptake. Very slow.

It is discouraging that the Washington Post has given a pundit post to a young man who so clearly fails to understand his own limitations. But hey, the American people elected someone with a similar character flaw to the highest office in the land. Perhaps we're entering a new Era of Inadequacy, with people like young Ben at the vanguard.

- mark 3-24-2006 9:22 pm [link] [1 ref] [add a comment]