Freedom means the right to choose your own truth

I love following American politics. It’s so much more fun than in other countries. I think my fascination comes down to the exceptional degree of chutzpah shown by candidates and commentators, and the almost inevitable exposure of the mismatch between what they say and what they do. Once the flaw is exposed, it is fascinating to watch the public story unravel day by day. In the UK recently, we could enjoy the hilarious backsliding, lies and coverups by the Defence Minister; in contrast, such exposure occurs on an almost daily basis in the US during election period (which is in fact most of the year).

And with the death of one of the most insightful US political analysts, Hunter S. Thomson, I rely on The Daily Show for the most pleasurable way to follow US current affairs.

Last week, however, there was a particularly gob-smacking moment with a send-up interview with Republican Party Consultant and Strategist, Noelle Nickpour, on the subject of the place of science in the US.

Watch it and be afraid. Nickpour is actually serious about what she says!


Nickpour:  It’s very confusing for a child to be only taught evolution to go home to a household where their parents say, “Well, wait a minute … God created the Earth!”

Daily Show Interviewer Aasif Mandvi:  What is the point of teaching children facts if it’s just going to confuse them?

Nickpour:  It confuses the children when they go home.  We as Americans—we are paying tax dollars for our children to be educated. We need to offer them every theory that’s out there. It’s all about choice; it’s all about freedom.

Mandvi: It should be up to the American people to decide what’s true.

Nickpour:  Absolutely! Doesn’t it make common sense?

Red rag

I was away for a few days, so I didn’t realize my letter to the newspaper had been published until I saw a slew of e-mails in reaction to my letter. All but one were very positive, with various degrees of cynicism, humour and despair. The lone critical response tried to catch me off guard:

Well, the Sumerians may have existed 4000 yeats [sic] ago but how old is God?

He continued,

I hope you do not believe in the unproven, unobservable thing called the theory of evolution […]

That was like a red rag to a bull, even though, as a further example of erroneous popular beliefs, bulls are in fact colour-blind! The writer claimed that, because (1) humans had stopped evolving (false), (2) evolution could not be replicated (false) and was therefore unscientific. It’s difficult to argue with these types of claims because they are based on such a poor understanding of science; in this case, both premises (1, 2) are false.

The Simpsons illustrate another example of conclusions based on false premises in the episode, “Much Apu About Nothing.” After the town of Springfield experienced a “bear attack”, a Bear Patrol task force is installed to keep bears out of the town.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

It’s a symptom of a wider trend of poor understanding of science. Perhaps the major cause is the gap between what is taught in schools and what is being done in research. In simple terms, it’s a gap in scale and scope — the size of the numbers, big and small, are so removed from everyday life that many people will fail to understand their significance. Yet these numbers are all around us, in the age of the mountains, the microbes in our mattresses, the seeds on the ground, the transistors in our computers, cell phones and PDAs, the cells dying and reproducing inside us …

When I was ten, a teacher tried to convey the size of one million by saying that if I counted every tiny, 1 mm, square on every page of my exercise book, I would still not reach one million. I started counting but gave up by the second page. I was impressed.

When the numbers start to combine, the levels of complexity are beyond most school-level science courses. While it is true that there are many excellent popular books about science (for example, those by Stephen Jay Gould), they are for an older, motivated readership, not for a broader school population.

It’s a shame, because I can’t help feeling that many people are missing out, and fail to appreciate what they have in front of them. For myself, as I wrote before, I never cease to be amazed at the wonders of this physical world and have no need to make up any other.

Lizard, Calabash Bay

I’m pink, therefore I’m spam

Cogito ergo sum

Fern dust detailDescartes’ dictum states that humans are conditioned to rationalize their experience … even to the point of maintaining ideas that contradict other accepted theories.

A case in point: fern seed. In earlier times, the fact that ferns did not appear to have any seeds was a puzzle for naturalists. They concluded, counter to all other experience, that fern seed was simply invisible. In the popular mind, this idea was transmuted into contagious magic, that possession of fern seed could make one invisible.

As one thief says to another in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part one:


We steal as in a castle, cocksure; we have the receipt
of fern-seed, we walk invisible.


Nay, by my faith, I think you are more beholding to
the night than to fern-seed for your walking invisible.

(II, i, 95–98).

[Read more from A natural history of ferns]

Thinking fern seed was invisible was not an isolated incidence of bad science – history holds other examples of faulty reasoning, from the theory of phlogiston to the contemporary misguided attempts to pass off Intelligent Design as science rather than religion.

Pass note: It’s creationism with a college degree.
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Why attribute the wonder of the world to some greater being?

Isn’t it wonderful enough to consider the world as it is?

Fern dust reflection

The best thing about fern seed is that it can make great tattoos.

Castleton Gardens, Jamaica