11/19/2010 9:12


I saw it coming. But it still set my blood to simmering.

The problem is that 65% of Americans don't agree with 98% of professional scientists. And that many scientists believe that they should.

Specifically, the scientists believe in an evolutionary origin of species. The 65% who disagree know (most of them) that species can adapt and change and they know that the theory of evolution posits that this adaptation is sufficient to explain the existence of different species. This 65% believes that the explanation for speciation set out in the theory of evolution is (as a later letter writer paraphrased) "just dumb." (Perhaps not all of the 65%; I oversimplify. The data is that "72% of Americans answered correctly when the statement about humans evolving from earlier species was prefaced with the phrase 'according to the theory of evolution.'" Where "correctly" means "like 98% of working scientists".)

The National Science Board decided not to publish the percentage of people who disagree with the working scientists. Apparently they recognized that more people are informed about evolutionary theory than are in agreement with it, thus making the bare percentages misleading for most purposes. Alternatively, they might have been trying "to hide a national embarrassment".

Like many scientists, I believe that everyone else should agree with my opinions. One difference is that 99% of people who have even heard of me have no idea what my opinions are, whereas a sizable portion of Americans do have some idea about the theory of evolution. On any given issue, however, 99.65% of people who know me, or about 65% of the people who know my opinion, do seem to hold a variety of opinions which all disagree with mine. This would substantially match the experience with evolution (although I don't have solid data for these imaginary statistics).

My experience is that merely being informed of the conclusions I have reached is insufficient to shape other people's opinions. Why this should be is not entirely clear; merely observing my conclusions ought to be enough to overwhelm all others with my brilliance. But it is not.

Oh, there is much more to be said on this general topic. We could consider such tangential factors as scientists speaking out of all three sides of their mouths when they write journal articles proposing that a virus has evolved for the purpose of evading host defenses and then chastise the lay public for insisting that there is purpose in creation. We could examine the even more abysmal results in the area of The Big Bang Theory (not the TV show, but the cosmological speculation in which physicists discuss in some detail what happened during the first 5 nanoseconds of the universe before any mechanism for defining the passage of time had yet formed).

Or we could revisit my college speculation on the probability that our civilization is on the cusp of entering a new Dark Age.

Science magazine; 9 April 2010, page 150; 19 May 2010, online.