Thursday, July 19, 2007

Last thought for tonight

I've got the writin' bug tonight, but I do need to close it down and hit the sack sometime soon. I'll have to make this a short one, or maybe just a teaser.

Tell you what: in lieu of a full entry, I'll leave you with the beginnings of my next one in the form of a thought exercise I'd like you to do with me. Here's how it goes:

I want you to think of something you feel like you understand. Be a little careful and don't choose something you're an expert on, because that will defeat the purpose. Choose something that's not related to your job or your daily life, maybe something you studied in school some time ago.

The one that gave me the idea, being the man I am, is the basic concept of evolution by natural selection. I feel very strongly that the major part of the reason America rejects basic biological science in so much greater a proportion than the rest of the world - at least the parts of the world that don't live in theocracies or grinding poverty, or otherwise have no access to education - is because so many people have a shallow, simplistic definition attached to the word and no idea what it really entails. If all you're told is that evolution is the idea that "people came from monkeys," of course you're going to be inclined to reject it. It sounds silly!

There's more to it than that, of course; kids who sit through an entire high school biology curriculum have quite a bit more information available to them, but they'll only take away from it what they want to. As for adults, no one is trying particularly hard to teach them anything, so it's even easier for them to hang on to biased, inconsistent notions about this or that by the simple expedient of not thinking about it.

There's a very simple, logical progression from basic mathematics to simple statistics to the
essentials of the theory of evolution by natural selection. It's not hard to explain, and it really takes no more than a primary school mathematical education to grasp. Once you know how it works, it's so incredibly intuitive that it no longer seems like a discrete theory; it's just the way things are. There is no separate force of evolution. It's just the inevitable, mathematical expression of the way things work.

And yet people don't get it. Ask an American what evolution is, and if you're lucky you'll hear something that's vaguely related, like "The strong survive and reproduce," or the oft-misquoted "Survival of the fittest." If you have the misfortune to ask one of our nation's many religious fundamentalists, you'll probably hear something more along the lines of, "It's the idea that we came from monkeys, and I'm no monkey" or "It's some kind of attempt to disprove God and it's a lie."

How can you in good conscience reject what you don't understand? I really, sincerely believe that if many of these people had been shown, step by step, what evolution is and how it works, they would have no trouble reconciling what goes on right before their eyes in the natural world with their faith like so many more reasonable religious folks do. Lacking that understanding, though, they turn to the only explanation they've ever actually had laid out for them: "God is great, and he made it this way."

No, I'm not saying, "Oh, those poor, benighted savages and their silly beliefs." I'm not saying that every single one of them, or even many of them, would reject their superstitious ways if only they could be taught. Evolution and religion aren't even the topic here.

I have digressed a bit, but now I'll return to the exercise: choose a topic. It doesn't have to be something you disagree with, just something you think you understand at least a little, but don't think about much. It can be something big or small. Doesn't matter. If you like evolution as a topic, you have my wholehearted approval, but go ahead and pick whatever you like.

Now: ask yourself what you really know. If your topic was, say, computers, do you know what the major components of a computer are? Do you know what their functions are? Do you know what they're made of? Do you have even the faintest idea what goes on inside a microprocessor? I think that I understand computers pretty well on a functional level, but I couldn't even begin to explain how a silicon chip works.

Once you have established, as you inevitably will, that you don't know much at all (If you can answer authoritatively and in detail every question you can ask yourself, you have probably picked a topic you're an expert on, and I told you not to do that. Shame on you!), start hypothesizing. Make some guesses. Build alternate explanations that fill in those gaps in as many ways as you can think of. Take what you know and use it as a framework to develop as complete a picture as you can. Deduce from what you know whatever you can about what must happen in the parts you don't know.

Now that you've done that, do a little homework. It doesn't have to be much; a quick Google search and a casual reading of the Wikipedia article for your topic would be a good start. See if your ideas are borne out. Chances are if you actually tried hard at the last phase of the exercise, you'll be surprised at how accurate parts of your guesswork are, and you'll see places where your guesses work out, but not in the way you expected.

If you found this to be a stimulating exercise, then my work here is done. You've just done some critical thinking. Try it again sometime! It's good for you.

If you didn't find it at all stimulating, then why did you pick a topic you weren't interested in, knucklehead? Try it again, with feeling this time.

Anyway, I'll be doing this, too. I'll get back to you with my findings.

Eh? What's my topic?

I don't know yet.


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