Ad populum seals it

A good deal has been made about Rick Perry's doubts about evolution and global warming.  And so the concern that we have yet another know-nothing Republican on our hands is pretty popular (though Hitchens has an interesting take, too, namely, that he's cynically just putting on).  Rich Lowry, over at National Review, has seen this game before, and he warns his readers that this is an old familiar canard, the "Anti-Science Smear" on Republicans.  Here's how he responds to the evolution line:

According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans think God created man in his present form, and 38 percent think man developed over millions of years with God guiding the process. Is three-quarters of the country potentially anti-science?

Seriously. That's the response about evolution. 

The trouble is that I am unsure that those three quarters polled by Gallup that day could answer many detailed questions about evolution.  They may not be anti-science, but they aren't science literate, at least most of them.  That's probably the case about many, many things. (I'd love to see if Gallup could produce a  percentage of people who think that there's a highest number.) Calling people who answer a poll question in a fashion that does not reflect the scientific consensus 'anti-science' is probably too quick, but calling a Presidential candidate who should know better the same is just about right.   Or else, perhaps, Hitchens is right, and he's just putting on for the cameras and the 75% that really think that way.

10 thoughts on “Ad populum seals it”

  1. First of all, saying that people are anti-science because the of that Gallup poll is quite a leap, yes. 
    Now if we were to fix that leap first, would it also be wishful thinking if he had asked the rhetorical question, "Is three-quarters of the country potentially science illiterate?" (The argument goes: No. It would be terrible if 3/4 of Americans are science illiterate. They must be science literate. And evolution must therefore not exist or is a god-guided process).

  2. Ray,
    Ad populum often works from the presumed authority of a group, and it's for sure that Lowry's argument requires on the uncomfortable feeling one should have at denying that 3/4 of those polled aren't science literate.  But that needn't be wishful thinking, as Lowry is really baiting the 'liberals' to say something along the lines of how so many Americans aren't science literate.  There's a price to pay for not going along with some ad populum arguments — namely, that you have to no longer identify with that group.  That's a dangerous game for those trying to win elections.

  3. I'm afraid you've accepted Lowry's take less critically than is warranted.  The 38 percent that "think man developed over millions of years with God guiding the process" believe in evolution.  They just also believe in "God" (whatever that means) as well.  These people can't really be considered "anti-science" and I'm sure many of them (though certainly not all) can be considered "science literate".
    That does leave the other 40 percent.  I have no interest in defending them.
    For the record, I believe in evolution and I'm an atheist, so I obviously don't think "God" guided anything.  I just think that at least some of those 38 percent are important allies on the evolution issue, and we shouldn't insult them by accepting Lowry's shitty premise.

  4. megamahan,
    You're right that there are numbers in the theistic evolution crowd that are science literate and friends to the evidence-based policy approaches in politics.  But notice that  Lowry's argument depends on our respect for this tiny minority of that very large group of otherwise science-illiterates.  Again, that's how ad populum works — from our desire to avoid casting aspersions on people we'd like to maintain ties with.
    And for the record, the objetive of logical criticism is to give people their premisses and then criticize how they reason from them. 



    Your point about the objective of logical criticism is well taken.  I guess I forgot where I was for a moment when I made the remarks about accepting Lowry's premise.
    Just to be clear, however, are you saying that it's only a tiny minority of the 38 percent who "are science literate and friends to the evidence-based policy approaches in politics"?  If so, I think you're low-balling them.  Okay, so not all of them might be all that science-literate, but I think that many of them who aren't recognize this and still trust that scientists are in a better position to know.  Granted, given the wording of the question, "developed" may not mean full-on evolution to some.
    I don't think that the belief that "God" guided the process means that the believer is likely anti-science.  A religious person with a severe illness might pray to be healed or even go through whatever religious blessings or other rituals in an effort to recover.  However, unless that person is relying exclusively on these methods, foregoing available medical treatment, I wouldn't necessarily consider that person to be "anti-science".
    Part of the point that I was trying to make is that, according to Lowry, you've basically got a total of 60 percent of people who believe in evolution (at least in some form).  This would turn his ad populum argument against him (though it would still be as fallacious).


  6. megamahan,
    I do like the twist you've given to the numbers on the 'believe in evolution' line. But, again, theistic evolution is a far cry from the ways in which intelligent design is manifested.  The former is likely scientifically responsible, but the latter isn't.   If the issue is, really , numbers along these lines (what percentages … I say small, you say not so small), I don't have much to say other than for every Francis Collins you give me, I can give you ten Kirk Camerons. 

  7. I can't tell if your compliment about my "twist" of the numbers is a bit backhanded or not, but I hope you know that I am sincere when say that I am really enjoying this discussion.  (I am also sincere within the discussion and not trying to "twist" anything.)
    When you compare Kirk Cameron to Francis Collins, are you talking about the 40 "I am NOT a MONKEY!" percent, the 38 "Well, some kind of god must have set it up, and hopefully for my benefit, because HOLY SHIT!" percent, or both collectively?  Because within Lowry's framework, I would not consider those guys to belong to the same group.

    You bring up the terms "theistic evolution" and "intelligent design".  As you say, "the former is likely scientifically responsible, but the latter isn't."  What I am saying is that the 38 percent are the "theistic evolution" people while the 40 percent are the "intelligent design" people.
    When I say that some of these guys are okay with the science, I'm referring to what I would guess is a majority of the 38 percent.  Fuck the hardcore 40 percent.  I'm just not sure if your current argument is in reference to the 38 percent or Lowry's combined 78 percent.

  8. Totally sincere about the percentages point, by the way.  Weird how comment strings distort that.
    About the numbers point, you're right that I got the groups wrong with the contrast between Kirk Cameron and Francis Collins.  It should be between Collins and an ID-theorist who is also ignorant of the basic science.  Maybe Dembski.
    I guess the question here is the political upshot of saying that the ID-ists are scientifically illiterate.  Even as a 'for the most part' kind of claim, like 'cats are fuzzy', it's politically dangerous.   But arguments from consequences (in this case, alienation) must also be contrastive.  And I think that it's worse to treat the view as scientifically acceptable.  Is it right to say that the belief that God directed the evolutionary process is a scientifically legitimate belief?  I'm not inclined to say so… but I may have stronger demarcation intutitions than most.

  9. I think perhaps I haven't made myself clear.  If it's about political upshots, then it's about the upshot of calling the theistic evolutionists, not the ID crowd, "scientifically illiterate".  I agree that the ID crowd is generally scientifically illiterate and anti-science.  It's with the theistic evolutionists that I seem to disagree with you.  (I'm not sure, though, as you've said that they are "likely scientifically responsible, with which I do agree.)

    Any belief that includes "God" is inherently unscientific, but the holder of said belief isn't necessarily anti-science or even scientifically illiterate.  The question is in what way members of the 38 percent believe that evolution was somehow divinely guided.
    Do they think that God setup the original conditions of the universe at the time of the Big Bang to favor our evolution?  Do they have some kind of God-in-the gaps belief bringing in some lame pop understanding of the Uncertainty Principle wherein God does shit where we can't detect it?  The former may not be scientifically illiterate (though strangely enough it could be considered a form of ID though most ID proponents would reject this view) whereas the latter probably is, but are either of those views really anti-science?  Certainly, neither of those beliefs are scientific, but they are attempts (however flawed) to work within and incorporate the scientific view.
    As far as the political aspect is concerned, I think we can largely work with the 38 percent on issues of education at least.  Climate change issues get a little murky because some of those people might figure that God has shit under control.  The problem with the 38 percent is that too many of them get roped into voting for conservatives because of culture war issues.  Some of them aren't going to accept the differences between embryos, fetuses, and babies.  I agree that these are serious concerns politically, but these kinds of moral issues are hard to explain away with pure science, so I have a hard time labeling these people as "anti-science".
    I hesitate to get too far into the political aspects because this blog is about logic, and I neither want to detract from the point of the blog nor to pull you into a discussion in which you may have little interest.

  10. Please allow me to correct myself.  The anti-climate change crew is, for all intents and purposes, anti-science.  Period.  That takes it too far, and I don't know how I didn't recognize it while I wrote it.  I apologize.

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