Working to figure out history, one constantly asks how we can know what happened in the distant past. In our justice system, we use some of the same tools to learn what happened in the near past, or immediate past, to help dispense justice in criminal trials or establish liability in civil trials. Strong skepticism helps in discarding bad theories, and in assembling data into a cohesive story that reveals what we often call “truth.”
American skepticism runs too shallow.
Recent surveys and reports provide a wealth of data for discussion.
First, out of a conference a meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco on February 15, we get a report that only 40 percent of Americans put stock in the biology theory of evolution. In contrast, in European nations there is 80 percent acceptance of the theory. The report is by Michigan State University Science and Mathematics Education Prof. Jon Miller, based on a study he published in 2006. Miller worries about implications for public policy in a republic:
“The number of public policy controversies that require some scientific or technical knowledge for effective participation has been increasing. Any number of issues… point to the need for an informed citizenry in the formulation of public policy.”
Miller ran a clinic at the meeting, urging scientists to improve their school boards by running for election.
On the whole, scientific literacy in the U.S. is improved over a decade ago. Massive pockets of ignorance still plague science and public policy, however.
Two, socialists argue that the U.S. and Britain are tough places for kids to grow up. No kidding. One key thing to watch: Can critics of the report find real information to rebut, or will the response be solely to try to brand the socialists as socialists, and therefore, somehow, inexplicably, evil.
But, as if to suggest an answer, the 54th Skeptics’ Circle is up, over at Action Skeptics.
Update, February 20, 2007: Oh, yes, I had meant to mention this, too — see Larry Moran’s discussion on a fellow who went through the motions to get a Ph.D. in geology, but doesn’t believe in it (scrub brush tip to P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula). In this fellow’s case, it’s not how he knows what’s true, it’s whether he knows anything at all, perhaps.
Among the more common errors I run into are errors of evidence — people who grant credence to reports that do not merit credence, people who fail to give weight to reports that should be given weight. I see this almost every time I get into a courtroom, where one lawyer team or both get into amazing discussions over minor points, elevating them to serious issues that lead justice astray (cf., the trial of O. J. Simpson and the DNA evidence derailment); I see this in public testimony before government bodies, where people confuse opinion with fact, and when they fail to adequately weight hard, conclusive data.
How do we know Abraham Lincoln lived at all? I asked one class of middle schoolers. We would know for certain if only he were mentioned in the Bible, one kid quickly said, with agreement from several others. Cecil Adams is right, the fight against ignorance is taking longer than we thought.