Extremely Mainstream

It’s uncomfortable. Listening to a high government official denounce evolutionary theory and Islam makes me nervous for the future of the USA. More important, though, it brings us back to a tough question: When is an idea “extreme?” Our answers matter, because extremism can be kicked to the curb, but strong disagreement can’t.

pruitt

Terrible? Yes. Outside the mainstream? No.

To SAGLRROILYBYGTH, this discussion will feel familiar. In recent weeks, we’ve been wondering if young-earth creationism really counts as “hate speech.” We’ve debated whether tax-funded student groups should be free to discriminate. We’ve examined the decisions of conservative Californians to shun a speaker they considered “extreme.

The details of the story this week are different, but the issue is the same. Scott Pruitt, former state senator and current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has had some of his old laundry aired in public. In thirteen-year-old radio interviews, Director Pruitt talks about a range of issues, from science to the Second Amendment.

Is evolution really the best explanation for the diversity of species? Quoth Pruitt,

There aren’t sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint.

Should some kinds of guns be banned? Not according to Pruitt:

If you can tell me what gun, type of gun, I can possess, then I didn’t really get that right to keep and bear arms from God. . . . It was not bequeathed to me, it was not unalienable, right?

Is Islam a religion that deserves constitutional protection? Pruitt thinks so, but he didn’t object when one of the interviewers called Islam

not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.

To a person like me, those ideas are both ridiculous and frightening. Ridiculous because they articulate a vast ignorance of the history of our Constitution, of evolutionary science, and basic knowledge about Islam. Frightening, because they articulate a vision of proper government that could include radical violations of Constitutional rights and dangerous inaction concerning gun control.gallup islam

But here’s the rub. The author of a Politico article about Pruitt’s 2005 interviews denounces Pruitt’s

stances that at times are at odds with the broader American mainstream, and in some cases with accepted scientific findings. [Emphasis added.]

For starters, I won’t call attention to the goof in the article about the Supreme Court’s 1947 Everson decision. The author thinks SCOTUS ruled against tax-funded bussing for Catholic schools in that landmark case, but in fact the decision went the other way.

The real issue here is not SCOTUS history, but rather the difficult definition of “mainstream.” I’ll admit it: I’m angry about Pruitt’s views. I’m angry that someone with such opinions would be posted to the head of a scientific government agency. But that doesn’t mean that Pruitt’s ideas are out of the mainstream. When an idea is shared by a plurality of Americans, how can it possibly be out of the mainstream?gallup guns

Gallup polls, for example, indicate that more than a third of American respondents who say they are not prejudiced against Muslims still have an unfavorable view of Islam. Yes, you read that right. Of the people who say they are NOT prejudiced against Islam, 36% still say they don’t like it. Of the people who say they ARE prejudiced against Muslims, that number jumps to 91%.

Similarly, the number of Gallup’s respondents who think America needs stricter gun laws has dropped in the last three decades. In 1991, 78% of respondents wanted stricter gun laws. In 2017, that number was only 60%.

The same is true with evolution. Large majorities of Gallup respondents agree that humanity was either created recently or created by God over time. At best, mainstream evolutionary theory has captured the hearts of a small minority of Americans. It’s only “mainstream” among a small coterie of scientists.gallup creationism poll may 2017

If Director Pruitt agrees with large segments of the American population—sometimes a majority—how can his views be called “at odds with the broader American mainstream”?

The distinctions matter. If an idea is extreme, or discriminatory, or illegitimate, or non-mainstream, it seems fair to push that idea outside the boundaries of polite political or cultural discussion. If not, we have to talk about it.

Like it or not, Director Pruitt’s terrible ideas are as American as apple pie.

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10 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  March 6, 2018

    “There aren’t sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint.”

    This is scary? My but you’re easily frightened. ; )

    I note a couple of things, first, that he didn’t say evolution is wrong, only that the evidence for it is insufficient to “establish” it. What does he mean by “establish”? I don’t think science itself purports to establish the *truth* of the theory, but only that it’s the best theory we have at present.

    He proceeds to say that evolution deals “with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint.” I think he has a point. The origins of man is a philosophical question. Even if you grant that evolution is true, it remains a philosophical question whether it accounts for man’s ultimate origin.

    Saying that evolution is true can mean that natural causes alone resulted in all forms of life — but that still leaves open the question of the origin of natural causes themselves. Whether natural causes are self-caused or “just are”, or whether they are a part of God’s creation, which he constantly holds in existence, is a philosophical question and not one that may be answered by science itself, which can only operate “within” the material universe.

    This could well have been Pruitt’s point as well: that science has not established evolution as the ultimate cause of man’s existence. I have no quarrel with evolution as a theory; I see no conflict between it and my Christian faith; but I don’t accept that it has been (or ever could be, even in principle) established as a complete and self-contained explanation of man’s origins.

    If evolution proponents limited themselves to scientific statements and stayed away from philosophy and theology, there might be a lot less resistance to it. But where’s the fun in that?

    “If you can tell me what gun, type of gun, I can possess, then I didn’t really get that right to keep and bear arms from God. . . . It was not bequeathed to me, it was not unalienable, right?”

    Again I think his point is valid, from a logical standpoint: His premise is that rights come from God (as per the Declaration of Independence), and if man can grant rights or restrict them, then to that extent rights come from man and not God, and are therefore not unalienable. Now whether the right to own guns is an unalienable right, and one that comes from God, is debatable. I think political liberty is a God-given right, and the purpose of liberty is to allow people to do the things that are required under the moral law. One of the things required under the moral law is to defend the weak and the innocent. To the extent guns are necessary to do that, then they may be considered a God-given right.

    Some argue that another thing required under the moral law is to resist tyranny, and how can we do that if we’re unarmed? Can we resist a tyrannical government if that very government can dictate what arms we possess? It’s a debatable point and I can see both sides — it seems crazy to think that anyone who can afford it should be allowed to own a tank. Nevertheless where exactly to draw the line I think is a subject for legitimate discussion.

    (Funny how some progressives claim to have a realistic fear of our government becoming fascist, yet advocate that same government being the sole legal possessor of lethal weapons.)

    “Is Islam a religion that deserves constitutional protection? Pruitt thinks so, but he didn’t object when one of the interviewers called Islam not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.”

    Not objecting to what someone else said counts as “denouncing Islam”?

    You write, “If an idea is extreme, or discriminatory, or illegitimate, or non-mainstream, it seems fair to push that idea outside the boundaries of polite political or cultural discussion.”

    I have a problem with this idea of ideas being subject to exclusion if they’re not “mainstream.” How is mainstream determined? By polls? In that case, why not hold elections to decide what speech may be forbidden? I asked before but you didn’t answer: Would it have been legitimate and in accordance with the right of free speech to suppress arguments in favor of gay marriage 25, 30, 40 years ago, before gay marriage became mainstream?

    Reply
    • It sounds to me as if you’ve been doing what my doctor has told me to do–strrrrrrrretching. 🙂 It is of course possible that Director Pruitt was making the careful and thoughtful points you’re describing. Much more likely, though, he doesn’t trust mainstream science. He thinks God had a hand in the writing of the Constitution and therefore no one can stop him from owning an assault rifle. He agrees that there’s something downright unAmerican about Islam. At least, those seem to me to be the obvious interpretations of Pruitt’s 2005 interview.
      As for your last question, I think we agree on this one more that you suggest. I also have a problem with the notion that the validity of ideas is somehow to be gauged by a never-clear assumption about what “mainstream” people think. Especially because all of us tend to think we are mainstream and people who disagree with us are nutjobs. That’s why I called these Politico reporters to task, even though I think I generally agree with their politics. We can’t call Pruitt’s opinions non-mainstream simply because none of our friends hold them. We need to do a better job of finding out what Americans really think on these key issues. All of us do.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  March 6, 2018

        Adam:

        You could be right, and if I listened to the whole interview I might agree with you. My point was that the parts you quoted did not necessarily support the interpretation you seemed to be putting on his remarks, and could be read another way. Although, since I assumed you (or Politico) were quoting the most obviously egregious parts, I had doubts whether even the whole context would support your interpretations, or whether you were reading your preconceived notions into his comments. However since I’m not willing to take the time to read and analyze the whole thing, I won’t argue with you.

        You still seem to be using “mainstream” as the standard for acceptability, at least in part, even if you do criticize people for misconstruing the mainstream. As I’ve said before, as I understand freedom of speech, it’s supposed to apply *especially* to views that are out of the mainstream, since mainstream views don’t normally need protection.

    • Agellius, in a link from the one Adam posted it talks about Pruitt’s time as a state senator. He backed a bill for a “disclaimer in textbooks that would have framed evolution as a theory, rather than a scientific fact…and he said, “the language is important in a sense of helping students understand that the theory of evolution is just that – a theory.” Even if he personally doesn’t see evolution as a scientific theory, he does seem to demonstrate that he does not understand what a scientific theory is. He is using the word as if it means a guess. A scientific theory “refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.” (NAS) So I would agree with Adam on that particular point, that Pruitt lacks a basic understanding.

      You said, “Even if you grant that evolution is true, it remains a philosophical question whether it accounts for man’s ultimate origin.” Later you said, “If evolution proponents stayed away from philosophy and theology, there might be a lot less resistance to it.” If evolution is a philosophical question, how can evolution proponents stay away from it? I’m not sure what you mean here.

      Maybe we can all agree that apple pie is delicious.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  March 6, 2018

        Donna:

        The first two dictionaries I looked at gave the following definitions of “theory”, which are not as strong as yours:

        a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena (e.g. the wave theory of light)

        a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.

        I also found this from an article on Psychology Today’s website [https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200811/common-misconceptions-about-science-i-scientific-proof]:

        “Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a scientific proof. … [A]ll scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final. There is no such thing as final proven knowledge in science. The currently accepted theory of a phenomenon is simply the best explanation for it among all available alternatives. Its status as the accepted theory is contingent on what other theories are available and might suddenly change tomorrow if there appears a better theory or new evidence that might challenge the accepted theory. No knowledge or theory (which embodies scientific knowledge) is final.”

        In light of this, if someone (Pruitt or whoever) wanted a disclaimer put in science textbooks saying that evolution is a theory, not a proven fact, I don’t see why it should be a problem. Possibly it’s in reaction to the “common misconception”, noted by the author of the above-quoted article, that there is such a thing as “scientific proof” of evolution or what have you. Why not correct that misconception?

        The problem with claiming or believing that something is “scientifically proven” is that people often conflate the statement “evolution has been scientifically proven” with “the fact that evolution is the whole story behind the origin of all life has been scientifically proven”, which it most certainly has not nor ever could be.

        I didn’t say “evolution is a philosophical question”, I said “whether evolution [granting for the sake of argument that it’s true] accounts for man’s ultimate origin” is a philosophical question.

    • Agellius
      I’m not a scientist so I can’t argue about definitions. The definition I gave was from the National Academy of Sciences which I found in a book by Eugenie Scott. She was the previous director for National Center for Science Education. Regarding the strength of the definitions you gave versus the one I gave, I think it still means the exact same thing, it’s just said in a different way. I think mainstream scientists would say that evolution is the best current understanding, but that doesn’t mean it’s absolutely final. Some examples of facts she uses in the book are “Gravity causes things to fall. The speed of light is about 186,000 miles/second.” She also says in the book, “probably everyone has heard that evolution is ‘just a theory’… You may be surprised to hear that scientists don’t use these terms in these ways.”

      I think scientists would see Pruitt’s use of the word theory as different than the way they use the word. This would mislead students into thinking that a scientific theory is a guess, and evolution is a guess. Pruitt would be the one using a misconception. A proper understanding of the word theory would not make the students think it is “scientifically proven.”

      The other issue is that he may not personally see evolution as a scientific theory, and he doesn’t want the students to think it is either. He doesn’t want to mislead them. Even so, I still think he misunderstood the term.

      Is your position theistic evolution? Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m also still unclear about what you see as philosophical, and what you don’t. Or, what are the boundaries of philosophy not just in terms of man’s origins. So whether evolution accounts for man’s ultimate origin is a philosophical question. At what point, from the beginning of the evolutionary process or sometime later? Sorry, I’m still confused.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  March 7, 2018

        The Psychology Today article I linked to also says the following:

        “Proofs exist only in mathematics and logic, not in science. Mathematics and logic are both closed, self-contained systems of propositions, whereas science is empirical and deals with nature as it exists. The primary criterion and standard of evaluation of scientific theory is evidence, not proof. … Proofs are not the currency of science. Proofs have two features that do not exist in science: They are final, and they are binary. Once a theorem is proven, it will forever be true and there will be nothing in the future that will threaten its status as a proven theorem (unless a flaw is discovered in the proof). … In contrast, all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final.”

        The problem with referring to evolution as “scientific fact” or “scientifically proven” is, not only that it’s false and an unscientific way of speaking, but also that it may give the impression that any philosophical demonstrations of God’s existence, or theological reasons for believing in creation, have been made moot by science, once and for all, which is simply false.

        You said the bill that Pruitt supported was “a bill for a ‘disclaimer in textbooks that would have framed evolution as a theory, rather than a scientific fact’…and he said, ‘the language is important in a sense of helping students understand that the theory of evolution is just that – a theory'”. Looking at these words alone, I don’t see anything inaccurate in it. In order to cast his position as inaccurate you have to read into his words additional speculation or preconceptions about what he thinks a theory is. I don’t think that’s a fair way to evaluate the statement.

        I agree with you that “A proper understanding of the word theory would not make the students think it is ‘scientifically proven.'” It seems to me that Pruitt’s disclaimer does give a proper understanding of the word “theory”, in stating that a theory is not a “scientific fact”. The teacher has the whole semester to teach the kids the proper understanding of what a theory is; the disclaimer doesn’t prohibit that. Therefore I’m not seeing the problem.

        “Is your position theistic evolution?”

        I tend to think it’s true that today’s species received their forms via evolutionary processes. I have no doubt that the stars and planets received their forms by gradual evolution from prior forms and substances, and it makes sense to me that if God created the inanimate objects in the universe in that manner, then he would also create physical life forms in the same way. In other words, he creates the forces and processes of nature and lets them do their thing. I think that’s his normal way of operating within the physical sphere.

        “I’m also still unclear about what you see as philosophical, and what you don’t.”

        “Science” at one time simply meant “knowledge”, and a science was “a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”. Philosophy was the pursuit of knowledge via reasoning from accepted premises, and theology was the pursuit of knowledge via reasoning from the premises of divine revelation; both were considered sciences. What we call “science” today is limited to what was then called natural philosophy, the pursuit of knowledge via observation of the natural world. No one thought that observation of the natural world was the only way to obtain valid knowledge, but just one piece of the puzzle.

        Someone can be convinced that evolution is true — meaning that all species received their forms via evolutionary processes. But if that’s true, it’s only a physical or a natural fact, since that’s all science deals in. The meaning of that fact and its implications go beyond the realm of science. If a scientist says, “Evolution is true, therefore God didn’t create”, he has moved away from science and into philosophy (drawing conclusions based on reasoning from accepted premises).

        I object to people claiming that a scientific finding shuts the door on a philosophical or theological position. It may or it may not, but you don’t discover that through science. Science provides the observations and physical evidence, and it’s up to other intellectual disciplines to determine their implications for other areas of life. When a scientist starts trying to say what scientific findings mean for people or society or religion, he is going beyond his area of expertise. He’s welcome to do that, as is anyone else, but he should not claim to be still doing science.

    • Thanks for the explanation.

      Reply
  2. Adam, your comments about “the mainstream” are right on the mark. Millions of Americans joined the Second KKK in the 1920s, many more were supportive, and yet scholars try to describe the Klan as fringe. Instead, as you say, American as (a not so delicious) apple pie.

    Reply
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