09 August 2005

My brother thinks I'm a nerd...

My brother was recently kind enough to give The Panda's Thumb a bit of a plug, and I'm always happy to get publicity. Sadly, though, he sees my participation on PT as evidence of my nerd-dom - possibly because he doesn't get as worked up about the whole thing as I do. That is a mistake.

It's not a mistake to claim that I'm a nerd, of course. I am one. Always have been, probably always will be. I'm working on a doctorate in zoology, I have access to not one but two different labs, I can converse more intelligently about the papers in last weeks' edition of Nature than about whatever the popular TV shows are, the only current TV show I can name is Myth Busters, I build plastic models in my spare time, and I used to play D&D a lot. If you don't think that is the picture of a nerd, then you are probably worse-off than I am.

Being worried about creationism is different. Here's why:

Evolution really is the key to understanding a huge amount of biology. Sure, you can memorize biochemical pathways and anatomical features and whatnot without referring to evolutionary theory, but that's about it. Evolution provides the thread that ties together the different fields within the biological sciences, and provides us with the explanation for why living systems work the way that they do. Without evolution, the biological sciences would be nothing more than a loosely-knit collection of barely-related disciplines.

Evolution is also a field that has enormous practical implications. Why do the drug companies test on animals first? Because we share a lot of common biochemical systems with them. Why is that? Because we share ancestors with them. Why is it important to always finish taking any antibiotic that you are perscribed, even if you feel better before you run out of pills? Because bacteria can evolve drug-resistance, and not finishing the whole treatment is a good way to help bacteria in your body do just that. Why is it so hard to find a single treatment for AIDS that will work for an extended period of time? Because the AIDS virus evolves really fast. I could go on almost indefinitely, but that would serve only to prove that I am a nerd - and I already did that. Suffice it to say that evolution has both theoretical implications and practical applications.

This is all stuff that the Intelligent Design community doesn't want you to learn - at least not as "fact". They want that stuff taught as a "theory", and they want students to be informed that there are "other theories" - or, at a minimum, they want students to be taught the "evidence against evolution". Those are positions which sound nice in theory, and lend themselves to fantastic sound bites. But they are lousy science, and in practice amount to teaching lies.

Personally, I think this is an area where education is important - and not just because I work in the field of evolutionary biology and have kids. Biology and biotechnology are areas that are advancing rapidly. Many of the new discoveries and inventions have huge implications, and quickly become areas of active public policy debate. (Stem cells are a fantastic example of this.) It would be nice if the public had a good enough working knowledge of biology to be able to have an opinion based on a reasonably accurate understanding of the science involved.

So when the Commander in Chief comes out and says that students should be exposed to Intelligent Design, I do tend to get worked up a bit. I don't know if he formed his opinion as a result of his own religious beliefs, as an attempt to pander to his religious right constituents, or out of plain stupidity, and I don't much care. (I do know that he decided to ignore the opinion of his own science advisor on this topic, but that's another story.) What I do care about is doing as much as I can to make sure that we are giving our children a good public education.

Evolution and creationism might not be the kind of thing that everyone gets worked up about, but there are reasons above and beyond nerd-dom to care about that kind of thing.


d. dunford said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fold_Me said...

Hey man I hear what your saying! All this creationist-junk is ruining laypersons understanding of what’s going on, or at least skewing it somewhat. Every day I have to get up knowing that I will probably meet at least one person who thinks BOTH evo. and crea. are even - in the plausibility sector. Keep shining brighter!!!

hotrockhopper said...

Great post. It's important that people understand just what we stand to lose with the erosion of the quality of evolution teaching. Your post inspired me to post about my own status as a geek as well.

Rick said...

Great post. We have to keep up our energy to fight these creationist crazies.

Lisa said...

I'm not a nerd - Poli Sci major, currently a "business analyst", have to use a calculator to figure tips and am a top 10 pop music junkie even though I'm in my 30's.

That said, please do not discount the lay evolutionists...I'm halfway through Richard Dawkins' latest book and just finished Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, I believe that truth is the ultimate moral good and I am sickened by the willful ignorance that is the hallmark of the right wing Christian in America. Just because I'm not a nerd doesn't mean I'm an idiot or a theist, if indeed those two words are not synonymous in modern times. And just because you are a nerd doesn't mean we're not fighting the same fight here. Please keep it up, The Panda's Thumb is becoming a standard resource for people stuck battling creationists.

d. dunford said...

Mike, I was going to remain silent after you deleted my hilarious, Hunter S. Thompson-themed rebuttal, but your crazy nerd friends seem to think that I'm against your fight. I'm not.

In fact, I find the entire ID "movement" abhorrent. And have spoken out against such in classes and conversation. And whatnot. I just don't post about it obsessively on a website named after furry foreign animals' appendages. (My mid-90s-era dabbling on koalapecker.com notwithstanding.)

I'm sorry, Mike. I just couldn't stand here and let an inaccurate picture of me be painted (even if it is in the connection between the post and your readers). I understand your lesson, and why it's important to teach it, but I'm not going to be a stooge for the sake of it.

TQA said...

Fair enough, Dan.

I'd like to take this opportunity to semi-publicly apologize for sort of accidentally-on-purpose missing the funny in your post.

And your first comment was funny, and I shouldn't have deleted it. Sorry.

Charlie said...

Mike the Mad Biologist has a series of posts about a similar topic here and here.

This is a good blog, I'll be watching it. Keep up the good work.