Faint praise for antievolutionists

Kansas (a few miles from my birthplace physically, light years philosophically) is considering changing their definition of science from:

Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us


Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory-building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena

Started by proponents of intelligent design (ID), this has raised a huge outcry (mostly from those in other states) who view it as an attempt to inject religion into schools. While I can’t find much wrong in the suggested definitional change, those who fear the creationists have legitimate grounds to do so, given the release of the wedge memo into the wild. This memo “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” by creating a scientific-sounding basis for God and brainwashing people with it (instead of the Bible). The creation of ID is “phase I” of the strategy in this memo. The activity in Kansas is phase II.

While I have as much use for creationism as I do for the African myth of Bumba vomiting up the sun, my reaction to the events in Kansas, even if they do make this change, is fairly indifferent. This is for three reasons. The first is that I don’t think the wedge strategy will work. In fact, I think it will actually make creationism weaker. Right now, some evidence exists that evolution isn’t taught that much even now, particularly before high school, because creationists raise a ruckus about it. The semi-parody Evolution Outreach Project, for example, offers “gifts for science teachers” that include bullet-proof vests and stun guns. The wedge strategy seeks to replace the ruckus with a presentation of both ID and evolution. While the balance of such presentation is likely to vary widely (as per the wedge strategy), it seems to me that any mention of evolution in school (even negatively) is better than none. I suspect that most people who have chosen to teach science tend to lean more towards evolution anyway, some of whom will jump at the opportunity to openly teach rationality. Some teachers are already figuring out ways to do this:

There’s no question that if science teachers had their druthers, they wouldn’t be teaching intelligent design or gratuitously criticizing evolution in their classrooms. But they do. They can whine or refuse or resign. How much better for them to take this opportunity to teach their students while exasperating their school boards with the power of thoughtful investigation. And have a whole lot of fun doing so.

That ID embraces this “thoughtful investigation” seems even better for evolutionists. In a true stand-up comparison between evolution and ID, evolution completely crushes ID as a rigorous, scientific theory. Granted, you might not get that impartial comparison everywhere, but my guess is you’d see it more than you do now.

I’d rather have kids in conservative Christian parts of the country learning about a semi-sensible, though flawed, concept of “irreducible complexity” rather than “it’s true because it’s in the Bible”. At least the former follows some semblance of active logical thought, rather than passive surrender of cognition to vauge authority.

Secondly, I think the power of a school to influence thought on this subject is overrated. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that people, even kids, rarely change their opinion because of facts. More often, an opinion is formed first, then “facts” are found (or disgarded) in order to justify it. Regardless of what they hear in school, kids who want to believe in a creator will likely continue to do so and kids that don’t, likely won’t. For many of them, it won’t particularly matter what the curriculum is.

Lastly, as flawed as intelligent design is, both it and the political tactics that back it are significantly healthier than previous religious objections to science that dissagreed with dogma (which usually involved setting people on fire). Those who oppose evolution are, dare I say it, evolving.

From the glory of the olive

The pope is sick again. Sooner or later (sooner, I suspect) he will be succeeded, no doubt with intrigue, ceremony and media frenzy. When the white smoke comes out of the chimney, it will be interesting to see how much attention is paid to one of my favorite wacky distractions, the Prophecies of St. Malachy.

According to the story, the man who would be called St. Malachy visited Rome in 1139, where he saw a vision regarding all of the future popes. He supposedly wrote down this vision and gave it to Innocent II, who stashed it in the archives until it was discovered in the early 1590’s by a monk named Arnold Wion. It was published soon afterwards, with many suspecting at the time (and even more so now) that it had actually been written in the 1590’s and really had nothing to do with Malachy at all.

I’ve never looked to such things for much predictive power. What I find interesting about this prophesy is that, unlike most others, it offers predictions on events that are guaranteed to happen. If you read a prediction from Nostradamus that doesn’t seem to match any event, you can say “well, it must not have happened yet”. You can’t do that with this prophesy, because the succession of popes since 1139 (or 1590) is a known quantity. This allows more interesting analysis, as you can score how well (or badly) each pope was “predicted”.

In 2000, John Hogue wrote The Last Pope, which provides such scoring. I’m not sure what the rest of his books are like, but he seems to approach this prophesy with a “this is probably bull, but maybe it isn’t” approach which is distinctly lacking in most prophesy “analysis”. It’s also pretty clear that Hogue has little love for the papacy or the Catholic Church in general.

The prophesy gives each pope a motto in Latin. Naturally, some of these are so generic as to be basically useless, but others fare a bit better. Hogue compares each motto to a number of categories in the actual pope’s life (things like church titles, heraldry, name, birthplace, family, nationality, geography, deeds, etc.). For each pope, he gives each category a hit or a miss. He finds that “clearly the skeptics are right” in that scores from the popes before 1590 are significantly higher than scores from after. On the other hand, he rates some of the post-1590 mottos as “remarkably accurate predictions that go beyond chance”.

When looking at this kind of thing, the main criticism is to say “oh, that motto could be applied to anyone else just as well”. So, do it. For each motto, can you fit it to, say, another pope, or some other religious leader, or even yourself better than it fits to the pope it is supposedly predicting. Sometimes this is not difficult. Other times, it is harder. For example, take John Paul II’s motto: de labore solis (“from the sun’s labor”). This motto hits in three of Hogue’s categories, primarily because in medieval Latin poetry, a “laboring sun” was one darkened by an eclipse and John Paul II was born during a total solar eclipse. Some others suggest that it may be a reference to the fact that this pope travelled far more than any other pope in history, often to tropical countries. Maybe its a reference John Paul II’s link to Poland’s Solidarity labor movement. I dunno. Does it fit you better?

The other thing about this prophesy that fascinates me is that it is almost over. There are only two more mottos on the list. The next pope is de gloria olivæ (“from the glory of the olive”). You can view the odds on who this might be. Symbolically, the olive could be a reference to any (or none) of the following:

  • the Jewish race (for which the olive branch is an ancient symbol)
  • Jesus’ prophecy on the Mount of Olives
  • Peace-making
  • Dark skin
  • Italy, Greece and/or Spain

My money is on Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, but not because of the prophesy. I think the Vatican will aim for a Hispanic pope, as that’s where Catholic growth is coming from at the moment. It will be interesting to see, whoever is chosen, if this prophesy makes headlines. I often wonder about how knowing a prophesy affects its fulfillment.

The last motto, by the way, is Petrus Romanus (Peter of Rome), and it is followed by an inscription:

In persecutione extrema Sacræ Romanæ Ecclesiæ sedebit Petrus Romanus qui pascet oves in multis tribultionibus; quibus transactis, civitas septicollis dirvetur; et Judex tremendus judicabit populum.

Which means:

During the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there shall sit Peter of Rome, who shall feed the sheep amidst many tribulations, and when these have passed, the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed, and the awful Judge will judge the people.

There are hordes of people who will happily inform you that this means the end of the world, and that they can’t wait. What it means to me is that people my age will likely be able to see yet another doomsday prediction fail to come true. We just have to outlive two more popes.