Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


AUGUST 23, 2011 6:15PM

Rick Perry and the end of the world

Rate: 23 Flag

Last week, during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Rick Perry gave his views on evolution:

It's a theory that's out there. It's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution, because I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one's right.

Should we care? After all, Rick Perry doesn't propose to stand at the front of a middle school classroom, filling children's heads with superstition. If he's elected President, he'll have much larger audience for his views.

Not on evolution, probably. But the conclusions one draws can often give insight into how one makes decisions, whether it's about a scientific topic or otherwise, and that's certainly something we should care about in a President.

Our decisions are typically influenced by a great many factors. We see the world around us; we interpret what we see; we decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore; we have beliefs, desires, and intentions, which often go unexamined. Some of what we can guess about Perry's decision making worries me.

His personal interpretation of Biblical mythology apparently overrides a century and a half of empirical science. (Perry's Proclamation for Days of Prayer for Rain in Texas is also suggestive.) We ordinarily give Presidential candidates a pass on their religious beliefs, because these beliefs are shared by so many other Americans, but it's worthwhile to examine some of them.

Here's an important one: Most evangelical Christians (58%, according to a 2010 Pew survey) believe that Jesus Christ will return to Earth in the next 40 years, by 2050. Perry is an evangelical Christian. I'd be interested to learn whether he shares this belief. Why? It should be obvious, I think. If you're at all concerned about the future, even if it's just your own personal future, you'll make decisions based on what you expect to happen in the long run. (Not the very long run--in the very long run everyone will be dead--but in the shorter long run.) Now imagine that you know, with whatever amount of certainty, that the world will end in the foreseeable future. Within your lifetime, even. Would this affect your decisions? How much would you care about what happens after 2050? Not too damned much, I'd guess.

So I wonder... 

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That's exactly what's wrong with having any apocalypse believing, free-choice denying, fundamentalist espousing dogma following snake oil charmer, being the one who makes decisions for others.
If the End Times believers don't see a future beyond 2050 for themselves or their heirs and descendants, what on this earth would motivate them to decide in the direction of progress?
Jesus was thinking of accelerating his arrival, but Obama persuaded him to wait at least until the next presidential election next year.
alsoknownas, it's as if "the End Times" is just a lot of fun talk, and then someone gets hurt...

Gordon, I'd gotten the impression that, for some conservatives, Obama's election was the end of the world. Those dates always need to be adjusted.
i can't right off think of another nation which has these kinds of problems. some back of beyond african outpost of shamanism, maybe.

of course, they could say they don't have electricity, much less education.

but after watching americans at work and play for a lifetime, wonder and amazement have worn off, leaving just laughter.
One wonders what comes out of his mouth, and what he believes in spite of what comes out of his mouth. You'd think that the governor would know that it would be illegal in the state of Texas to teach creationism in any public school science class. I think he's crafty enough that he knows exactly what he's saying there, that the majority of people that heard that or read what he said won't know that doing so is against the law. What he did not make clear, and I think he did this on purpose, is that creationism can be taught in religious schools and it can be presented in a class on religion in a high school, but that is not the same as what his statement subliminally infers. ...You're smart enough to figure out which one's right is actually not an academic option in the state of Texas as he presented it.

There are plenty of folk who believe that creationism ought to be taught in science classes, and then add to that the folk that say Intelligent Design ought to if not the more transparent creationism. But ID is not, in spite of what a large number of folk believe, science.

In a comment I made on Catherine Forsythe's post on Perry, there is a telling construct as well in how he uses the word "theory." I think this is another dodge by the governor, in spite of his C- average in college. When republicans, creationists, intelligent designists, or any "my way or the highway" anti science folk say "evolution is just a theory" or "man-made climate change is just a theory" it's usually an indication that they don't understand the basic principles of science. They are trying to assign a pejorative and negative connotation by saying just as opposed to what they hold to be truth.

In fact, in a scientific context, a theory is not a matter of blind faith that those ignorant of science wish to convey, but in fact, a theory is a coherent group of tested and retested general propositions that are held to be true and correct. That means that a theory can be more than an explanation, but can also be predictive for any class of phenomena.

His own personal academic record does not give him a pass on not understanding what a theory is in a scientific context, but it indicates that he is either uneducated, or he in fact knows what he is doing and is pandering politically to the masses of ignorant people in this country who don't have a fundamental understanding of the scientific process. I would guess it's a combination of both.

And I would say that your use of the words "theoretical construct" is probably not the best word to use in this context as theoretical can imply a speculative element that runs counter to the scientific understanding of the meaning of "theory."

When someone tells me that "evolution is just a theory" I usually respond by saying that he or she should go back to their middle school science teacher (given that it's not a madrass or a religious school) and ask them again to explain what the scientific definition of theory means.

My deepest apologies for making a comment that is longer in length than your post, which I generally consider poor form, but he does rile me up. For those of us who have lived with him for 20 years or so, he does not appear as a knight in shining armor, rather, and to employ a local aphorism, he looks like shit on a white horse.
Oh, and I meant to say something more specifically relevant to your post, that just as a politician's private parts need to stay zipped up and put away, eschatology should not become part of government policy.
Perry does make my belief in evolution waver a bit because he proves it doesn't work for everybody.
However, he is firm proof of devolution.
I would be confused if I thought it mattered.

The second coming of Bush is coming far too soon. He's a bigger draw among the Right than Bachmann, which means he's a bigger problem for the GOP.
His prayer for reign will be as ineffective as his prayer for rain.
Good, original point. Hope someone asks this on Meet the Press or Rachel Maddow. Some of this has to get through to voters. Doesn't it?
al, I have heard that somewhere upwards of 40% of Americans are Perry-style Creationists, which is dispiriting.
Thanks for the comment, Barry! It's better than my post. And I'll offer you what's considered the highest of compliments in academic circles: I wish I'd written it myself. :-)

I entirely agree with your thoughts on theory versus theory. When people talk about critical thinking being taught in schools, it's this kind that's most important. Science isn't about facts and figures; it's a way of thinking about the world.
Hey, Paul. Perry is a divisive character in many ways. I only hope that this applies with Republicans as well.

Thanks, Lea. I wonder.
well, ha,,,, luckily Gawd sent this mighty earthquake
to upset your SECT-you-lar HOO man

point proved. i cannot see any other reason for
this massive destruction of property in the Northeast
liberal lair of sneaky snakes
than that
GAWD or his adversary the devil
is tryin to send us good hardworkin amerikan folks
a mighty message in morse code, kinda.

DO NOT let Gawd leave yer life. where will ya be when
the end comes, then, in several billion yrs
when the sun goes out?

that is science. dispute it.

evolution is a theory dreamed up by englishmen
to get revenge for the american revolution!

how stoopid can ya be?
Rob! I've been around very little, and am totally out of touch. Last I knew, your most recent had been about the Kindle. I will have to see what else you've been writing lately. Er, when I have time...

I feel for you Texans, I really do. As an Arizonan, I know personally what it's like to live in a batshit crazy state.

Over the years I've wondered if the Republicans and loonies are attempting to start an Apocalypse. Seems to me, if their Higher Power is as great as they think he is, he would be annoyed at the hubris of teeny little humans trying to force his hand.
Gee, bbd, you're purty darn smart for an artsy catlover type! How did you and Rob end up in the second dumbest state in the U. S. of A.? (First? - it's a 3-way tie between Alaska, Arizona and Utah.)
I'm not sure that Governor Perry is smart enough to figure out which one's right. As for "theory", so is gravity. Or as The Onion satirized a few years back, Texas was now going to teach the alternative theory of Intelligent Falling.
I recall James Watts, Sec. of the Interior under Reagan, who based his environmental policies on just such thinking... Apocryphally, he was supposed to have said that when the last tree was felled, Christ would return (hopefully to kick his ass...)
Shades of James Watt. Any politician who doubts the validity of Evolution should be automatically disqualified from public office on the grounds of incompetence -- that is, incapable of critical thinking. That defect is one reason people like Perry tend to be racists, homophobes and reactionaries -- to say nothing of literalist religious nutjobs.

That latter defect is obvious from the fact most are utterly unaware -- or willfully blind -- when it comes to the most basic tenets of the faith they claim, that is to say, pacifism and communism -- or communalism, if you prefer. That people like Perry don't know this is proof they know as little about the faith that "informs" them as they do about most any other subject. The only thing they seem to be good at is rabble-rousing and taking advantage of other people.
PS Relativity and gravity are also "theories", but I'd advise Perry to stay out of the way of the effects of either of those "theories". What is so ludicrous as to be almost -- almost -- comical is that these people demand absolute proof of Evolution, but require none for virgin birth, resurrection, Jonah in the whale, Noah's ark, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum.

Ignorance walks hand in hand with hypocrisy.
As a Tennessee transplant, I'll have you know this state is dead last in percentage of college graduates. And most high school graduates aren't smarter than fifth-graders from most other states.
As a proud Texan I am not completely surprised that our state gets to agree settled ideas, like evolution, in this century. The guy, Perry, really believes this stuff, he is a frightening true believer....Great post.
"...because I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one's right."

After electing Perry to three terms as governor, it's obvious that the people of Texas are not up to Perry's supposition.

Hat tip to Barry's comment.
bbd writes: "That means that a theory can be more than an explanation, but can also be predictive for any class of phenomena."

Yes. One thing that many people don't think about is that a scientific theory has a very practical value. A scientist can go to a conference on evolution and come away with several new ideas for research.

That doesn't happen with creationism or intelligent design. They have no practical value. They generate no new ideas for research. They generate no articles for peer-reviewed journals. If creationism or intelligent design had a practical, scientific value, scientists would pay attention to them. But they have no such value. Thus they are not "alternatives" to evolution.

In addition, evolution ties in with many other scientific fields -- geology, paleontology, astronomy, genetics, biology, etc. Again, creationism and intelligent design do not tie in with other areas of science.

Since they have no scientific value, the question is why anyone would think it's a good idea to teach them in public schools. It's like saying "we teach mathematics and numerology, and let people decide what is right."
Unfortunately, Perry apparently is aware of, and in complete agreement with, the theory that there is NO SUCH THING AS BAD PUBLICITY.

He may be bat-shit nuts...but he is a bat-shit nut getting lots of publicity. And publicity, with the American public, is confirmation of worth!

Said another way: The fucker may be bat-shit crazy, but there is a good chance he may become our next president.

The fact that he has any chance at all is confirmation that we deserve him!
Thanks for all the comments!

Thanks for the reminder about James Watt--I'd forgotten. I wish Biblical literalists would take the stewardship part more seriously than some of the other parts.

I'm pretty much in agreement with what everyone says.

Except for the part about Barry and me living in the same state, Snippy. We're both in the South, but I'm quite a bit farther east.
You bring up a point that is absolutely vital, and needs to be part of the national conversation as we evaluate our presidential contenders. To bbd's important addition to this post, Perry is, indeed, pandering to the least educated and most vociferous faction of the GOP, and in so doing has proven himself to be a liar of the first order.
Rob, there are also those on the far right of the Christian spectrum that want to meddle with the Middle East, in order to hasten the start of the supposed "end times" and Jesus' return. I believe some of these types were invited to Perry's "Prayer Breakfast."
Hi, Steve. I think you're right; the polls seem to suggest that Perry is taking all of Bachmann's support, and it's pretty clear where that's coming from.

Hey, voicegal. That's another very worrisome issue. Bringing about the End Times? I only wish it were the plot of an apocalyptic horror movie.
Obama has the country in economic standstill trending downward and people worry about whether Rick Perry believes in evolution or not. Keep it up and Perry will win easily.
It's a shame that any adult believes in Creationism.
Why does anyone bother writing scripts for horror flicks anymore? This is much much scarier. Please bring out the madman with the chainsaw- for him I'll vote! It will be a quicker, more logical end.
Road Runner, you've inspired me to take another look at They Live, one of my favorite social/political commentary horror movies.
being a scientist and a biologist...Rick scares me....! His lack of knowledge as well as assertions that things like age of earth is not known is just plain ignorant. I would tell him to watch Dr Brian Cox...but it might blow a fuse! whatever....moving on....
being a scientist and a biologist...Rick scares me....! His lack of knowledge as well as assertions that things like age of earth is not known is just plain ignorant. I would tell him to watch Dr Brian Cox...but it might blow a fuse! whatever....moving on....
Such a very, very good point. I've worried about this whole concept for a while - including the point that someone made about fiddling with Middle East politics to bring about the end times according to Revelations.

Used to be, "mainstream" Christians believed that Christ would come back - someday - but that we weren't ever going to have a clue as to when/ where. In the post "Left Behind" Christian culture, that hands-off attitude could now be the minority approach....
Also: on the point Barry raised about creationism not being taught in schools here. Unless we parents keep an eye out, it WILL be taught. So many teachers here are "believers" and their pastors and congregatiosn encourage them to break the rules where possible and teach Christian concepts like evolution. (It's considered to be a "mission field" kind of like teaching Christianity surreptiously in an Islamic country.) I have personally sat in a congregation and listened to a (current) elementary school principal in my community espouse this philosophy of impacting kids in schools. It was one of the many things that ended out church-going life.
Thanks for visiting, Traveller1. I'm concerned, too.

Blue, that's pretty crazy, the stealth-teaching of creationism (that's what I'm assuming you mean in your second comment).
Much like King's Dead Zone, this guy scares me. Everyone say's he doesn't stand a chance, yeah, ask Al~