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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reflection: Why I knew the intelligent design controversy was bound to explode in mid-decade

Demography explains two-thirds of everything, according to Canadian social scientist David Foot.

Okay, he was exaggerating, but only a little.

Demography is the hard edge of social science. That's because it is based on facts that are hard to fiddle:

- A given number of human beings is born in a given region in a given year. No one can go back and change that.

- Humans take nearly twenty years to mature. (Rushing the process leads to poorer outcomes.)

- They grow at a stable rate during that period, usually reaching milestones at predictable times.

- They live - under favorable circumstances - about 70 to 80 years, with slow, gradually increasing, attrition along the way.

- Women are generally fertile between the ages of about 18 and 45, but fertility decreases significantly after about 35.

- Most humans cannot work as hard between the ages of 70 and 85, and they tend to have many more medical problems in their last years.

Follow demography in stable countries, and you can make many successful predictions. People will think you are a prophet, ... a wizard! In reality, they see the same pattern as you do; they just fail to make use of it.

Aren’t demographics upset by unusual events? Not necessarily. Unusual events such as wars, epidemics, and mass migrations can be factored in. Once the losses and gains in each age group are tallied, the basic facts cited above are not altered significantly by upheavals.

But social attitudes can be factored in as well. At present, religious people have significantly more children than others. There are a number of reasons for that, and specific religious beliefs are probably only one. Religious groups tend to form communities, which are better suited to raising children than anonymous environments are. The communities, in turn, tend to give those who have children a higher status than those who don’t. (Consider, for example, Mother’s Day services and politicians’ family photos, and you will see exactly what I mean.)

So, with respect to intelligent design theory, at least a part of the appeal to a broad public can be predicted from the simple fact that, as Phillip Longman (the American equivalent of David Foot) has noted, religious people are far more likely than non-religious people to actually raise children. As he puts it in “The liberal baby bust”

What's the difference between Seattle and Salt Lake City? There are many differences, of course, but here's one you might not know. In Seattle, there are nearly 45% more dogs than children. In Salt Lake City, there are nearly 19% more kids than dogs.

This curious fact might at first seem trivial, but it reflects a much broader and little-noticed demographic trend that has deep implications for the future of global culture and politics. It's not that people in a progressive city such as Seattle are so much fonder of dogs than are people in a conservative city such as Salt Lake City. It's that progressives are so much less likely to have children.

I am not here concerned with ID’s science legitimacy, but rather with the question of whether there is a popular market for ID books and for the political fallout that inevitably results when a conflict in science becomes popularized. Michael Behe and David Snoke, for example, wrote a respectable paper for the journal Protein Science, but I am morally certain that most of the readers of Darwin’s Black Box did not buy or read that paper.)

Religious people tend to care about the intelligent design controversy because they are told in their places of worship that the universe shows evidence of intelligent design, so they notice when science boffins insist that it doesn't . They especially notice when those boffins rely so largely on sneering, jeering, persecution of dissenters, and lawsuits.

As an American liberal, Longman is very concerned about the trend that religious people have more kids, and he would like to reverse it. Now, one problem is, short of a time machine, he can't reverse it. People who had children 25 to 35 years ago simply have a bigger block of supporters today than people who didn't. And, contrary to popular assumptions, children tend to grow up to follow their parents’ attitudes in most matters, not because attitudes are genetic but because they follow naturally from living and working in a given environment. And social environments tend to be fairly stable over time.

For example, if you live in a green belt, you probably care more about trees than if you live in a concrete jungle. So if I wanted to sell memberships in Nation United for Tree Salvation (NUTS), I would study the census data for green belt areas, not for concrete jungles.

Now, note the significance of the fact that I will have much better luck selling memberships in places where trees are not in danger than I will in places where they actually are in danger. Demographics makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people behave rationally.

But assuming Longman could reverse the trend today, and get non-religious people to have more children and religious people to have fewer - and there are certainly two opinions about whether he could - it would take over two decades for the effects to be felt.

That was one of the reasons I successfully predicted in 2001 that the intelligent design controversy would explode by mid-decade. It was easy to be a wizard, using demographics.

(Note: Of course, there are always wild cards in the deck. For example, a rise in the number of unregistered aliens can upset predictions - but usually only by a little. Unregistered aliens will mean more little heads bobbing in the kindergarten than we thought there would be, but those little heads have the same life cycle as anyone else. So adjustments to the estimates need not throw off forecasting altogether. In the same way, wars cause declines in the numbers of marriageable men, leading to more involuntary female celibacy and single motherhood than you might otherwise expect in the same population. But again, deaths in war are normally tallied, so figures can be adjusted as needed.)
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being granted tenure at Baylor after a long struggle - even after helping in a small way to destroy the Baylor Bears' ancient glory - in the opinion of a hyper sportswriter.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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