Miles High Sea

Fossil at 10,000 feet, Sandia Peak, NM

It should be no surprise that some 60% of the U.S. population is either unsure about the theory of evolution or rejects it outright.

In a country where it is taken as a matter of political principle that one person’s judgment and intelligence are just as good as the next, where too much intellectual effort or education brands you as an elitist egghead, where “common sense” and the immediate evidence of the senses are held in the highest esteem, and where anything that casts doubt on the role of the traditional God of our forefathers is a socialist plot spawned by Satan—well, evolution is gonna pose a big problem.

Case in point: two miles up, in the dry alpine climate above an arid desert valley, in an old, old rock, we have the impression of what looks like some kind of sea urchin.

Geologists claim that the limestone and sandstone that cover the granite core of Sandias were laid down 300 million years ago, when it formed the seabed of an ancient ocean teeming with archaic life.

Yeah, sure.

Can you make sense of that number, 300 million? I freely admit that I cannot. I have no idea how long that really is, or what can happen in that length of time.

Then, they say, over a period of the last mere ten million years, the Sandias were uplifted as part of a fault block that formed the Rio Grande Rift Valley.

Can you wrap your brain around 10 million? (It’s a lot smaller number than 300 million.) You take about 8.5 million breaths a year, roughly. If each one of those respirations lasted for a full year instead of seconds, you still wouldn’t get to 10 million years. Can you imagine one inhalation (January to June) and exhalation (July to December) taking a whole year? I’m willing to bet that you can’t. You may think you can, but I wager you’re doing some mental hand-waving and etcetera-ing to cover up for what is truly unimaginable in any concrete way.

Our intuitions generally fail when it comes to very large or small numbers, extremely long or short durations, and complex systems in general. But that doesn’t stop us from being bloody-minded and doggedly simplistic about topics that really don’t lend themselves to seat-of-the-pants analysis.

Evolution. Global modern economies. Climate change.

This stuff is hard. It’s complicated. It requires education, rationality, patience, lots of data, and—yes—training and expertise to understand. It requires humility, even amongst the most skilled, to refrain from overreaching when the evidence and analysis have not yet come to conclusions. It also requires the courage to be forthright and clear when the vast preponderance of evidence and scholarly understanding has reached a consensus.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But no, everyone’s opinion about every subject is not equally valid. It’s just not. Some people are better informed than you are about a given subject, better trained, better educated, and probably smarter too. How about listening carefully to what they have to say, considering their evidence, and—if it’s beyond your area of expertise or understanding—looking to the community of their peers for validation.

Will those people always be right?

Of course not.

But they’re much more likely to be right than you are. Or than I am.

I don’t want you (or me) performing my heart surgery. I don’t want you deciding what goes in my science text book. And I don’t want you deciding what chemicals are acceptable in my drinking water. I want experts for those things, and for many, many others in our complex and challenging world.

Let’s strive to be sufficiently well-educated and savvy enough to be able to identify well-trained professionals, to respect and make best use of their skills, and also to call out frauds, demagogues, and just plain ignoramuses who claim knowledge they don’t have.

[Tip o' the hat to Bob, who called this fossil—as well as the gnarled tree stump—to my attention. Thanks for being so observant.]

A Year Ago: Raindrops on Roses

Close up of raindrops on rose.I have had a large version of this image on my 27″ monitor for 24 hours now…
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2 Responses to Miles High Sea
  1. Greg Bole
    June 29, 2012 | 7:49 pm

    What a wonderful rant! I love your attempt to mentally grasp mind boggling long periods of evolutionary time. This was a joy to read.

    I always like to consider the age of the earth as a 12 month calendar. All of recorded history is in the last 30 seconds…and humans land on the moon at 1/4 of a second to midnight of the last day. Wow.

  2. NT
    June 29, 2012 | 8:08 pm

    Thanks, Greg! I had a feeling it might be up your alley. ;-)