The importance of pop quizzes

| April 5, 2006 | 7 Replies

You’ve just noticed several people carrying signs that say “Down with Ice Cream.”   You approach them to ask what is so bad about ice cream.  After listening to them for a few minutes, it becomes clear to you that there is a misunderstanding.  To them, the phrase “ice cream” actually means kicking dogs.  They are against kicking dogs. 

“Oh, you mean that you’re against kicking dogs?” you ask.

“Down with ice cream!” they nod.

It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation without a common understanding of the words being used.  “Evolution” is a good example.   When I hear someone speaking disparagingly about evolution I can trigger the following exchange:

Q:  What’s so bad about evolution?

A: It’s just a theory (#1) that says that everything here is just an accident (#2) and that people came from monkeys (#3).

Zero for three, every time.  In short, most people who “oppose” evolution are against something other than the scientific theory of evolution.  Further, most anti-evolutionists I’ve encountered don’t know what scientists say about evolution and don’t care [Good places to learn what scientists think would be here and here.]

The irony is that most people who oppose evolution are not opposed to any of the major facts upon which evolution is based (e.g., that random mutations occur, that some of these mutations make organisms more likely to survive long enough to bear offspring, or that a parent’s traits tend to be passed on to its children).  In fact, opponents don’t usually have any objection to the idea that most animal species evolve.  Yet they vehemently oppose Darwin’s spectacular and elegant theory when it is applied to one particular species: human animals. They make only this one exception.

I suspect that they oppose evolution because many preachers who should know better scare them into opposing human evolution with threats of eternal torture in hell.  Because these preachers fear for their jobs, they work hard to prove that God consciously designed humans in a mysterious and permanently opaque way. Consequently, for those religions opposed to evolution, God is not smart enough to create a system that designs living things based on natural selection.  So how was it that we find a transitional fish form?  Ah, you see . . . God drops these fossils around just to test our faith. He wants to make certain that we aren’t going to follow the evidence where it leads with these wonderful brains He designed.

Whenever someone disparages evolution in my presence, I attempt a gentle on-the-spot “pop quiz” right out of basic biology text.  Pop quizzes are designed to test the sorts of knowledge that a person should have, but doesn’t.  I like to make sure that we’re talking about ice cream and that we’re not talking about kicking dogs.  When necessary, I considered it my duty to show anti-evolutionists that they need to read a basic biology text before we can have a real conversation.  Everyone I’ve met who opposes evolution dramatically fails such a pop quiz consisting of basic principles of biology.  This doesn’t surprise me, given the vast network of mis-information, including the huge number of anti-evolution sites created by non-scientists.  But it does annoy me that people who should know that they lack even a grade school level scientific foundation are so willing to passionately join the fray.

Pop quizzes are allowed in courts, though they are called “cross examination.”  Prior to allowing testimony, courts like to make certain that a witness has a sufficient knowledge base to be allowed to speak on a subject.  If a witness is properly qualified, it is said that the witness has a proper “foundation.”  Witnesses who lack such a foundation are not allowed to testify.  It would just waste everyone’s time.  For example, if a witness would like to tell the jury how an accident happened, she must first show that she saw the accident.   Expert witnesses must also show that they have a proper expert “foundation.” To be allowed to testify, experts must show that they are qualified by knowledge and special training to give valid and reliable expert opinions.

To determine whether they have a proper foundation, courts allow witnesses to be cross-examined: they are asked questions that test their knowledge base. It’s very much like a “pop quiz.”  Courts allow attorneys to ask experts even basic questions regarding their scientific specialty. 

Courts allow and invite such cross-examination because it’s a way to get to the truth.  How many experiments did you do in coming to your conclusion?  Talk about the theory on which you base your opinions.  What are alternative explanations?  Isn’t it true that “X” is an alternative explanation?  Describe for me your understanding of what “X” is?

Politicians and preachers should be subjected to these same sorts of basic inquiries whenever they wish to make any sort of controversial assertions. For example, if President Bush wishes to speak of his plans for Iraq, he should first subject himself to cross-examination about the basic history of Iraq.  What does he know about the languages spoken there, the major historic sites and holy places?  He should be asked about details about Iraq’s major cities, about the political history of Iraq and the basic religious beliefs of Muslims.  Because We the People are his boss, he should be proud to demonstrate that he has a sufficient foundation for saying anything at all about Iraq.  If he gets a “D” or an “F” on the pop quiz, we should ignore whatever he says on the topic.

Whenever public figures refuse to answer a vigorous cross-examine sufficient to show that they understand the big words they bandy about, the press and all audience members should walk away.  By their refusal, such witnesses have proven that they have nothing to offer.  The next days’ headlines should shout: “Politician Lacks Basic Understanding of Legislation He is Pushing.”

Cross-examination to establish a foundation is not unpatriotic. It is an honored tradition in courtrooms.  It’s a way to avoid wasting time and to get to the truth fast.  It’s a tool that cuts through all of those prepared statements and all of those evasive tactics devised by professional handlers. 

It’s time to bring this time-tested tool for truth out into the streets and use it for all it’s worth. If the media care about the truth, they will do so like they did in past decades, during the glory days of investigative journalism.

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Category: Evolution, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm not as funny as Marty Kaplan. But I'm not to take it out on him. Check out this video bit he did on Huffpo. It hit very nicely on how many polls invite opinions regarding topics on which the participants are woefully ignorant of the facts.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Ed Brayton makes the point that widespread "ignorance in the populace eliminates any reason to take polls seriously." http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2007/04/why_po

  3. Ben says:

    I have encountered folks who consider "talkorigins" to be packed full of lies. Others consider most wikipedia articles to be left-wing secular propaganda. I just wonder what they would consider a good source? Anne Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Christianpedia, Foxnews?

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    For a humorous look at this topic of people acting like they know what they're talking about, see this piece from The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/65484

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a great example of how important it is to ask simple questions to test someone's knowledge base, and then FORCE THEM TO ANSWER. It's amazing how many people are running around opining in prominent public places who don't have the faintest idea about what they're talking about.
    http://thinkprogress.org/2008/05/15/kevin-james-a

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Here is another set of pop quizzes. It's incredible how much you can learn when you ask simple questions. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-kelly/john-mc

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm all for quizzes like this one (see below), but they need to be "pop quizzes." We shouldn't announce the questions to give the politicians time to study THOSE questions.

    http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/node/9741

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