Politics, science, and a false dichotomy

** Written by “Surak” **

There was a political confrontation last Thursday in New Hampshire between conservative politician, Rick Perry, and a liberal woman protestor. The dispute concerned Perry’s views about evolution and creationism, and it demonstrated why we need to be concerned about the future of science in America. Governor Perry spoke to the woman’s young son in front of the usual swarm of reporters eager for a headline. Perry gave them one by telling the boy that evolution was a theory with gaps in it. In an obvious attempt to contrive an unflattering media incident to hurt the Texas governor’s campaign, the mother could be heard urging the child to ask Perry why he didn’t believe in science. Perry ignored the mother and told the boy that in Texas both evolution and creationism are taught, “… because I figured you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” I am appalled by what the mother did and troubled by the implications of Perry’s response.

The mother undoubtedly thinks of herself as a defender of ‘science,’ by which I guess she means the usual vague understanding of the currently popular but failed mid-20th century version of evolution. Whatever her beliefs, it was an abuse of science to pull a cheap political trick like this. And, it was a disturbing corruption of her child’s innocence by putting words in his mouth he couldn’t possibly have understood. She obviously thought she was protecting him and other children from false ideas, but her actions amount to nothing more than a crude form of indoctrination based on the prevailing conviction that any questioning of ‘evolution’ is an intellectual sin.

I do not endorse Rick Perry or his political viewpoints. Having said that, I do agree with two important things he said. First, evolution theory, even in its best, most current form, does have serious gaps. For instance, it cannot explain how life began, the incredible explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, the fossil record that shows the sudden appearance of a multitude of new organ, limbs and species with no apparent transition stages, or the very recent appearance and mysterious nature of human consciousness. One cannot defend science by becoming indignant when someone else points out the obvious.

More importantly, I hope Governor Perry was sincere about trusting students to get it right. Science education in America should be based on that trust in (and challenge for) young minds. The foundation of modern science, as well as the basis of genius, is the ability to ask good questions, usually in the form of ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what if.’ Einstein’s thought experiments are a famous example. Scientific questioning, if it is to continue to lead to amazing and useful new answers, should never be shackled by politics, religion, or philosophy. Children must be taught and encouraged to ask their own questions no matter how strange, silly, or politically incorrect they might seem to parents and teachers.

Years ago, my high school science classes consisted mostly of rote memorization of facts and stale reenactments of old experiments. We were forced to think about other people’s questions (including a lot of mind-numbing ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘where’) rather than our own questions. The whole process was as divorced from real life concerns, important philosophical questions, and religious beliefs as possible, and therefore totally irrelevant and boring. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the wonders and power of real science.

I have a deep commitment to the scientific method. But, that commitment is tempered by an understanding that science is a tool that has limitations which must be acknowledged. Science cannot continue its positive role in society by becoming some kind of false idol, something created by humans but worshiped as infallible. Scientists and science teachers need to model a necessary and healthy humility that includes the need to state up front that science can only deal with our material world and can have nothing legitimate to say about anything that might lie outside our universe, such as God or heaven. Then maybe we’d get fewer annoying distractions at political events, and politicians could focus more on what they really need to do.

But humility is not happening. Science is being promoted by some as the complete, unerring, and only way to arrive at the truth. So, instead of being a good example for others, we witness more than a few scientists make the grave mistake of denigrating other people’s deepest beliefs and alienating them from science. Look up the latest silly musings of the great scientist Stephen Hawking to see a sad and disturbing example of this. If humility fails on a large enough scale, science can’t help but slide in the direction of political correctness and eventually petrify as dogma.

We won’t be able to avoid this fate if protecting science comes to mean putting young people like the woman’s son in an educational bubble to protect them from philosophy and religion under the guise of separation of church and state. Remember that science started as something called natural philosophy and was given its modern form by its devoutly Christian founders. You cannot separate these three things without damaging science. If our current generation of students is to become the next generation of effective scientists, they must be given the opportunity to understand how science relates to and differs from religion and philosophy objectively without the biases and fears that currently stifle our schools and rupture our communities.

So, Governor Perry is right about teaching creationism, because it is a powerful force in American history and culture that needs to be studied not just in social studies classes but also in science classes. Even young-Earth creationism, which I view as sadly non-scientific, should be squarely presented to high school students. Students need to understand what science is not in order to understand what it is. They will benefit from understanding young-Earth creationism, have fun debating it, and discover the truth for themselves if given the necessary tools, opportunity, and encouragement.

My challenge to the mother and all others on the left of the political spectrum is ‘what are you afraid of?’ If all the variations of creationism are so totally wrong, if the science you believe in is so strong, won’t it be obvious to the vast majority of students by the time they finish high school? Allow creationism, intelligent design, and the various forms of evolutionary theory to contend with one another in an honest competition of ideas, and then trust students to get it right. One can only object to this if his or her real goal is indoctrination.

This open approach to science education would include a spirited defense of Darwinism in the schools, because Darwin is a prime example of a great scientist asking important questions and coming up with an original and compelling answer. But evolutionary theory must be presented truthfully and fully, including not only its strengths, but also its many weaknesses. In the spirit of an open and effective science curriculum, would the liberal mother from New Hampshire be willing to have science teachers discuss the totally unexpected results of evolutionary development (Evo Devo)? Is this ‘defender of science’ even aware that the findings of biologists in this new field have turned evolutionary thought on its head in the last few years? (I refer the reader to Sean B. Carroll’s excellent book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom). Would she be willing to have students informed that the three great enduring mysteries of biology – the origins of life, the inexplicable explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, and the sudden development and mysterious nature of human consciousness – correspond to the three instance in Genesis that the word ‘creation’ is used to describe how things came about? (As an agnostic about religion, I’m not sure what this means, but it is really interesting.) Or, would she insist that young people be kept ignorant of all this in defense of some quasi-sacred belief she calls evolution?

To be fair, it is likely and terribly unfortunate that most people on the political right and the Christian side of the science/religion debate don’t trust young people either. As the religious and political conflict continues to intensify, which it seems to be doing, each side will probably do all it can to indoctrinate and control children. I fear that, as a result of this irresolvable conflict, science as the search for truth will eventually be fatally corrupted and seriously diminished as a force for good in people’s lives.

So, I want to say this to people on the left who declare their desire to protect science: you don’t protect science by sanitizing education and excluding other ways of thinking. You must look at yourselves in the mirror and realize that you are just as susceptible to political dogma and metaphysical prejudice as the people you oppose. Quit trying to use science to score political points and undercut Christian influence. In other words, if you have to fight, fight fair and leave science out of it.

To the people on the religious right who want to protect their faith: you can’t protect it by rejecting science or promoting false scientific views, because it will only make you look foolish and alienate your children in this age of science. Young-Earth creationism in particular is self-defeating because it leaves Christian youth vulnerable to the powerful (but false) scientific arguments of prominent atheists who are increasingly successful in turning young people away from faith. You believe, or at least many of you say you believe, that the Bible is true. You also understand that God gave us minds capable of comprehending his works. Won’t both paths, scripture and science, eventually lead to the same truth?

If you doubt this, consider the following quote from Gerald L. Schroeder’s bestselling book, The Science of God:

At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was so thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin noncorporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudosubstance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is and will be formed.

As Dr. Schroeder points out (p. 56), “This … could be a quote from a modern physics textbook.” But in fact it comes from the 13th century biblical scholar, Nahmanides (1194-1270), who was able to anticipate modern science by 700 years using nothing more than a literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s true that the best scientists in the world were not capable of this level of understanding of our universe until after 1965, but science did finally catch up with scripture. Christians must have faith that scripture and science are two paths to the one and only truth, and God intended us to use both. (See Psalms 19:1 and Romans 1:20.)

This is why I am concerned about Governor Perry’s statement. His indirect response to the mother’s attack assumes that either science (in this case, evolution) or Christian scripture (in this case, creationism) is right, that they can’t both be right. Christians must not buy into the imagined conflict between science and faith — there is no inherent schism. I believe both the scientific view of our universe (effectively understood) and the Genesis account of creation (properly understood) are entirely compatible.

You don’t have to be a believer in scripture to accept the possibility there can be more than one path to the truth. It would be wonderful if we could all wish each other well on whichever path each of us chooses and help one another in the search for truth. If we can’t manage that level of good will, then we should at least accept, in the American spirit of freedom, that no one has a right to tell anyone else what to believe. I hope that all Americans will embrace science as the objective search for truth and keep it above the fray, that Christians will not see science as the enemy but will once again become fully involved in the scientific adventure, and that our brothers and sisters on the left will refrain, even if they must see religion as the enemy, from using science as a weapon. Otherwise we will all lose so much.

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2 thoughts on “Politics, science, and a false dichotomy

  1. Must be something in the air since Fran, worthy proprietor of Eternity Road, has posted something similar : http://www.eternityroad.info/index.php/weblog/single/fundamentals_an_unconscious_age/

    “His indirect response to the mother’s attack assumes that either science (in this case, evolution) or Christian scripture (in this case, creationism) is right, that they can’t both be right.”

    And it doesn’t account for them both to be wrong. It’s a simple truth table, there are four outcomes for two propositions:

    p q
    T T
    T F
    F T
    F F

    But you can’t bring that up, either. The evolutionists and the hard line creationists both will hate you for even suggesting that heretical notion.

    Also, I wonder which version of evolution the lady believes in? Good old fashioned Darwinism Natural Selection? Biased Mutation? Genetic Drift? Gene Flow? Punctuated Equilibrium?

    Although it was interesting to watch two people who clearly didn’t know much about the subject at hand proceed full sail into a cheap political point scoring dance.

  2. Thanks for the link — adding it to the Recommended Reading list above.

    Excellence from Fran, as always. His term “consciousness-averse” is sadly apt.

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