Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How To: Not Be a Scientist

(((Evolution vs. creation; science vs. religious belief; (anti-)religious discrimination; "persecution" of believers for not abandoning their beliefs in the face of scientific evidence . . . even when they're scientists.)))

A certain self-described "Bible-believing Christian" is suing the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for dismissing him because he refused to subscribe to "Darwin's theory of evolution" (as if he might have been okay with, say, Lamarckian evolution). This is a little bit like saying it's discriminatory to not hire an Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christian to perform abortions at a clinic. Or to not hire me to preach at your church. I can read the Bible with the best of them, and speak better than most. But you might say I'm missing a crucial piece of the overall weltanschauung.

The fundamental discriminatory issue is whether Abraham, the man in question, could reasonably have performed his duties absent at least some general assent to evolution as the central reigning biological paradigm, one with broad, indeed, nearly unanimous, scientific assent. The Massachusetts agency that dismissed the case ruled that he could not.

But there are also other ways to consider it, namely, a general sense of basic scientific competence. Abraham complains that this condition, subscribing to "Darwinian evolution," was not in the job advertisement. But why should it be? If I advertise for a physicist, I don't ask them if they believe the earth revolves around the sun.

Oh, you say, but there's dispute about evolution as a "fact." No, there's not. Not from anyone who has any idea what they're talking about. The best traditional-theistic answer so far, "intelligent design," essentially argues that evolution is not "random" (which is not what evolutionary theory says, anyway), nor does it advance by way of natural selection, but that it was planned out by God like a series of dominoes lined up to fall in order. Never mind that this doesn't actually say very much, or that it's flawed for a variety of reasons. Notice instead that it essentially assents to the fundamental idea of evolution. The rest is all gobbledy-gook: bad undergraduate philosophizing masquerading as science, sounding enough like creationism to pull in "Bible-believers," and enough like science to piss the rest of us off.

What strikes me about this case is that evolution is perhaps a lot like global warming. We sat through years and years of obfuscatory pseudo-science funded mainly by the energy sector and other conservative hacks, and spewed out incessantly and self-righteously in the face of broad scientific consensus, and designed to prove that there was no consensus, or that such consensus as there was rested on mediocre and PC-motivated science. Now, however, we finally have none other than George W Bush admitting that there's a problem. What changed? Well, it wasn't that anyone proved the hacks were hacks. I don't know. Maybe it just became painfully obvious what bullshit it all was, but surely the urgency of the peril if global warming-naysayers were wrong played a role.

Evolution is like the weather, this way. The problem is that the reality of it is much less urgent, much less in our faces. What problems go unsolved if some people continue to not "believe in" evolution? But this reality does not change the other reality, that evolution, indeed natural selection, has achieved consensus, despite a bunch of confusing claptrap designed mainly to reassure those people who already want to believe in God instead of in evolution (as if this were not a false dilemma). This does not mean that we won't find something better to replace natural selection or even evolutionary theory as we now have it (although I suspect it's the Copernican revolution of biology).

But it does mean that anyone who considers themselves a scientist has to have something better to say than that they believe in God if they're going to reject evolution. It is simply not a scientific answer. And anyone who gives it as an answer casts doubt on the quality of their scientific thinking, and indeed on whether we ought to think of them as a scientist at all.

It's a little bit like trying to work for Newton and insisting that the earth rests immobile at the center of the universe, because that's clearly the implication of the passage in Joshua when the Sun stands still. Newton wouldn't just have fired you. He'd have laughed at you and smacked you all the way out the door. And Newton believed in God.

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