Commentary

Where Have All the Scientists Gone?

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It seems like oh so many years since the Scopes monkey trial, yet that monkey, apparently, is with us still. Whether motivated by the sincerity of their convictions or merely acting out of a barely checked hubris, members of the religious right are demanding that serious attention be paid by the rest of us to their views on the origin of things.

In case it has escaped notice, these views, which they have named "scientific creationism," hold that the universe, the earth, and biological life all were created whole and complete, as specific acts of a deliberate God in a manner not unlike that described in the Biblical Genesis. What is more important, they claim to have amassed enough scientific evidence to support these views and to cast Darwinian evolution into serious doubt. What is most important, they have, in fact, amassed enough political influence to have their views made required teaching in some states and to have them be vigorously promoted in others, including my own.

Their political activities are being opposed by various civil-liberties groups, teachers' unions, and liberal religious leaders. What seems most remarkable and lamentable is that, with several notable exceptions, science and its practitioners are remaining conspicuously silent; and that brings us to the point of this appeal.

I am a registered professional engineer; I make my living designing machine tools. That means that although I am trained in science, I am not a scientist and certainly have no competence in such fields as biology, geology, paleontology, anthropology, or evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, I have to live out my life in the real arenas of church, school district, and state politics where the debates of the Bible versus Darwin are real and are happening now.

Those of us who believe that claims of scientific evidence in support of a particular religious point of view should be submitted to objective scientific scrutiny are waiting, it seems to me, to hear from the scientists. Given the consequences of this political controversy, it is imperative that we do hear, and soon.

In the theory that somebody has to start somewhere, I will state what I believe and what I understand scientists to believe. If I'm in error, perhaps someone will hasten to correct me before the next school-board meeting, which will discuss what my children are to be taught.

If I've learned anything about science, it is that science is a whole cloth whose every thread, sooner or later, interrelates with every other. The delineation of science into separate subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy is arbitrary, artificial, and, although scholastically expedient, misleading. It is misleading because it leads to the trap that a particular theory, such as evolution, can be examined in isolation and made to stand or fall without consideration for the scientific context into which it must fit. Therefore, the most convincing argument to me for the validity of evolution lies in assuming that it is not true and then assessing the impact on the rest of science that would, of necessity, follow. The reasoning goes this way.

If evolution is not true, then scientific creationism might be true. If scientific creationism is true, then, among other things, all the species that are or ever were, were created at the same time. If that's true, then such apparent evolutionary sequences as eohippus to equus are just that, only apparent. If that's true, then the geological evidence that says that all known eohippus bones are much, much older than all known equus bones, must be false.

However, geology has been independently derived, and the eohippus bones are assumed to be old because they were found in old rocks, not the other way around. Since the geologists don't seem to be ready to abandon their craft (they're still out there hunting for oil wells), then geology must be valid and so must the geological dating of fossils.

Similarly, the eohippus bones are also considered to be much, much older than the equus bones because of the carbon-14 dating technique. The carbon-14 dating technique has been independently derived from nuclear physics, which also says that fission bombs work for about the same theoretical reasons.

Since we know that fission bombs work (ask the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), then the carbon-14 technique of dating fossils must also be valid.

There are other, similar arguments. For instance, if the earth is not as old as it would have to be for evolution to have occurred, then the universe is not as old as astronomy says it is. But if the universe is not as old as astronomy says it is, then the rest of astronomical theory starts to come unraveled. Are the astronomers ready to make that concession?

The above arguments and others like them seem reasonable to me, but as I said, my background is essentially that I enjoyed sophomore biology, read Scientific American intermittently, and watched Cosmos faithfully. I think I need some help.

Perhaps it is true, as some believe, that scientists and science teachers should enter into political debates only as individuals and not as representatives of any particular group or institution. On the other hand, when science itself is being challenged, it seems to me that they must speak for it in whatever professional or official capacity that they have. I believe that scientists can demand, quite properly, that the religious right produce its evidence in support of scientific creationism. I believe that it is proper for scientists and science teachers to discuss, from their professional perspectives, the broader implications that teaching the divine miracle of creationism in biology classes would have for all of education.

For instance, if God really did create the universe, He also could have stopped the earth in its tracks to give a favored general several more hours of daylight for his battle. Will this possibility have to be taught as scientific truth in astronomy classes? Will the possibility of divine healing, as described in the New Testament, have to be taught as scientific truth in medical schools? I believe that it is totally proper for scientists and science teachers to be discussing, in depth, the epistemological differences between scientific laws and religious convictions, and how the two cannot be offered as interchangeable intellectual constructs.

In this light, I also think it's proper to be discussing, in depth, the differences between the partisan practice of selecting a few facts to support a favored theory and the true scientific method of developing a theory that explains all of the known, available facts.

The debates are here and now and the stakes--in terms of academic, intellectual, and religious freedom--are important to us all.

So, practitioners of science, to the barricades. Join the fray. Speak out and be heard.

Vol. 01, Issue 41, Page 24

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