My Response to Braveheart’s Initial Commentary
August 18, 2008
Thank you for providing me with a copy of your comments pertaining to Lisa H.’s thesis paper. While I am in general agreement with many of your lines of argumentation, I am compelled (as a defender of mainstream science) to respond to your characterization of the liberal and conservative stances on the theory of evolution and to your apparent misunderstanding of the roll that higher education plays in expansion of the world’s knowledge base.
On page 14 you say:
“CONSERVATIVES BELIEVE IN THE CREATOR GOD WHO CONTROLS EARTH & CLIMATE. God ultimately controls everything.
LIBERALS BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION WITH HUMANS CONTROLLING EARTH AND CLIMATE. Humans ultimately control everything.”
Firstly, people who acknowledge the explanatory power of the theory of evolution (TOE) do not “believe” in the theory in the same sense that biblical literalists believe in the Genesis story of creation. Belief in the religious context entails a dogma-derived presupposition that is arrived at in the absence of (or in direct contradiction to) tangible, naturalistic, independently verifiable, inter-subjective, and potentially falsifiable (i.e., scientific) evidence obtained from extra-biblical sources.
People (liberals and conservatives alike) who accept the TOE do so because it is the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life on earth. They do not believe in it in the religious sense of the word. People who accept the validity of the TOE do so because it is the best evidence-based theory currently available. The theory has been tested and rigorously scrutinized for roughly the last 150 years. Never, during that entire period, has a shred of valid scientific evidence ever called the basic tenets of the theory into question. The self-serving, pseudo-scientific rhetoric cranked out by various creationist propaganda mills notwithstanding, the results have been quite the opposite. Since Charles Darwin first expounded on those basic principles, evidence that corroborates and strengthens the theory has continued to steadily accumulate to the point that it is now opposed only by those who (for almost exclusively religious reasons) ignore, misrepresent, are unfamiliar with, and/or misunderstand the data. (See http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ for discussion of some of these lines of corroborative evidence. See also http://home.nctv.com/jackjan/challenge.htm for my attempt to highlight some of these lines of evidence in the form of a challenge to creationists.)
Further to this matter of belief, admittedly those who accept the TOE can be rather passionate in their defense of the theory and of mainstream science in general. Nonetheless, if a scientist were to ever present valid scientific evidence that clearly overturned the basic tenets of TOE, he/she would receive accolades from his/her fellow scientists and achieve instant fame and fortune – not the least of which would be a guaranteed Nobel Prize. (All a person would have to do to disprove the theory would be something like finding a fossil of any dinosaur or mammal embedded in undisturbed Precambrian strata. Or documenting a cat giving birth to a dog or some other animal. Or discovering a fish with feathers or a mammal with functioning gills. Or uncovering a spear embedded in a T. rex fossil. The possibilities are almost limitless.)
Contrary to popular understanding, an important aspect of scientific investigation involves the testing and attempted falsification of existing theories. All well-established theories, like the TOE, make predictions that can, and routinely are, tested to determine their validity. This renders these theories vulnerable to anyone clever enough to disprove the predictions that are inherent within explanatory framework of the theory. Scientists have been attempting to disprove the predictions of the TOE since its inception – with a consistent lack of success. But that does not mean the efforts do not continue. (Every time scientists do any research related to the TOE, they are, in essence, testing those predictions.) And, if a scientist were ever successful in such an endeavor, he/she would be the recipient of more grant money that he/she could possibly spend in a lifetime.
For the sake of argument, consider what the consequences would be if the TOE were scientifically invalidated? All of those former supporters who based their acceptance of the theory on the principles inherent in the scientific method would be obligated to abandon the theory and modify their understanding in accordance with the new evidence. While it might be somewhat disconcerting for them to do so, if they were honest adherents of the scientific method, they would have no choice but to acknowledge the demise of the theory and move on to an explanation that was compatible with the newly discovered facts.
How would the creationists react if the scientific evidence were shown to be antithetical to their worldview? That’s easy. Just look at how they behave now. Virtually all the scientific evidence is in direct contradiction to their worldview, yet they still cling tenaciously to their religion-inspired, Bronze Age ideology. Creationists believe in spite of the scientific evidence, not because of it. Simply put, scientists do not really care if the TOE turns out to be the winning theory, or not. Unlike creationists, they are not doctrinally bound to one particular explanation or another. What scientists care about is whether or not they are working with the explanation that is currently best supported by all the various lines of evidence. So far, the TOE is the one that best meets that qualification.
There is a distinction between “belief” that is mandated by religious dogma and “acceptance” based on hard, testable evidence. Belief in the creation story is a matter of faith. Acceptance of the TOE is evidence based. I (and other scientists) contend, therefore, that it is misleading to use the same term, “believe,” to describe an objective, provisional acceptance of the TOE and an unbending, emotion-driven commitment to a creation story derived from a religious holy book.
Secondly, the distinction between the positions held by so-called liberals and conservatives is not as well delineated as you portray it to be. It does not take long on the Internet to discover a number of recognized conservatives who accept evolution – George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Newt Gingrich, David Brooks, John Derbyshire, and Larry Arnhart, to name a few. Similarly, there are many so-called liberals who reject evolution. Most of the “New Agers” come to mind - Shirley MacLaine being a prime example. And in the category of left-leaning authors, the late Kurt Vonnegut is a case in point.
The deciding factor is not whether a person is pigeon-holed as a liberal or a conservative. The determinant in this case is whether a person adheres to the principles embodied in the scientific method (i.e., a search for the best explanation that is compatible with objective evidence) or whether they believe something simply because it is required by whatever ideology they happen to embrace at the moment – any evidence to the contrary be damned. It is not a simple question of liberal versus conservative. It is a matter of critical thought versus blind conviction.
Interestingly, a reasonable case has been made that all conservatives should embrace the TOE because it explains, and is compatible with, such things as family values, free-market economics, conservative morality, etc. (See http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=darwin-on-the-right ) And some have persuasively argued that one of the basic elements of liberalism – the principle of individual worth – is derived from the teachings of the Bible. (See the works of Larry Siedentop for an example.)
Thirdly, I am not aware of any “liberals” or adherents of the TOE who think “Humans ultimately control everything.” Most of them do think, for good reasons, that humans can influence such things as climate and ecology, for better or worse, through certain of their activities. But none of them, that I am aware of, is audacious enough to think he/she wields some form of ultimate power that supersedes the laws of nature. I am curious if you can specifically identify such an individual by name.
Surely you are not insinuating that human actions cannot have deleterious effects on the environment, are you? Surely you do not deny the undesirable consequences of such human activities as large-scale destruction of forests in the tropics, the desertification of former grass lands by overgrazing, the pollution of water by the indiscriminant disposal of human and industrial waste, or the deterioration of air quality by rampant industrialization in places like Beijing China, do you? While humans do not have ultimate control over such outcomes, in my opinion, one is on shaky ground arguing, as you seem to be, that people cannot have profound influences on the course they take and their magnitude.
As an aside, if God ultimately controls everything, then He must be held personally culpable for such disasters as hurricanes, tornados, floods, lightning-caused fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, plagues, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, ice storms, etc. which often claim large numbers of human lives. (Indeed, the Bible does affirm that God is responsible for such things. See Isa. 45:7 and Amos 3:6 for example.) I have never heard a reasonable explanation why a supposed loving and compassionate God would purposely wreak such seemingly randomized havoc on the objects of His creation – other than He is punishing them for some sin or another. But that still doesn’t explain why He focuses some of His most deadly weather events on devout believers who reside in the so-called Bible Belt or why he has a propensity for killing religious devotees in bus/van crashes on a semi-regular basis.
On a related topic, on page 10, you state,
“Educators are puffed up about their knowledge, even though they only teach about the discoveries of others.”
What you failed to mention is that, in disciplines such as the sciences and mathematics, there are active university research programs in which educators participate that routinely generate and disseminate new knowledge as part of their academic mandate. You mention Bill Gates as an example of an individual who left college to devote his time to the development of computer software. Nonetheless, Gates could have written software until he was blue in the face and it would have been a total waste of time if not for the pioneering work by William Shockley and his associates who developed the junction transistor (now used in integrated circuits) as part of his research work at Stanford University. Without such basic university sponsored research, it is unlikely there would not have been any computers on which Gate’s software could have been utilized.
You also ask, “Who taught Albert Einstein the theory of Relativity, gravity, and the basic atomic formula of E = MC squared? “ Einstein enrolled in a course in mathematics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at the age of 17. He graduated four years later with a degree in physics. While Einstein’s scientific theories were truly innovative, it is his background in mathematics and physics and his associations with other scientists at the Institute that paved the way for his ground-breaking discoveries. His ideas did not materialize out of thin air. They were a product of his inherent genius and the firm grounding that he had received in the relevant areas of study. It is reasonable to assume that no such discoveries would have been forthcoming if it were not for his formal training which enabled him to formulate and properly express his ideas in the mathematical language of science.
“Where did James Watt go to learn about steam engines?” He learned about them at the University of Glasgow where three professors offered him the opportunity to establish a workshop within the university. It was there that one of the professors, Joseph Black, became one of his friends and advisors. And it was there that Watt began to experiment with steam after his friend, Professor John Robison, introduced him to the subject. The research facilities and professional consultation afforded by his university affiliation are what kindled Watt’s interest in steam power and provided the means for him to bring his ideas to fruition.
And, you query, “Where did the Wright brothers go to learn to build/fly airplanes?” It should be kept in mind that the Wright brothers were not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft. They requested and received information and publications on the subject of aeronautics from the Smithsonian Institution. Like so many other successful innovators, they based their research on the successes and failures of other pioneers in the field of aeronautics (e.g., Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, and Leonardo da Vinci). As Isaac Newton opined, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.” So it is with most notable discoveries and inventions. They are not developed in a vacuum. They arise as part of an evolutionary process in which previous failures are selected against and successes serve as the foundation for novel improvements.
You even ask what school Jonas Salk attended to learn about developing vaccines. You should have asked what schools. He received a B.S. degree from the City College of New York and a medical degree from New York University. While at the UNY School of Medicine he learned about vaccination procedures and began working with Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr. on an influenza vaccine. During his career he was at one time or another affiliated with the research departments at the University of Michigan, the University of Pittsburg, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Surely you do not think that someone without medical training and access to medical research facilities puttering around in their garage with a bunch of test tubes could have developed a viable polio vaccine, do you?
As far as “puffed up” educators are concerned, yes, I have encountered a few of those during my academic years. Nonetheless, the vast majority of educators with whom I have been associated are dedicated professionals who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subjects they teach. They “teach about the discoveries of others” because that is the crux of their job. Not everyone can be an Einstein. Furthermore, not everyone can understand and present complex findings, like those attributable to Einstein, in a form that is comprehensible to others. That is the sort of thing good educators do for a living. I once had a biochemistry professor (later my master’s thesis advisor) who could fill several blackboards at each lecture with all manner of incredibly complex biochemical formulas and structures – without ever once referring to his notes. He was one the most humble men I have ever met, although, in my opinion, nobody had a right to be more “puffed up” about his pedagogical skills than he did.
Incredibly, you ask,
“What truly new knowledge or new inventions have come from the education system?”
I am dumbfounded that anyone who considers themselves qualified to discuss the subject would seriously raise such a question. For a list of some of the more significant university related inventions, see http://www.uvapf.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/viewpage/page_id/115 . See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/jul/05/highereducation.uk2 for a list of 100 of the most notable university discoveries in the UK. If you Google “Pubmed,” you will find a site that lists some 18 million noteworthy discoveries in the biological/medical fields alone – most of them having originated from work in university research labs. It is estimated that over 70% all patents issued in this country are attributable to public funded research programs, the most of which are associated with universities.
I have enclosed my most recent “Science News.” This magazine, written for the layman, highlights some of the scientific achievements of potential public interest that have been reported recently in the scientific literature. Note how much of this work has taken place in university research settings. While none of these discoveries may, in and of themselves, be earth-shaking breakthroughs, they do represent incremental findings that, when integrated into a comprehensive overview, can (and often do) lead to significant advances. Please keep in mind that these articles represent only a miniscule fraction of the discoveries that are reported in the thousands of different scientific journals that are published around the world on a monthly basis.
I spent a good portion of my scientific career working in university research facilities (at the University of Idaho – B.S. Chemistry, M.S. Biochemistry, the University of Wisconsin – Ph.D. Experimental Oncology, and the University of California, Davis – Post Doc. Environmental Toxicology). From that personal experience, I can testify to an uninterrupted flow of new discoveries/knowledge from the scientists who dedicate their lives to uncovering the secrets of the natural world. Your question seems so naďve from my perspective that I wonder if I may have somehow misunderstood what it is you are actually asking.
While it is possible for a novice tinkerer to succeed at more mundane tasks such as the development of a new and improved salad shooter or toilet bowl cleaning system, most of the easy stuff has already been discovered/invented. The serious technical problems that confront our society now most often require scientifically/technologically sophisticated solutions. The vast majority of new ground-breaking innovations and discoveries that will have a significant impact on humanity in the future are not going to be forthcoming from high school dropouts fiddling around with odds and ends in the basement in their spare time. Those who make meaningful contributions now are most likely to be people who have received advanced and in-depth training in rather narrowly-focused areas of study. While there is still room for a “Jack of all trades, master of none,” it is unlikely that they will be making many profound scientific/medical/mathematical breakthroughs in the future. Certainly not all significant advances will come directly out of university research programs. But the vast majority will come from individuals who have received a university education in specialized areas of study.
In closing, let me thank you again for giving me the opportunity to read your comments. While I am in general agreement with much of what you have to say, in all honesty, I must confess that I find some of your liberal versus conservative stereotypes to be a bit overblown. In my humble opinion, the best approach involves a compromise position that incorporates the best elements from both political/philosophical ideologies. (For example - individual responsibility and a strong sense of ethics from the conservative side, and the preservation of individual freedoms and the pooling of resources for the common good from the liberal side.)
I sense a palpable disdain in your writings for anything associated with the system of higher education. I find this strange, particularly since your daughter is now making a good living as a petroleum geologist as a consequence of her participation in that system. I hope that my comments on the subject will at least help persuade you that the system is not the profligate and unproductive enterprise that you seem to think it is.
Be that as it may, I hope you will take my comments in the spirit of the constructive dialogue in which they are intended.
P.S. - If I understand correctly, you have proposed a solution to the evolution/creation dilemma by hypothesizing that the earth could indeed be billions of years old, but that living things were created by divine fiat only several thousand years ago in keeping with biblical chronologies. A serious objection to this hypothesis arises from the fact that an abundance of fossils of once-living organisms have been found encased in rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old. How did they get there if life has only been present for the past several thousands of years? The ages of the rocks in question have been determined, in most cases, using radiometric dating techniques. To learn more about these techniques, I suggest you Google "Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective” and "A Radiometric Dating Resource List.” If I have misunderstood your hypothesis, perhaps you could clarify it for me.