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Defending the scientific process

Illustration by Grant Ertl

Considerable quantities of ink have been used to express the view that anti-scientific thinking is a danger to our future. Considerably less ink has been used to explain why scientific thought is infinitely preferable to thought mired in religious superstition. The case of evolution offers a textbook insight into the differences between the two ways.

Back in 2008, an anti-evolution petition entitled “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism” reached 761 names. Many of the signers held advanced degrees, and about a quarter of the signers were biologists. In response to this was Project Steve, which attempted to receive more pro-evolution signatures using only scientists with the name “Steve,” or a variation thereof (Stephanie, Esteban, etc.). Project Steve currently has 1,174 signatures, roughly half of whom are biologists.

However, science is about the scientific method and not petitions. In the more than 150 years since Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” no theory has been more successful at making predictions and explaining the natural world than the theory of evolution. It has been attacked throughout its lifetime by proponents of religions threatened by its implications, yet it remains the unifying theory of the life sciences.

There are a number of ways to defend views that differ with those of mainstream science. The only valid way, however, is the scientific method. If someone could conduct an experiment that disproved evolution, and the results of that experiment were reproducible, that person would be Einstein famous. No one has.

Regrettably, most people who find their views at odds with science don’t do science. They do a number of other things instead. Taking the anti-evolution movement as a case study, we can get a pretty good sampling of invalid arguments. (These tactics apply broadly, climate change denial and 9/11 conspiracy theories are other examples of irrational thought.)

The first thing to look out for is arguments from authority. It’s common for an evolution or climate-change denier to ignore the 99 percent of relevant scientists who support those theories and instead champion the one percent (if that) that don’t. This is an absurd way to argue, because it blatantly motivated by what a person wants to believe and not what is empirically so. Anti-evolution proponents cannot name a single person who has evidence contradicting evolution for the simple reason that such a person does not exist.

The next thing to watch for is what is called “moving the goalposts.” In climate change, this happened when climate-change deniers were forced to admit that the earth was indeed heating and instead claimed that the trend isn’t likely to be because of us. Once fossil records and genetic evidence confirmed that life evolved over billions of years, “intelligent design” was created, which states that god is behind the observable gradual evolution of life. There is no evidence that this is the case, though many tedious theories have been proposed by proponents of intelligent design only to be summarily rejected after reviewing the evidence. I’d be delighted to be challenged on this point; my email address is below.

In order to believe that the theories of evolution or climate change are false, a person has to believe that there is a massive conspiracy and that at some point the scientific community determined to cease its rigorous pursuit of knowledge and instead actively mislead the public. This would be the largest conspiracy in history and would be easily uncovered by simply reviewing the science. In case you missed it, the so-called “climate-gate” scandal has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Along these lines, there is the suggestion that science isn’t open to new ideas. This is demonstrably false. Just last week, scientists have found evidence that could potentially contradict Einstein’s theory of relativity. There has been an absence of any conspiracy to protect Einsteins theory. New  experiments that challege the status quo are what scientists live for. It’s how careers are made and how Nobel Prizes are won. Any biologist would love to be remembered as the one who took down evolution.

To some, but not all, the theory of evolution suggests a world without a creator. Whether or not this is scary, it’s irrelevant to the truth. As the brilliant Carl Sagan said, “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

Furthermore, if god is a result of mankind’s imagination, so are all of the values, morals and “reasons to live” that have ever been expressed or indeed attributed to him. That isn’t something to fear, it is — along with our modern understanding of biology — something to be proud of.



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