In democratic societies, all ideas must be considered

In democratic societies, all ideas must be considered
Daily Nebraskan, Faculty View, 9/21/2010 - original
By Gerald Harbison
This year, I'm going to focus on a single topic: the role of science in a free and democratic society. I'm going to approach this from the standpoint of a biophysical scientist who is also a libertarian with conservative inclinations, but I hope I can provoke non-scientists and non-libertarians to think about some of these issues.

I'll begin with the scientific issue that has caused more political upheaval than any other of the last century: the theory of evolution. Evolution is a story both of glorious success and of miserable failure. It is perhaps the most important human intellectual achievement. It provides a satisfying explanation for almost everything we know about life on this planet, including ourselves. Even a hundred years ago, it was supported by a large body of evidence, mostly from fossils and from the comparative biology of animals, but there were huge gaps in its timeline, in the fossil record, and in understanding how traits were passed from parents to offspring. Since then, we have deciphered the mechanism of inheritance. We have sequenced the genomes of hundreds of living creatures. We have an excellent, detailed timeline for the earth and indeed the universe. We have filled in most of the gaps in the fossil record. And we have added a whole new field of molecular phylogenetics, which allows us to use mathematical comparisons of genomes to construct an entirely independent tree of life. That molecular tree corroborates what fossils, ancient geography and biology previously taught us. Those of you who are hoping a conservative scientist would shoot down evolution, abandon hope. Evolution is probably the most robust scientific theory we have. Its evidentiary support is overwhelming. It is proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The failure? A majority of Americans don't believe us. Last year, the Pew Center reported that only 48 percent of Americans think evolution is the best explanation of the origins of human life on earth. That was only the most recent of dozens of polls that demonstrate widespread public skepticism about evolution. This public recalcitrance has been a source of great frustration to scientists, including myself. I've spent a couple of decades arguing with creationists, writing tens of thousands of words in defense of evolution, rebutting dozens of myths and misconceptions. Other scientists have worked harder and written more convincingly. Looking back at the huge investment of our time and energy, it's hard not to conclude it has been largely been wasted.

Scientists have long grappled with the problem of why a scientifically settled issue engenders such public skepticism. We have often blamed scientific ignorance. Granted, we would prefer Americans were more scientifically literate, but I know of at least two chemistry Nobel Prize winners in the last half-century who did not accept evolution. They weren't scientifically ignorant.

We have blamed the dissemination of half-truths and outright lies by creationists, and that happens, but it's my impression that Americans who aren't immediately engaged in the discussion are as unfamiliar with the specious pseudo-scientific arguments against evolution as with the genuine evidence for it.

Demographically, there is little doubt objections to evolution are overwhelmingly religious. Around 80 percent of Buddhists, Hindus and Jews accept evolution; but only 24 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 22 percent of Mormons and 8 percent of Jehovah's Witnesses. Members of those latter denominations are not necessarily anti-scientific. They are often wildly enthusiastic about other scientific advances. So why evolution?

I had somewhat of an epiphany on this issue last spring, when I was asked to present the ‘atheistic science' view to an ‘Origins' course at Union College, the Seventh Day Adventist school in South Lincoln. Adventists have historically not been overtly hostile to the scientific theory of origins, but they insist the Biblical account of creation is true. I had only 50 minutes, so I made my case by stressing what we call the consilience of the evidence. What this means is that all our scientific data about the history of life, our planet and the cosmos reinforce each other. The ages we get from radioisotopes agree with the sequence of geological strata, which agrees with the fossil record, which agrees with the tree of life we get by comparing the genomes of living creatures. Creationists often misunderstand this, and fantasize that by finding one discordant piece of data, they can unravel evolution as if by pulling a thread on a sweater. That won't work. Our theory of origins is not a piece of clothing woven from a single thread; it is not a chain of evidence that can be destroyed by breaking it at one point; it is more like a web, or a suit of chain mail. There may indeed be weak links; there always are in science. But removing no single link, or no dozen links, will cause the theory to fall apart. It is so interwoven that it hangs together not by one scientific thread, but by the consilience of thousands of independent strands.

My presentation may have been a little over some of the students' heads, but I got some good questions. Afterward, the instructor very kindly took me to lunch. He thanked me for the presentation, said I had given them a lot to think about, but then explained to me where he was coming from. He said, and I hope I'm properly representing his views, that he begins from the premise that the Biblical account of creation is true, and it is his job to reconcile the science, which he admires, with that more fundamental truth. It's not a task I envy him.

Richard cannot easily be stereotyped as a ‘Bible thumper'; he has a physics Ph.D. from an excellent school, and a good scientific record. He's a thoughtful and scientifically knowledgeable guy. This is not only an unwinnable argument, it's not an argument I want to win. We can present the science, and we can insist that when other people discuss the science they represent it accurately; scientists cannot compromise on the scientific evidence. We can argue the scientific case for evolution is far stronger than, say, the case for the historical truth of the Bible. But in the end, it's an issue of values, not of science. To Richard, and millions of Americans like him, Biblical truth is more important. Tolerance, in the end, means respecting everyone's right to their own point of view, even though you are convinced they are wrong. And that holds for scientific truth as much as it holds for politics or economics. Our society is not just a political democracy; it is a democracy of ideas. And in a democracy, nobody and nothing, not even science, gets to be dictator.

Dr. Gerard Harbison is a professor of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln