Science as a Glorious, Skeptical Enterprise
Healthy science is not a list of orthodox beliefs, but more like an endless, running debating club.
January 27, 2010 - 12:00 am
Good science is a Darwinian enterprise. Only the best ideas survive and spread over the long run, because they pass test after test after test. Everybody tries to shoot holes in them. In good science, bad ideas are knocked down in the nastiest, meanest, knock-down, drag-out fight this side of the Spanish Inquisition.
Bad ideas get trashed in good science. If you doubt it, just read James Watson on the heated fight with Linus Pauling over the structure of DNA. Craig Venter outraged the competition by discovering the human genome three years before they expected to get there. Or see what Isaac Newton said about Leibniz. It gets nasty.
That’s for healthy science, which is not a list of orthodox beliefs, but more like an endless, running debating club. You could tell that global warming was in trouble the moment that James Hansen, NASA’s chief climate astrologer and enforcer of The Faith, said that “climate deniers” should be put in jail.
Good science is full of “deniers,” who are also called “skeptics.” I’ve never met a scientist who wasn’t one. Albert Einstein was a lifelong skeptic about quantum mechanics. Nobody wanted to throw him in jail. Einstein was (and still is) admired for the brilliance of his skepticism. When somebody wants to jail a skeptic you know their favorite orthodoxy is tottering and about to slip down some rat hole. James Hansen was seeing the end of the global warming fraud, and he was afraid.
Climate alarmism is now destined for history’s garbage heap, as it should be. It never made any sense. Even Science magazine — which was run by a close friend of doomsayer Paul Ehrlich until last year — has suddenly dropped any mention of global warming. No more climate change, all of a sudden! Problem solved.
To preserve the truth about the global warming fraud, the Library of Congress should copy the whole Science magazine database, which still has all those old alarmist headlines. (Try it at Sciencemag.org.) The propaganda arm of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), called Eurekalert.org, also has thousands of global warming press releases, all written to squeeze your tax dollars down to the last penny. If you want to see the money machine behind global warming, you have to visit Eurekalert. Because today the real Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith isn’t in the Vatican — it’s in Science and Nature magazines.
But what about the threat of raging mobs of Creationist Christians brandishing Bibles? For the real scientists, who cares? If you understand Darwinian theory you’ll like it, because it explains an awful lot about animals and plants, like the amazing resemblances between house cats and African lions — or the very subtle differences between dogs and wolves. (Guess which one doesn’t bark, and why.) If some person of faith then tells you that God made it all, if you don’t share their faith, don’t make a fuss — unless, that is, you harbor secret doubts.
Real scientists don’t throw heretics in jail. They are bound to respect rational skeptics, because everybody is a skeptic.
Which is why it’s so weird to see militant atheism coming from the likes of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, both true believers of the left. They are on a militant crusade just like Peter the Hermit. Charles Darwin himself never felt the need to go out and jail skeptics. As for Dawkins and Hitchens, methinks those laddies do protest too much.
There are at least two strong, positive arguments to be made for teaching Creationism in biology classes.
1. Creationism is the real intellectual background of Darwinian theory.
Creationism is where Charles Darwin got started, and you can’t understand The Origin of Species — a very beautiful book, by the way — without understanding those arguments. You also can’t understand why it was so hard for other naturalists at the time, who knew the same facts, to come to Darwin’s conclusions. Darwin had great intellectual courage, and you don’t get that by sticking to orthodoxy.
2. Science is a Darwinian enterprise.
But even more important, to understand biology you have to argue biology. You can’t do that unless you see the pros and cons. Darwin never thought all the evidence was in his favor, because he had a very deep understanding of the facts. Darwin was an amazing observer. He learned from the behavior of his dogs, from seeing earthworms in his garden, from talking to animal breeders and farmers. He thought the overall weight of evidence favored “descent by variation and selection of the fittest.”
But as a naturalist Darwin loved to wonder about the questions he couldn’t quite resolve. Some of those puzzles are still unanswered. They are fascinating, and real biologists think about them. We still don’t understand how new species arise; we see mutations, all right, but speciation continues to be an incomplete story.
Biological dogmas are overthrown all the time. Crick and Watson called their understanding of DNA “the basic dogma of molecular biology.” Calling it a “dogma” was a little joke. They understood that like other scientific beliefs, it was likely to be overthrown in the future. And guess what? The “basic dogma of molecular biology” has now been found to be flawed. Science is fun.
I have a suspicion about repetitive media alarm that somebody might be teaching Creationism in the schools: It comes from people who don’t understand Darwin. If they did, they would trust the evidence. All the hysteria about Creationism is batty because Darwinian theory is taught in every biology class in every high school and college in the world. There’s no lack of evolutionary theory in the classrooms. So the fear of Creationism is just a little weird.
To teach biology you have to encourage students to learn all sides of an argument. Kids should see science as an adventure. Adventures are open-ended. You don’t know the ending when you start. It’s got danger and excitement and thrills. You get forbidden ideas and unexpected facts. Suppose the earth were flat? How do I know it’s not? Suppose God created the first human being? How do I know if it’s true or not? If you can’t figure out the answers, you haven’t learned how to do science. You’ve only memorized a catechism. Our trouble is that we teach Darwinism as a catechism, when we should be teaching it as an adventure.
Richard Feynman used to say that if you can’t explain physics to a six-year old you don’t really understand it. He meant that you can take physics apart piece by piece and make everything so simple and clear that anyone who bothers to pay attention should be able to get it. You only get that if you think about all the pros and cons with the kind of love and attention that an artist devotes to looking at colors, textures, and shadings to see how they set each other off.
That’s why Creationism is important for biology students. I don’t think Creationism is scientifically satisfying, because it explains too much, and the explanation always sounds post-hoc. But kids need to play with it to understand why both sides are important.
And whether it’s true in the long run — who knows? Allow that shiver of doubt. It’s good for you.