Every now and then I read an article that is so patently absurd in its premises that it’s bound to get traction with a large portion of our population. Such is the case with Paul Waldman’s article “Can Obama Stop the War on Science?”
First: the whole concept of a lawyer stopping a war on science is about as ridiculous as expecting William Ayers to stop people from overthrowing constituted authority, which is one reason why the current administration is so conflicted about dealing with organisations like al-Qaeda. If we really want people in power who understand science, we need to start by putting people in power with scientific backgrounds, like the Chinese do. But that would take such a societal upheaval in the Anglophone world that we’d be better off handing it all over to the Chinese to start with. (Which is, in reality, what we’re headed for, but I digress…)
Then Mr. Waldman regales us with things like this:
You get slightly different results depending on how you phrase it, but no matter how you ask the question, Americans just aren’t buying the paradigm that underlies our entire understanding of the biological world. A Gallup poll taken last year found that only 39 percent of respondents “believe in the theory of evolution,” while 24 percent said they didn’t believe in it, and 36 percent didn’t “have an opinion either way.” When you give people some wiggle room to get God in there — by offering them the possibility that evolution occurred, but God was guiding the process — the number consenting to evolution approaches 50 percent (see here). Interestingly enough, the numbers on this question have been essentially unchanged since Gallup started asking the question in 1982, which, if nothing else, suggests that the “intelligent design” strategy hasn’t resulted in any major shift in opinion.
Waldman, like many of his idea, equates scientific wonderfulness with “believing in evolution.” But he doesn’t realise that, by putting it this way, he’s defeating his own purpose. An illustration should suffice to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
One of the courses I took as an undergraduate in mechanical engineering was Dynamics, i.e., the direct application of basic Newtonian mechanics to things that move. It wasn’t an easy course, and many of us struggled with it. One day we were trying to get down another new concept and one student told another in class, “Do you believe in that?”
“Is this a theistic argument?” our professor shot back. He had an interesting point.
If we’re really serious about any scientific proposition, we ultimately must get past accepting it in the same way as we do a theological postulate. (And some of us, along the way, changed the way we look at theology because of our exposure to science, but that’s another business…) When one says that one “believes in evolution,” that’s basically a statement of faith. If we say that the evidence, as we understand it, indicates that organisms evolve, that’s a more really scientific approach, as it is with anything else we observe in the natural world.
But that’s not the way it’s done these days. “Belief in evolution” is a litmus test to show that we’re “scientific,” but as presented it’s a statement of faith. And saying one “believes in evolution” may look like a firm stand but it really raises more questions than it answers.
And that leads to yet another absurdity that Waldman sets forth without even realising it:
Weirdly – for a country where “We’re No. 1!” is such an article of faith – most Americans don’t realize just how dominant their country is in scientific advancement. Japan might make better robots, and we ceded the creation of globe-destroying black holes to Europe when the Large Hadron Collider went live, but there is little question that the U.S. is the dominant scientific power in the world by any measure. We’ve produced 239 Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, and medicine (the next-highest ranked are Germany with 85 and the U.K. with 80). People come from all over the world to study science in our universities. We invented the lightning rod, the cotton gin, the telegraph, the telephone, air conditioning, the copying machine, the cell phone, the laser, the microchip, the Internet, GPS, and Tivo. Yet when Pew asked Americans how U.S. scientific achievements rated, a paltry 17 percent said they were the best in the world, compared to the 31 percent who said they were average or below average.
That leads me to think of a less elevated story than the first. While in the family business, my two field service people and I went to the Netherlands to make some major alterations to a very large pile driver. While cruising the motorway between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, one of the field service men looked out on a field and said, “That’s something the old cowboys said couldn’t be done.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Cows and sheep grazing in the same field,” he replied. The Dutch, not having the land we do, organised their livestock to coexist.
So the question for Waldman and others of this idea is this: how is it possible for a nation where so few people “believe in evolution” to produce so many inventions and Nobel laureates?
I have a few ideas as to why this is so. I would love to hear Waldman’s explanation for something he implies is impossible.