Sunday, July 13, 2014

My Sunday Feeling

One of my favorite stories is about the young science teacher who was applying for a job in a rural school district.  He was called before the school board for an interview.  

"Son," the President of the school board said,"We need to know something before we can offer you this job.  Half of the board thinks the world is round. The other half thinks it's flat.  What do you think?"

The young man thought for a minute.

"I can teach it round and I can teach it flat," he said.  

I was reminded of this story after a post made the rounds on Facebook.  The subject was evolution and whether one "believed" in the Darwinian theory of evolution or whether one believed in the Biblical account of the origin of the world, whether it was created in 7 days and whether the human race is descended from Adam and Eve.  

Naturally, this sparked a lively debate that, for the most part, remained remarkably civil.  

And yet, it is remarkable, at least to me, that several of the posters spoke of "not believing" in the theory of evolution.  And this issue commonly pops up in our political discourse as a matter of faith instead of as a matter of science.  

Of course, this particular debate has been going on since the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial.  And, with the advent of the Internet, we see this sort of-for lack or a better phrase-faith-based approach to other issues where what one wants to believe trumps empirical evidence.  

The most insidious form of this is in the form of otherwise sane and intelligent people refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated in the belief that vaccinations can "cause" autism.  The fact that there is no valid science to back this up means nothing.  The fact that the physician that ginned up the "study" that "proved this" was exposed as a fraud and had his license to practice medicine taken from him by the medical authorities in Great Britain means nothing.  As a woman I saw interviewed said on the subject, "I don't care if 10 doctors tell me I need to vaccinate my child, I won't do it."

Of course, the practical effect of the "vaxxers" obstinance in the face of scientific evidence as to the safety and utility of vaccinations and the actual historical experience of the near eradication of diseases like measles, mumps and polio is to increase the danger that these diseases may become ubiquitous in the population again. 

Whereas, the practical consequence for the average evolution denier are less dire.  As I have written before, one may refuse to "believe" the "theory" of evolution without much immediate impact or any impact.  However, one "disbelieves" the "theory" of gravity at her peril.  

Of course, the Bible says nothing about natural science.  And one can accept the Darwinian explanation for the origin of the species and still maintain that he or she is a believer in the Bible.  As the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said, science and religion serve different magisteria. The fact that the creation myth was an attempt by the biblical writer to explain the origin of the Earth and is not a document of hard science doesn't make it any less "true" in a very real sense.  Similarly, Darwin supplied no evidence that contradicts the notion that the evolutionary process wasn't kick-started by Almighty God.  

And there are many religious people that see no contradiction between the two.  

But, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, "you're entitled to your own opinion but you're not entitled to your own facts." And we are increasingly becoming a Nation in which empiricism is trumped by whatever beliefs make us feel better about ourselves.

And in a world in which our competitors are getting stronger than us in math and science, I don't think we as a Nation have the luxury of reposing faith in only those "facts" that we are comfortable with.  

Some things just can't be taught "round OR flat." 

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