February 09, 2005

Evolution II: Science is not a smorgasbord

In an earlier posting, I noted that the US population is roughly evenly split on whether or not to accept the basic tenet of evolution on the origin of humans. What is interesting is that the people who reject evolution feel quite free to do so. They seem to feel that there is no price to be paid.

This is because science is taught pretty much as a set of end results and disconnected facts: The universe is over ten billion years old. The Earth revolves around the Sun. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Our genetic information is encoded in our DNA.

It is as if scientific ‘facts’ are arranged on some kind of buffet table and anyone is free to pick and choose items depending on their personal preferences. Something sounds reasonable? Accept it. Something disagrees with your religious or other beliefs? Reject it.

But you cannot really do this with science because scientific facts are not disconnected entities. They are linked to each other by their underlying theories and individual results cannot be rejected without consequences. If you reject the age of the universe for whatever reason, then you are also rejecting all the other results associated with the theory of gravity and other physics theories that go into arriving at that age.

These theories are not used just for the purpose of addressing cosmological questions but also play an important role in everyday life (the way our cars and airplanes work, the way our building are made, etc.) So people who reject the age of the universe should be very apprehensive about getting into a plane or car or walking into a building because they have effectively said that they have no faith in the theories that were used to construct them.

As the philosopher of science Pierre Duhem said back in 1906 in The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory “To seek to separate each of the hypotheses of theoretical physics from the other assumptions on which this science rests is to pursue a chimera; for the realization and interpretation of no matter what experiment in physics imply adherence to a whole set of theoretical propositions.�

But what about those people who do not reject specific results but instead reject an entire theoretical structure? For example, those who say that they can accept all the major theories of science (and the old age of the universe) but reject evolutionary theory as a complete unit because it disagrees with their religious beliefs? In other words, they believe that all species came about as special acts of creation. Can that be done? Can a single theoretical scientific structure like evolution be rejected and replaced with another (perhaps Biblically-based) one? Or pushing further, can one reject the findings of an entire modern scientific discipline (like biology) while accepting others (like physics and chemistry)?

To be continued later…

p.s. For those of you interested in this topic, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is having an all day symposium on “Teaching Evolution and the Diversity of Life� on February 12. I am one of the speakers, speaking on the topic “Science and Intelligent Design� in classroom C from 9:45-10:45. Unfortunately the symposium is not free except for the 4:30 pm talk by Dr. Brian Alters.


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