Thus Spake Zuska

Does Brownback Really Reject Science?

You may recall that Senator Sam Brownback, erstwhile Presidential candidate, recently wrote a NYTimes op-ed expounding on his raising of the arm during a presidential debate in response to the now-infamous “who doesn’t believe in evolution” question. I’m grateful to Page 3.14 for alerting me to Jerry Coyne’s article Don’t Know Much Biology written in response to Senator Sam Brownback.

I am generally a fan of Jerry Coyne, and this piece is as well-written as anything of his. But on this I think he misses the mark, as do many scientists who criticize the ID brigade, some of my Sciblings included.

What do I mean by this?*

First, some salient quotes from Brownback’s op-ed:

…limiting [ourselves] to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God…

If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it…

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose…Aspects of [evolutionary theories] that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Coyne calls this a “poisonous mixture of scientific ignorance and religious dogmatism…The first thing that’s clear is that Brownback displays a fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary biology.” Then he goes on to explain in detail why Brownback is wrong about punctuated equilibrium, about evolution as a chance process, about micro- and macro-evolution. He lays out some compelling evidence for evolution. Then he asks:

Senator Brownback, along with his two dissenting colleagues, really should be forced to answer a rather more embarrassing question: who is responsible for their being so misinformed? … Doesn’t a public servant have a responsibility to stay informed across a wide spectrum of topics and issues?

Coyne says Brownback’s “misunderstanding” of science ends in – must end in – a rejection of science and of truth itself. Then he offers a brief comparative religion treatise to illustrate how faith can never lead us to the truth. The essay is entirely convincing, if you are already convinced that science is the way to knowledge, not faith. It’s a complete failure, however, if you are trying to understand what Brownback is doing in his op-ed.

“Misunderstanding” is beside the point. Brownback is not interested in understanding evolution; Brownback is interested in promulgating a theological worldview that has no room for evolution – that is in direct opposition to evolution. In fact, it is because IDers understand so well the implications of evolution for their faith that they oppose it so strongly. It is not a question of the facts, it’s a question of clashing world views.

Brownback lays this out quite clearly in his op-ed, and Coyne seems to miss the point entirely. He says Brownback’s declarations of faith and rejection of evolution amount to a wholesale rejection of science, but Brownback clearly does not want to reject science as a whole, nor do most ID proponents. They want to retain parts of it, and have control over it. They want to tame it and bring it under the control of their religion, not allow it to dominate the worldview. Why do you think they are teaching science in their evangelical colleges, and why do you think they are trying to place ID proponents on secular university faculties?

Evolution therefore has to go, but we’d all like to still have good medical care, thank you very much, so all you biologists, back to the research labs. Where you may do research that is based on evolution but you may not talk about evolution.

Yes, the ID contingent wants its science, but in strictly apportioned doses, and for strictly controlled purposes. All you have to do is look at the Bush administration to get a taste of Designer Science. Abortion causes cancer! It’s arrogant to try to deal with global warming! Which doesn’t even exist! Well, maybe it does, but it isn’t human-made! Well, maybe it is, but that’s not a problem! No stem cells for you! and so on. But you will notice that in arguing their case in all these instances, they are not saying “science is bad, we reject science, we are going with our faith.” No, they are saying, “Science shows that abortion causes cancer” – even though it doesn’t. “Science says the evidence is inconclusive about global warming” or “we need more data” – exploiting two “truths” about the science of global warming, that we can’t say absolutely for sure, and that more data is always nice. “You can work with the stem cells you already have, or find other ways to make stem cells”, not “you can’t have stem cells at all”. In each case, science is not rejected, but theology is used to guide, control, and tame science.

I’m not saying Brownback knows enough about evolution to teach a course on it, but teaching him more about evolution wouldn’t make a rat’s ass worth of difference. Have you never heard any ID proponent tell you that God, being the creator of all material reality, is perfectly capable of faking it to lead the recalcitrant ungodly astray?

Climatology, stem cell research, most any other science – these can be modified, tamed, and used by IDers. When it comes to evolution, the clash can’t as easily be finessed. Why does evolution in particular have to go? “Faith and reason…there cannot be any contradiction between the two…they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.” And God says we are created by Him, specially for a purpose, which implies a whole lot of things, not least of which is that Man shall have dominion over all things including Woman and the environment. So you can kiss your feminism and climatology-as-you-know-it goodbye along with the evolution.

They are not fools. They know the scientists will accuse them of rejecting science if they reject evolution. So, out with the evolution, but hang on to the rest of science. That’s why they are now hedging their bets with the “we accept microevolutionary changes but not macro”.

They want their vaccines, and their Designer, too.

Comments

  1. #1 Orac
    June 13, 2007

    They want their vaccines, and their Designer, too.

    Not necessarily, and I think you may be a bit too harsh on Coyne. One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that people who accept one pseudoscience or reject one science on ideological or religious grounds, often do the same with others. That’s one reason why we find people like Phillip Johnson, who’s a creationist but also believes that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, for example. Look at DaveScot over at UD, who’s a creationist, a global warming denialist, and who promotes self-experimentation with an untested chemotherapeutic agent.

    A tendency to believe pseudoscience is rarely found in isolation. Those who accept one pseudoscience often accept others. Another example is that I’ve noticed a tendency of antivaxers to be “skeptical” of evolution as well.

  2. #2 Charlie (Colorado)
    June 13, 2007

    I think you may be a little too harsh on both, honestly. From the Brownback position, his discussion of the science is pretty naive, but hell, something like one person in five still thinks the Sun goes around the Earth. But Brownback’s position isn’t inconsistent with science, it’s literally extra-scientific, it’s meta-physics. Consider, eg, a Superior Being who *built* the universe to have evolution, either because they wanted to see what would happen (not omniscient), or because they designed the universe so it *would* evolve us, and all the other forms of life etc. (After all, an omniscient SB would know if you set up the initial conditions in such and such a way, the outcome would be so-and-so, right?) I suspect Brownback of saying, clumsily, that no scientific explanation could shake his faith in a Creator underneath it all.

    And unless you can propose an experiment that would distinguish between a Created universe and the other kind, reliably and without the co-operation of the hypothetical Creator, I’m not sure that there’s any reason it should.

    (Now, it might make him question the literal truth of the Genesis account, but then he’s a Catholic; they don’t insist on Genesis being literally true anyway.)

  3. #3 baryogenesis
    June 13, 2007

    Brownback’s position makes some sense if one understands the history of church thought and the ensuing debates, from the attempts at adjusting to Aristotle as he was being rediscovered, through to Aquinas. We are still fighting battles fought in the Middle Ages. And the more liberal wing of the church (I like to think, eg, of a Jesuit Astronomer manning the Vatican telescope) now has to contend with a Pope Benedict…

  4. #4 GMV
    June 14, 2007

    You state, “And God says we are created by Him, specially for a purpose, which implies a whole lot of things, not least of which is that Man shall have dominion over all things including Woman and the environment. So you can kiss your feminism and climatology-as-you-know-it goodbye along with the evolution.”

    In this, you misrepresent Christianity and the Bible. Man and woman were given dominion over the earth in Genesis 1 — to care for it. While some Christians have dominated women, that is not what Jesus modeled or what the Bible teaches. It was Darwin, don’t forget, who wrote that men are, “more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and have more inventive genius” and, “Thus, man has ultimately become superior to woman.” – Descent of Man, p. 557, 328.

  5. #5 llewelly
    June 14, 2007

    Orac:

    [Zuska:]

    They want their vaccines, and their Designer, too.

    Not necessarily, and I think you may be a bit too harsh on Coyne. One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that people who accept one pseudoscience or reject one science on ideological or religious grounds, often do the same with others. That’s one reason why we find people like Phillip Johnson, who’s a creationist but also believes that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, for example. Look at DaveScot over at UD, who’s a creationist, a global warming denialist, and who promotes self-experimentation with an untested chemotherapeutic agent.

    Nonetheless, most of those who deny that HIV causes AIDS want a cure for the condition – and lionize the likes of Peter Duesberg, precisely because they perceive Duesberg as a scientist.
    DaveScot likewise insists science supports ‘experimentation’ with DCA, and his other hair-brained ideas.

    A tendency to believe pseudoscience is rarely found in isolation. Those who accept one pseudoscience often accept others. Another example is that I’ve noticed a tendency of antivaxers to be “skeptical” of evolution as well.

    Likewise, Anti-vaxers want science to provide cures for ‘vaccine-injury’ – thus their pursuit of chelation therapies and their lionization of the Geiers.
    Orac, I think your examples actually support Zuska’s contention that most of these folk want science (or what they perceive as science – which is not precisely what you or Coyne might call science) so long as it is subservient to their desires.
    I would suggest people who subscribe to multiple forms of pseudoscience do so because they (a) react to unpleasant science by adopting a pseudoscience, and then (b) find the results of adopting pseudoscience successful (because the unpleasant science is now obscured from view, or being attacked), they (c) try the same strategy on other areas of science which they find unpleasant.
    It’s akin to those who find lying ‘works’ in some situations, so they try it others.

  6. #6 Tex
    June 15, 2007

    In this, you misrepresent Christianity and the Bible. Man and woman were given dominion over the earth in Genesis 1 — to care for it. While some Christians have dominated women, that is not what Jesus modeled or what the Bible teaches.

    Read your bible! Woman is merely an afterthough, as in Genesis 2, or totally subject to men’s whims, as when Lot offers his two daughters to the horde of men outside his door, or completely barred from participating in church life by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians ( 1 Corinthians 14; 34-35).

    Darwin may have held bigoted views common to his day, but his views are not sacred and hold no sway over us today. On the other hand, if females get all uppity and start demanding equal rights with us guys, then your God will be mightly upset.

    Male physics professors catch a lot of grief on this site for keeping women down, but they are just doing the Lord’s work.

    It is beyond me why any woman (or anyone of either sex, really) who has actually read the bible is still a christian.

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