“Evidence is the only reason to believe that anything is true.” Those words, spoken by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, pretty well sum up how scientists see the world.
Those words by Dawkins, an outspoken atheist, may also sum up how the rest of us see science and scientists. So, how has science fallen into disrepute these past few years? It isn’t that science is wrong. Over time, it is usually right or at least it gives us plausible descriptions and explanations of how things work.
But everyday people are often disconnected from the work of science. The discrediting of science has come about especially in two areas: evolutionary theory and climate change. Evolution first (pun intended).
Several hundred years ago, as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, I was required to take “Earth Science 101.” The professor, Dr. Norman Royall, was an old Southern orator who held forth MWF from 11 to 11:50 a.m. His final lecture every year, titled Science vs. Religion, drew about three times more students than had enrolled in the course that term. I attended that final lecture at least twice, though I don’t buy his argument that science will inevitably defeat and replace religion.
In class, Dr. Royall presented the theory of evolution and presented as required reading “On the Origin of Species,” the book in which Charles Darwin, in 1859, set out the theory of evolution. So, yes, I have read it. In a thumbnail, Darwin argues that once life was established, species adapted. The strong members reproduce and strengthen the species, usually at the expense of the weak members. And strong species squeeze out weak species. So, species survive by outwitting, outsmarting or outlasting rivals.
That’s pretty straightforward. But this layman sees a couple of issues right away. Philosophers and scientists have seen more. For one thing, if each species is a rival to each other species, how do we account for do-gooders? Altruists. People who risk their lives to run into a burning barn to save a horse or a flock of chickens. Or run back into a burning house after saving themselves (surviving as the fittest) to save a weaker one who didn’t get out. Why does the fittest save those who didn’t get out on their own?
I haven’t seen a good accounting for the altruism that we see in many species.
Scientists may have worked out the other problem I see with evolution theory, but I haven’t seen the results. That problem is timing. How long did it take that first fish emerging from the ocean to morph into your next-door neighbor? For that matter, how long did it take that first mud-crusted amoeba to morph into that fish? Has there been enough time since the Big Bang for all of this to happen by happenstance? I don’t know how to do the math, but someone else may know.
This is a good spot to point out that science is no sure thing. It is a maze of theories. Someone thinks up an explanation for a phenomenon and tests the idea. She tells other people about it. Someone says, “Whoa, that doesn’t look right” and retests it. If the idea keeps passing new tests by new people, it gradually becomes the new theory about the phenomenon. That happened with the theory of evolution. It is the best explanation we have so far, based on evidence, for how the world got to here. But it isn’t writ in stone. The annals of science are littered with shattered stones of certainty. Remember when science said the sun revolved around the earth?
The problem science has had with climate change may be more in attitude and reporting than in the science. It has proved difficult to persuade people that the warming of the past 40 years is a direct result of the fumes belching out of our tailpipes (the ones on our vehicles). In evolutionary time, 40 years isn’t much. And from time immemorial, old fahts like myself have been remembering how much colder it was 40 years ago, how much more snow fell, how we walked four miles to school. Uphill each way.
The assertions by scientists about the human impact on global warming roughly parallel what happened with the link between smoking and lung cancer. In 1964, the surgeon general reported that more people who smoked had lung cancer than people who didn’t smoke. But that was only a correlation. In time, evidence mounted, and scientists began finding how tobacco tars harmed the lungs, the throat and the mouth. They found that nicotine in tobacco addicted smokers, so the tars could keep working their evil. In time, the case was pretty well proved. Smoking often causes lung cancer.
We aren’t there yet with climate science. Or if the scientists are there, they haven’t done a good job of letting the rest of us in on it. We see pictures of icebergs sheering away from their Arctic hosts. But did humans make that happen? To have convinced many of us, scientists needed to develop baseline data, as it is called. They needed to show us how the climate varied before humans got into the act.
That’s not easy. Mastodons didn’t keep good records. But we have the resources to learn about climate change before humans turned up. (In fact, some of the best scientists on the topic are in the quaternary studies program at the University of Maine.) With core borings and fossil remains, they can project the climate millions of years back to determine how fast it changed, both warmer and colder, before anyone was driving. That would be the baseline. If everyone knew that baseline, there would be less argument over who is causing climate change. Mother nature or human beings. Or maybe both.
That might not settle the debate, because some well-heeled kooks still see plenty of money to be made by renting a few “scientists” to pooh-pooh the work of mainstream science. It worked for a few years for big tobacco, before the evidence piled up. A very few years. I’m betting that science will turn the tide again, as it did against tobacco.
Bob Neal lives in New Sharon. He is a Christian who eagerly awaits future scientific discoveries and explanations about God’s world.