On the nature of science and existence; a message to the hard of thinking regarding evolutionary theory

Evolution poll

Evolution poll

I have resisted chipping in on the ‘debate’ surrounding so-called ‘intelligent design’ vs evolution but something I read recently in my Google Reader list from ScienceBlogs wound me up a treat. John H Calvert wrote an article in WorldNetDaily entitled A new age of religious discrimination in which he asserts that religious freedom in the US is in some way being eroded by a government conspiracy in which a new religion (aka Humanism) is being promoted contrary to the American constitution. The content of this article and others like it infuriate me for their lack of clarity of thought, their failure to understand basic scientific principles and the flagrant self publicism combined with disregard of (or possibly ignorance of) peer-review and publication processes.

I’ll start with some basic concepts and then look in detail at the argument proposed by Calvert and his ilk.

Theory

‘It’s only a theory’ is often used as a way of justifying the inclusion of other points of view, notably creationism and Intelligent Design. This is to completely misunderstand the concept of a theory in scientific terms. Scientific theory is not based around faith rather it is based around empirical, evidence based study which begins with observation and a hypothesis which can be tested. The onus on a scientist is to try to disprove the hypothesis and only when a hypothesis has been satisfactorily tested and the available evidence is found to support it (by not disproving it) does the hypothesis become a theory. So a theory is as close as science comes to what could be thought of as a truth, there being no such thing as a truth, our knowledge always being imperfect. In other words, the theory of evolution is the most plausible explanation for the origins of life given the available evidence. Yes, it is possible that it may ultimately prove incorrect, that is the nature of science, but it is far more likely than any other explanation available. Furthermore, notions such as Creationism or Intelligent Design can only be considered hypotheses at best, having never been subjected to any kind of scientific testing, and that is being very generous;  there is more evidence to suggest life originated amongst the stars before arriving on Earth than it emerged in seven magical days (or any other creation myth). I find it highly amusing that those who believe in some rather strange creation stories including being created by intelligent aliens, Atlantis survival or even both are now jumping on the bandwagon, using exactly the same arguments the creationists are using yet suffering from being decried as pseudo-science by the ID brigade. Pots and kettles…

Faith

Faith is central to religion. That is simply the nature of religion. It is not however the basis of scientific method. Scientists do not ‘believe’ in evolution, rather the available evidence supports the hypothesis that evolution has led to where we are today as a species. This is actually a good way of distinguishing science from non-science: anything which involves blind belief in something which cannot be tested is not science. As such, only things which can be considered science ought to be taught in science classes and used as the basis for scientific study, everything else belongs in religious studies classes , general studies classes or in ones personal life.

Humanism and religion

The idea that Humanism can be used as a bracket term to describe the views of all proponents of rigourous scientific approaches to understanding existence is stretching a point. To claim that science is a belief system or even a religion is simply absurd. The main argument here centres on the nature of faith vs scientific method as described above but it is not the case that a religious viewpoint and appreciating (and understanding) science are incompatible. Indeed, the idea that one needs to be an atheist, agnostic or otherwise in order to subscribe to an understanding of evolution is not true. Darwin himself and many other scientists have/had faith of one form or another and used science to the glory of their God, to better understand his majesty. It’s true that the likes of Richard Dawkins with their vociferous attacks on religion and Calvert with his sheer ignorance and agenda stand out from the crowd and polarise the debate but there are plenty of scientists working today who manage to balance a belief in some form of religion with an understanding of scientific methods and literature; not all scientists are Humanists and there is no conspiracy to promote a Humanist agenda, rather there are many conciencious scientists of many religions and some with none who are all working to advance our understanding through rigourous application of scientific method.

Publication

It is interesting to see where proponents of Creationism/ID publish their work. There is not a single document published in what could be called a reputable scientific journal on this matter. That is because there is no scientific basis to the work and science relies on open publication of data to allow others to attempt to disprove a hypothesis, a process called peer review. As there is no evidence to support Creationist/ID ideology, there can be no publication. No publication and no peer review means no science. Sorry, but to be treated as science, ideas have to be subjected to scientific rigour and repeatedly publishing ideas with no scientific basis does not make them science. Publishing in some ID/Creationism publication with review only from supporters of the general thesis does not count as scientific publication; anyone can pay to publish anything they like but to have merit the publication must be subjected to a broad based review, including from opponents of a particular theory. An excellent review of the techniques used amongst proponents of ID/Creationism can be found here.

Creationism as science

So, is there a conspiracy as Calvert suggests? Should evolution be treated as a religion? No and no. Creationists are apparently just too ignorant to be able to understand the basic premise that science is science and religion is religion. If we follow Calvert and his ilks reasoning, then the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has some equally valid points and their ideas should also be taught in school science lessons along with any other random non-evidence based assertion one cares to invent. There is no problem with teaching religion as religion and I for one argue that an understanding of all the world religions and the various gods, deities, spirits and the rest both past and current is a good thing, something which even Dawkins agrees with to some extent.  But that is not to say that any of that is science and can be treated in the same way as evolutionary theory, which is a true scientific theory, based on years of accumulated evidence and thorough hypothesis testing.

Morality

A common argument and one used by Calvert is that of morality. It is the spread of rational thinking that has led to all the worlds ills as we obey our own selfish desires rather than submit to some higher power; morality is argued to be a product of this desire to live a good life in order to please some supernatural power. This is another argument that I find completely baseless. Firstly, there is no single set of morals amongst religious folks; the morals of the various religions and sects within those religions are conflicting and contradictory, each based on differerent interpretations of religious texts. Amongst non-believers, there are good folks and bad folks exactly the same as amongst those who have religion. The very concept of morality is a personal definition which may or may not be shared amongst groups but it has more to do with the innate needs of humans to live in social groups than being universal and uniquely pertaining to belief systems.  To suggest otherwise leads to all manner of subjugation, persecution and unfairness; think of attitudes towards sexuality, attitudes towards gender roles, rights of women, definitions of criminality (and resultant punishments) and treatment of individuals in the name of some higher order.

Indeed, the notion of a supernatural power is seriously problematic. If the deity of your choice is all powerful, what about the gods of other religions? Or are they really all the same being? I do not consider myself particularly qualified to comment further here beyond pointing out that this is bound to cause frictions between religious groups. Or even within religious groups; think of the ‘People’s Front of Judea’, the ‘Judean People’s Front’, the ‘Judean Popular People’s Front’, the ‘Campaign for a Free Galilee,’ and the ‘Popular Front of Judea’… Years on from the Life of Brian, some of the angst amongst and between relgious groups can still easily be characterised in this way. Unfortunately it’s not very comedic in real life: Add politics, claims to land and a desire to save/anhiliate unbelievers into the mix, then throw in guns, (nuclear) missiles and armies and it’s just plain scary.

To conclude…

At a time when religious fundamentalism is at the core of many of the worlds major problems, trying to make out that religion can be treated as science is counter productive. We need to be able to put forward moderate and balanced viewpoints in order to maintain some semblance of societal order. Confusing the two undermines science and inhibits its ability to improve matters: There are many religions with many good and bad aspects but these are simply religions and have no place in science or politics. Once a group of people start calling upon their deity or (or deities) to support their points of view, then there can be no counter argument and conflict will ensue. Personal religious freedom should be respected as it is up to an individual what they choose to believe in (or not) but nation states should not condone or support the views of one religious group over and above another; there are lots of religious views and their respective believers whilst being free to believe and practice their religion should not have more or less rights than any other group. And when it comes to science, logic and reason, these must be seen as outside of the sphere of influence of religion and used to make the world a better place through increasing our knowledge and making sound evidence based decisions rather than irrational choices based on personal belief or some interpretation of some religious text.