Politicians’ “War On Science”

Who said it, Rubio or Obama? It’s useful to point this kind of thing out, of course, and I’ve always thought that Chris Mooney’s theses were nonsensical — both parties have ideologies that are opposed to scientific reality.

But I disagree with this:

So Obama believes in evolution, and presumably he’d like to teach it in the nation’s public schools, while Rubio suggests that “multiple theories” should be given equal time. But even so, both men present the science as a matter of personal opinion. Obama doesn’t say, Evolution is a fact; he says, I believe in it.

Well, he shouldn’t say that, because evolution is in fact not a “fact.” It, like gravity, is a scientific theory. And it is perfectly philosophically legitimate to say that alternate theories should be taught in school, but it should be done not in a science class but in one on comparative religions (of which science is one). That there is an objective reality about which we can discover things through scientific methods is not a fact, or “truth,” but an axiomatic assumption. Science is a form of faith, but in terms of understanding the natural world, and forging new artificial creations from it, it is a very successful and powerful one.

24 thoughts on “Politicians’ “War On Science”

  1. George Turner

    One of my complaints about Obama and his cadre is that he doesn’t even recognize that his ethics aren’t grounded in “science.” During his inauguration he gave a speech about stem-cell research and how science would no longer be made to service antiquated mystic nonsense (paraphrasing), apparently oblivious the fact that science stripped of human ethics can produce monstrous things. Then he went on to say that along with his fetal stem-cell approval, he will never approve human cloning because “it would be wrong”, completely contradicting the point of his entire speech.

    His crowd just assumes that their ethics are based in “truth” and everybody else’s is based on superstition and unexamined beliefs, while examing their own beliefs isn’t even in their universe of possibilities. It’s like their intellectual growth stopped when they were college sophmores, having concluded that they were right about everything and never looking back.

  2. Bill Hensley

    That there is an objective reality about which we can discover things through scientific methods is not a fact, or “truth,” but an axiomatic assumption. Science is a form of faith, but in terms of understanding the natural world, and forging new artificial creations from it, it is a very successful and powerful one.

    Very good point. I wrote a piece about the axiomatic underpinnings of science a few years ago. Much angst in the “religion vs. science” debate could be avoided if this were more commonly understood.

  3. Edward Wright

    evolution is in fact not a “fact.” It, like gravity, is a scientific theory.

    It’s more complex than that. Evolution (the change in population genetics over time) is a fact. The theory of evolution by natural selection is how we explain it.

    That usually gets shortened to “the theory of evolution” because the full name is a mouthful. But other scientists, such as Lamarck and Lysenko, offered alternative theories of evolution (no discredited).

    There are also numerous variations on the theory of evolution by natural selection. So, if someone asks me if I believe in the theory of evolution, I’ll probably ask which theory he means.

  4. Andrew W

    I’ll go with evolution is a fact, but the mechanism is still theory (ditto for gravity).

    And I don’t agree that science is a religion, I think the challenge of testability means it’s fundamentally different from religion, which is about the supernatural and therefore isn’t testable.

    1. Rand Simberg Post author

      The fact that one of the tenets of the religion is that theories be testable doesn’t make it not a religion. It remains a belief system founded on axiomatic and unprovable faith.

      1. B Lewis

        You are correct.

        The scientific method requires one to accept as fact without any means of proof:

        1. That a reality external to and distinct from a given observer exists
        2. That this reality can be observed by means of the observer’s physical senses
        3. That this reality is the same for all observers
        4. That the subjective sensory impressions experienced by a given observer correspond to reality in some meaningful way
        5. That reality consists solely of observable matter, energy, space, and time

        Now, of course we all believe in an external universe of matter, energy, space, and time that can be known by the senses, but there’s no way to test this assertion. It is intrinsically unfalsifiable.

        1. ken anthony

          Given that scientific consensus says that reality is a supposition of states that requires an observer it is not even objective. I have difficulty wrapping my mind around that and think most others do as well which means it doesn’t really fit into their framework of understanding.

        2. Gregg

          You are also required to take on faith the 3 basic Aristotelian notions which are the basis of all of our scientific method:

          the law of identity,

          A is A;

          the law of contradiction,

          A cannot be both A and not A;
          – something cannot be true and false at the same time

          and the law of the excluded middle,

          A must be either A or not A.

    2. ken anthony

      Interestingly, the bible indicates that false religion and gullibility go together. True faith is supposed to be based on reason. You’re supposed to test your faith to see if you still have it. It’s just as easy to point out some science fool as it is a religious fool. Those that look at fools to define a subject are fools themselves.

      “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” Phil 4:5

  5. DavecommentD

    It’s unfortunate that the meaning of “theory” in common everyday usage is so vastly different than its meaning in science. In science, anything elevated to the status of theory (as opposed to hypothesis) is much more powerful than a fact — a fact doesn’t explain anything, but a theory does. Furthermore, the theory has to be consistent with ALL of the facts — and if it’s not, it needs to be revised. What makes Rubio quite wrong is the idea that “multiple theories” for the origin of species should be taught beyond “common descent through random mutation and natural selection”. There are no competing theories that are consistent with the facts in the fossil record, DNA, and so on. Creationism isn’t even a theory by the scientific definition because it doesn’t explain mechanisms.

      1. Andrew W

        It does, though, explain all the facts.

        Heh, yeah, like the theory that the universe was created last Tuesday at 8:32pm GMT, along with all the evidence that exists that it’s much older.

      2. Dave

        Yes, I said a theory “by the scientific definition”. A “theory” as understood by the common parlance/usage doesn’t belong in a science classroom. Rubio is implying that creationism has equal merit with evolution as a scientific theory, when it doesn’t.

    1. Paul Milenkovic

      Question: How old is the Earth?

      Answer:

      Chris Christie: Four-point-five-four billion years . . . you go a problem with that?

      John Boehner: I have to ask my Caucus and get back to you.

      Barack Obama: Candy, go to the transcript! What does it say? We can’t hear you, say it louder!

      Rick Perry: I was going to say . . . Ron, help me out here!

      Donald Trump: If you can’t come up with that answer, you’re fired!

      Jerry Brown: Not much longer than I have been Governor.

      Andrew Cuomo: How old do you want it to be?

  6. Gregg

    But all this discussion(though interesting) misses the essential point:

    The question was purposefully posed – just like the contraceptioon question by George Stephanopoulis during a debate – in order to start the destruction of Rubio by the Democrats. To either separate him from his base, or marginalize him as a religious kook.

  7. Fletcher Christian

    The distinction between a scientific theory and other assertions of what is thought to be fact is twofold. A theory has to be falsifiable. For example, the theory of evolution (in general form) is falsifiable; a rabbit skeleton in Precambrian rock would do that just fine.

    Perhaps more importantly, theories can also lead to predictions; perhaps the most recent and best-known example is the test of the Theory of Relativity (general form!) by measuring star positions near the Sun.

    “God did it” fails as a theory on both counts. Which means that its utility, or lack of it, as an explanation of already-known data is completely irrelevant. As Pauli was fond of saying, it isn’t even wrong.

    1. ken anthony

      “God did it” is often used as a strawman. Think of a court of law with witnesses. The falsification in this case is showing that the witnesses are liars. When you have ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ this is often considered sufficient to assert the truth of something.

      Of course, that could be a conspiracy of liars. In which case, you look at the character of the witnesses. If they all a bunch of gullible blubbering idiots they weighs in one direction. When they are doctors, lawyers, military officers and even credible business people, oh, and tax collectors (being despised doesn’t mean they aren’t credible) it goes the other.

  8. B Lewis

    @Fletcher Christian, November 22, 2012, 4:22 pm: The distinction between a scientific theory and other assertions of what is thought to be fact is twofold. A theory has to be falsifiable. For example, the theory of evolution (in general form) is falsifiable; a rabbit skeleton in Precambrian rock would do that just fine.

    Really? Because people have been digging up weird, anarchronistic fossils for hundreds of years. Yet somehow the scientific community always finds some means to explain them away.

    Thought experiment: Let’s assume that a number of Haldane’s “Precambrian rabbit” skeletons were to be discovered. Here is what would actually happen:

    1. The discoverers would be accused of fraud, fabrication, and felony. Their biographies would be publicly dissected for the slightest hint of scandal. They would be crucified in the scientific and lay press.

    2. The scientific community would deny the fossils were rabbits. “The use of the term ‘Precambrian rabbit’ is unscientific. Since rabbits could not have existed in that era, we insist upon the use of the term ‘putative rabbit-like Precambrian life-form’ instead”

    2. The scientific community would deny the fossils were Precambrian. “The stratum in which the fossils were discovered, although seemingly Precambrian, may in fact be those of a much later stratum easily confused with the Precambrian.”

    3. Assuming that the “Precambrian rabbits” turned out to be genuinely rabbits and genuinely Precambrian, the scientific press would fall back upon dogma. “Anomalies in evolution to not disprove evolution as a whole. They are merely examples of the kind of wonderful mysteries of natural selection that Darwin set out to solve — mysteries that can only be solved by well-funded scientific research”.

    Moral: Any out-of-sequence fossil remnant found, no matter how anachronistic, can be conveniently explained away by the ever-alert members of the “if-I-cain’t-poke-it-with-a-stick-it-ain’t-real” community. Because IF YOU CAIN’T POKE IT WITH A STICK, IT AIN’T REAL.

    1. Andrew W

      1. The discoverers would be accused of fraud, fabrication, and felony. Their biographies would be publicly dissected for the slightest hint of scandal. They would be crucified in the scientific and lay press.

      Sounds familiar, but if it’s sound science, no matter what the political agenda of the “skeptics”, science won’t be an effective weapon to knock it down, the “skeptics” end up resort to the non-science you refer to.

      As soon as you’ve found your irrifutable scientific evidence against evolution you should push it for all it’s worth, at least you’ll find plenty of allies outside of the science community.

  9. ken anthony

    I read a SF once that said if god exists he should give us a clear message that science could accept which some scientist then found in the expansion of pi.

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