A couple of weeks ago, several atheist and scientist blogs covered Ron Paul’s answer to a question of whether he believes in evolution. Paul’s answer was that evolution was just a theory – demonstrating a complete lack of understanding not only of the science of biology, but the nature of science itself.
However, there was another part of Paul’s answer that deserves our attention. The very first words out of his mouth when asked about a previous event in which Presidential candidates were asked whether they believe in evolution was, “That was an inappropriate question.”
Americans not only have a right to ask, they have a need to demand that their political leaders have a basic understanding of science. Science builds its reputation on its ability to explain and predict real-world events. A President who cannot understand current events or predict future events is a President whose policies will succeed, if they succeed at all, merely by chance.
When these Presidential candidates make their campaign stops and ask for questions from the audience, I want to fill that audience with people who will demand that their Presidents have at least a high-school graduate understanding of science. A President does not need to know the name of every bone in the human body. However, he does need to know what a double-blind experiment is and why this is the best way to determine the effectiveness of a medical procedure.
The problem with Huckabee’s campaign for the Presidency is that he has already said that if scientists tell him one thing, and scripture tells him another, that he will go with scripture. I can only interpret this to mean that, if scientists came to Huckabee and said, “This idea has been tested. The tests have been replicated. The conclusions have passed muster in the peer review process. If you do not do X, a billion people will die,” Huckabee will still have to consult a priest and get a sign from God before he will do X.
It is all too easy for a priest to answer (as many priests often do), “God will deliver us a miracle that will prevent these people from dying; and, if he does not, then their deaths are God’s will and it is for the greater good that they suffer. We may not see it that way, but the Lord works in mysterious ways and we mere mortals lack the ability to understand His great wisdom.” And in doing so to allow a billion people to die who could otherwise have been saved.
Science is in the job of creating prophecies, just as religion does. Only, science is constantly testing and modifying its principles according to the accuracy of the prophecies it creates. Religion does not. As a result, scientific prophecies are getting more and more accurate over time. Wherever the prophecies of science come into conflict with the prophecies of religion, the prophecies of science inevitably and necessarily win. The reason is because if science should ever lose such a contest – if its prophecies do not turn out to be accurate – then science changes to become more accurate. Religion never does.
[Actually, that last part is not strictly true. There are large segments of the Christian population that reinterpret whole sections of scripture in light of new science, effectively rewriting scripture when it conflicts with science. However, scripture, in this case, follows the scientist’s lead. It can never be in conflict with science because it uses any sign of conflict as necessitating a re-interpretation of scripture.]
Science – particularly the science of evolution – creates massive numbers of prophecies relevant to political decision making. Our understanding of how different parts of the human body function – and how they fail – is enhanced by understanding the evolutionary process by which those organs came about, and of how genetic factors influence how those organs function.
Evolutionary theory not only helps us to treat sick, injured, and dying humans. It allows us to treat sick, injured, and dying animals as well. It allows us to better understand plants, which tells us how to grow more crops on less land in order to feed a growing population. It allows us to understand how ecosystems work and how to keep them healthy. It helps to determine how best to maintain the Earth itself because, if the Earth shall ever fail (if we should ever push the Earth past some environmental tipping point that we currently cannot see), the consequences will be disastrous.
Anything having to do with living systems – and human bodies are living systems – is best understood through the filter of evolution. Though this theory, a President can better understand how living systems operate, predict what will happen as a result of different policies, and thereby select good policies.
It is not mere bad luck that makes President Bush do such a poor job managing living systems. It is the expected result of his stupidity, on his outright dismissal of the best evidence available for explaining and predicting how living systems work.
Scientists make the best prophets. If a President wants to bring a prophet into the oval Office to perform some sort of augury – a ritual that will predict the future and guide him in determining which course of action is best – he is well advised to bring a scientist, not a priest.
While the priest cuts open the chicken and examines his entrails, or prays for God to plant the answer directly into his brain (as Bush has often claimed to do), the scientist practices his rituals. That ritual involves the creation of different hypotheses, determining the predictions that each hypothesis would make, constructing experiments to determine which predictions are accurate, and keeps only the theories that pass the tests and prove as a matter of fact that it can produce the most accurate prophecies.
Compare the prophecies of science to the prophecies of somebody like Pat Robertson. Which are the most accurate?
Here is a scientific prophesy. On Friday, April 13th, 2029, an asteroid will narrowly miss the Earth at a range of about 20,000 miles. This is within the orbit of geosynchronous satellites. Anybody seeking to put anything into space between now and then will be advised to consider this fact in their plans because it is virtually certain to occur.
This scientific prophesy gives us a nearly exact date and time for an event, and tells us what the event will be.
I challenge the reader to name one event that will occur between now and 2029, reliably predicted by any religious prophesy – any event that has the near certainty of the asteroid near miss that I mentioned above.
The fact is, none exists. The fact is, when scientists come into the Oval Office and say that their rituals and methods give them the power to predict the future, and they make a prediction that is securely founded on the rituals of science, the President then ignores those scientists at the peril to the company.
The fact that Americans have a right to expect some minimum level of scientific competence on the part of their political leaders is precisely the fact that Americans have a right not to be put in peril by a leader who ignores the prophesies of science.
I want a cadre of science-literate voters to dog these candidates and measure the level of their respect for science.
“Do you accept that scientists have virtually proved the theory of evolution?”
“In five words or less, how old is the Earth?”
“Is it possible to alter the course of hurricanes by passing laws against homosexuality and abortion?”
“If faced with a policy option that violates the laws of physics, will you rule this option out, or will you still consider it ‘on the table’ since some divine power might decide to grant us a miracle and suspend the laws of physics just this once?”
“Will part of your decision-making process involve the use of astrology charts, tarot cards, chicken entrails, or any similar reliance on supernatural forces?” These are not inappropriate questions. These are questions that will help us to determine whether this person who wants to be our President is capable of making sound decisions based on the best available evidence that have the best chance for success.
It is past time to be asking these types of questions.