Thursday, January 03, 2008

Ron Paul's "Inappropriate Question"

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.


Anonymous said...

It is definitely an appropriate question to ask.

Oddly enough, if you're a politician, there are probably some questions you don't want people to force you to put a definite answer on, because whatever answer you give, you're going to get somebody important mad. Sadly, someone running for the Republican nomination needs to court the "batshit crazy" vote in order to win, and in the words of Dogbert, "You can't be wrong unless you take a position. Don't fall into that trap."

Also, sadly enough, "what a double-blind experiment is and why this is the best way to determine the effectiveness of a medical procedure" is not something that is taught at the high school level. In fact, I'd say most people with college degrees don't have what you describe as a "high-school graduate understanding of science."

Anonymous said...

Is there a reproducible procedure to create a living cell from non-living matter?

What was the composition of the famed primordial soup?

Unfortunately my high school education didn't provide these answers, so I'm hoping you can assist. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The origin of the first cell is not a question answered by evolution. Even if God made the first cell from nothing, that doesn't mean that evolution didn't happen afterwards.

See also:

Alonzo Fyfe said...

show me the evidence

Doug's statement is accurate - there is a difference between the study of how life began and how life changed over time once it began.

However life began, it began nearly 4 billion years ago with single-celled beings that evolved over time to humans. It does not matter whether it came into existence by an act of God or an act of nature, it came into existence about 4 billion years ago, and evolved from single-celled beings to its current forms.

That much we do know. However life began, since it began, it has evolved.

gp said...

Okay, two issues on this. One - It is definitely an inappropriate question. Why? We're talking about politics and a proper president will understand that politics and religion does not mix and should not be mixed. I think Ron Paul understands this. He even said it himself, it's not his place to find out that truth.

Second one being how the question was asked. Do you believe the theory of evolution to be true? What part? Human Evolution? Or evolution has a whole? Human evolution is definitely a theory and not a fact. Unfortunately, I've talked with many head strong ID believers, and they often confuse the two. They think "theory of evolution" == "human evolution" which is completely wrong. Anybody with any scientific understanding knows that evolution is fact; however, human evolution is a theory and remain a theory for at least another 10k+ years (or when we develop time travel, which ever comes first). It cannot be proven fact until it is scientifically documented as happening. That won't happen until 1) humans have evolved past our current forms/biology. or 2) we develop some method to go back in time and scientifically document humans of the past.

So, while Ron Paul's answers isn't what some atheists want, I'm even more disappointed in this blog not seeing and not understand the key issue here: difference between the two.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The only time when politics and religion do not mix is when a Presidential candidate agrees that he will ignore all matters of religion when acting as President. Then, religion can be separated from politics because religious beliefs do not matter.

However, when religious beliefs will be used to guide policy, then the fact that voters have every right to be concerned about policy implies that they have every right to be concerned about the person's religion. The idea that a candidate can shield policy from public objections by hiding it behind religion is absurd.

My point above . . . evolution is a scientific fact relevant to huge swaths of policy issues, from health to agriculture to the environment. A person cannot make sound policy decisions on these matters without being informed of the theory of evolution.

When advisors inform him that the theory of evolution makes certain predictions regarding some policy, the fact that he is willing to dismiss evolution as 'just a theory'means that he will not give these facts the weight they deserve, which means he will be handicapped in making sound policy.

And, again, the fact that voters have every right to be concerned about policy implies that they have every right to be concerned that the president understands at least the fundamentals of the science that informs that policy.

This includes the role that human evolution has in informing policy-relevant facts of human medicine.

gp said...

@Alonzo Fyfe

Yes, with proper separation of church and state, matters such as this are mute. The real question answered should have been whether Ron Paul believes in true separation of Church and State instead of a poorly worded "human evolution" question.

"Do you believe in god" and "Do you believe in [Human Evolution]" are completely inappropriate. The appropriate question would be "Do you believe in strict separation of church and state?"

Now, on the evolution topic...The biggest confusion here is the interpretation and wording used in the actual question itself. Atheists are going all up in arms "evolution is fact!" even though the actual question asked called it a theory...Why aren't atheists maiming the original question asker? He's the one that farked up the question.

Ron Paul should have been asked more specific questions: Do you believe in Human Evolution? or Do you believe Evolution, not Human Evolution, is fact? Or Do you understand the facts around Evolution, separate from human evolution?
(actually, the church and state should have been asked, not evolution)

As I said before, everybody (even you!) is confusion the two. As soon as somebody says "theory of evolution" or "the evolution theory" -- evangelicals think "human evolution" and atheists thing "general evolution." These two interpretations is causing huge conflicts between the two. Everybody is misunderstanding each other.

I think the most important issue here is not how Ron Paul answered the question, but how it was asked and interpreted.

Atheists must FIST get both sides on the table -- there is Evolution which encompasses Human Evolution. Evolution, in itself, is Fact. Human Evolution is Theory, based off the facts surrounding Evolution. It is extremely important when talking to any evangelical, or theist, that you explicitly mention you're not talking about Human Evolution. Because of Dawrin, the moment a person thinks of Evolution, they assume Human Evolution. We, as atheists, scientists, critical thinkers, must insure that distinction.

Hume's Ghost said...

"The real question answered should have been whether Ron Paul believes in true separation of Church and State"

He doesn't, by the way. Paul has described it as the 'phony activist "separation" docrine' while asserting the first amendment merely prohibits the establishment of a national church.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In the question of the separation of church and state, evolution falls on the 'state' side of the wall - just like the biological theory of mental illness (as opposed to demonic posession theory or the alien spirits theory), the germ theory of disease (as opposed to the alienation from God theory of disease), and the prospect of an indefinite long-term future (as opposed to "the rapture is going to happen in my life time").

In building a wall between church and state, we must not build it so that the "church" side of the wall covers everything that an individual might believe is associated with supernatural forces, while the "state" side contains everything else.

Because that is the same as saying that there is no "state" side.

The theory of evolution provides the best way to explain and to predict how living entities function. One who dismisses evolution dismisses that which provides the best and most accurate information needed to determine the effects of policies that govern living organisms.

This is a 'state' issue.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


For some support of the claim that Hume's Ghost made above regarding Ron Paul and the separation of church and state, plese see:


G-man said...


Asking if the theory of evolution is true is a perfectly valid way of putting it. If Ron Paul is confused as to the subsets of the theory, he could say that he believes the basic "descent with modification" occurs, but that he's skeptical about human evolution.

But in all honesty, I think you exaggerate the differences between general and human evolution. Given that every other species seems to have arisen from less complex ancestors, the theory of evolution would predict that the same is true of humans. I can't think of any place in evolutionary theory where "the spontaneous generation of humans occurred in their present form" fits in.

Remember, most importantly, that to refer to something as "proven scientifically" or "established as scientific fact" requires further explanation. Evolution - descent with modification - is no more or less a fact than human evolution or gravity. Science operates on theories, not facts... however, people talk about "scientific fact" when they refer to a theory that is so strong that it is, for all intents and purposes, fact. The theory of gravity and atomic theory are just two examples.

However, they are "just theories," just like human evolution.

I think that little bit needs pointing out.

gp said...


Okay, you got me there. That is true. I did push a bit hard on the distinction of the two. However, my base argument still can hold true. When discussing evolution, traditional christians will immediately assume human evolution and immediately discredit it because "I didn't come from an ape!" without ever giving any more thought on the subject. My direction is coming in from a broader stand point, getting them to understand evolution, taking out the human component. Once you can distance themselves from the whole "I'm not a ape!" syndrome, you can get to understand that evolution does, in fact, exist. In past discussions I've had, I've managed to get a hard ID believe to admitting to micro evolution. He denied anything evolution before hand, but removing the human component from it (and thus removing himself and his "ego") he had no reason to immediate deny it and could only look at it critically. He still pounced on the "gaps" issue, but it's at least a start, imo.

On Ron Paul's stance on Separation of Church and State, it's interesting. I did a bit more reading. The column I didn't care much for. I've never big a fan on theirs, but I searched a bit more. And I really do wonder. Stuff I read is quite interesting. The words he used is highly interpretable. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the other side of the interpretation to get a clear view where he may stand. He said the federal government has no right to interfere in religious affairs -- the same can be said the other way, too. Which is why I'm so confused. His statement can be taken both ways.

However, I did find some statements which he voted to keep "under God" in our pledge and money. This is bad.

Uber Miguel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Uber Miguel said...

Basically.. if politicians maintain a "leave your religion at the door" policy, they'll be following the constitution.

A couple examples: Turkey claims to be a secular country - yet they have outlawed the public expression of religion. I would consider this to be a violation of our First Amendment and not a secular but anti-religion law. France also floundered outlawing the hijab in classrooms. England also passed anti-religion laws concerning religious jewelry.

If head coverings and jewelry are causing issues, outlaw headwear and jewelry - not hijabs and crosses. It might seem like a minor difference, but it's the best way to solve such sensitive problems: secular policies.

Kevin said...

Fact/Theory in science is not a real distinction in the sense it's being used here. A scientific theory is a framework that best explains all available evidence and has withstood efforts to falsify it. As science is a method that studies an open system of knowledge, we cannot actually know if we have the whole story regarding anything. Of course, that doesn't support the silly idea that just anything could be true, but it does imply that our understanding of any phenomenon is incomplete. Because of that, theories never really become "facts," because they remain tentative.

I've also never heard of a separation of human evolution from evolutionary theory. There's no reason to separate human evolution, as it works the same as the evolution of all other lifeforms. Humans aren't that special. This false divide reminds me of the macro/micro-evolution divide used by evolution denialists.

There is zero question that all life, including humans, evolved from a common ancestor. To say otherwise is to deny reality. A leader that denies reality is not going to have the ability to make good, informed decisions in those areas in which reality is denied. Leaders with such a handicap will cause more problems than they solve.

As for creating a living organism from non-living materials, scientists are on the verge of being able to create a whole bacterium from scratch (it can already be done with viruses). In a few years, such a "reproducible procedure" will exist. I doubt it'll be in the high school curriculum for at least a few decades, though.

Hume's Ghost said...

Paul's views on church/state separation aren't ambiguous. They are plainly stated, and plainly wrong. For example, in the article linked at About.atheism in which Paul imagines a "collectivist Left" war on Christianity vis-a-vis X-mas, he says that both the DoI and Constitution are "replete" with references to the (biblical) God.


The DoI makes one reference to "nature's God" and one to a "Creator." The Constitution makes zero references to God.

The quote I cited was from this article, in which Paul implies that church/state separation is part of an "imaginary constitution."

The First amendment says “Congress shall make no law” – a phrase that cannot possibly be interpreted to apply to the city of San Diego. But the phony activist “separation” doctrine leads to perverse outcomes like the eviction of Boy Scouts from city parks.

These are but two recent examples. There are many more, including the case of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was ordered by a federal court to remove a Ten Commandments monument from Alabama courthouse property.

Not only does Paul not understand the first amendment, but he pretends ignorance that the 14 amendment - which ensures that our constitutional liberties can not be violated at the state level - does not exist.

Furthermore, he cites the 10th amendment to say that states have right to regulate private sexual conduct while concomitantly citing the 9th amendment and stating that there is no right to privacy in the Constitution (which he erroneously attributes the SC to have found in the 14th amendment.) The 10th amendment says that powers not reserved to the federal gov't are held by the people and states, but it says nothing about states having "rights." Secondly, and more importantly, the 9th amendment states that the Bill of Rights is not meant to be comprehensive - which means that we can assume that other fundamental rights such as a right to privacy cannot be infringed by the gov't.

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Anonymous said...

God made everything. God is involved with science. You don't need to argue science to prove God. The world around us that we discover and analyze...we are discovering and analyzing things that God already knows.

Grim Pilgrim said...

hi anonymous,
I'm sorry if I can't take your argument "God made everything. God is involved with science..." seriously. You see in rational discussions, which I used at my first comment, require logical proofs. One doesn't just get a way by simply being convicted something just exists.
With your line of reasoning, what then is preventing me from saying "Kermit the frog made everything. Kermit the frog is involved with science...".
And if you say that God is beyond rational argument, that sounds to me like a very easy way of escaping logical argumentation, without really proving anything.
For those of you out there who want to test the consistency of their logic, I really suggest you take this really short test: