There was an article published in The New York Times the other day called “God, Darwin and My Biology Class” by David P. Barash, a Professor of Psychology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Washington. In it, he discusses the cognitive dissonance that occurs when religious students are forced to reconcile faith with the scientific disciplines; often, they become more, rather than less uncomfortable with the tension between the two as time goes on.
His solution is to give a three-step talk at the beginning of the semester at the University, speaking about the foundations of his discipline.
For Barash, “Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy.” In the first part of the introduction, he confronts the argument that living organisms, in their complexity, needed a planner—random variation and natural selection account for this.
In the second part of the structured talk, he discusses the illusion of centrality, which is the idea that humans, as rational animals, are distinct from other life forms. Not quite so—we’re close enough in most respects that we can’t rightly be categorized out of the animal kingdom.
Third, religion’s much-maligned inability to satisfactorily explain suffering is shown to be an easier question in biology: “Human beings are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” He insists that his students, if adamant in respecting both traditions, will have to do some “challenging mental gymnastic routines” in order to understand biology without evolution.
It is not acceptable for science to be the one doing the gymnastics routines in an effort to reconcile religion, Barash argues. I agree, but the question does persist: Just because science shouldn’t be attempting to reconcile the two, to what degree do science and other related topics still have to advocate on their own behalf?
The question, rephrased, is really: Are there more people who believe that science informs their reality than there are people who believe religion does?
It’s clear for those who believe in the merits of the scientific method (i.e. repeatable results, done in unbiased experiments, with explanations that work only if they describe all of the valid data so far) that religion doesn’t so much represent an intellectual obstacle within the disciplines of science as a roadblock toward acceptance of science in the broader community.
In other words, scientists don’t work relentlessly to disprove God while they’re examining the cosmos or climate, but they have historically been running a constant public relations campaign to convince people that religion doesn’t provide answers to questions that are scientific in nature; e.g., the Church’s cosmology doesn’t represent an alternative to mainstream astronomy.
As was made apparent in a viral “Daily Show” segment featured on Comedy Central from the other day, the “debate” on climate change is still raging in the eyes of the public—oft-cited polls put the public split closer to 50-50 on whether or not climate change is an issue (i.e. is real) than they put scientists, who run a consensus somewhere between 97 and 99 percent.
Jon Stewart’s 10-minute segment on the Daily Show focused on the observation that the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology was, annoyingly and unsurprisingly, full of climate-change skeptics and deniers.
During the segment, he described the advisor tasked with responding to the objects, John Holdren (who was the former professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the current senior advisor to President Obama on science and technology issues in the United States), as charged with the Sisyphean task of pushing “a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.” The clip shows multiple Republicans challenging climate change and global warming issues, with Holdren responding.
The recent march in New York, one of the largest protests by population of the entire century, was primarily an awareness campaign. “This is real, and we should be doing something about it,” and “we should be slashing emissions with this policy plan,” are two very different and stark statements. But it does seem clear that science still has more public relations and advocacy to be done on its own behalf.
And that’s obviously a vague suggestion, but here’s something that’s often done wrong when advocating: By citing “science” dogmatically, people tend to undo their persuasiveness—in the BuzzFeed era of instant exaggeration (“19 things you’ve never known about Earth… because Science!”), people often cite a study that’s shown up in the news as “proving” something, without consulting the rest of the literature on the topic, which may completely disagree with the “proof.”
In this way, science and issues revolving around the topic of science get talked about like a religion or a theological concept—which they aren’t. Science isn’t really something you “believe” in—some scientists perform bad experiments, and they get corrected by other scientists. “I don’t believe in God because…Science!” isn’t doing anybody any good as a statement.
So, taking the issue of climate change as an example, science still needs to be advocated. But when it is, I would hope it’s in the right ways.
—Christopher Dietz ’17 is a political science major.