Saturday, August 16, 2008

Words to Live By

[Originally published on, August 10, 2008]

I came across an interesting quote this week. In the "New Ground" episode of the Stargate SG-1 TV show an off-world scientist is hiding Teal'c, one of the SG-1 team, from the rather fanatically religious military forces of his planet. Teal'c asks Nyan, the scientist, why he's protecting him when his (Teal'c's) very existence belies the theories held by Nyan and his country's scientific community. Nyan's answer is a classic: "Teal'c, I'm a scientist. When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct."

I like that quote. It's one of those things that resonates so loudly, a truth that bears repeating as "words to live by": "When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct."

This describes the scientific method in a nutshell. To be valid, a scientific theory has to first be proposed as a hypothesis and then tested. The results of the testing must be repeatable, and the effects consistently observable. And scientific theories aren't static; they change or are revised according to new evidence discovered and new methodologies developed. Science isn't a final description of the universe and how it works; rather, it's a work-in-progress, and the process never ends.

In the US we have a conflict between science and certain religious groups similar to the conflict on Nyan's planet. This conflict covers a range of subjects, but the one that ends up in the courts and thus gets reported in the newspapers most is the fight over teaching evolution theory in the public schools.

Now, the establishment clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution forbids the teaching of religious belief in the biology classes of this nation, so these religious groups have tried to disguise their particular creation myth as "science" by giving it some "scientific" names - creationism (or creation science) and intelligent design theory. But every time these groups have taken their case to the courts to force school districts to teach their "scientific alternative" in biology classes, the case has either been lost or dismissed out of hand. The courts have unilaterally decreed that the religious groups' "science" doesn't fit the criteria of the scientific method, and so cannot be taught as science in a science class.

The evolution theory currently taught in the public schools does fit these criteria. It's testable, the results are consistently repeatable, and the phenomena are consistently observable in the natural world. And it has adapted and been revised continuously since Charles Darwin first proposed it, according to new evidence discovered and new methodologies developed. It hasn't remained static.

Creationism and intelligent design theory, on the other hand, fail miserably to adhere to the criteria demanded by the scientific method. They aren't testable, and they're not observable in the natural world. In fact their proponents would consider it blasphemy to subject their "theory" to testing, nor would they allow it to be revised or changed in light of the discovery of new evidence and the development of new methodologies. They believe that these theories are the immutable, eternal, and universal TRUTH as written in their particular scriptures.

And this is why the courts won't grant them what they want, because what they want is to have the govenment mandate the adoption of the particular creation myth of a particular religious group by the science curriculum of the public schools. And according to the First Amendment, you just can't do that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...."; the Fourteenth Amendment has extended this prohibition to the state and local levels of government.

But really, just on pure moral grounds, aside from any constitutional issues, who really holds the moral high ground in this conflict? The person who holds that his particular belief system is the immutable, eternal, and universal truth and must be enforced as the law of the land? Or the person who sincerely states: "When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct."

I think the answer is obvious.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. It is exciting, no matter whether I'm right or wrong...I just like learning new things.