Saturday, August 20, 2005

Bryson and Science

I’ve been continuing to read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything, and though it’s fascinating and full of amazing details, you have to wonder where he stands in regard to believing some of the stuff he writes. Is there just a whiff of cynicism about scientists and their superiority of knowledge which so often turns out to be not knowledge at all, but supposition and imagination? He spends a good deal of time on the way life evolved on earth – but then reminds us that most of the dinosaur exhibits in the major Museums around the world don’t consist of actual dinosaur bones at all, but are merely plaster casts of what scientists think dinosaurs looked like. And there’s the rub: we don’t have enough evidence to be sure about how these creatures looked, any more than we can really be sure from the ‘fossil evidence’ (which turns out to be immensely flimsy when you think about it) about creatures that were supposed to have existed in the past. And how do we know when they were supposed to have existed? That evidence is also based on ‘facts’ that have changed a number of times. The history of the Earth and the creatures living on it is, I suspect, still mostly supposition, guesswork that scientists have been forced to make in order to have anything to work on. Time and again in reading this book we’re told that some scientist (and not just some of the stranger ones) thought this or that explanation was the ‘reality’ about a particular subject. Time and again, they’ve been proved wrong as more information comes to light. I have this suspicion that people in the 22nd century will look back on some/much of our supposed knowledge, especially in the are of palaeontology and scratch their heads that we could be so obtuse –or so creative in our guesswork. Evolution as a theory has been attacked any number of times in the 20th century and still continues to be. As Bryson writes at one point, (pg 255),
‘proteins can’t exist with DNA and DNA has no purpose without proteins. Are we to assume, then, that they arose simultaneously with the purpose of supporting each other? Is so: wow.’

That ‘wow’ strikes me as Bryson’s way of avoiding saying: I don’t believe it, or of throwing in a dash of his frequently-appearing cynicism (not just in this book), or of saying, without saying it, I think there must be another explanation.

I've just seen an article on Arts and Letters Daily site getting all steamed up about creation science – which it mixes up with Intelligent Design – and uses as its focus the idea that creationists are wrong to ask that an open mind be kept on some scientific theories: notably evolution. This curious statement is made in the article:
"To laypeople--particularly those unfamiliar with the scientific status of evolution, which is actually a theory and a fact--the phrasing may seem harmless. But in 2005 a federal judge ordered the stickers removed. By singling out evolution as uniquely controversial among scientific theories, the stickers catered to religious biases and thus violated the First Amendment."

So evolution is a theory and a fact. Is it? It’s a fact in the minds of many scientists, but not all. The quote above follows a quotation from one of the stickers put in biology textbooks, which says,
"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Isn’t it curious that we can’t be open-minded about a piece of science? If Bryson's books says anything, it's that open-mindedness about ideas is part and parcel of being a scientist. And of course evolution is singled out: it’s one specific area of science that actually goes against the religious teaching as to how humankind came into existence. There’s the rub. Writers like Jerry Coyne know this perfectly well, but his article is just another in an endless series of anti-religious pieces that argue for science as opposed to religious faith, forgetting that scientists have an awful lot of faith in some of their pronouncements, and that the rest of us are expected to go along with them until something better is theorised.

I’m not arguing here for creation science, per se, because I think they’ve gone in for a form of thinking that doesn’t take into account enough of the information we do actually have. But evolutionists don't have all the information either, and they base an awful lot of their theory on faith – it might not be religious faith, but it’s faith all the same…faith that they’ve got it right, in spite of some evidence that seems to contradict their faith.
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