2008 Re: Hey, Dr. Paul, What Do You Think of Evolution?
posted by December 28 at 12:13 PMon
Both in the comments and in my apartment around midnight last night, the question arose: Does it matter what a presidential candidate thinks of evolution? (Notice I didn’t ask about “whether a presidential candidate believes in evolution,” which is a flawed question.)
My answer: Absolutely.
Ron Paul said:
At first I thought it was a very inappropriate question, you know, for the presidency to be decided on a scientific matter. And, uh, I think it’s a theory, a theory of evolution, and I don’t accept it, you know, as a theory. It probably doesn’t bother me—it’s not the most important issue for me to make the difference in my [life?] to understand the exact origin. I think the Creator that I know, you know, created us, every one of us, and created the universe—and the precise time and manner, and all, I don’t think we’re at the point where anybody has absolute proof on either side. If that were the only issue, quite frankly—I would think it’s an interesting discussion, I think it’s a theological discussion, and I think it’s fine—but if that were the issue of the day, I wouldn’t be running for public office.
That first sentence isn’t awful. Presidential candidates should not be taking sides on current scientific debates—it’s a waste of time to inject politics into a process that universities, conferences, journals, grants, and other mechanisms are perfectly capable of working out independently. But the basic theory of evolution by means of natural selection is simply not a matter of current scientific debate. Current science adds to the theory of evolution, tweaks it, finesses its more complicated implications. But absolutely no one is saying: Uh oh, you guys, this theory is not up to the task of explaining this new trove of evidence, it’s no longer making useful predictions, it’s not as comprehensive or predictive as this other unifying theory. It just isn’t happening.
What the evolution-vs.-creationism debate is about is, instead, a culture war—and it’s a culture war with policy implications. Republican primary voters are clamoring for a candidate who professes disbelief in evolution. (I honestly have trouble believing that a medical doctor who graduated from Duke refuses to “accept” the theory of evolution, but whatever.) This has resulted in a president who publicly disavows evolution, throws massive amounts of publicity at think-tank pseudoscience, and in doing so erodes respect for the United States in much of the rest of the developed world and damages sorely needed scientific literacy here at home.
In the above quotation, Paul disparages evolution as “a theory” (“a theory of evolution,” even, not the theory, which it is), when we should all know by now that a theory is a robust set of statements or principles that explains a wide variety of observations, has stood up to repeated tests, is widely accepted, and successfully predicts natural phenomena. A presidential candidate should never confuse the American public by mixing popular and scientific definitions of the word “theory.”
Does anyone have “absolute proof on either side”? No. Paul is correct there. But we as a society don’t usually ask for “absolute proof.” We put people to death for lesser degrees of certainty. The real question is, is there evidence of equal weight supporting evolution and creationism? And the answer is no. The evidence that is better explained by and further confirms the theory of evolution is overwhelming.
So when Paul deems the analysis of the credibility of evolution “a theological discussion,” he is fundamentally perverting the question. Evolution is not susceptible to theological arguments. It seeks to explain only natural phenomena. The notion that you would start from a theological truth and work backward bespeaks an irrational, antiscientific worldview. And that, in my opinion, is anathema in a president.
Most importantly, federal funding makes science happen in this country. The idea that a cursory understanding of science fundamentals is not desirable in a president is, quite frankly, laughable. The evolution question is relevant. We should expect a more thoughtful answer from our next president.