Sharad Pandian attended a creationist talk in Nanyang Technological University. Here are his reflections, published in the NTU student union publication, the Tribune. The HSS interviewed Sharad as well, in Part II.
Science as a tracker of truth
Science is indubitably one of humanity’s better inventions. It is a call to rise beyond our parochial stations and to decide to no longer be weighed down by self-deception. We decide to cease plain conjecture and instead use empirical means to probe the world. We admit that by ourselves, we are prone to errors and so set up an elaborate system of checks and balances. And through this, we have arrived at an incredibly effective way of learning about the world which we can use to great effect.
Setting aside this optimistic picture of science for just a moment, we have to seriously consider the objections of certain people about how science has been radically wrong in the past. Look at Newton’s theories! Despite all our evidence pointing to its truth, it turned out to be completely wrong in its description of reality. How seriously can science really be taken?
Although this seems like a reasonable issue at first glance, the problem is that it views science as merely a body of facts. Having been wrong in the past is only a problem for a body of knowledge that claims to already be perfect. The reliability of science rests on it being a dynamic body which alters its conclusions with new evidence. We discover new information about the world everyday and so it is only to be expected that our conclusions about the nature of reality change too. The fact that scientific principles changed with time, contrary to the objection, is what should increase our confidence in its ability to track truth. And so, in a rather profound way, science is never really wrong because it doesn’t claim to be true; it simply leads us to the best possible belief given the amount of reliable information we possess.
Young Earth Creationism
Although I’ve talked about science as if it was a unified institution, there remain plenty of disputes within the scientific community. It is true that scientists today take a variety of stances on what theories are likely to be true as well as disagree about a lot of the details concerning theories. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise- scientists are faced with a multiplicity of possibilities and the consequent diversity of opinion fuels progress.
While that is true, one dodgy practice today is to misrepresent what scientists do agree upon. One example of this in the USA is ‘Young Earth Creationism’, the idea that the universe was created sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, with all species of animals and plants already in the form we see them today. Since evolution requires a time period of around 4 billion years to produce the diversity of life we see today, creationists necessarily deny the truth of evolution.
Despite claims by creationists, there appears to be no major scientific disagreement about the truth of evolution. A 2009 survey by The Pew Research Center found 97% of scientists surveyed agreed that ‘humans and other living things evolved over time’. This is as much consensus one can possibly expect over a theory of science. While it is true that scientists might disagree about details, they agree in vast majorities that our best scientific evidence shows that evolution is true.
Despite this, only a little over 60% of the general public (of the USA) believed that evolution took place and only 32% of them believe that it was entirely through natural processes. These numbers means a huge chunk of that country do not believe something that is agreed upon by an overwhelming number of scientists.
And this isn’t something that is restricted to the USA. On the 20th of March, the NTU Campus Crusade for Christ organized an event called “Life on Earth: Intelligent Design or Chance?” This was an event held at LT1 and managed to almost fill the whole room. Young Earth Creationism has reached NTU.
To be clear, this is not an attack on anyone’s beliefs. No reasonable belief sysem precludes incorporating science and facts within its framework. Moreover, people are entitled to believe whatever they want without interference from others. The issue at hand is misrepresentation of what scientists actually think. According to the survey, 28% of the public actually believes that scientists don’t agree that evolution took place. This makes it clear that people still value science but that they’re being misled about what the facts are. It is one thing for people to look at scientific evidence and then choose to ignore it. It is a whole other ball game when people publically misrepresent what scientists actually think. This is unacceptable in today’s world.
To make the claim that scientists disagree seem legitimate, young earth creationists go to elaborate lengths to appear science-like.
There is now a ‘Creation Museum’ in Kentucky which tries to promote a young earth creationist version of reality. It has displays with dinosaurs and humans co-existing (despite science showing that dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago while the earliest human ancestors appeared approximately 6 million years ago) as well as other exhibits contesting evolution. And these aren’t taught as a possible alternate to evolution but rather as fact. The British philosopher A.C. Grayling, after visiting the museum, remarked “This place doesn’t just take on evolution—it squares off with geology, anthropology, paleontology, history, chemistry, astronomy, zoology, biology, and good taste. It directly and boldly contradicts most ‘-onomies’ and all ‘-ologies’, including most theology.”
More troubling is that creationists continuously push for their beliefs to be a part of science teaching. This has been a common occurrence for more than a century now. In the 1920s, Tennessee and Arkansas had laws which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools and universities. When these were ruled unconstitutional in the later parts of the century, a new law was passed in Louisiana which made it mandatory to give equal time to alternate theories to evolution. Finally, this too was found unconstitutional as the court deemed that creationism was inherently religious and hence couldn’t be considered science.
The fight then went into schools individually where the administration was still allowed to set the curriculum. These battles happen even today, with periodic changes to textbooks reflecting creationist ideas. Georgia in 2005 had a sticker which cautioned “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.” The same year, Kansas held ‘evolution hearings’ to try to introduce intelligent-design (a close cousin of creationism) into their science classes. There were objections to Texas textbooks as recent as 2013.
If these details seem unnecessary, it is to stress that creationism isn’t a benign idea that can be ignored. Despite the arguments against evolution being debunked creationists persist. By creating insulated communities around these beliefs, they create a bubble for themselves which is removed from the rest of society. Like deep wounds beneath light bandaging, these beliefs fester and infect. Cut off from mainstream science, there isn’t much room for critical thought and so fringe ideologies thrive and maintain a strong hold on a significant portion of people.
I want to make clear that I am not calling for censorship of anyone’s ideas. If someone wants to hold and advocate this view, they should be allowed to. Rather, it is an appeal to everyone to try to hold ourselves to higher standards. We should call out those who try to paint evolution as unscientific and dubious. We should steadfastly change our world views as we get new evidence as scientific knowledge enriches all world views.
In conclusion, science is of paramount importance today. We require its inputs to perform a range of activities, from studying the cosmos to probing the fundamental nature of reality. It is therefore vital that the integrity of science be inviolable. Considering scientists have finite resources and time, we cannot cannot afford nor expect them to fight these old battles for all eternity. Just the fact that some people disagree does not mean there is any real debate here. People should not be able to misrepresent facts without a cost to their credibility. People cannot be kept in the dark about what scientists know. We cannot allow 30% of another country’s population to believe that evolution is false. Contrary to aphorisms, the truth does not always win out, unless it is fought for. Call out people and make it clear that denying science is unacceptable in modern discourse. We owe it to science and to ourselves.
 Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/528.pdf
 Butler Act http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butler_Act
 Does Life On Earth Violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics?http://physics.gmu.edu/~roerter/EvolutionEntropy.htm
 Claim CB200.1: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB200_1.html
 Evolution of the Eye http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/01/1/l_011_01.html