Thursday, December 22, 2011

Should Scientists Be Forced To State Their Theology?

You would think that what is science, and what is religion, are two very different things. Facts are facts and faith is faith and, in my view, rarely do the two coincide. Nor should they. Gravity is true whether the scientist discussing it is a Jew, a Muslim, a rationalist, a Jehovah's Witness or a born-again revivalist.

But a Republican in New Hampshire wants to pass law requiring all scientists discussing evolution to reveal their political viewpoints and their personal beliefs about supernatural hocus-pocus and the like. Actually, the bill doesn't go quite that far. It only demands that a scientist state his religious views if he is an atheist.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Jerry Bergen says that it would:

"Require evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism."

That is pretty much the whole legislation.

There are a couple of things I immediately notice about this badly crafted piece of theocratic insanity. First, evolution is always taught as a theory. Apparently the legislator, like many fundamentalists, is unaware of what the term "theory" means in science. In science a theory is "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principles or body of principles offered to explain phenomena." Science assumes that a theory is the best explanation for something that has not been disproved. In science the assumption is that all theories are potentially false, but that a theory is regarded as true if it the best explanation to stand up to scrutiny to date. In other words, there are lots of facts to back up the theory, and there is no good reason yet presented to dismiss it.

But the public tends to use theory very different. "I have a theory about 9/11," is not a statement of the best set of principles that explains 9/11. What most people mean, when they use "theory" is opinion. To them, every opinion is a theory. But in science every opinion is not a theory.

Now many of the less educated on the Religious Right tend to be confused between the two. They assume that if evolution is a "theory" then it is like an opinion, a statement of personal preferences. Thus the witch doctor who claims an illness is the result of a curse is put on par with a doctor who found the virus causing the problem. Hence, their creationist nonsense is put on par with the science of evolution.

What this Republican is doing is trying to force the schools to teach the idea that evolution is merely an opinion, that is using theory in the common, unscientific sense of the word.

But, while many see this bill as aimed at the scientists who explain evolution, it seems more broadly written than that. Broad legislation is almost always bad legislation. This law would demand the "theorist" to state his political and ideological views and whether or not he is an atheist. But who is the theorist? Is it the author of a science book? If so, how do they force scientists, most of whom will not be living in New Hampshire, to submit to a state mandated Inquisition regarding their beliefs?

Who will determine what the theorists really believes? Would theorists have to report all changes in their beliefs every time they change their mind? I just don't see how this bill could possibly be enforced against scientists.

But, I do see the bill as being broader than that. Wouldn't the theorist also include the teacher doing the theorizing in class? I think so. This would do something we haven't done in a long time—force every teacher to publicly reveal their beliefs on politics, ideology, and god. And what do you think will happen to the teachers who would be forced to reveal they are atheists? If you don't think the fundamentalist fanatics would demand a lynching then you are mistaken.

If a teacher voluntarily tells their students they are atheists the Religious Right routinely demands the teacher be fired. They march on school board meetings, petition, shriek loudly, wail shrilly, and whine about the mere presence of a non-fundamentalist is a violation of their religious freedom. So, atheist teachers who reveal their rational thoughts on the topic, are subject to all sorts of harassment from the fanatics. Now, they appear to want to force each atheist to out himself if he or she is to teach evolution. I'm sorry but this is an invitation to a witch burning.

Of course, none of this is relevant to whether the scientific theory in question is a valid one or not. Germ theory is the most plausible explanation regardless of the beliefs of the theorist. And, whether the Jesus-addled Republicans like it or not, evolution is the most plausible explanation for how life as we know it came to be. And no witch hunt for atheists is going to disprove the theory of evolution, and without that, it will still remain the most logical, scientific explanation.

Be it demons causing disease, or creationism, those are not scientific theories. They confuse opinion with theory.

More importantly, their faith statements can not be theories. The hallmark of a scientific theory is that it can be disproved. But their faith statements are outside science. The idea that there is a god somewhere is not something the scientist can disprove. This is why logic puts the burden of proof, not upon the denier, but upon the person making the affirmative assertion. If the creationist kooks want to replace evolutionary theory with faith-based assertions, they have first show why evolution is deficient and why their faith-based claims are a better explanation. They don't do that. Instead they want to pass laws to force people to publicly disclose their private beliefs.

By the way, if this law were to be enacted, ask yourself what kind of powers a government would need in order to enforce it. What you will realize is that this is not a law that "small government" people would enact. It is Big Brother at work.

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