Thursday, July 26, 2007

Don't Quote Darwin to Me, or Isaac Newton either, Jeff Jacoby

Creationists are fond of trying to twist Charles Darwin's words, and some things he actually said in defense of their reality-denying nonsense. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how science works. Science is not driven by quotes from authority figures. That is how religion works. Science works on evidence. The reason Darwin is as revered as he is, is not because everything he said was correct (it wasn't, by a long shit), but because his theory of evolution matched the evidence, and continues to do so. His words are not Holy Writ. More bluntly, what Darwin says doesn't mean a tinker's damn today. Really. That was almost 150 years ago. Believe it or not, we've learned a few things since then, and while Chuck was a pretty good scientist in his day, his quotes belong in a modern discussion of science about as much as Christopher Columbus belongs in the America's Cup.

The same goes for Isaac Newton. Yes, he was a Christian, and yes he was a great scientist. But it is a non sequitor extraordinaire to conclude as Jeff Jacoby does here, that that somehow lends credibility to religious pseudoscience today. Physics, like biology, has progressed a lot in the 300+ years since Newton lived. He too would be completely out of place in a modern discussion of science. Relativity and quantum physics would be baffling to him, as they are to most of us.

See, there is a very basic and unreasonable assumption in any argument from authority where the authority lived hundreds of years ago. We are all tainted by our times, and we carry those intellectual biases. Many of the founding fathers were infected by the racism of their time, for example. But that is not a good indication of what it is reasonable for an intelligent person to think today. Consider the shape of the earth. There was a day when even the most brilliant man alive thought the earth was flat. No doubt everyone reading this would have as well. Yet we don't think that today, and no doubt neither would he.

Likewise, one could easily describe Newton as a creationist, but again, such a view was commonplace them. Remember, Newton wrote PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA in 1687. That's over 150 years before Darwin wrote ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES! It is unwarranted in the extreme to argue as though it is a given that Newton would be a creationist given all the information we have gathered since then. His opinion as a creationist was more or less the norm of scientific thought at the time, and no doubt had he lived today his opinion would be in the norm of scientific thought today. The same would go for any historical figure. Would anyone really want to seriously argue that Socrates, Shakespeare, or Thomas Jefferson would hold all the same opinions today that they held then? More knowledge, different time, different opinions.

Of course, no discussion of science would be complete without a reminder that in the end, it is the evidence, and not anyone's opinion, that matters. So it doesn't matter if Newton was a creationist or not. Hell, it doesn't matter if Darwin himself were a creationist. That doesn't reduce the overwhelming evidence for evolution one whit.


Ian said...

I'm curious as to where Jacoby got this assertion:
The 21st-century prejudice that religion invariably "subverts science" is refuted
Is that really the case? I know a few people say that "believers" can't be good scientists, but that's nowhere near being a mainstream position. Sure, the creationists do their best to "subvert science" - but the issue there is one of dishonesty, not religion (again, the assertion that religion spawns dishonesty isn't a mainstream position).

Sounds like a classic straw man to me.

ScienceAvenger said...

There are so many flaws there I don't know where to start. First off, it's not a predjudice when you can see evidence of religious interference with science rather easily. The position may be wrong (I think it is), but it can't be accurately described as a predjudice.

Second, what's the evidence that this is a uniquely 21st century position? Atheism might be making slow but sure social gains, but the idea that the gods don't help much in the lab is hardly news.

Third, I don't think many of us unapologetic atheists think religion invariably distorts science. Ken Miller is disproof enough of that. It'd be more accurate to say it gets in the way of science, and thus has the potential to distort science, so it is best discarded.

Fourth, again, no fact about Newton is going to be relevant to what effect religion has on science now, so no, the position has not been refuted. I happen to not buy it, but to say it has been refutedis overstating the matter considerably.