Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nice One, Darwin

I think I have this right ... in scientific parlance, most "theories" are really hypotheses awaiting thorough testing and re-testing, tweaking and revision, until enough verifiable and repeatable experiments have been performed that everyone is damn certain the hypothesis describes an actual fact.

In that case, the hypothesis can truly be called a "theory." And if that's the case, then Darwin's Theory of Evolution is no longer a hypothesis--from the macroscopic level (the fossil record of large animals) to microscopic (the near-real-time evolution of bacteria) to computational models (of human DNA, for instance) to the breeding of domestic dogs, there's enough proof to keep both scientists and lay-people happy. Move on.

That's not true though, is it. Such is the miseducation and politically inspired distortions surrounding "Darwinism" that it's perfectly reasonable for a President who openly questioned the theory to be voted into office twice and for a state school board to allow schoolchildren exposure to quasi-religious challenges to a theory that is as solidly built as the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Electromagnetism.

Oh, and not forgetting that a former Vice Presidential candidate has gone so far as to confess her sincere belief that the Earth is as old as the Bible says it is (recall that advances in geology were crucial in order for Darwin to develop his hypothesis). "What will happen to the US Geological Survey if Palin wins?" my brother asked me, watching polls of last year's election from his home in London.

So what hope does the hypothesis that "increased human industrial activity will have a deleterious effect on the Earth's climate" have. Today the Associated Press reports that carbon dioxide levels are at 385 parts per million, nearly at a "worst case scenario" of 390 ppm. Scientists have never found evidence of that much CO2 in the atmosphere in one million years. They are not quite sure what's going to happen next, but the majority don't think it's going to be all that.

Scientific illiteracy has grown like a cancer around the Theory of Evolution. It allows and encourages the questioning of pretty incontrovertible scientific data, of the sober and careful assessments of that data by legions of trained scientists, and ultimately of the scientific process itself (although the scientific process/data collection/peer-reviewed assessment apparently is fine when its comes to fighting real cancer).

I fear that scientists such as John Barnes and Stephen Schneider--quoted in the AP story and quite willing to speak openly about "coin-flip odds for serious outcomes for our planet"--will end up being like Max Mayfield and the other meteorologists who correctly predicted Hurricane Katrina's devastation—I'm sure "I told you so" only goes so far with that lot.

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

No comments:

Post a Comment