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I T ’ S A L L R E L AT I V E by Jeff Burkett, Mathematics & Natural Sciences Instructor
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” –Galileo Galilei
Everyone is familiar with the story. In 1633, Galileo was tried by the inquisition, found guilty of heresy, forced to recant his views under threat of torture, and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. His crime: discovering and reporting irrefutable evidence that Earth is not the center of the universe. While this happened almost four centuries ago, the unpleasantness that occurs when science disagrees with ideology is still very much in existence. Science, religion, and politics are such integral parts of the human experience it is inevitable that they intertwine. But when scientific issues become political issues, the facts are often lost in the turbulence of emotion that follows. Everyone has an opinion. Faith and reason collide. Politicians and pundits pontificate and are given far more media attention than actual scientists.
these issues when casting their vote, because the decisions they make while in office will affect our lives—and I, for one, want those decisions made in the light of reason. The longest standing clash between science and religion that seeps into today’s politics revolves around the Theory of Evolution. Scientists argue that life evolved into its present form over millions of years through the process of natural selection. This is inconsistent with a literal interpretation of the Bible, which maintains that life was created approximately five thousand years ago in the exact form we see today. Unfortunately for critics of evolution, many of the arguments they present against it are based upon simple misunderstandings concerning the scientific method in general and the Theory of Evolution in particular.
For example, it is frequently argued that evolution is “just a theory” and therefore should not be taken The irony is that for many of these issues, there is too seriously. This criticism confuses the everyday very little debate within the scientific community. use of the word theory with the much stronger Public perception of present scientific controversy and more profound use of the word within is a poor reflection of what is actually going on a scientific context. Everything in science. As an example, scientists in science is just a theory, seriously disagree over the legitincluding basic concepts imacy of String Theory and like gravity, electromagthe cause of certain discrepancies between the netism, and the laws Theory of Relativity of thermodynamics. AS A SPECIES, and the Standard When scientists Model of Quantum speak of the TheWE NEED TO HAVE A Mechanics, but ory of Relativity very few doubt or the Theory SERIOUS CONVERSATION the Theory of of Evolution, ABOUT HOW OUR LIFESTYLE Evolution or the they mean basic mechanics something CHOICES ARE AFFECTING of climate change. quite different than an untested THE LIVABILITY OF This November, hypothesis, as we will once again is denoted by the OUR PLANET. have the opportunity more common use to choose our leaders. of the term. In this column I will outline some of the facts, Several criteria must be controversies, and misconcepmet before a scientific idea is elevated to theory status. Firstly, tions surrounding two contemporary a theory must be thoroughly tested and scientific/political issues. It is not my intention explain all known data. In science, a theory is to promote Republicans, Democrats, or any other represented by a vast body of evidence from many political party, nor is it my intent to disparage different sources, both observational and experianyone’s religious faith. I do, however, encourage readers to strongly consider candidates’ views on mental. Secondly, there must be no contradictory
evidence. A single, confirmed observation to the contrary is enough to topple a scientific theory. Finally, and most importantly, a theory must have practical applications. It is not enough that a theory be mathematically and observationally consistent. It must also be useful. If you can’t use the knowledge to build something, observe something, or make future predictions about some natural phenomenon, than the idea is not a theory. The Theory of Relativity, for example, is used every day in aircraft navigation, global positioning systems, and nuclear power plants. Likewise, the Theory of Evolution meets all of these criteria. The volume of empirical evidence accumulated in favor of this theory is so overwhelming that listing it all in detail would easily fill an entire library. What follows is a brief overview of some of the key facts. Most obvious is the fossil record. Millions of fossils have been recovered and dated using several different methods to ensure accuracy. Methods such as potassium-argon radiometric dating and biostratigraphic dating use vastly different techniques to estimate the age of a fossil, but they typically agree quite well. Many fossils are hundreds of millions of years old, and evolutionary tracks are clearly documented for thousands of species, including Homo sapiens. Next, most plant and animal species have vestigial structures. These are parts in the body of an organism that presumably played some role in the past, either for that species or for its evolutionary ancestors, but have little or no current functionality. Examples of vestigial structures in humans include the tonsils, wisdom teeth, appendix, and tail bone. Human fetuses have tails for part of their development, and occasionally babies are born with tails—although they’re usually surgically removed. More recently, additional evidence has been uncovered as a consequence of mapping the genomes of humans and other animals. Chimps and bonobos, our closest cousins, differ from us by approximately 2 percent. All primates share at least 93 percent of
their genetic code, and even small mammals like mice share 90 percent. In fact, all animal life on Earth shares at least some DNA. Finally, we can witness evolution in action. Microscopic organisms like bacteria and viruses can produce many generations within a matter of days. In fact, bacteria are evolving so quickly that every antibiotic ever developed is in danger of becoming useless in the very near future. On a larger scale, speciation has occurred so recently in some animals that although they can still interbreed, they cannot produce viable offspring. Examples include the liger, which is the sterile offspring of a lion and a tiger, and the mule, which results from mating a donkey with a horse. Despite the overwhelming evidence, resistance to the Theory of Evolution is as strong today as resistance to a heliocentric solar system was in Galileo’s time. Ironically, much of this resistance is founded in yet another misconception about evolution. The Theory of Evolution is not a theory about the origins of life, and does not preclude an intelligent designer. Evolution only describes how organisms develop into other organisms over a long period of time through the process of natural selection. It says nothing about how life actually began. For anyone except the most stringent literal interpreters of the Bible, evolution and faith are not mutually exclusive ideas. A second and far more dangerous conflict that has arisen between science and politics is the threat of climate change. While it remains politically expedient, financially profitable, and enormously convenient to continue to burn fossil fuels in massive quantities, it is also changing the atmospheric composition of our planet in ways that may not be conducive to our survival. Atmospheric carbon dioxide traps heat in the biosphere that would normally be radiated back into space. This is a scientific fact. A fact based on basic chemistry and physics that anyone who’s taken a high school science course can understand. You can prove it using nothing more than a terrarium, full spectrum light, tank of carbon dioxide, and thermometer.
Unfortunately, many politicians, pundits, and media outlets continue to operate in a state of denial and create a false sense of debate over this issue. We live in a world in which there are hypersonic jets, open-heart surgery, and space stations, yet many people steadfastly refuse to “believe” in science when it comes to climate change.
It is exactly this type of politicking that this column seeks to address. Climate change is a scientific, philosophical, and moral concern that should be assessed according to the best available evidence. Whether one is liberal or conservative has nothing to do with the massive experiment we’re currently performing on our atmosphere. Democrats and Republicans alike burn fossil fuels, and ULTIMATELY, SCIENCE DOES NOT both will suffer the consequences of doing so to excess. MAKE CLAIMS CONCERNING
Nevertheless, the evidence that global warming is occurring has become so overwhelming ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY OR TRUTH Perhaps the most that it would be painful thing about impossible to the whole problem is cover it all within a single column. I strongly urge this: fossil fuels are great. They’re cheap, they’re you to visit climate.nasa.gov and discover what abundant, and they store energy in a highly concenone of the most respected scientific agencies in the trated, easily accessible form. Like most people, I world has to say regarding sea level rise, global love being able to jump in my car and go wherever temperature rise, warming oceans, declining arctic I want, whenever I want. I love having light when sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme weather events, and it’s dark outside, and I really love being warm in ocean acidification. the winter and cool in the summer. Unfortunately, unforeseen side effects of burning such vast quanIt is important to understand that this is not some tities of these fuels are dangerously altering the hypothetical, future disaster. It is something that is chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere. As a species, we happening right now, it is accelerating more rapidly need to have a serious conversation about how our than many of the more dire predictions anticipatlifestyle choices are affecting the livability of our planet. Painful choices must be made. It is difficult ed, and it is a worldwide problem that is affecting to see that happening when large numbers of every country on Earth including the U.S. people, including many of our leaders, are in denial of basic scientific facts. June represented the 328th consecutive month in which the average global temperature exceeded Ultimately, science does not make claims concernthe 20th century mean. In the United States alone, 3,215 high-temperature records were matched or ing absolute certainty or truth. Theories have been exceeded that month. Midwestern drought condidisproved in the past. On the other hand, scientific ideas are rooted in empirical facts and are not a tions are so severe that the entire corn crop is at question of opinion or belief. A person who makes risk. Virginia’s Hampton Roads region has become a statement such as “I do not believe in climate so susceptible to flooding due to rising sea levels change” or “I do not believe in evolution” is comthat the state recently commissioned a $50,000 study to examine adaptation strategies to address mitting a grievous error in judgment. Aren’t they the problem. In a ridiculous display tacitly admitting that they have not made decisions of partisan bickering, some and formed beliefs on these matters based on the politicians have forbidden best available evidence? If that is the case, what the authors of the does it say about their ability to make important study to refer to financial decisions, write and enforce laws, negotiate “sea level rise” with other nations, and govern in general? A candibecause the date’s stance on these two issues provides a valuable term is too litmus test concerning their ability to make rational “liberal.” decisions based on factual information. In November, I encourage you to pay attention, apply reason to each issue, and vote Science!
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