And the Sun Orbits Earth, Too

When educators and corporate leaders bemoan America's scientific illiteracy, they're usually referring to how we're losing our competitive edge in science and technology (see, for instance, the 2006 report from the National Academy of Sciences, "Rising Above the Gathering Storn,") or to the fact that fewer than a third of adult Americans know that DNA is the molecule of heredity, that only 10 percent know what radiation is and that 20 percent think the Sun revolves around Earth. But more and more, scientists grappling with the question of what you need to know about science to participate in civic discourse are concluding that the need is more fundamental: you need to know what science is, what it is not, and what it can and cannot answer.

And on that, there is ignorance at the highest levels.

When three Republican presidential hopefuls raised their hands during the recent debate to indicate they "didn't believe in evolution," as moderator Chris Matthews put it, biologist Jerry Coyne was appalled (though not necessarily surprised). As he writes in a scathing—though more in sorrow than in anger—essay, "Because there is just as much evidence for the fact of evolution as there is for the existence of atoms, anyone raising his hand must have been grossly misinformed." But while some of the hand-raising could have been the result of political calculation (more than half of Americans don't believe in Darwinian evolution, and it's always good strategy to be in sync with the majority), when Sen. Sam Brownback expanded on his hand-raising in a New York Times op-ed, the extent of his science ignorance was impossible to ignore.

For starters, Brownback wrote that "there is no one single theory of evolution." But there is: it's the Darwinian paradigm of random mutations acted on by natural selection. Brownback thinks that evolution holds that "man is merely the chance product of random mutations." But that too is a misunderstanding. Yes, mutations are random, but the crucial next step—natural selection of those variants that are the most evolutionarily fit—is not. Last but not least, he thinks evolution can account only for small changes within species, such as bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and not for big changes like fish evolving into amphibians. But there is ample fossil evidence for that; see, for instance, this.

A worse and more dangerous problem is Brownback's understanding (or lack thereof) of what science is. He explains that he rejects evolution if "it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence." As Coyne notes, "Using that criterion he'd have to reject all of science, including physics and chemistry."

Brownback seems to yearn for a science that embraces the supernatural. But as Coyne explains, "Science simply doesn't deal with hypotheses about a guiding intelligence, or supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world. Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism—none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota. So Brownback's proposal to bring faith to the table of science is misguided: 'As science continues to explore the details of man's origin, faith can do its part as well,' [Brownback writes]. What part? Where are faith's testable predictions or falsifiable hypotheses about human origins?"

It's lovely that Brownback believes that "the unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded," "that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose," and that "the process of creation-and indeed life today—is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him." But none of these is a scientific statement because none can be falsified. They are statements of faith. They may be true, they may be false, but science is silent on that. They are just not amenable to empirical testing.

This is about more than evolution. Brownback argues that we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with religious beliefs. But as Coyne argues, "This attitude has enormous political—and educational—implications. What happens if scientific truth conflicts with a politician's "spiritual truth"? This is not a theoretical problem, but a real one, as we see in debates about stem-cell research, abortion, genetic engineering, and global warming. Ignorance about evolution may be widespread, but it's not nearly as dangerous as dogmatic certainty about the real world based on faith alone."