Politics & Policy

Show Me the Science

On Expelled.

Expelled seems to me to be the right-wing analog of Fahrenheit 9/11. Stylistically, it is almost an homage to Michael Moore: From the ironic use of boomer-era musical counterpoint, to the knowingly deadpan interview style, to the extended view of a disfavored male interview subject having make-up applied, to the befuddled narrator trying to find an interview subject in the first place, it is designed to set up the image of a regular guy confronting sinister forces of immense, hidden power. At the level of ideas, the resemblance is just as obvious: An effort to take a preexisting belief about the illegitimate use of power, find some facts to fit to it, and do the rest of the work with insinuation and innuendo.

Expelled makes two key assertions. First, the scientific establishment has prevented adequate consideration of Intelligent Design (ID). Second, the scientific finding of evolution through natural selection logically entails atheism and nihilism.

There is a germ of truth to the first assertion. I’m sure that you would hard-pressed to get the editors of a reputable scientific journal to publish a paper that depends explicitly on ID. Of course, it would be just as hard to convince them to publish a paper that was premised on the phlogiston theory of combustion or that presented a perpetual motion machine.

This is because, in order to make practical progress, scientists accept paradigms (e.g., the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology) that have demonstrated the ability both to account for a wide range of empirical observations, and to produce useful scientific results. A paradigm helps to create a coherent discipline. The day-to-day work of scientists is to solve intellectual puzzles that fall within the relevant paradigm.

But this is just a specialized way of being close-minded, and so on its face seems like a pretty bad idea. Strangely, paradigms are useful. The reason is that to make progress you have to make some assumptions. If I started my day by demanding that I prove my own existence, I’d never get out of bed.

At this point ID advocates say Aha! You see, scientists aren’t giving ID a fair hearing, because it’s just too far outside of the box for the intellectual pygmies who comprise the biology faculties of every major research university in the world. The problem with this is that science has a proven track record of subverting existing paradigms, and replacing them, once superior alternatives are proposed. This process is imperfect and always takes time to work, but it does work. Obvious examples include the triumphs of heliocentric astronomy, the law of conservation of matter, the oxygen theory of combustion, the germ theory of disease, plate tectonics, special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics.

Against this, Expelled provides the following evidence for the supposedly unique resistance of the scientific establishment to ID: Several academics claim that they have been fired or denied tenure, or had other professional setbacks, because they advocated ID. Expelled claims that the institutions responsible either didn’t respond to interview requests, or else had PR personnel repeat talking points in a robotic monotone.

But the obvious question for ID proponents is never asked: OK, this great science is being suppressed, so please show me the data, lab notebooks, scientific work papers, unpublished manuscripts, and so on that contain all of these amazing discoveries that nobody will confront. But we never see it.

One argument the movie makes, without any support that I noticed, is that almost none of this exists because research today takes a lot of money, and ID-based research can’t get funded. Well, the most fundamental scientific work usually begins as reinterpretation of existing data. Such work requires not much more than a very creative scientist, pen, and paper. So actually there should be lots of such theoretical papers available for review. But O.K., some further work would surely demand additional specialized research that would require funding. Let’s at least see the grant proposals. Sorry, you see, there are all of these scientists out there who would do such theoretical work and write such grant proposals, but they’re afraid to do so because their careers would be ruined.

How do we know they exist? Well, one of interview subjects in Expelled tells us that after three or four beers at a conference, evolutionists will tell you that there are so many problems with the evolutionary paradigm that it is doomed. Of course, if we were to ask any of them to confirm and defend such statements, they would refuse because they are intimidated. So, as with most such conspiracy theories, both examples of the apparent visible operation of the conspiracy and the absence of such examples count as evidence for it. You know, in science there is a term for such theories: non-falsifiable.

The parts of Expelled that support the second assertion — that evolution implies atheism and nihilism — also contain a germ of truth, and pack a lot more emotional punch. This is mostly because they are dominated by footage of Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. Expelled charges, correctly, that Hitler often couched the logic of the Holocaust in explicitly Darwinian terms. It’s also true, however, that we don’t know whether Hitler reasoned from Darwin to Dachau, found some psychologically useful justification for his madness, or simply used this as a way to sell his program. Someone capable of murdering millions of people is probably capable of lying to himself and others about why he did it.

Also, it is true that many people have reasoned from evolution to atheism. But is their reasoning correct? Expelled gives lots of screen time to several prominent scientists, philosophers, and other academics who claim that it is. It doesn’t bother to present those who disagree, and believe that evolution is fully compatible with faith: the director of the Human Genome Research Institute, to pick one example, or Pope Benedict. Why would the pope be part of a multidisciplinary conspiracy to promote atheism?

Even if it is mistaken, however, there is clearly something to this connection between evolution and atheism. It’s hard to believe that so many people make it randomly. Here’s how I described its nature and resolution in National Review last year:

Evolution tends to lead us to see the spiritual world in an increasingly abstract light, and a Creator that acts through a process as multi-layered as evolution can be pretty thin gruel. The risk to religion is that this accommodation can begin a seemingly inexorable process that leads to a theology so attenuated that it becomes vanishingly close to materialism.

It is, however, possible to define religious belief in a way that threads the needle of deferring to scientific explanations for non-ultimate physical processes, while still remaining within the central Judeo-Christian tradition.

One of the advantages of institutionalized religion is that it conserves insight. Dealing with evolution places us back in the company of Augustine and Aquinas, who were both forced to figure out how to reconcile powerful proto-scientific ideas with Christianity. They described God as acting through laws or processes. In about the year 400, Augustine described a view of Creation in which “seeds of potentiality” were established by God, which then unfolded through time in an incomprehensibly complicated set of processes. In the 13th century, Aquinas directly incorporated Aristotle and Augustine when he identified God with ultimate causes while accepting naturalistic interpretations of secondary causes in Summa Theologica.

Neither Augustine nor Aquinas was some kind of a pre-Darwinist. Augustine, for example, thought species were immutable and were not the product of common descent. What is striking about both of them, however, is their insistence on understanding and incorporating the best available non-theological thinking into our religious views.

Relying on this deep intellectual heritage, most major denominations in the Western world have accepted evolution as fully consistent with theism. Thoughtful conservatives would be wise to agree.

Trying to wish away valid scientific findings because you believe that they imperil religious or ethical beliefs is a fool’s errand on many levels. Augustine’s guidance from The Literal Meaning of Genesis is quite relevant here:

Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipse of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

Jim Manzi is the CEO of an applied artificial intelligence software company.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.


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