One Man’s Take on the Assault on Science

Ken Miller spoke this year at the Yale Terry Lecture about the Dover trial and about coexistence of theism and evolution. I just finished watching the video and I can only encourage you to watch it. Miller is an excellent speaker and this is an excellent lecture.

Unfortunately, this speech has been attacked in other blogs due to what Miller said about theism. I won’t go there except to say I’d throw my weight in Miller’s side of the discussion. I would argue that Miller’s attempt to find a path between science and faith, often perceived as nothing but a minefield, is nothing short of saintly. I can’t argue his theism; I won’t even argue whether he is right. More important is his emphasis on understanding and cooperation and not exclusion and confrontation.

I’d prefer to look at Miller’s comments on how partisan science has become in the last few years. This came up not in the speech itself but in the question and answer period that followed.

It started with a question from Carl Zimmer (The Loom) asking for Miller’s comments about an attack on Chris Mooney  by the Discovery Institute. Miller responded, that since the Kitzmiller verdict showed ID to be religion and not science, the DI has spent increasing time attacking proponents of science. Mooney, the author of ‘The Republican War on Science’ is one of the victims because he has pointed out the tactics used by the Discovery Institute and the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.

What I find more disturbing were Miller’s comments on the changing political atmosphere in America today. Miller begins by describing why he went into science and what has changed in resent years.

One of the things I liked about science and one of the reasons I wanted to go into science as a career is because science isn’t politicised. I mean there isn’t a conservative version of the Krebs Cycle or a liberal version of the cell cycle. I mean it just doesn’t exist.

And I went to scientific meetings for 25 years, the early part of my career. I don’t recall talking about politics even once. I’m an officer of the American Society for Cell Biology; I go to the Cell Biology meetings every year. The last two years, it’s been nothing but politics. And the reason for that is that the major political parties seem to have picked up scientific issues as part of their partisan agenda.

As an experiment I a group in my own freshman biology class this year “Would you regard evolution as a liberal or conservative idea?” They all said, Oh it’s a liberal idea, left wing, liberal. They didn’t say Commie, Pinko but they all said left wing idea. [My transcript, any errors are mine.]

He goes on to make the point that 100 years ago, evolution was considered to be a conservative , right-wing, economically laissez-faire topic. (Of course the classic case of right wing misuse of the evolutionary theories is how it was mutated into Social Darwinism and became one of the keystones of Nazi ideologies.)

The problem here is not how the science is being misused but that the science is being seen through political frames. Both right and left increasingly point to science or anti-science as the argument requires. Left is less likely to use anti-science, but the willingness of both sides to find a ‘second opinion’ is increasing common. Not only does this worry me, but I think the rate at which this separation into left and right science is increasing. Evolution, global warming, stem cells, even what went wrong during Katrina; no stone or scientific paper is left unturned or untouched.

The Discovery Institute often uses a cartoon showing the ‘Darwinist’ Huns at the gate of Christian security. In the case of partisan use of science, we have both sides, Republican and Democrat, besieging an overwhelmed science.

Miller discussed his take on this assault; I’m just worried that the war is far from over and only a few are fighting for the good guys.

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