Between ignorance and science, ignorance wins every time

Elton Wong

A year or two ago, one of my philosophy professors sent me a joke e-mail about the state legislature of Alabama.

This governing body had, according to the e-mail, changed the official state value of pi (the mathematical constant) from its accepted value of approximately 3.14159 to exactly three.

Apparently, this policy had been adopted in order to “bring some absolute values back to our society,” in the words of a senator quoted in the e-mail.

The article went on to explain that although scientists and mathematicians have asserted for hundreds of years that the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle is an irrational number that can never be calculated to an exact degree of precision, the legislature had apparently decided to take their version of the value from the Bible.

The Bible states that one of Solomon’s fountains was “perfectly round, being 30 cubits around and 10 cubits across.”

Reportedly, senators became exasperated by a mathematician who calculated the value of pi out to 100 decimal places, yet was still unable to provide an exact value. The senators reportedly called him a “hippie.”

When I read the other day that the Kansas Board of Education had decided to remove evolution from the state-required science curriculum, I had a sense of deja vu.

This time, instead of a mathematical constant, the legislative body had attacked the central concept of biology.

Because the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that it was illegal to teach creationism or to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools, the school board did the next best thing.

If any good can be said to have come from this rather ridiculous event, it is to be found in the increased debate over evolution vs. creationism in the public arena.

After all, how can we be so sure that species change and that new species arise over time?

No one alive has directly witnessed the evolution of man from a primate ancestor.

There have been no recorded instances of weasels growing out of petri dishes where there had been only bacteria the night before.

What makes evolution a fact and not just a theory?

Since no one can be absolutely certain of what happened in the biological past, should not evolution and creationism be given equal time in the classroom?

This much-used argument is based on a faulty view of what constitutes a scientific fact.

Science does not deal in absolutes. Rather, it gathers evidence and draws conclusions based on this evidence. Science is value-neutral, assumes nothing and questions everything.

Evolution, like gravitation, atomic theory and relativity, is considered scientific fact because it does the best job explaining the evidence found so far.

If new evidence is found tomorrow, evolution can and will be re-examined, perhaps modified or even rejected.

Newtonian physics had to be reconsidered when Einstein and relativity came along.

So far though, evolution has not been truly challenged.

The creationist, even the creation “scientist,” bases his or her views on literal interpretation of the Bible, and never questions it.

Instead of re-examining his or her assumptions in the face of evidence, the creationist rejects or re-interprets that evidence in order to maintain his or her assumptions.

This removes creationism from the realm of objectivity and places it in the realm of dogma.

All dogma is equally valid (or invalid) in that it is unscientific.

Unscientific ideas do not belong in school science curriculum. Scientific ideas do.

If evolution is placed on the same academic plane as creationism, what would follow?

Some ancient civilizations believed that all physical matter was made up of earth, air, fire and water.

Should this ancient Greek theory of substances be taught alongside the periodic table and organic chemistry?

After all, no one alive has directly witnessed the breaking of pi bonds or trans-esterification.

Protons, neutrons and electrons are too small to be seen.

Why should they be treated as fact?

This challenge would obviously be silly, but it too could happen if more people were to accept the beliefs of the ancient Greeks as absolute truth.

Until that happens, though, the Kansas decision represents the latest victory of ignorance over science.

It is surely a temporary one.

Although creationism may be comforting, it does not square with the evidence of biology, paleontology or anthropology.

Scientific truth, like the value of pi, can never be arrived at exactly.

This is perhaps regrettable, but it is the nature of things nonetheless.

Elton Wong is a junior in biology from Ames.