Strengths and Weaknesses

We continue to fight the same semantic battles that Darwin fought almost two centuries ago.   "Heretic," "infidel," "creationism" have been replaced by "theory not fact," "strengths and weaknesses" and "academic freedom."   Questions like "Do you believe in evolution?" abound.  It is time to show ideologues out of our children's science classrooms and let the scientists back in.

The first step is to defuse the war of words.  As a religious person, I "believe in" an all-powerful God.  As a human being, I do not "believe in" the chair upon which I sit or the cup from which I sip my coffee.  Both are facts, not beliefs.

Scientific theories are neither beliefs nor facts, but tools that help us interpret the data that bombard us every day.  They are human-crafted approximations.  Scientists don't "believe in" theories.  To the contrary, they constantly challenge them, embrace their strengths, expose their weaknesses, and, when appropriate, discard them.  The decision to discard does not rest on discovery of imperfections, nor is it based on the lack of a natural explanation for an observed phenomenon.  The decision to discard takes place only after observation and experiment lead the scientist to a newer theory that better explains the natural world that surrounds us. 

Challenging the theory of evolution because it may not fully explain the complexity of life is science.  A scientist who intentionally ignores those challenges confuses scientific theory with religious belief.  A scientist who investigates the challenges, throws his hands up, and postulates that the only explanation is supernatural is also abandoning science.  He is limiting nature to what his mind can conceive.  When he does that, he is no different than the Norseman of old who attributed unexplained sounds in the sky to Thor.

Theories help us understand the natural universe.  They fit comfortably within the realm of science.  They should be kept, modified or discarded based on the rules of that realm.  Their strengths keep them around.  Their weaknesses guarantee better ones in the future.  I subscribe to today's version of the theory of evolution because it supplies the best scientific framework to analyze what we see in our rocks, morphology and DNA, but only for now.

I also believe in a God who could have created our universe in an instant ten seconds ago.  That God could have created the same universe in six days ten thousand years ago or over billions of years.  For me, "believing in" moves us beyond the narrow realm of science and into the broader expanse of religion.  It broadens our awareness to something that envelops and transcends what we can see and prove, but it has no place inside a science classroom.

As we prepare our children for 21st Century life, we must give our teachers the freedom to teach science the best way it can be taught, but academic freedom does not include allowing belief to masquerade as science.  Nor does it include allowing teachers to transform constantly changing theories into immutable truths. 

Unless theories remain subject to change, scientific progress stops.  The current theory of evolution is the best we have today.  Unlike a belief, it will certainly be replaced, maybe in a few years, maybe tomorrow morning.  And then it will replaced again.  The child who understands the difference between theory and belief will be harder to confuse in the science classroom and just as hard to confuse in her place of worship.