Science is not democratic

Republican candidate Rick Perry is being compared to George W. Bush, our most recent president from Texas. Here is one place the comparison breaks down. Perry is not campaigning to be the “Education President,” as Bush did. Whatever its merits, Bush was president when the “No child left behind” act became law. Based on Perry’s recent comments, it looks like he is more interested in leaving every child behind.

When a little boy in New Hampshire was prompted by his mother to ask Perry about evolution, Perry replied that it’s just a theory with gaps, and added, “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Perry, who likes to tell us the importance of following the Constitution, should know that it’s constitutional to teach creationism in a mythology class but not in a science class.

Apparently, Perry’s theory of science teaching is to tell children they are smart enough to figure out what is right and what is made up. Here are other scientific questions to ask small children: When you walk around, does the earth look flat or round? When you look at the sun in the morning and evening, does it look like the sun is moving around the earth or that the earth is moving around the sun at approximately 67,000 mph? Never mind the scientific consensus, you’re smart enough to just know.

Governor Perry is correct in saying that evolution is controversial. But the “controversy” is religious and political, not scientific. Perry and other anti-evolutionists should be asked questions like:

(1) How do scientists describe the theory of evolution by natural selection?

(2) How do scientists distinguish a hypothesis from a theory?

(3) As a scientific theory, how is creationism falsifiable?

An educated person should understand the rudiments of the scientific method. Creationism should no more be taught as an alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection than should the “stork theory” be taught as an alternative to reproduction. Creationism is an alternative to Zeus or Krishna, not to Darwin.

Only 38% of Americans say they believe in evolution, and far too many politicians are either among the other 62% or pander to them. This, to me, is evidence that democracy works best when we have an informed electorate. I agree with Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” However, science is not and should not become democratic. If 100 million people believe a wrong thing, it is still a wrong thing.

I’m even uncomfortable with the way the poll question was phrased. Evolution is not a belief; it is confirmed through scientific investigation. We don’t take polls asking people if they “believe” in gravity, though the theory of evolution is better understood by scientists than is the theory of gravity.

Some religions may feel threatened by evolution not only because it flatly contradicts a biblical worldview, but also because we now understand that the first creatures who can be called human inherited their DNA from creatures who could not be called human. The first mammals got their DNA from their reptilian ancestors. And so it goes back to the first single-celled organism. I leave it for religious people to decide where a “soul” enters this picture (and whether they want to believe in DNA).

Adults are free to make decisions for themselves, but I’m disturbed by what is happening in our educational system today. Given how the influential Religious Right opposes the teaching of evolution, or any scientific and social view that conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are becoming one nation undereducated.

About Herb Silverman

Herb Silverman is Founder and President of the Secular Coalition for America, and founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in Charleston, South Carolina. He was founder and faculty advisor to the College of Charleston student Atheist/Humanist Alliance. He is a board member of the American Humanist Association as well as a Humanist Celebrant, advisory board member of the Secular Student Alliance, and member of the Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He has served on the boards of the Atheist Alliance and the Humanist Institute. He has written for "On Faith" at the Washington Post and for the Huffington Post. He has spoken at a number of conferences and written articles for many freethought publications. He has appeared in a number of debates on topics like: Can we be moral without God? Does God exist? Is America a Christian nation? He has also debated at the Oxford Union in Oxford, England on the topic: Does American Religion Undermine American Values? Here is information on his recent book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt

  • Leo

    Herb, isn't the way we get scientific consensus somewhat of a democratic procedure ?

  • Mellodee

    I attended a Catholic grammar school in Florida during the 50s. The order of nuns who ran the school was Dominicans (out of somewhere in Michigan). They were a pretty “with it” group of ladies.

    Sister Rita Therese was my teacher for 4th and 5th grades and it was she who taught me about Genesis, Creationism, and Evolution. She tied them all together in what seemed to be a very logical and reasonable way (at least to my 10 year old mind). Sister told us that God created the world, that the seven Days referred to in Genesis were not 24 hour days as we knew them to be. She told us that the “days” were representative of an unknown period of time….a period of time which could in reality have been billions of years. Sister told us that the process of getting through those billions of years during which our planet went from primordial goo (she may have called it something else ) to the time when humans became the primary and dominant species was called Evolution. Evolution brought forth changes in the earth and in the living beings to allow them to change and become strong enough to survive. She told us that Evolution was the process by which God created the world. She told us that Evolution continues in our world even now.

    Sister said that the Bible had been written at a time when people were not generally educated. Most could not read or write. Many living at the time could not grasp complicated processes, such as a process which occurred over billions of years. They couldn’t even grasp the concept of “billions”. Thus the facts behind the Biblical stories were greatly simplified so that the people of the time could understand at a basic level and believe in the overall truth of the teachings of Jesus. Sister made a lot of sense to the child I was.

    Sister’s way of teaching the origins of the earth and all its creatures never seemed confusing or conflicted in my mind. Everything else I learned along the way just strengthened the truth of Sisters’ words. Evolution was the process that brought about life as we know it. It was logical and made sense!

    That led over time to my feeling that any literal and verbatim belief in Genesis was misguided at best and ridiculous when carried to extremes. And if Genesis was not literal truth, what did that say about the rest of the “stories”??

    Thus, I grew up not only accepting but believing the evolutionary process. But as I grew older and began more and more to question faith, God, and the beliefs I was raised with, I could still hear Sister’s voice in my head telling me that God created the world through the process of evolution. It took me a lot of years to fully accept that God and Evolution were not working in tandem; that the process of evolution did not need “God” to make it believable or true.

    But Sister Rita Therese was forceful and committed and she was the teacher! Little girls who were raised Catholic in the 1950s had a really hard time breaking away from those teachings…. especially when they were taught in such a logical and reasonable way by a woman who held the power of life or death over our questioning little minds!

  • Herb Silverman


    Scientists start with certain assumptions about the scientific method and what constitutes credible evidence. If a minority disagree, that minority presents different evidence or points to holes in the evidence other scientists accept. The majority of scientists once thought that we had a steady-state universe, but the outcome was not decided democratically. We now have sufficient evidence and a consensus among scientists that the universe is expanding.

  • Richard Wein

    Leo wrote: "Herb, isn't the way we get scientific consensus somewhat of a democratic procedure ?"

    Insofar as the scientific consensus is (loosely speaking) democratic, the electorate is limited to scientists, or even to those scientists with relevant expertise. Schoolchildren and Rick Perry don't get a vote!

    As far as I know, there's no formal procedure for establishing a scientific consensus. The consensus is just the collective opinion of scientists, informed by individual scientists' assessment of the facts, peer review, social interaction among scientists, etc. This is only a "democratic procedure" in the loosest of senses. But when we appeal to the "scientific consensus" we are appealing (roughly speaking) to the opinion of the majority of scientists, so I suppose we can think of that as very roughly equivalent to polling the population of scientists.

  • red

    You all want to be God of your own life.
    Macro evolution has not been observed. Thus it takes faith with a lack of evidence to believe in evolution.

  • Chris

    Wow, red – you're new to this, aren't you?

  • Richard

    This is a great source for my history paper. The issues discussed are well articulated.
    Keep it up.

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