Friday, June 08, 2007

Brownback vs. Coyne

It was inevitable that certain people of Science, such as Jerry Coyne, were going to flip out about the three Republican candidates who raised their hands during the debate to assert that they did not believe in evolution. But Coyne goes too far:

“Whether he knows it or not, Brownback's forthright declarations, denying any possibility that empirical matters of fact might differ from those assumed by his creed, amount to nothing less than a rejection of the whole institution of science.”

No, Jerry Coyne, they don’t. It’s possible not to believe in evolution without rejecting the whole institute of science, and Brownback’s performance in the Republican debate doesn’t dictate what course he would take as president. (It certainly presages it and influences it.) "Whether he knows it or not?" Has Brownback succumbed to false consciousness?!

We in America (mostly) make public decisions based on the principles we share, and in private we’re given much more freedom. When our most deeply held beliefs come into conflict with a public rule that’s been agreed to by most of the population, you get seriously intractable issues, like how severe restrictions on abortion should be, and whether Jehovah’s witnesses can prevent their children from getting blood transfusions, and whether Christian scientists have to vaccinate theirs. There isn’t any handbook to tell us how to handle these cases, and in a democracy like America the religious belief doesn’t always trump the public rule. Amish citizens are largely exempt from compulsory public education, but this is due to their history as well as their beliefs. My truly believing I should start my own religion and exempt my children from education would not be permissible. I am willing to give Amish people this area; conversely, if they were to pass a rule requiring the severe beating of all male 10-year olds on Thursdays, I would not give them this no matter their history or beliefs. Thus, there seems to be some sort of flex area between our personal beliefs and the actions of others. Compulsory education is law and is absolutely without exception--except for the Amish. No one is allowed to beat their children.

It’s my opinion that Brownback’s beliefs and statements fall into this flex area. Whether he, as president, would actually violate our tentative democratic agreement cannot be known beforehand by public statements on evolution during a Republican debate. He certainly was not rejecting the entire institution of science. Jerry Coyne does not have a monopoly on it.


At 7:10 PM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

Charles - interesting commentary. It seems that two things are going on:

1. Americans are allowed to believe different things in religion as long as they do not infringe or qualitatively change certain rights of society (Amish example of 10 yo Thurs. beatings).

2. Rejection of evolution is not rejection of science.

I think 1 is probably true given that we should be humble and allow certain freedoms of conscience in areas of religion, but 2 is a totally different issue. The denial of evolution could entail a denial of science (and after reading various authors I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is) without relating to the freedom of thought issue on religious matters.

So while denying evolution should not bar you from being a candidate for president in the Republican party, it should be taken as a serious charge against the validity of science.

I think Coyne is perfectly right in charging Brownback with not understanding science but this shouldn't really have too many ramifications on presidential issues, unless it is president of Scientific America.

In fact, it could be argued (I think) that a belief against evolution in a politician's mind would lead to better public policy concerning family values (abortion, marriage, etc.) even if it would possibly hurt science curriculums, although I don't think creationism will ever win the day there.

So you might very well say "Brownback is ignorant about biological science (and doesn't know it) as concerns evolution, but this defect will lead to positive public policy in this moment in America's history, so I will vote for him in light of his scientific ignorance!" But as concerns his awareness of science, Brownback is absolutely wrong in denying evolution.


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