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Who cares? You should

Kenneth E. Filchak | Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mr. J. Sandberg,

In your piece in The Observer on Sept. 19, you ask the question (in the title) “Politics and Evolution: who cares?” You then go on to assert that discussion concerning biological evolution does not matter in a presidential debate. Thank you for your article, for it displays how scientific ignorance and misunderstanding can creep into many aspects of our lives, even politics.

To my way of thinking, questioning candidates concerning scientific ideas is not only important but also essential. National political figures have enormous power not only over education, but also policy acute to issues such as global climate change, management of natural resources (e.g., fisheries) and last but certainly not least human health (e.g., stem cell research).

How do our leaders make quality choices about such issues? One answer that I have heard repeatedly is they have “advisors” for such things; therefore they really do not have to have any of this knowledge themselves. Think about this for a moment. This is a policy of “I really don’t need to know about X because I have other people who will know for me.” Is this good policy for anyone in such a leadership position?

While it is certainly the case that any person, even a politician, cannot be an expert in every field, a modest level of scientific literacy from one of the most powerful and influential people in the world is essential.

For example, the phrase “believe in evolution” is one that is used often, even in your own article. Scientific ideas are not evaluated by belief. They are proposals that are tested with evidence.

One may “believe” in the Easter Bunny, but not evolution or any other scientific idea. To have confidence in a scientific idea requires evidence, and lots of it.

Take a phrase from our former President George W. Bush concerning evolution and intelligent design being taught in schools: Bush reportedly said, “I think we should teach the debate.”

While some have castigated the former president for this comment, I think we can actually give him a bit of slack here. Debate and intellectual exchange sound like perfectly sound principles, and indeed in most aspects of intellectual life they are.

However, science is not an egalitarian philosophy. It is true that, in the realm of science, any idea can be proffered, but those ideas consistent with the evidence that are given priority. This is why we do not discuss astrology in high school astronomy courses or the Earth being flat in geology courses.

As one colleague said, “[I]t’s fine if you are the president of the Flat Earth Society, but do not ask us to teach this in school as a scientific equivalent”.

If a presidential candidate was highly informed about chemistry, for example, but did not know much about evolution, this shortcoming might be excusable. However, my perception of your advice to the Republican Party debate is not along this path.

When politicians affirm their lack of “belief” in a particularly well-supported scientific idea, such as evolution, this is a troubling signal for their future policy decisions involving any scientific phenomenon. Therefore, moderators and the public should actively pursue questions involving science such as evolution, stem cell research and energy use.

Perhaps I am alone in my opinion, but if any of our politicians “believe” in the Tooth Fairy, astrology or any such idea, I think it best if we know before they become our President.

Kenneth E. Filchak is a lecturer in biological sciences. He can be reached at Kenneth.Filchak.1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.