Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Is the end of science at hand?

Whatever you think about creationism, the attempt to silence dissenting views on human origins is not the way to further scientific knowledge.

In an editorial in yesterday's Louisville Courier-Journal, Lawrence Krauss sounds the alarm bells over a new creation science museum in Northern Kentucky. Possessed by something other than the scientific spirit of open-mindedness, Krauss urges parents to bring suit against any school system that uses public funds to take children to the museum, and calls on the media and government officials to take action.

What is Krauss so worried about?

Krauss is upset because the $27 million Creation Museum institutionalizes a "scientific lie" that could influence thousands of people. Ken Ham’s museum, he frets, is "within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. Population." He seems to envision a vast migration of humanity, hungry for a look at the museum's giant robotic dinosaurs, who will then return home having abandoned all belief in modern science.

Many of Krauss's readers (some of whom, like myself, read his article over the Internet) can be excused for wondering why, in the age of iPods, laptops, and cellphones, anyone would be haranguing newspaper readers with the message that the end of science is at hand.

But if Krauss, a scientist at Case Western Reserve, really thinks deceiving the masses with inaccurate scientific information is so "dangerous," he ought to check out his own professional backyard.

For years, science textbooks carried illustrations of developing human embryos that were used to demonstrate the belief that individual embryos followed the same developmental pattern as the human species itself. However, many of these drawings turned out to have been faked, overstating the similarities between individual and species development.

Students were also told that peppered moths in English woodlands near polluted cities were black, in contrast to white moths with black speckles that predominated elsewhere, making them less visible to predators when they rested on tree trunks: a clear example of animals adapting to their environment. But it turned out that peppered moths almost never rest on the outside of tree trunks as the pictures in textbooks showed. Furthermore, these pictures were staged, and some of them featured dead moths either glued or pinned to the trees.

These and other inaccuracies helped to convince a generation of students of the unquestionable truth of Darwin's theory, and textbooks continued to carry them long after many of them were recognized as discredited by the scientific community itself. Some reportedly still carry them.

If Krauss thinks scientific misinformation is so dangerous, why isn't he concerned about these inaccuracies, which have influenced far more students than will ever even hear about Ken Ham's Creation Museum?

Krauss doesn't present a single scientific argument in his entire article, perhaps because has no interest in actually debating views that differ from his own. Such a dogmatic attitude is at least understandable when expressed by people who believe they have a direct revelation from God. Dogmatism is somehow a little easier to swallow when it comes from people who admit to having dogmas, but it is much harder to stomach when it comes from a group of people who make such a show of intellectual openness, respect for open inquiry, and, presumably, some degree of tolerance for alternative beliefs.

Scientists like Krauss, so eager to stamp out divergent opinions on scientific issues, should read Walter Isaacson's new biography of Albert Einstein, who had a penchant for challenging scientific orthodoxies--much to the chagrin of the Lawrence Krauss's of his time. This is one of the ways, in fact, that science advances—when unpopular theories unseat popular ones.

Is Ken Ham's view of the origins of life likely to upend the scientific consensus anytime soon? Of course not. But the least we nonscientists viewing this issue from the outside should be able to expect is a debate--as opposed to an inquisition.

As we read alarmist calls to silence creationists, we should ask ourselves who is more dangerous: an operator of a creationist museum in a small Kentucky town who wants to tell people who choose to visit the facility (and who already agree with him anyway) that the earth is not as old as most scientists think it is? Or dogmatic scientists like Krauss who enjoy an unchallenged control over the nation's curriculum and who want to stamp out all dissent?

Ken Ham's giant robotic dinosaurs may look scary, but we have far more to fear from the alarmist and dogmatic intolerance of people like Lawrence Krauss.

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