The discoveries of scientists often provoke political controversy. Galileo Galilei, who was instrumental in the transition of European thought from philosophical speculation to scientific explanation in the 17th century, was persecuted by the Catholic Church for saying that the earth revolved around the sun. Church leaders had forbidden any teaching that the earth was not the center of all creation, based on their interpretation of certain Biblical passages. Galileo was condemned to life imprisonment, although he never went to prison.
Galileo wrote about the scientific method, a way of figuring out what our universe is like, in opposition to the idea of deriving all understanding from the words of the Bible. Despite overwhelming evidence over many centuries that Biblical interpretation about the nature of reality leads to false conclusions, that argument continues today.
Galileo discovered some simple truths about gravity, such as that light and heavy objects fall at the same speed. But his understanding of gravity, of the solar system, and of nearly everything else he studied was incorrect. Not wrong like the notion that the sun revolved around the earth, but wrong in details, which have been gradually discovered since then. For example, Galileo thought the earth retained a rigid orientation on its axis as it traveled around the sun. Nearly a century later, Isaac Newton predicted that the earth actually wobbles slightly. At the beginning of the 20th century, the wobble was first measured accurately. But not perfectly – it turns out that the amount of wobble itself fluctuates. The causes of this fluctuation are not known for certain, but computer models of the atmosphere and oceans have led scientists to hypothesize that changes in temperature and salinity of the oceans cause changes in ocean circulation, which in turn lead to shifts in the wobble.
This brief discussion of one corner of scientific research illustrates how our understanding grows and deepens over centuries from simpler to more complex explanations. Constantly improving instruments make better hypotheses possible, from Galileo’s refinements on the telescope to more powerful computers. At every point, something was not entirely correct in the scientific understanding of the earth’s motion. Scientists disagreed with each other, theories were advanced, rejected, and refined. The story continues.
New discoveries constantly show that what we think we understand about nature is not quite right. Among scientists, there is no argument about the fact that the living organisms on earth gradually evolve into different organisms. Exactly how evolution proceeds is known in quite specific terms, but new discoveries and new interpretations keep changing the details of that knowledge. Evolution had been thought to proceed very slowly, but studies of animal life in constantly changing urban environments show that spiders, lizards, mice and birds can biologically adapt very quickly.
The whole field of evolutionary biology is under reconstruction. Douglas Erwin, a senior scientist at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, described in 2007 flaws in the generally accepted version of evolution, a “tumult” among scientists, and the possibility of a new paradigm. Science changes every day.
It is not difficult for an educated person to understand Galileo’s ideas about how the earth revolves around the sun or Darwin’s ideas about how species evolve. But even a PhD in some form of science might not be sufficient to understand the most recent astronomical and biological theories. Scientific discussions of “dark matter”, of the interaction of gravity with the three other “fundamental forces”, or of particles without mass are beyond nearly all of us.
Science is increasingly complicated, and that provides an opening for political ideologues to question particular scientific conclusions and thus the whole scientific enterprise. Every time one scientist questions some element of evolutionary theory, creationists say “evolution is just a theory” and therefore not necessarily true. Our Vice President does not accept evolution. Our President and his entire administration deny climate change, which he has called a hoax.
The skepticism about science promoted by American conservative politicians continues to influence public opinion. More than one-third of Americans do not believe in evolution. More education helps, but still about one-fifth of those with postgraduate degrees are creationists. The most fervent believers in creationism are evangelical Protestants, who also greatly underestimate the complete consensus among scientists about evolution.
It may be encouraging that belief in good science is growing, although slightly. The latest survey shows that 73% of Americans believe there is "solid evidence" of climate change, the highest number yet. Belief in human evolution is also at its highest point, at 62%.
Less encouraging are the beliefs of those who do not accept the scientific unanimity about evolution and climate change. Conservative Republicans do not trust scientists. Only 11% believe that climate scientists understand very well the causes of climate change. Only 9% believe that climate scientists’ findings are influenced by the “best available scientific evidence” “most of the time”. These science deniers are not likely to be convinced: 71% of conservative Republicans think the media do a “bad job” of reporting about climate change by exaggerating the threat.
That’s ignorance backed by a determination to remain ignorant. Galileo would be disappointed that so little has changed.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 4, 2018