Two stories in the “Science Times” section of today’s \New York Times\ have set me to thinking. One concerns the brouhaha over teaching evolution, focusing on scientists’ distress at the subtle ways in which the Kansas Board of Education redefined science in its new science standards, adopted last week. Dalai Lama wrote of his own beliefs in the \Times\ earlier this week, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.” I see no conflict between evolution or scientific theories of creation and my own conviction that all being is suffused with a spiritual energy that transcends matter. So far as I can see, neither nullifies the other.
On the facts, the Kansas Board of Education is wrong. If they want to teach about religious beliefs, they should do it in an encompassing way, in a survey of world cultures, in historical discussions of religion’s role in shaping societies, in free-ranging discussion of the garden of beliefs about the world that ought to be part of every student’s education.
But I also recognize that the scientists’ side of the debate is often colored by inflated claims to truth, mirroring their anti-evolution opponents. Scientists often express contempt for those who have seized on the rubric “theory of evolution” to dismiss evolution as “just a theory”–little better than a guess. Then they go ahead and characterize all religious beliefs with concepts taken from fundamentalist Christian theology, which centers on an omnipotent supreme being, a being who intervenes in human events. In truth, belief means a million different things, some of them far too diffuse to describe in terms that fit fundamentalist Christian doctrine. Indeed, some are very like the observations of advanced science. Reading the great mystical texts of my own Jewish tradition, for example, reveals an understanding of the nature of existence which is strongly congruent with the discoveries and hypotheses of quantum physics.
In the debate on teaching evolution, the anti-evolutionists are clearly guided by ideological rather than scientific arguments, by the wish to assert values that seem to them threatened by evolution. But the world of science is not immune to extra-scientific pressures either, as the piece on David Healy describes. Antidepressants have helped many people–Healy prescribes them himself, he says–and they have also vastly enriched pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies (by reducing the use of talk therapies, open-ended and expensive). Healy has charged that the his colleagues have colluded with the drug companies to obscure antidepressants’ dangers for children and adolescents; under his pressure, the company that makes Paxil revealed data that support his assertion. Some of Healy’s colleagues have accused him of enriching himself with expert witness fees, constructing his own martyrdom as a ploy; Healy has countered that his fees are modest and most of his testimony has not supported verdicts against antidepressants.
I have no idea who’s right and who’s wrong about antidepressants. But one of Healy’s points is that the raw data from clinical trials of drugs should be made public; and one of his opponents’ arguments is that it should be reserved to science to decide what the public should know. Here’s how it looks to me in these two cases: in the first, science is held up as a pure repository of knowledge, immune from distortion by religious or political concerns. In the second, science is shown to be as impure, as subject to extra-scientific pressures as every other form of human endeavor.
So one part of this unfortunate debate I wish would calm down is the assertion of science as pure and above the fray. That hypothesis cannot be substantiated; indeed, evidence against it is thick on the ground. Truth in science is as contested as every other form of truth. The most solid argument for the teaching of evolution unmixed with “intelligent design” is that the underlying principle of evolution has been demonstrated by the fossil record while creationism is merely an expression of faith. The rest of the chatter asks us to have faith in science merely because the scientists say so, and that is a fundamentalism I can’t accept.