About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Politics and science literacy

Marco Rubio
by Massimo Pigliucci

It’s time to pick on my friend Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, a little bit, . Knowing him, I am sure he will take my remarks as a friendly challenge for all of us to improve the way we all think about certain issues, and I am of course extending him an open invitation to respond or comment on this blog post whenever and in whatever fashion he feels appropriate.

So, what’s my beef with Phil? It’s about a post he has published recently, on the infamous interview with Florida Senator Marco Rubio (apparently, and regrettably, a rising star in the Republican firmament) conducted by GQ magazine. In the interview, Rubio was asked his opinion about the age of the earth — something that has unfortunately become a standard litmus test for Republican Presidential hopefuls since the well documented turn away from reality that has characterized the party. Predictably, Rubio’s response was that he wasn’t a scientist, but “whether the earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

Phil, like any reasonable person, was outraged that a prominent public figure, a potential Presidential candidate  no less, could be so obtusely equivocal about a basic scientific fact. (Of course, whether Rubio really is that much of a simpleton or whether he was simply pandering to the half of the US population which denies basic scientific facts, is another matter altogether.)

Phil’s (and my own, for that matter) reaction, however, got partly — and I think correctly — chastised by Daniel Engber in a follow up article published in Slate (the same magazine that hosted Phil’s initial essay). Engber cited another well known American politician as saying this:

“My belief is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent earth on which we live — that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible, that I don’t presume to know.”

Care to guess who this second politician is? None other than our esteemed current President, Barack Obama, speaking in 2008 as a Presidential candidate. The point that Engber was trying to make, I think, is neither that Phil Plait should have been aware of the Obama quote when skewering Rubio, nor that Rubio and Obama are therefore to be considered on the same intellectual level. After all, Phil is not a political commentator, and Rubio has been a constant supporter of the teaching of creationism while Obama has expressly said that he believes in evolution. The point, rather, is that we all have ideological blinders, and that as a consequence we are sometimes a bit too quick in using strong language to condemn our opponents while turning a blind eye when our allies say something remarkably similar.

But what really caught Engber’s attention was the broader picture Phil painted from the Rubio quote. Here is Phil, commenting on Rubio’s position that esoteric issues like the age of the earth have no bearing on the status of the American economy and how to improve it: “Perhaps Senator Rubio is unaware that science — and its sisters engineering and technology — are actually the very foundation of our country’s economy? All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the universe.” [Italics in the original.]

But that is simply not the case, as Engber points out in his commentary: “Lots of basic scientific questions have no bearing whatsoever on the nation’s short-term economic growth. ... Lots of scientific questions don’t matter all that much when it comes [even] to other scientific questions. It’s possible — and quite common — for scientists to plug away at research projects without explicit knowledge of what’s happening in other fields. And when a bedrock principle does need to be adjusted — a not-so-unusual occurrence, as it turns out — the edifice of scholarship doesn’t crumble into dust. DVD players still operate. Nuclear plants don’t shut down.”

My experience both as a scientist and as a philosopher of science tell me that Engber is right on the mark. When I was a practicing evolutionary biologist, I had to constantly write grant proposals for the National Science Foundation, to keep my lab going and my graduate students and postdocs reasonably fed. NSF at one point started asking for a layperson statement of the proposed research, with the admirable goal of making the basic ideas available to the general public, who after all was footing the bill. NSF now also asks for a statement of broader impact, where the Principal Investigator has to explain why taxpayers should be paying for the usually highly esoteric research being proposed — often to the tune of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars per year. Here is where things get funny: I noticed that both I and all my colleagues were stumped, and resorted to vague statements about the “long term implications” of basic research for scientific applications, eventually (way, way down the line) leading to potential applications concerning human health, the quality of the environment, and so on. But if pressed, we would have been in a really difficult position to elaborate on exactly how, say, studying the mating patterns of tropical butterflies, or the genetic structure of a species of small flowering plants, could plausibly be related to cures for cancer or any other kind of improvement to human life.

Indeed, on the rare occasions in which scientists are pressed on these matters they resort to the worst kind of evidence: anecdotes instead of rigorously quantified surveys of the connections between basic and applied research. Moreover, these anecdotes are often somewhat historically incorrect, since most scientists don’t actually have either the time or the inclination to read serious scholarly research in the history of their own field. So the last resort becomes something like, “well, this [i.e., my] topic of research is intrinsically interesting,” which means little more than that the person in question finds it fascinating and wants funding for it.

Before I leave room for misunderstanding, I do think that a healthy society ought to fund basic scientific research, just as it ought to fund the arts and the humanities. And I do think that there are (often vague, serendipitous) connections between basic and applied research (I am also perfectly aware of the porous boundary between these two categories). But I think that a lot of scientists are far too casual in their justification for why the public should pay for their specific, often very expensive and almost always not particularly useful (to the public), research. We keep forgetting that publicly financed science is a rather novel (mostly, post-WWII) luxury that has come to sustain a great part of the academy — just ask Galileo how he had to earn his living (by pandering to fickle princes all over Italy, as well as by selling his perfected version of the telescope to the Venetians, for war-related uses). It is dangerous to take this situation for granted, and it is dishonest to pretend that it all directly benefits the millions of people who foot the bill while having no clue as to what we do in our laboratories.

There is a deeper philosophical reason why Engber is right and people like Phil and myself ought to be more cautious with our outrage at the cutting of scientific budgets or at politicians’ opportunistic uttering of scientific nonsense to gather supporters and votes. Knowledge in general, and scientific knowledge in particular, is not like an edifice with foundations — a common but misleading metaphor. If it were, it would be more likely that, as Phil so strongly stated, everything is connected to everything else, so that ignoring, denying, or replacing one piece of the building will likely create fractures all over the place.

But that’s not how it works. Rather, to use philosopher W.V.O. Quine’s apt metaphor, knowledge is more like a web, with some threads being stronger or more interconnected than others. (Interestingly, the largest database of scholarly papers available to date is called the Web of Knowledge, though I doubt the name is a knowing wink to Quine.) If you see science as a web of statements, observations, experiments, and theories, then it becomes perfectly clear why Engber is right at pointing out that quite a bit of independence exists between different parts of the web, and how even relatively major chunks of said web can be demolished and replaced without the whole thing crumbling. There really is next to no connection between someone’s opinions about the age of the earth and that person’s grasp of the state and causes of a country’s economy. (Just like, to use another example from Engber’s article, there is little relationship between Francis Collins’ philosophically naive beliefs about Christianity and his undoubted abilities as a scientist and current head of the NIH. If one bought into the “everything is tightly connected to everything else” view of science, the effectiveness of figures like Collins would amount to an unexplained miracle, so to speak.)

Still, there is an important point where Phil is absolutely correct and that I think Engber underestimates. What is “chilling” and disturbing about people like Rubio (but not people like Obama) is that they have embraced a general philosophy of rejecting evidence and reason whenever it is ideologically or politically convenient. That is what is highly dangerous. Quite frankly, I’m comfortable having a born again Christian leading the NIH, as long as he doesn’t start funding prayer-based medicine. I’m even ok — in a regrettable, chagrined way — with politicians being preposterously ambiguous about the age of the earth, as long as they then turn around (as Obama, but not Rubio, did) and recognize the real and present danger posed by climate change. Indeed, the real problem isn’t Rubio, or even the evidence-avoiding Republican party. The problem is that half of the American population keeps voting for these clowns, in the process, jeopardizing the entire world’s future. But that is a different topic rooted in broader failures, failures for which the scientific and science education communities are not entirely innocent either.


  1. Thank you for the articulate article.

  2. Economist Paul Krugman weighed in on this Rubio issue, as well.

    At least on the surface, he seems to disagree with (or not get) the web metaphor when he counters that Rubio is "dead wrong" when he says that the age of the Earth "has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow", although his given reasons (viz. "science and technology education has a lot to do with our future productivity — and how are you going to have effective science education if schools have to give equal time to the views of fundamentalist Christians?") seem to play into your broader point about an attitude or "general philosophy of rejecting evidence and reason whenever it is ideologically or politically convenient."

    In Krugman's words:

    "If you’re going to ignore what geologists say if you don’t like its implications, what are the chances that you’ll take sensible advice on monetary and fiscal policy?"

    Not good, I'd say.

  3. I suspect it was simply pandering on Rubio's part. More than anything, that's what politicians of all kinds do in our system; that and raising money. But I think it doesn't really matter, provided that those with religious beliefs ignore them for purposes of day to day life--which is something most of them have always done in any case.

  4. I can understand why Rubio was pandering--he's a Republican in Florida, after all! What I can't understand is that he's a Catholic, and Catholics don't believe in the "young earth" stuff. It's one thing to play a little loose with interpretations so as not to offend voters; it's another thing to insist on Catholic doctrine most of them time and then occasionally abandon it for political expediency. You think he's going to do that next time Obamacare proves controversial to Catholic employers?

  5. I agree when you say that scientists and science educators are not totally innocent in the lack of scientific awareness in our society. Scientists not only fail to convey the significance of their basic research, but also tend to dismiss such an effort as something totally alien to their work. Many scientists tend to fail to see (or a least to explain) the meaning of their work in the context of a "big picture". Although the web of science is built on the painstaking addition of thin threads, it is easy for scientists to fall in the trap of thinking they only have to be concerned about their specific field of study.

    Furthermore, making an effort to improve good communication in science is not only an essential tool to justify the whole scientific endeavor; it is also a fundamental element to promote interdisciplinary studies.

    On a different note, have you considered an episode on the relationship between science and technology? Although they have an intimate relationship, there seems to be a widespread confusion in the public perception between the methods and the goals of both.

  6. Based wholly on the statements attributed to Plait and Engber in your article I am somewhat confused about the connection. Plait's statement is correct and if Engber's rebuttal is to invoke the vagaries of basic research then he is missing the point. After all even the simple action of planting a seed with the expectation that a plant will grow might reasonably be traced back to what can pass as scientific enquiry: observation, theory, testing. Unless, of course, our remote ancestors just sort of came up with the idea of "hey, let's put this in the ground and see what happens." But then what follows is science, isn't it?

    1. I disagree. You are enlarging the meaning of "science" to any reasonable, fact-based action. That's not what science is, on penalty of the term losing meaning. As Phil is wrong when he says that *everything* is connected so that knowing the right age of the earth has consequences on how one manages the economy. It doesn't.

    2. Whether knowing the right age of the Earth has anything to do with how you would manage the economy is not the important point. But whether you are able to discriminate between good science and bogus science can make the difference between whether you base your management of the economy on sound principles or on pseudo-scientific ones.

      If Rubio was indeed pandering, that is the best-case scenario; it still allows that we could trust him to make such a discrimination. But then he is being flagrantly dishonest if that is the case, so we may not be able to trust him on other matters. I don't know enough about Rubio to decide whether or not he was pandering.

  7. Maybe I'm just being slow tonight but I cannot follow the connections here:

    (Phil Plait says:) "All of our industry ... can be traced back to scientific research ...”

    (Massimo counters:)
    But that is simply not the case, as Engber points out in his commentary: “Lots of basic scientific questions have no bearing whatsoever on the nation’s short-term economic growth."

    How is Engber's point relevant? That there is lots of science irrelevant to industry says nothing about whether all industry is based on science.

    1. Alan,

      (1) Phil maintains that everything is connected to everything when it comes to science.
      (2) Engber points out that there are plenty of examples of lose or pretty much non existent connections.

      Hence (1) is wrong.

    2. (1) is indeed wrong, but is also a strawman, on grounds of not being what Plait claimed.

      That industry "can be traced back to" science is a single, unidirectional, connection which looks (to me) very unlike the multiple, multi-directional connections inherent in the phrase "everything is connected to everything".

      The claim is not even bi-directional - it does not even necessitate a connection from science to industry, just the single connection from industry to science. And, that industry is qualified as "all industry" makes the lack of such qualification obvious on science - hence he is explicitly not claiming it is based on "all science".

      And so the exaggeration to "everything is connected to everything" seems tendentious.

  8. Well I have been reading this blog for six years now and this is one of your most relevant articles. You rightly deflate many of the vague blandishments or intimations used by scientists to justify their research. I think there is much similar coming from Humanities scholars, who can be counted one to use one of two taglines to justify their work. The first is that studying the humanities improves "critical thinking," as though learning to analyze Shakespeare in his historical context makes you just generally better at thinking about, like, stuff. The second is the idea that the Humanities make people morally better. Both propositions, so far as I know, are unsubstantiated.

    What neither scientists nor humanities scholars want to admit, I think, is that much, probably even most of their research is genuinely esoteric, and of little use not just to the general public but even to scholars in nearby fields. A project on Topos Theory may not even help other mathematicians much, but if it does, it almost surely won't help cell biologists, much less Joe The Plumber.

    Bravo, Massimo

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    1. Filippo,

      You confuse particular findings of science with science itself. The latter is a systematic, social inquiry into the physical world and the former are propositions justified on the basis of the standards of evidence employed in the latter.

  10. Massimo,

    congrats for your contribution to American anti-intellectualism. Geology is a practically-important science. No rational geologist has believed in a young Earth since the early 19th century. The only way one can practice geology and still believe in a young Earth is by being totally illogical and really, you would not want to hire such a person.

    The USGS (US Geological Survey) is an old government-funded scientific institution in the US. The early leaders of the USGS were all Darwinists and, in fact, director Charles D. Walcott discovered the Burgess-shale fossils and also the first example of a cellularly-preserved Precambrian fossil that today is called an acritarch.

    Your point about the age of the Earth having no practical importance implies that a young-Earth creationist would have been as effective as Walcott as director of the USGS – clearly an illogical position. In fact, it is not obvious to me what your position is – you seem to have painted yourself into a corner, because you are implying that either

    (1) No field of science has important applications. Or
    (2) Logic is not important.

    Because science is all (logically) connected the only way to assume that some important part of it is not relevant to practical applications is to give up logic.

    Your point about some government-funded research having no practical applications has no relevance to the main question, namely the fact that the age of the Earth does have important practical implications for geology. But it does help fomenting anti-intellectualism.

  11. Filippo,

    What Eamon said. Also, no, Euclidean geometry has not been falsified. It can't be, because it is logically (necessarily) true. Which is also why it's not a science. I know you are thinking of non-Euclidean geometry, but that also is true necessarily, and you seem to be confusing the applications of either type of geometry with the thing itself.

    > congrats for your contribution to American anti-intellectualism <

    Here you veered into nonsense. It is actually amusing being accused of being anti-intellectual just because I dare question some simplistic statements about the alleged logical (logical? Really?) tight interconnectedness of all science.

    I never said that the age of the earth is irrelevant to geology, that would indeed be absurd. But one can do a lot of practical geology without knowing the age of the earth. Surely you know that there were working geologists well before we figured the actual age of the earth, yes? And Phil's claim was that the age of the earth is relevant to how to manage the economy, which is most definitely not the case.


    Phil made an argument to the extent that there is a connection between knowing the age of the earth and managing the economy. That argument relies on the interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. The argument fails because such interconnectedness is lose and sometimes non existent. I don't know how to explain it any better than this.

  12. We owe almost none of our economic prosperity to science. For example the Wright brothers were bicycle repair men and not scientists. The science of aerodynamics was developed decades after the first airplanes flew. The development of the steam engine and railroads were done by inventors and tinkerers who were not scientists.

    Also our prosterity is due to the development of many institutions that have nothing to do with science or technology. The intoduction of Banking, Insurance Companies, Stock Markets, Fiat Money, Rule of Law, Protection of patents & trademarks etc.

    1. The Wright brothers were actually pioneers in experimental aerodynamics. Aerodynamics has always been an experimental science, because it is (still) very difficult to solve problems involving turbulence (and turbulence is always involved.) The Wright brothers actually built one of the first wind tunnels to test their airfoils in. (Type “Wright brothers wind tunnel” in Google to see pictures.) By my definition, they were scientists. Massimo might disagree, of course.

    2. Filippo -- well said.

      Louis -- Even if you disagree with Filippo's response, would be the economic significance of the airplane today be the same without the science-based advances in aerospace technology (better wing designs, lower drag, more efficient engines, better control systems, etc.) of the past 100 years? We might still have airlines and an aerospace industry, but I have no doubt that they would be costlier while contributing less. I find your opening statement to be a non sequitur.

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  14. Massimo writes: "the real problem isn’t Rubio, or even the evidence-avoiding Republican party. The problem is that half of the American population keeps voting for these clowns." I disagree. I thought a point being made by Phil Plait was that a politician cannot give succor to an anti-scientific society and expect that society to provide economic prosperity. Marco Rubio's statement regarding the age of the Earth reflects a willingness to undermine respect for broad aspects of science. As a baby boomer, I grew up in a society that had scientific heroes in medicine, biology, astronomy, etc. Marco Rubio offers a future where we can't know the age of the Earth (geology and cosmology are suspect), we can't know the truth about evolution (biology is suspect), we can't be sure of the human contribution to global climate changes (environmental science). As typified by his statement regarding the age of the Earth, Marco Rubio would support and encourage broadly anti-scientific educational curricula for home-schooled, private, parochial and public school students, and public support for the science curricula at Christian colleges such as Liberty University. Rubio does not see an economic impact, Plait does.

  15. Massimo, another good article. I think some of the responses here illustrate the science vs. scientism divide, too. Now, I'm not saying Phil fell on the wrong side there, himself, but I do agree that he overstated his case and that it may be due to intellectual blinders.

    And, speaking of, let's not forget that Obama **expanded** Bush's office of faith-based initiatives.

  16. pugowner,

    I think you are making essentially my point here: we all agree that Rubio is a bad example of anti-intellectual, and that the danger posed by that type of politician is precisely a broad denial of reality-based policy. But Phil’s statements were more extreme, to the effect that there is a direct connection between notions such as the age of the earth and what to do with the economy. That is simply false, and overstating one’s position is dangerous in itself.


    if we want to get technical, Huttons’ theory of Plutonism was wrong, so while the concept of deep time has been vindicated, it is anachronistic to use that example to establish the point that geology has been based on a sound theory since the 18th century.

    Moreover, it is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, which is not about geology but about Phil’s alleged connection of everything to everything else in science — particularly of the age of the earth to economy. That is just wrong, and I don’t understand why you insist in not conceding that point. Phil is still a good guy and Rubio a bad one, you know?

    > By my definition, [the Wright brothers] were scientists. Massimo might disagree, of course. <

    That’s right, for the reasons I have explained already several times.

  17. Massimo,

    your definition of science seems to exclude all applied sciences. Aerodynamics is an important applied science. It has been mostly an experimental one, because analytic solutions are not available. The main tool of experiments in aerodynamics has been the wind tunnel. Because the Wright brothers invented the wind tunnel, they provided the tool that has been used for applied and even fundamental research in aerodynamics. This a contribution to science. Even some fundamental problems have been investigated with such tools. Now, I ask you, if inventing a research tool in an applied physics field is not science, what kind of applied research is science, if any?

  18. Massimo,

    about Hutton, no creator of a new science has been completely (or even mostly) right. My point it that, since his time, no scientific geologist has denied the fact that (most) geological features are formed, slowly, over long periods of time. This implies that the Earth is old, millions to billions of years old and is enough to refute the Biblical story.

    All English, Scottish and German geologists misunderstood igneous rocks, because they did not have access to volcanoes, like the Italians did. Also, while Hutton was right about the fact the sedimentary rocks are formed (slowly) from deposits at the bottom of a sea and uplifted into mountains, the mechanism for the uplifting has not been understood until the 1960s (with the advent of plate tectonics.) It does not matter: basics observations about sedimentary rocks were enough to prove the old-Earth concept.

    1. Filippo,

      I find it a bit frustrating that you keep misrepresenting what I say, and moreover that much of this discussion doesn’t have anything to do with what I argued in the post itself. Of course aerodynamics is a science, but the Wright brothers were lay practitioners, not scientists. And none of this — and none of your points about Hutton, geology and deep time — hinges at all on my criticism of Phil’s strong statements about the tight interconnectedness of the sciences and public policy.

  19. So I need to restate my understanding of the conflicting points.

    Plait is arguing that undermining the validity of scientific knowledge as it applies to the age of the Earth (and by extension, Rubio includes biology, cosmology, geology, etc.)undermines science in the broadest sense (including engineering and technology) which has a direct impact on the U.S. maintaining its economy.

    Massimo finds this to be an overstatement and simply false. He argues that undermining science in some domains (e.g., geology, cosmology, astronomy, biology cannot answer fundamental issues such as the age of the Earth), is not like undermining the foundations of an edifice where weakening some areas would create fractures all over the place. Instead, scientific knowledge is more like a web, and even relatively major chunks of said web can be demolished without the whole thing crumbling. Smart phone technology will progress.

    I am still not sure I agree with Massimo. I find the anti-scientific thinking expressed by Marco Rubio to be so broad (and not limited to the age of the Earth) as to be deservedly matched by the broad (all of STEM) response of Phil Plait.

    Massimo laments the half of the American population which supports the Rubio approach to science. Rubio would be happy to see that number rise above 90%, leaving a small fraction of liberal scientific elitists to exchange blogposts among themselves. ;-) I suppose you could maintain an economy where students, colleges and adults know that sciences such as biology, geology, astronomy, paleontology cannot know the age of the Earth; where the American Museum of Natural History has no preferential standing over the Creation Museum, etc. But I return to edifices. Sorry, but there may be something to it.

  20. So let's compare Rubio's and Plait's statements:

    Rubio: "I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow."

    "At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all."

    "Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries."

    Plait: "Science, and how it tells us the age of the Earth, has everything to do to do with how our economy will grow."

    The one thing in the Plait quote that stands out is "how it tells us..." It really sounds like Plait is making a statement about scientific method itself, not about the particular result (age of the Earth).

    While the first quote from Rubio might be true in a strict sense, the second and third are much more problematic. Rubio seems to advocate teaching "theories" that aren't rooted in scientific method, and to believe that science can't answer a question about the age of the Earth. It is a flippant attitude towards science, and I think it warrants a strong response such as Plait's.

    And anyway, is there a connection between the age of the Earth and our economy? Perhaps there is. If a young-Earth creationist believes that our petroleum supply took less than 6000 years to reach its pre-industrial levels, he or she could conclude that it is being replenished at a high rate, and therefore we are in little danger of exhausting it. Economic decisions based on this belief could have major consequences in the future. Hence, I wrote "might be true", not "is true", in reference to one of Rubio's sentences.

  21. Marco Rubio is a member of the Senate Sub-committee for Science and Space. According to the Feds, this sub-committee

    "has responsibility for science, engineering, and technology research and development and policy; calibration and measurement standards; and civilian aeronautical and space science and policy. The Subcommittee conducts oversight on the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy."

    Hence, Rubio should not be exempt from criticism for his religious beliefs.

  22. I'm really amazed at how many people seem to simply be missing or ignoring the point of the post. For instance, Michael, quo *ever* said that Rubio should be exempt from criticism? I simply said that the criticism shouldn't be based on a popular but manifestly incorrect "everything is connected to everything" view of science. Is that really too much to ask?

  23. I realize this exchange has become dated, and I recognize that I would fail Philosphy 101. My sense from Massimo's comment: the point he is making is that science is not like a fragile/brittle Ming vase - one chip (age of the Earth) and the whole thing crashes into shards; a better analogy of the relationship among sciences is that of a web.

    Neither seem to model the point I thought Plait was making, which is that one can't undermine the essentials of science ( a seven day/era Creation; Earth age 6,000 years)and not impact science as a whole. By way of example, Bill Nye (a CNN interview linked on Pharyngula) related knowing the age of the Earth to knowing how an ionizing smoke detector works.

    My apologies. I will be traveling and not posting or bothering for a while.

  24. This “debate” has been so emotional because many (myself included) see the unity of scientific knowledge as its most important characteristic. “Everything is connected to everything” is a caricature of this “unified knowledge” idea, but I really want to defend it, rather than supporting the opposite idea, that is, that science is made up by different, logically separated fields of research.

    A little over a century ago, the energy that fueled volcanoes was unknown. Today we know that the energy comes from the decay of radioactive nuclei, like Uranium. We know that the decay times of U nuclei are very long because the decays involve quantum tunneling. We know that U nuclei are produced by the r-process, in exploding supernovae. So here we have connections between geology, quantum physics and astronomy. I could go on but, I think, it would be unnecessary. The unity of scientific knowledge is a relatively recent accomplishment. But, more than any individual discovery, the realization of the ways different fields of science are connected was the main accomplishment of the last one hundred years.

    This “unity” idea is widespread and has been exposed by as different thinkers as Deutsch and Wilson (consilience.) It is also explained by such popularizers of science as Bill Nye (the “science guy”.) It is a fundamental part of our understanding of the world. If you do not understand this then, as Paul Kugman wrote recently about the Rubio affair, “Welcome Back to the Dark Ages.”


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