Friday, June 30, 2006


Carrying a Torch

Murray Peshkin, a theoretical physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, has a most interesting article, "Addressing the public about science and religion," at Physics Today.

He has been speaking to such diverse organizations as such as Rotary clubs, groups of high-school and college students involved in science and journalism, school-based community events, League of Women Voters chapters, a Unitarian church, and a microscopy club about the intersection of science and religion, specifically the ongoing national debate about the teaching of evolution.

As he explains his goals:

I am not trying to convert the convinced anti-evolutionist. I am trying to inform people about the issues and their importance. That goal is important for scientists because the integrity of science teaching in our public schools is under serious attack. So far, the courts have mostly come to the rescue, but in the end public opinion will carry the day. Reasonable people need to know what science is about, especially what an established scientific theory is and how scientists know when it's right.

And as justification for going out of his way, he says:

The current prosperity in the US derives in large part from 20th-century advances in physics, such as the transistor. In the 21st century, the driving force may well be biology. The anticipated advances in medicine and other practical applications of biology will happen, but not necessarily in this country. We can't afford to degrade biology in our schools.

Peshkin has what appears to be good advice for other scientists who might be interested in reaching out in this way, including this explanation:

I always discuss the words "It's only a theory" by saying that for practical purposes that's the same as saying "It's only science," and the price we can pay for such contempt for science is high. Belief in Newton's mechanics within its domain of validity is not optional, at least not if you design airplanes or bridges. The sad history of Trofim Lysenko and the calamities he caused illustrates why belief in the right theory, evolution in that case, is also not optional. Agricultural practices based on Lysenko's theories, which contradicted Darwin's evolution, contributed to disastrous crop failures in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and in China in the 1950s.

While his experience is that the majority of people in the audience are uncomfortable with the assertion that there is no conflict between the Bible and evolution, he claims the response to his talks is almost uniformly positive. That, of course, may have to do with his approach:

None of what I am saying threatens religion. No observational evidence can disprove some subtle supernatural intervention in cosmological or biological evolution that would leave us with the evidence we see. That possibility is important to some scientists. It does not interest me, but I cannot argue against it within the logic of science.

If more scientists were to make the effort to present a reasonable face of science to the general public in such person-to-person settings, I think the populace of America would have a much better opinion of the field.
"Agricultural practices based on Lysenko's theories, which contradicted Darwin's evolution, contributed to disastrous crop failures in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and in China in the 1950s."

I'm not exactly clear on this. Was Lysenko against evolution?

As I understand it, Lysenko was more correctly called an anti-Mendelian, in that he rejected genetic inheritance. He was closer to being a Lamarckian, believing in the inheritance of acquired traits. Darwin accepted a limited role for the inheritance of acquired traits, mostly to solve the problem of the "swamping out" of beneficial traits that would follow from the "blending inheritance" most scientists accepted in Darwin's time. Lysenko was, of course, very much against the neo-Darwinian synthesis that had arisen in the 1930s and 1940s.
That implies that Peshkin's critique is an overgeneralization.

The "right theory" for Lysenko would have been the new genetic theory of neo-Darwinism, not "Darwin's evolution."

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