Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Gates on IDC

Not Bill Gates, but S. James Gates, delivering the plenary at the AAAS meetings, in a talk called Einstein's Lesson for the Third Millenium:
Once, a high school student asked me two questions: "Was the only thing that Einstein did was to create theories?" and "Is all of science a theory?" I answered yes to both of these, and said, "Science is a process by which our species has obtained its most precise understanding of our home, the physical universe." Young students often think science is what you find in books, and I tell them, "That's like walking into a sculpture studio, looking down at the floor, and concluding that sculptors are people who make little piles of rock."

Several hundred years, if not thousands, have taught the scientific community that we must work in such a way as to account for our own fallibility. Thus, each generation of scientists is charged to check and recheck the scientific knowledge that's passed down to it and it's almost a unique attribute of science that we do this. Due to this cautious approach to wisdom, science casts its greatest achievements in the forms of theories. An accepted scientific theory must explain many, many facts, sometimes hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands, but a single fact can destroy a theory.

Let me paraphrase Einstein about this. He said, "The unhappy fate of most theories is to be proven wrong shortly after being introduced. However, for those not so treated, at best nature says: 'Maybe.' "

I believe part of his legacy should guide our community in a debate that's occurring today in our nation. There is a set of suggestions, known as intelligent design, which have been offered as a scientific theory by some. We, in the scientific community, owe this discussion a respectful debate. First, to not do so would be a betrayal of our own cautiousness in approaching the gaining of wisdom. Second, historical examples show that faith-based communities do have the power to turn off science. Unless we rigorously and openly join this debate, our nation will move into the third millennium educating young ones who will be less than able to continue the progress we have seen so far.

But, for me, personally, this debate has another dimension. I spent all of my teenage years, as mentioned in the introduction, in Orlando, Florida. As many people know, the southern African American community is one with a deep tradition of religious faith. The bulk of my religious training occurred in the confines of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church. There, we were taught that faith is to be anchored on the inhuman perfection of religion. If intelligent design is accepted as science, then like all scientific theories, it is in principle possible to disprove it by the actions of human observation and thought. Thus, those who would join the inhuman perfection of religion to the human imperfection of science put both at grave peril for anyone who deeply contemplates them. Many in the AME church tradition, like me, must reject this idea that by thoughts and actions of man our faith can be called into question. This is the very greatest danger, in my opinion, of the notion of intelligent design.

I believe this debate would actually surprise Einstein, who commented so often about the practicality of Americans and America. We observe this practicality every day. If most Americans were told that a loved one were injured they would do two things: say a prayer and then pick up a cell phone. The first is a result of religion; the second is the final output of science. Most Americans see no need to choose either one or the other. And I believe Einstein would agree.

Here's another quote: "Does there truly exist an inseparable contradiction between religion and science? Can religion be superseded by science? The answers to these questions have for centuries given rise to considerable dispute and, indeed, bitter fighting. Yet, in my mind, there is no doubt that in both cases, dispassionate consideration can only lead to a negative answer." So, for our celebrant, Albert Einstein, this is not an either/or proposition.
I highlighted some interesting lines. His points are all well-taken. Treating the IDC movement as something to ignore will be a disaster. Engaging it head on has its own problems. All science suffers when people don't understand what science is and how scientists work.

His point about the unpleasant religious implications of forcing religious claims into the classroom is very apt. As always, TfK readers got that insight first.