Tuesday, July 05, 2005


The Method Strategy

Cornelia Dean has a piece in the New York Times today titled, "How Quantum Physics Can Teach Biologists About Evolution." Dean writes about the scientific revolution unleashed by Max Planck that overturned the Newtonian universe early in the 20th century. Her story is about how science came to accept a new idea that seemed, initially, to be in conflict with the, then current paradigm, of the way the world worked.

"Biologists might do well to keep Planck in mind," Dean contends, "as they confront creationism and 'intelligent design' and battle to preserve the teaching of evolution in public schools."

Dean makes a slight misstep when she says that scientists cite radiocarbon dating to show that the Earth is billions of years old. Scientists don't, in fact, use radiocarbon dating to prove the age of the earth. That method is used only to date samples of biological origin that are of relatively recent origin -- say 50,000 years or less. Other, similar methods that rely on decay of unstable isotopes in the minerals of volcanic rock are used instead, producing extremely accurate results. Stratigraphy of sedimentary rock layers also gives us a rough estimate of the age of the rocks that make up the Earth's surface.

Scientists are right in their battle with creationists and intelligent design "theorists," Dean believes, but she doesn't think the general public can distinguish between the various theories because they don't understand the scientific method. It all boils down, she writes, to a "my theory is better than your theory" sort of debate "with both sides preaching with theological fervor."

Scientists, educators, and culturally literate citizens must do more, argues Dean, to explain that science "looks to explain nature through nature." She is especially good at explaining how the theory of evolution has adapted to new discoveries over the years since Darwin.

Toward the end of her piece, citing an e-mail from Dr. Steve Rissing, a biologist at Ohio State University, Dean gives her readers a glimpse of how the competition between scientists drives our knowledge of the natural world forward.

"The supposed 'data contradicting evolution' do not exist... But, if they did... I sure would want to be the scientist publishing them. Think of it -- the covers of Nature and Science, and Newsweek and Time, too!"

Doesn't sound much like the priesthood that Dembski has been muttering so much about lately, does it?

Despite the relatively minor misstep over radiocarbon dating, there is much to recommend this approach. The process of scientific discovery, the intellectual combat, the adventure of fieldwork, the wonder of being the first to know and understand, all make for a compelling narrative that creationism and intelligent design simply can't offer.


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