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Does Canada’s science minister believe in science?

Initially declines to answer question about whether he believes in evolution


 

From The Globe and Mail:

Canada’s science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won’t say if he believes in evolution.

“I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

A funding crunch, exacerbated by cuts in the January budget, has left many senior researchers across the county scrambling to find the money to continue their experiments.

Some have expressed concern that Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor from Cambridge, Ont., is suspicious of science, perhaps because he is a creationist.


 

Does Canada’s science minister believe in science?

  1. A creationist chiropractor? That’s like hiring a Luddite to be the minister of industry, or a Zionist to represent Palestinians.

    Why can’t we have cool science and technology advisers – like Obama’s Stephen Chu.

  2. Ugh – I am so tired of this worn-out argument. OOohh! Scandal!! What does it matter? Who f-ing cares if he’s an evolutionist or not? Will it impede him in his ability to preform his job? Likely not.

    In fact, as Jonathan Kay points out, the minister’s view is more in line with the views held by the majority of Canadians:
    http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2009/03/17/jonathan-kay-on-the-globe-amp-mail-s-appalling-front-page-smear-on-religious-christians.aspx

    Kay goes on to slam the sort of sensationalist journalism performed by the Globe and Mail, including accusing Mr Goodyear of being ‘suspicious of science’. ‘Suspicious of science?’ Puh-leeze.

    As Kay puts it:
    “The clear implication is that service in the federal Cabinet is a privilege open only to that minority of Canadians who subscribe rigidly to the tenets of atheism.”

    If he’s competent and capable, what does it matter what he believes when he goes home at the end of the day?

  3. @ Travis Friesen:
    There are two big problems with your comments: First, people who don’t accept evolutionary theory are suspicious of science, by definition. Either that, or deliberately depriving themselves of evidence. While questions like the first origins of life are still open to debate, rejecting that live has evolved over millions of years, and is continuing to evolve right now (see viruses for a sped up example), is identical to rejecting the scientific method. That’s not exactly a trait most of us would want in a science minister.

    Second, there is no inherent incompatibility between evolutionary theory and belief in God. The pope has said as much on multiple occasions, and so have tons of other religious leaders. We don’t necessarily need an atheist science minister, but we better have a scientific science minister.

  4. Looks like the good Minister believes in evolution after all — he just thought the question was ‘irrelevant’ for someone in his position.

    Maybe someone can ask him about his position on stem cell research?

  5. @John

    You’re quite right, on the second case, anyway. On the first one, you’re partly right, but have some issues as well.

    I am engineer, someone deeply immersed in science, and I for one sceptical of evolution, or rather, I am wary of some of the attitudes toward it that evolution advocates and the so-called ‘scientific community’ take. And I’m not alone, a good friend of is trained geologist, someone who is better equipped than either you or I or the Globe, or the minister to understand the nuances and the science behind the issue. And she is even more sceptical than I.

    The big problem, which I think is what has been truly demonstrated in the Globe article, is the dogmatism of evolutionary proponents. To even -hint- that one believes something slightly different than the mainstream view is immediately met with such wrath, furor and indignation as to scare even the most outspoken into silence. “Shocked” and “flabbergasted” are, I think, the words used in the article.

    This, I think, is the real problem. Many who insist that they are the most rational, the most scientific are the quickest to lose their heads, the quickest to shut their ears when anyone questions their precious, precious theory. And the end result is that many legitimate problems with the theory simply go un-discussed.

    ‘Hubris!’ you exclaim. ‘Where are these problems you speak of!?!’ Well, it would be poor form of me not to discuss them, so:

    1) Irreducible complexity is an issue that I don’t think evolutionary theory has sufficiently addressed. It is, unfortunately, usually trotted out by hard line creationists in an attempt to ‘disprove’ evolution instead of used to legitimately question it. Basically, the problem is that certain organs, etc such as the eye require a certain level of complexity to be useful. It doesn’t seem possible to gradually introduce such functions using conventional natural selection.

    2) (current) evolutionary theory fails to explain many symbiotic relationships, etc seen in nature. For instance, the termite that eats the wood and the bacteria that lives in its stomach to digest. Each needs the other to survive, and it does not seem that they could have developed independently.

    3) Admittedly this is a bit specious, but I think it is worth mentioning whenever someone insists on the scientific FACT of evolution. Basically, evolutionary science fails many of the important criteria for being considered a science. For instance, it is not testable, nor is it falsifiable. Karl Popper’s, one of the greatest philosophers of science, words here are, I think, quite illustrative:

    “Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program… And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin. In trying to explain experiments with bacteria which become adapted to, say, penicillin, it is quite clear that we are greatly helped by the theory of natural selection.”

    “[Darwinism] is an immensely impressive and powerful theory. The claim that it completely explains evolution is of course a bold claim, and very far from being established. All scientific theories are conjectures, even those that have successfully passed many severe and varied tests.”

    And I could go on. In any case, what I’ve tried to show here is that it is possible to accept the scientific evidence supporting evolution, and yet still be sceptical of many of its claims. Indeed, I would make the case that the minister takes a much more reasonable position than his detractors do.

    He accepts evolution, but he accepts all of it – its strengths and its weaknesses. Its capabilities and its limitations. Like me, and like a growing body of the educated, he is wary of those who immediately get hot under the collar anytime anyone tries to discuss the shortcomings of the theory. This, if you ask me, is exactly the sort of trait we should want in a science minister.

  6. I agree, evolution is a proven scientific fact.

  7. @Travis –

    I would like to address some of your concerns, although my only qualifications to do so is that I’m a physicist with first year biology and have read several popular science books.

    First off, I’m glad that our Minister of Science accepts evolution, although I’m still concerned that he feels the need to refer to scientific theories as conjectures. I don’t think that’s the best way to explain science to the public. I’m also concerned that his previous occupation was as a chiropractor. There are a lot of chiropractors who make very dubious scientific claims about their practice.

    I doubt I’ll ever be able to convince you of evolution or me of non-evolution, since I believe all the possible arguments that we could possibly make have already been explored over and over before, and we haven’t changed our minds, and neither of us being biologists, it is unlikely that we will come up with anything new within the course of this debate.

    However, I have heard of your “problems” and I’d like to respond to them:
    1. I’m glad you bring up the example of the eye for irreducible complexity. Darwin proposed a path for the evolution for the eye (back in 1872!), based on features in the animal kingdom in his day. Though the full eye does seem like a complex organ that would not work without its constituent parts, cells within the eye are useful on their own. For example, having photosensitive cells would be useful for the orientation of microorganisms, so would having pigment sensitive cells. Having one optic nerve to these cells would be better, as would having a small flap of skin over this optic nerve to serve as a bad lens. All of these features have been found in nature, as well as genetic evidence showing the evolutionary link between one feature and another.

    2. Symbiotic relationships evolve over time either individually, or together- it depends on the case. Our own cells are an example of symbiotic relationship – our mitochondria were once a symbiotic organism with our cells that eventually became incorporated into our DNA. In the example of the termite, as you brought up, they evolved separately. Early termites lived on the forest floor and ate wood – digesting bacteria, which became incorporated into the fauna of the termite’s digestive system. Termites are not a unique example. There are many organisms who live off of our skin and digestive system, and many of them get there by what we eat.

    3. Evolution is testable in the same way that history and archeology is testable. Come up with a hypothesis i.e. if evolution occurred then we should see this… and then go back and actually look at it. We can also see evolution in the rapid adaptation of viruses, in domestic breeding, or in the evolutionary changes of organisms due to human influence. I won’t list them all here, but there is an excellent list at Talk Origins: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/

    Anyway, I don’t really have time to write a response to anything you object to in this post. Hopefully someone else will be able to respond, but it will likely just fade away on the internet.

  8. @Travis
    “…trained geologist, someone who is better equipped than either you or I …”

    Actually, I’m an evolutionary computation researcher. I use the fact that evolution works on a daily basis in that research, as do tens or hundreds of thousands of other scientists. Catherine makes many good points above, so I’ll add only this: Karl Popper was writing before the discovery of DNA, which, as you may be aware, offers the ability to test many evolutionary hypotheses directly, hence his claim that the evolution wasn’t technically science held some weight a hundred years ago, but is entirely false today. The discovery of DNA transformed evolution from a soft science into a hard science.

    The problem with this issue is the volume of information available to people with which to “educate” themselves. Much of it is obsolete or flat out wrong, but is accepted because people prefer to believe it, and don’t want to bother with real fact checking.

    While Neo-Darwinianst evolutionary theories (that’s right, Darwin’s theories have been modified) may have problems, their problems are no more pronounced than those of any other theory in the hard sciences. Moreover, if those issues could really be addressed by the bizarre ideas put forward to replace evolutionary frameworks, don’t you think researchers would be first to adopt them? I think you’ve got the worst possible kind of education on this issue: the illusion of knowledge. Hit the books again before you resume pontificating about “evolutionists”.

  9. Thank-you, Catherine, for your reply.

    I must say, though, that it’s less of -what- you’ve said then -how- you’ve said it which makes the most effective counter-argument to my post. It has been my experience that the staunchest evolutionists will fly off the handle when statements like those made by me are put forth. By comparison, you have responded reasonably and concisely.

    Admittedly, the examples I chose were simple, and quite old. I chose simple examples for the sake of clarity and brevity; I should have gone a bit deeper. I could rattle off a dozen other issues, like how could natural selection make the jump from asexual to sexual reproduction, or discuss the fossil record of the horse, but you’re right that you and I are both limited by the restraints of time and space – this is not a practical forum.

    I think we can both agree, though, that there are open questions surrounding evolution, as there are in any field of science. I just wish I could talk about them without getting my hand slapped every time, or being labelled a ‘creationist’, a Luddite, or worse. And that’s what I was really trying to get at. A little bit more humility from the scientific community on this issue could go a long way. :)

  10. Thanks Catherine and Travis. Rather nicely put.

    Evolution is a theory, testable as Catherine points out, and is refined from time to time through experiments and evidence.

    But does it makes sense to say that one “believes” in evolution? I happen to think from what I’ve studied that the theory of evolution likely describes – more or less – accurately an explanation for much of the development of life on earth. But I don’t root for it without question. And I certainly don’t pray to it and read from the Book of Darwin on Sundays.

    The word “believe” – meaning to accept as certain and true – is too loose a word and loaded with other associations to be useful here.

    So if the reporter had asked me: “Do you believe in evolution?” I would say “No.”

    All this to say that the language surrounding this debate on evolution/creationism (if it really is a debate) is very unclear and unhelpful. And it erodes the quality of scientific and rational debate.

    Cheers.

    PS – I do hope that the Minister understands science and appreciates it fully.

  11. Catherine,
    Thanks for providing the link to TalkOrigins – I’d suggest you check it out, Travis, as I think it will clear up many of your questions. Concerning asexual versus sexual reproduction, though, I’d mention that unicellular organisms do reproduce both through binary fission or mitosis (asexually) and following exchanges of genetic material (sexually, in essence). Cells are amazing things, especially when they start getting together in ever greater numbers and specializations.

    The issue of humility, however, isn’t really warranted – to anyone with an undergraduate level of knowledge in molecular biology/evolution, genetics, cell biology, or histology, your criticisms will come off as very naive and, frankly, ignorant. I do not mean that as an insult in any way whatsoever, but merely to impress upon you that simplistic criticisms of other fields in science are generally easily refuted. I am not, for example, qualified to comment on most any engineering topic, my first-year physics and statics courses notwithstanding. I do, however, trust that engineers know what they’re doing in their own field as, indeed, molecular biologists, geneticists, microbiologists, and ecologists understand their fields.

    (I’m not clear on the purpose of the Karl Popper quotes, which seem to contradict his claim that “Darwinism” is not testable – a scientific theory posits mechanisms to explain observed phenomenon and, correspondingly, makes predictions about responses to stimuli and the like. The evolution of antimicrobial resistance in response to antibiotic use is a textbook case of a validation of natural selection in action. In any case, evolutionary biology has advanced considerably since Darwin, not least because of the advent of molecular genetics, proteomics, and related technologies.)

    Anyway, I don’t want to seem hostile, but there’s really no question – evolution in any broad sense is a fact, something that no more requires belief or faith than Newton’s Second Law.

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