Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. The events commemorating Darwin’s birthday anniversary last Sunday, together with the recent conclusion of an important court case concerning the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) in public schools prompts me to some musing concerning the relation of the Evolution/ID dialog to similar issues arising in connection with anthropogenic global warming. The age of the two theories is similar as well: Darwin introduced his theory in 1859, whereas Fourier initiated the study of the effect of atmospheres on climate with his 1821 treatise, stimulating the chain of developments leading to Arrhenius’ enunciation in 1896 of the theory that human influences on the atmosphere’s CO2 content could change the climate.

I don’t propose to wade into questions of religion, or the question of whether or in what form ID could be taught in public schools. However, the discussion surrounding ID is significant because it has focused a lot of public attention on the question of : "What is science?" A Nov. 5, 2005 letter to the Chicago Tribune by one Mr. Ross Williams makes the connection explicit: In his letter, Mr Williams implies that the Theory of Global Warming is more like ID than it is like Evolution. Referring to global warming, he states: "It is no more than an idea, a notion." and goes on to say:

  • " The scientists pursuing this hypothesis are struggling to test it and make predictions using their ideas. Thus far, they have had extremely limited success in testing, and virtually no luck in predicting–resulting in continually modified (and, consequently, less severe) forecasts. Despite this, they are spawning a whole cadre of non-scientific worry warts who are declaring that, well, really, the science doesn’t matter."

In Mr. Williams lexicon, a hypothesis is just "a notion," presumably not much better than ID. In this article, I will attempt to explain why the bleak picture painted by Mr. Williams and people of like mind is unwarranted.

Another relation between the two issues is that Evolution skeptics are motivated by ideology to deny a well-established scientific theory. In the case of Evolution, the ideological motivation is a perceived conflict between the picture of the operation of the natural world presented by the Theory of Evolution, and the tenets of certain faiths (a perceived conflict that, I am happy to see, is not shared by all people of faith, as witness the extensive "Evolution Sunday " activities ). Similarly, most Global Warming denialists are for the most part motivated not by abstract curiosity about the behavior of climate systems, but by a perceived conflict between the actions that would need to be taken to avert unacceptable climate change, and their beliefs about the extent to which economic growth and material prosperity based on fossil-fuel energy use should be unfettered. (Again, not all economists or members of the business community perceive a conflict here). In both cases, the skeptics prosecute not just an attack on the policy implications of science, but on the scientific method itself, often using similar rhetorical devices. In fact, sometimes skepticism about global warming and about evolution are combined in one and the same person, as is the case for Roy Spencer, for example (see his article on evolution here.)

Just what is the theory here?

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