More Monkey Business

Some responses to my mailbag, and to the comments section of Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s Electrolite:

1. I shouldn’t have said “fool.” Other than one action which I took (take) to be foolish, I have no knowledge of Prof. Dini; even if I’m right about the folly that’s no reason to think that he’s a fool generally. A bad inference, and bad manners.

I wrote in anger because I think making peace between the scientific and religious cultures is enormously important. The gap between mass and elite on this matter (producing what Peter Berger called “a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes”) is social dynamite. “Science” is revered, but the actual scientific belief-system — as opposed to awe of scientists as magic-workers and greed for the things they and their technologist allies can produce — remains a minority creed. Having grown up Jewish in the Jewish part of Baltimore, I can recall my shock (at about age 9) when I figured out that Jews were a minority. Many of my fellow-believers in the science-creed have yet to make that discovery, or at least haven’t yet dealt with it emotionally. Calling people stupid because they disagree with you is rude. Doing so in a democracy, when they outnumber you, is dumb.

In the evolution controversy, the creationists have been, by and large, the aggressors. That’s what Prof. Dini seems to be reacting against, and his anger is understandable. Note that, even setting aside the frank miracles, there are lots of other things in the Bible grossly inconsistent with scientific knowledge, starting with the “waters above the firmament.” But it’s only evolution that the hard-shell Christians have chosen to make a test of faith. They don’t object to the schools’ teaching that the earth moves around the sun, though the Book of Joshua clearly implies otherwise. So it’s not quite fair to ask whether Prof. Dini is going to make his students deny the Burning Bush, the Virgin Birth, and the transformation of water into wine at Cana; on none of those points do the fundamentalists insist that scientific teaching in the schools adapt to their reading of scripture.

2. Yes, evolution is more than paleontology. It pervades biology, and is making strides in the human sciences as well. But the inquisition to which Prof. Dini subjects his students is a paleontological one, asking about the origin of humanity rather than what happens currently in an antibiotic-laden petri dish or tuberculosis victim. One correspondent, someone I know well both personally and as a brilliant research worker in one of the mathematical social sciences, reports the following as his belief: that Darwinian natural selection is the primary mechanism for species change, but that the origin of humankind depended on a Divine intervention outside the ordinary operation of evolution. Presumably Prof. Dini would find that answer unacceptable, because it rejects a purely scientific view about human origins. Yet my correspondent has all the personal characteristics that would have made a great physician, had he chosen to pursue that career: a quick, powerful mind, razor-sharp judgment, humility, real concern for others, readiness to acknowledge error, the capacity to keep multiple hypotheses in mind while actively pursuing one of them, commitment to getting the right answer and doing the right thing, concentration, and energy.

3. No, medicine is not a science. Biology is a science. Socially, medicine is a profession. Practically, it is a craft, what Plato calls a techne: a knowledge-how based on understanding, as opposed to a mere knack. Training in medicine involves learning biology, among other things, but physicians are expected to heal, not to contribute to the growth of knowledge unless they happen to be research workers as well. So I continue to believe that excluding someone from medical education because he has non-standard views on evolution is unjustified, just as excluding someone from law school because he believed in Marxism or Objectivism would be unjustified.

4. Some anti-evolutionists claim to be doing science rather than making religious claims. Their scientific work has been judged worthless by the scientific community competent to judge. Adherence to “creation science” or “intelligent design theory” is much more at variance with serious scientific practice than mere refusal to let biology trump religious faith in answering the question, “How did humanity come to exist?” A student who insists on writing creation-science answers on biology exams can justly be flunked; the teacher is entitled to determine the range of legitimate opinion in the classroom, in keeping with the practice of the scientific community involved. But writing “I don’t believe a word of this” after a completely correct answer doesn’t make the answer any less correct.

5. The argument that no one can possibly understand biology without accepting evolution as true seems to be contradicted by the fact that the student in question received an “A” in one of Prof. Dini’s courses. Correction: This statement turns out wrong. The student who is complaining dropped the course on becoming aware of the rule about letters of recommendation. What I should have said is that the rule only applies to students who received A grades, because an A is one of the requirements for even asking for a letter. So any student denied a letter for not making the appropriate confession of faith must have somehow earned an A.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com