Monday, February 06, 2006

Has Science Gone Too Far Or Not Far Enough?

I love science. I'm fascinated with string theory and cosmology. Various aspects of evolutionary theory provide for endless hours of amusement. The depth and scope of time involved in various geological studies is, quite simply, awe-inspiring. I just wish I understood all even half of it, but that just means there‘s always something new to learn. There's always something new to learn. I'm also quite concerned about the continued dumbing down of our culture. The idea that learning something for any reason other than profit is a waste of time bothers me to no end, and it seriously bothers me to see people wallow in ignorance over the simplest topics just because looking it up and maybe learning something would take time out of their busy schedules. The amount of faith, trust and, above all, money some people put into complete horse hockey like psychics, astrology and other forms of psuedo-scientific quackery worries me something fierce.

You may've heard about this. Way it goes, some kid named George Deutsch has got a bunch of scientists all riled up over some iffy statements he made to a subordinate in his position as public affairs officer for NASA. Here's the money quote:

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

Like I said, lots of folks are bent way out of shape over this, as well as Mr. Deutsch's qualifications for the job he has. In short, he has none. The boy's a recent journalism graduate from Texas A&M and apparently his only qualifications for the gig is that he served as an intern for the "war room" on Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. He's also a bit of a lulu, apparently.

Let's review. An unqualified political appointee issues a vaguely threatening missive to an actual scientist, warning said scientist not to get to fancy with his science talk and reminding him that, yes, religion must be respected. In the process, he gets it all wrong. Not only that, he's definitely a hard-core Bush partisan. The excellent Pharyngula has more on this story, as does Phil Plait's killer Bad Astronomer site and the excellent physics blog Cosmic Variance.

Okay, a couple things. Yes, the Big Bang is "just a theory", but that isn't the same thing as an "opinion". In the scientific world, a theory is derived from evidence and observation. It's testable. It's falsifiable. It's not some wild conjecture. Theories are challenged and tested against. Some fall by the wayside; some stick around despite some folks' best attempts to foil 'em. So, in other words, scientists aren't just making shit up when it comes to wacky stuff like string theory or expansion theory. They spend a lot of time on it because believe you me, there’s little more your average scientists likes better than to prove some other scientists wrong.

Number two, some serious bells of warning should go off when this kid tries to shove in the much discredited theory of "intelligent design by a creator". No, it isn't NASA's job to say there wasn't a creator, but it's also not NASA's job to give credence to unsubstantiated, unscientific political hoo-hah. Science, despite what Mr. Deutsch may think, isn't a religious issue. It has nothing to do with religion. End of story.

Personally, I've got no use for religion whatsoever. I'm interested in the history of various religions and their respective places in culture, and of course given today's political climate, it does one good to keep up with the various goings on in the churches and other houses of worship. Otherwise, it's complete rubbish to me, and personally I see no need to "respect" an ideology that thinks that not only am I doomed to ever-lasting torment because I don't follow its particular fairy tale, I deserve such damnation. That being said, hey, if faith gets you through the hard nights, that's jake with me. It just doesn't belong in science. Science isn't trying to replace religion. They're two different things and are in no way incongruous with each other. I don't know of any way to make that any simpler.

And for what it's worth, this isn't just a "knee-jerk, anti-Bush" reaction. After the disaster that is Michael Browne and the recent revelations of the Bush administration leaning on dissenting voices when it comes to little things like global warming, I personally think it's quite logical to be a bit perturbed by the news of one lone Aggie making a fool out of himself and the Bush administration. This isn’t serving the public. It’s pushing an agenda that the antithesis of NASA’s purpose - informing the public on scientific matters - and dangerous not only to the intelligence of the body public, but possibly our physical well being to boot. Furthermore, it’s another example of how shoddily the U.S. government is run, how little thought the Bush administration puts into political appointees (paging John Bolton), and how little the powers that be are really interested in anything but political maneuverings. But after five years, is anyone really surprised?