We have entered a very dangerous time for the American republic. Citizens are by default lined up on either side of the line of science.
On the left are those who understand science. Most are liberals and Democrats. On the right are those who deny the validity of science. They are almost exclusively conservatives, Republicans, and Tea Party folk. Plus people like the governor of Texas, who dismisses the most profound findings of science as “just a theory”.
A scientific theory is not someone’s opinion. A theory is the best current scientific explanation of how the real world works.
There is this odd thing about a theory: you cannot prove that a theory is true; you can only prove that it’s false. However, science is strengthened either way. People on the left side of the line understand this, understand how and why science works. Those on the right do not.
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was famously first tested in 1919, as Einstein suggested, by observing when certain stars emerged from behind a total solar eclipse. If they had emerged when Newton’s theories predicted, Einstein’s theory would have been disproven, shot down. They emerged when Einstein predicted. But note that this didn’t prove Einstein’s theory was “true”; it only showed that this test did not prove it was “false”.
Before the Enlightenment, before education began to be more widespread in Europe, people could only accept as true what the church declared. The church, and most others, said that Earth was the center of the universe, and everything revolved around it, because that’s what it looked like. When Galileo learned that could not be true, because Jupiter’s moons could be seen orbiting Jupiter, and Mercury and Venus could be seen orbiting the sun, the church tried to silence him. But in the end it didn’t matter what the church said, because all the facts and every way they could be tested showed that the sun was the center of our solar system. Today the church does not contest these facts, or any other finding of astronomy. Only certain fundamentalists don’t understand it, or that the universe simply could not be just 4,000 years old.
Darwin was a wonderful scientist who made several worthy contributions to our knowledge. But he was reluctant to release his ideas on evolution because he knew what a ruckus it would cause, and it did. Evolution is a genuine theory, like Einstein’s, because real contradictory evidence would prove it false. But in spite of many attempts to disprove it, evolutionary theory has only strengthened with time.
Global climate change has become a contentious issue in the United States because those on the right side of the science line refuse to consider the evidence—“just a theory”. Even presidential contenders misrepresent the evidence, trying instead to cobble together a claim that it’s a world-wide conspiracy among climate scientists, a position that can only derive from ignorance or stupidity. The facts tell us the climate is changing. We personally see climate change every day, and we fail to appreciate it at our peril. In the end, denial of the facts is irrelevant because the climate is changing. But government becomes frozen by these false beliefs, and we will all pay for it.
There is no question that science has led us to ever-improving approximations of the real. We would be unable to function in the modern world if it were not so. Modern communications, for example, would be impossible without our understanding of how radiation is propagated.
But there is another kind of “truth”, the kind we experience with great art, with music, even with great athletic events—and with religion. This kind of truth cannot be subjected to the kinds of tests that a scientific theory must be able to withstand. There is no way to scientifically test the truth we feel when we have had a great emotional experience with the arts, or with religion. They are from different realms, completely different worlds—different magisteria. And, while many others may have felt something similar to what I felt, this is a personal experience, true for me, but perhaps not for you.
The church, surely humankind’s most conservative institution, accepts what Galileo first showed. So do the right-siders: today not even modestly educated persons attempt to claim that the Earth is the center of all things. Yet the church also asserts a different kind of truth, a personal truth that cannot be challenged by science. And it can’t. But, likewise, the church cannot challenge the truths of science. They exist in different magisteria. If the church wants to contest a scientific theory, it must do so in the terms of science. Real evidence of the falsity of a scientific theory, even if it came from the church, would advance the cause of science. But no quote from a book is scientific evidence. Only science can refute science.
This is what the American right must come to understand.