Sunday, May 29, 2011

When Democracy Supersedes Reality

 Image courtesy of Google Images.

I live in a democracy, at least in name, and I strongly believe in democracy. The people should hold the power in a nation-state, which ideally should be republican (not to be confused with Republican). My country, Canada, is not a republic of course. We have a sovereign as head of state, and her representative, the governor general as the technical head of the government. But, Canada is, for all intents and purposes, a democracy. We have a parliament with a House of Commons, elected members of parliament, a senate, a separate judiciary, and a prime minister. The parliamentary system, quite a different form or democracy than the American brand, requires the party with the majority of seats in the house of commons to form a government following an election. Should no party establish a majority of seats, then typically either the party with the most seats forms a minority government or more than one party forms a coalition government. As such, it is not uncommon at all to have a Prime Minister of Canada for whose party much fewer than 50% of the population voted. The prime minister appoints as cabinet ministers various elected members of parliament, almost always exclusively from within his own party.

Canada’s current prime minister, Stephen Harper, appointed Gary Goodyear to the position of Minister of State for Science and Technology following an election in 2008 and then again following an election in 2011. It is public knowledge that Goodyear neither understands nor accepts evolution. In a March 2009 interview Goodyear was asked by a reporter whether he believed in evolution. He responded: “I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.” [Note the reporter did not ask a question about his religion.] Later the same day, Goodyear said that he believed in evolution, but when asked to clarify this belief, he responded: “We are evolving, every year, every decade. That’s a fact. Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course, we are evolving to our environment.” [Gary Goodyear is a former chiropractor.]

Remember, this comes from the Minister of State for Science and Technology.

It is obvious to anyone with even an elementary knowledge of science and evolution that Goodyear does not understand it. Human evolution does not occur in the time frame of years and decades, and to suggest so only illustrates a failed attempt to cover up his own ignorance about evolution. Further, anyone with any exposure to the deliberate ignorance promoted as “intelligent design” and the battle (particularly in the United States) to introduce this tripe into schools as “teaching the controversy” in science class, also understands exactly what Goodyear’s position is. The fact that he interprets acceptance of evolution as an issue of religion rather than science and the fact that he is then unable to adequately explain basic evolution, demonstrates that he is indeed a creationist. He clearly lets his religious beliefs determine his view of where humans came from rather than accepting the reality of evolution. And, worst of all, he actually thinks this is an acceptable position for the Minister of State for Science.

In some conversations with people, particularly supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada (which, incidentally is anything but conservative to anyone who holds conservative fiscal and economic values) they tend to defend Goodyear’s right to believe whatever he wishes. They tend to defend the prime minister’s choice to appoint (and re-appoint) him to this scientific cabinet position, justifying it by pointing out that we live in a democracy and the Conservative party won the election. Mr. Harper, as the elected prime minister, has the authority and the mandate of Canadian voters to appoint Goodyear to this post. There are two main problems with this position.

Firstly, while it is true that Goodyear has the right to believe anything he wishes, even known falsehoods such as creationism, he most certainly does not have the right to allow his personal beliefs to cloud his perception of reality, particularly when those beliefs are in direct opposition to the portfolio he holds (science). Step back and imagine if this was another government minister who held a belief that was known to be false and which was directly in conflict with a particular cabinet position. Suppose the Minister of Health believed that HIV was transmitted by eye contact. Suppose the Minister of Natural Resources believed that the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada were only 13 metres apart (this is, after all, an error of the exactly same magnitude as Gary Goodyear's error), or suppose the Minister of Finance didn’t believe the dollar exists. Everyone, no matter their beliefs, would be outraged to find a minister with such beliefs appointed to cabinet and making major decisions about the economy, health, or land resources while holding beliefs that are in complete opposition to known facts. Yet, for some reason when the issue is evolution and science, people are willing to accept that that is someone’s “personal” belief. (And, of course, some people think these are not analogous since for some people, thanks to successful propaganda, evolution is still not known to be true).

Secondly, reality should supersede democracy. The prime minister, while legally entitled to appoint Goodyear to the role of Minister of State for Science given his majority government position by the voters of Canada, should not have this authority. There are some cases when even an elected majority government should not have the authority to make such decisions. When reality is being challenged by a government, democracy is no longer a fair defense of the government’s actions and decisions. No matter how strong of a majority government a party earns in an election, they would never be able to decree that electrons actually have a positive rather than negative charge. They simply do not, and to state otherwise is a challenge to reality. Even if 100% of the population of Canada believed that electrons have a positive charge and supported the prime minister in decreeing that they are positively charged, they still would be negatively charged. Electrons have a negative charge whether Mr. Harper believes they do or not. Similarly, evolution is true whether Gary Goodyear believes it is or not. Attempting to overrule reality with democracy is a very dangerous game in politics because it leads to organized and deliberate ignorance, a topic I hope to follow up with shortly.

There may be those reading this who are still not convinced of the outrage of Gary Goodyear's position. Perhaps you still think he is entitled to his own personal beliefs even if he is in public office. Well, perhaps he does, even if those beliefs are known to be false. But the bottom line is this: Gary Goodyear is the Minister of State for Science. Science accepts evolution. Even if you, as the reader of this blog, don't accept evolution, perhaps you could understand why it is outrageous for someone in the position of authority over science in government to reject one of the main accepted theories of the biological sciences.

Overall, this is simply another example of how a person can blind themselves to the facts because they require their beliefs to fit with preconceived notions based on religion. Just another example of putting the cart before the horse and making the evidence fit the conclusion. Gary Goodyear only rejects (and even fails to understand) evolution for one reason: he is a Christian. (Let's face it, this is pretty much the only reason anyone ever rejects evolution). The travesty in this case is that, rather than only letting his rejection of science lead to his own continued ignorance, he is instead in a position of power over the very subject that he rejects. The irony would be funny if it wasn't so frightening and sickening.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dichotomy of Views on Evidence

Does God exist? It is a question that almost everyone must have asked of themselves at some point. From a scientist’s point of view it is an inherently unanswerable question. Disproving a hypothesis for which there is no scientific test is impossible. That it is unanswerable does not increase the likelihood of God’s existence, however. There are many inherently unanswerable questions in life. By definition, a research question can only be answered if one is able to gather data and test hypotheses. This is not possible of the question of God’s existence. (Actually some have attempted to address this as a research question by establishing a controlled study on the effects of prayer on those suffering from ill health. And, while I personally think this type of approach is a waste of resources and amounts to hypothesis chasing, it perhaps has some validity in addressing the overall question. Christians, of course, argue that scientific tests on God like that are invalid because of what amounts to a supernatural Hawthorne effect!).

There seems to be a continuum of views amongst humans in terms of the requirement for evidence to support belief in God. On the one extreme are believers who essentially require no evidence whatsoever for their belief in God. In fact, some believers state that their belief despite the lack of evidence is actually a sign of strong faith, which can only be taken as a good thing. On the other extreme are many atheists and scientists who reject the notion of deities due to a complete lack of evidence. Many people seem to lie somewhere in the middle, generally living their lives without being entirely convinced of the existence of God. Occasionally when something inexplicable happens or they lose a loved one or have a near death experience, they feel “something” and put it down to some sort of spirituality. Many people seem willing to sort of throw out their normal expectations of evidence in the face of adversity and whisper a prayer on the off chance that God does exist and might help them out in a pinch. Many shrug and accept that there is no evidence for God, but are also very quick to point out to atheists that they also can’t prove God doesn’t exist, so both positions are equally likely. How wrong this last statement is. I probably don’t, at this point, need to delve into all the limitless analogies of other things that cannot either be proven or disproved, yet which most people are perfectly willing to dismiss (fairies, invisible unicorns, etc.). While this is simply another example of the inconsistency of logic in many people’s minds when dealing specifically with the notion of God, there is another point I wish to make in support of the atheist’s point of view.

I find myself firmly on the skeptical end of this continuum. Why? In short, because the onus is on those making a claim to provide evidence, whether applying to the topic of God or any other claim. Think of our legal system. Do we require anything less than evidence before conviction when one is accused of a crime. How bizarre and wrong it would be if you faced accusations in court and the judge announced that there is no proof you didn’t commit the crime so you are equally likely to be guilty as innocent. I remember, following the verdict at the conclusion of the drawn out O.J. Simpson double murder trial in the mid-1990s, one of Simpson’s lawyers, Robert Shapiro, stating in an interview that the American legal system erred on the side of innocence. That the burden of proof lay with the prosecutors rather than the defense attorneys, and that it was worth paying the price of a guilty man occasionally going free in order to reduce the chances that an innocent man might go to jail. Apart from this sort of obvious suggestion of guilt towards Mr. Simpson by one of his lawyers, I thought this was a very clear statement of the basis of the system. The system requires a level of proof (typically reasonable doubt in the legal system) to convict. So too does the question of God’s existence require a level of proof in order to make a claim. Pascal, of course, has claimed that it is better to err on the side of belief than skepticism. Is it though? What if you lived your life consistently and erred on the side of belief in all things. Fairies might exist, unlikely though it is, so you’d better err on the side of belief.

It is interesting, though, how many people are happy to accept religion without evidence. Many Christians I’ve conversed with claim personal experience as the most convincing aspect of their faith. Indeed, in debate over the issue of my position as a former Christian, and in their claim that there is no such thing, I have heard Christians claim that the reason I wasn’t really a Christian was because I didn’t experience the Holy Spirit. If only I had, I would have known that it were the truth. This seems like a most hollow argument to me. Firstly, almost every religion will make similar claims. People of other religions will adamantly claim that their personal experience is equally convincing as a Christian’s personal experience. Yet, of course, they can’t all be true since many religions are in opposition to each other. (Well technically, of course, they are all true personal experiences because they are simply that: a personal experience. Just as two people in the same room who take a hallucinogenic drug may both claim different things happened in the room, both are true personal experiences though neither reflect the reality of what went on in the room). Secondly, this sort of claim as a replacement for evidence puts someone in the position of zero accountability. Their position is simply that they have had a personal experience that proves their faith, and if you haven’t happened to have the same personal experience then that is your problem though it doesn’t change the truthfulness of theirs. This attitude is in opposition to the nature of truth: it is freely available to anyone to discover.

I’ve had an interesting discussion with a Christian recently, all conducted in writing, so I am in the position to be able to reproduce some of his points here. I think he is a very good representation of how Christians are willing to dismiss evidence in order to allow themselves to continue believing what they want to believe. This particular individual even claims to be a scientist, though when pressed on this issue, his reason for making that claim is that he has completed a degree in psychology. I thought it would be an interesting illustration to publish a few of the exchanges we’ve had. Typically, the pattern or our conversation involves him making a claim about the nature of God, with me then asking for some evidence to support his claim. Often he will then quote the Bible as supporting evidence for his claims about the nature of God, to which I will then point out that many (most?) of the events Bible can be largely dismissed as false.

In this particular dialogue below, the bold text represents the quotes from this particular Christian; the italics are mine. The conversation begins with him asking me to explain my claim that the Bible has been shown to be false. I responded with:

As for scientifically proving the Bible is false, one need look no further than the story of creation in Genesis. It did not occur. Neither did the global flood to a height of 30,000 ft. I could go on and on and you could try to explain them all away, but anyone who has the least understanding of science knows that the Bible is fiction.

I'll skip the sixth day and go straight to your flood argument. The Bible does not say 30,000 feet. The Bible says fifteen cubits up and that the mountains were covered. Many people think that fifteen cubits equals 23 feet or 6.8 meters. I don't have an explanation for how that covered the mountains but there are several plausible explanations to consider: mountains weren't that tall yet, the Bible was referring only to local mountains, or the flood really was 30,000 feet deep.

Did you really just use the phrase "plausible explanations" and then go on to suggest that mountains weren't that tall yet or that a global flood occurred to the depth of 30,000 feet (and mammals survived on a floating boat at that elevation)? Do you understand now why I doubt your claims to be a scientist?

I stand by what I said. They are plausible explanations. My evidence of God's existence is personal experience but that is not merely an emotional experience. God exists and therefore these are plausible and scientific explanations. This isn't wishful thinking. God will accomplish his purpose whether we are for or against him.

You think it is plausible that the highest mountains on earth have developed to that height in the past 10,000 years. Or you think that it is plausible for mammals, including humans, to survive at 30,000 feet for months at a time, without freezing to death or dying from hypoxia? And you think this is scientifically plausible? I find that hard to accept.

I think it is plausible that the highest mountains on Earth could have developed to that height in a matter of days. (Genesis 10:25) I think it is plausible when the flood waters rose that the atmosphere was also pushed up to supply oxygen and warmth.

This conversation is almost humorous. Here is a Christian so intent on clinging to the dogma of his religion that he is actually willing to state that it is plausible that the highest mountains on earth, the Himalaya, developed in a matter of days (without offering any hypothesis or evidence about how that might happen). Total blindness to evidence. We know without any level of reasonable doubt that the Himalaya, though they are relatively young as mountain ranges go, began to form as the Indian subcontinent drove northwards into the Asian landmass 70 million years ago. Yet, here is a person (who claims to be a scientist no less), stating that it is reasonable to believe the Himalaya developed in the past few thousand years. And the only reason he is willing to say this is to allow a continuation of another belief founded in the Biblical book of Genesis. This is the kind of ignorance that is out there in our world in support or religion.

Of particular interest is his statement, “God exists and therefore these are plausible and scientific explanations.” First he establishes his cart (God exists), then the horse is attached and dragged along (therefore these are plausible and scientific explanations). Others might call this circular reasoning. Remember what this conversation was all about to begin with. When asked for evidence that God exists, this person goes to the Bible as evidence. When I pointed out that the Bible (or certainly large portions of it) could not be literally true, he insists that it must be true because God exists. The amazing thing is the blindness with which this sort of “logic” is upheld. This particular individual claimed to have an I.Q. of 136 and he was adamant that he was a logical thinker (to his credit, he was able to list a number of qualities and facts about logic, whether they were simply copied and pasted I don’t know). Eventually, as is often the case, the dialogue with this individual broke down. He insisted I was a “propagandist” interested only in advancing my own agenda. He called me a bully (and a wanker!), claimed that I was likely to go an try to bomb churches, and told me to shut up unless I engaged in scientific dialogue. (Yes, I recognize that this particular individual may well have been suffering mental illness, but yet his dialogue was quite representative of what I’ve encountered from other lucid Christians).

Once again, I plead, examine the evidence first, then draw your conclusions from that evidence rather than the other way around.