Our “Darwin problem” is really about power and influence (and doubt)

A key challenge to the public perception and acceptance of science, and to the scientists and science writers charged with communicating scientific results to an interested public, is the increasingly common rejection of mainstream science by influential non-scientists. A long-standing example of this problem concerns public reception to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

This past February, biologist Ken Miller took the occasion of Darwin’s 203rd birthday to address in The Huffington Post what he called “America’s Darwin Problem.”  Miller is a well respected cell biologist who has played a pivotal role for over a decade in defending Darwin’s theory of evolution against the proponents of creationism and intelligent design, in classrooms, courtrooms, and houses of worship, and with two influential books — “Finding Darwin’s God” and “Only a Theory.”

In the HuffPost essay, Miller cited well-known evidence that most Americans prefer to attribute our origins to divine creation, rather than to the process of Darwinian evolution that is now a central tenet to virtually all of biology.  He argued that this is a problem that goes beyond lack of public appreciation for the role of evolution in the natural world.  It is symptomatic of a larger case of science denial.

Our Darwin problem is really a science problem. The easier it becomes to depict the scientific enterprise as a special interest immersed in the culture wars, the easier it becomes to reject scientific findings. We see this everywhere in American culture and politics today, from the anti-vaccine movement to the repeated assertion that global warming is a deliberate “hoax” rather than a straightforward conclusion driven by reams of scientific data. Sometimes this is done for deliberate political reasons, to secure advantage for a particular industry or financial group, but just as often it is motivated by fear of the implications of what science has discovered or might discover in the future.

Another well-respected biologist — Jerry Coyne — posted a response to Miller’s essay on his blog.  Coyne is a preeminent evolutionary biologist and the author of “Why Evolution is True,” a widely-cited, influential and readable compendium of the most salient features of Darwinian theory.  In the culture wars that have pitted creationism and intelligent design against Darwin’s ideas, Coyne and Miller have been on the same side of the debate.  However, Coyne is critical of Miller’s penchant for seeking common ground between the idea of evolution and religious belief.  Whereas Miller sees compatibility between the two, and certainly has found such in his own life as both a defender of Darwin and a practicing Catholic, atheist Coyne sees religion in general as a threat to the influence of Darwinian thinking, and finds nothing but irreconcilable differences between the two (see also this recent Coyne article and a follow-up commentary).

Coyne replies specifically to Miller’s point above in his blog post:

The question, of course, is why evolution, rather than, say, cancer research, developmental biology, or genome sequencing aren’t “in the vanguard of the anti-science movement”?  Why is it cosmology (e.g., divine “fine-tuning”) and evolution that are always in the fore? Why does America have “a Darwin problem” rather than a “genomics problem”? Can there be any explanation other than religion?

“Can there be any explanation other than religion?”  Sure.  Religion is part of the problem, but certainly not the only source of science denial overall.

Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway articulated the key argument last year in a wonderful book called “Merchants of Doubt“.  Essentially, those science disciplines whose work may challenge the special political and economic interests of large corporate, societal and cultural entities are most likely to be subjected to organized, well-funded resistance.  And, this resistance often takes the form most effective in combating scientific progress, i.e., raising doubt.  Why is this most effective?  Because responding to questions takes time and resources.  And, by its very nature, science maintains an open ear to questions, as scientists proceed along the empirical path of test and re-test.

“Merchants of Doubt” focused on environmental science, and on the role of a small number of influential, well-funded, but non-expert scientists in challenging the core findings in several branches of environmental science.  These included the study of global warming from human activity, lung cancer from smoking, and acid rain from air pollution, to name a few.  Here, the vested interests defending turf with all their questions and doubt were the energy and automobile industries, in collaboration with several Republican administrations (particular those of Reagan and Bush 43),  who viewed environmentalists as “luddites.”  Thus, to paraphrase Coyne, there is indeed a “global warming problem,” a “lung cancer problem,” and an “acid rain problem.”  These are all cases of science denial driven by special interests.  On the other hand, research in genomics, or on other kinds of cancer, or in developmental biology do not entail the same competitive dynamic with vested interests, and hence don’t lead to the same “problems.”

Using the same framework, one can see similar strategies in the call for “teaching the controversy” among proponents of the inclusion of creation “science” with evolution in the school science curriculum.   Note that nearly all Republican candidates for the presidency this year indicated that they had doubts about evolution as an established fact of science.  This echoes the pattern noted by Oreskes and Conway, where questions about established science are arising from one political party, as well as from those historically funding and otherwise supporting that party, such as the energy industry and evangelical religion.

I see this as a different problem from the one raised by either Coyne or Miller.  Overall, science denial — raising doubt about scientific consensus — is about reaching for, and protecting, power and influence in public discourse and private enterprise.  It is about setting the agenda for what children are taught in school.  It is about protecting one’s own religious beliefs, and the influence of those beliefs, against those who would challenge them.  It is about limiting the diversion of public funds towards activities that will, in turn, limit one’s freedom to use energy as one sees fit, even if inefficiently.  It is about maximizing opportunities for continued capital investment and enterprise in the use of limited natural resources, no matter what the cost.

Oreskes and Conway offer “a new view of science” in “Merchants of Doubt” that I think offers a path for the non-scientist to follow in wading through the denialistic noise.   First, we need to insist on getting our science from trusted sources.  This means having data that have gone through formalized peer review and publication, not merely an internet posting (see also my recent post).  This also means that the work and analysis was conducted by recognized experts in the field.  And, it especially means that a consensus of experts, particularly when expressed by a recognized scientific consortium,  carries additional weight and influence in any discussion.  Second, we need science journalists and writers to serve as better filters against denialism and doubt.  They need to help readers to identify and evaluate the credentials of sources.  They also need to stop trying to give equal weight to all sources.  Denialism depends on an open-door policy of journalism that is no friend to accurate and dependable science reporting.


About Tom Schoenfeld

I am an olfactory neurobiologist who practices his science at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA, in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. I have created "dissectingpublicscience.com" to help educate both my science students and the interested non-scientist about the process of science, by focusing discussions on how science is presented and misrepresented in the public media.
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4 Responses to Our “Darwin problem” is really about power and influence (and doubt)

  1. True science fears no question, no scrutiny. Merchants of doubt is purely unscientific propaganda promoted by the fearmongers.

    • Stuart, I think you’ve got a couple of things turned around in your comment. Whatever you think of “Merchants of Doubt,” it is not science. It is historical and political scholarship, written by two historians who specialize in science history. It is well researched, documented and argued, with a point of view, like any good piece of writing, but transparent and objective. To call it “unscientific propaganda” is an empty slam.

      Second, when science writers like Oreskes and Conway take issue with the spurious doubt raised about climate change and similar issues, this is not an expression of fear or a rejection of scrutiny, but rather a demand that the doubters adhere to the scientific process. Challenges to scientific evidence must be joined on the scientific playing field. In other words, to raise doubts about science requires doing more science. That means collecting more data and publishing the contrary evidence in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, so that the validity of technique, data and interpretation can be judged to meet scientific standards and then laid out for all to see, and to scrutinize. Press conferences, op-ed newspaper pieces, even congressional committee reports don’t contribute squat to scientific knowledge. For that matter, formal letters of criticism from credentialed scientists, published in a journal in response to a scientific report, also do little more than raise doubt about a finding. They do not displace the finding from the scientific literature (see Carl Zimmer article for an example of this). Only a formally conducted, reviewed and published follow-up study can pose a disconfirming challenge to published science.

      In this regard, I find it interesting and ironic that Richard Muller, a well-known climate scientist who has raised doubts about anthropogenic climate change in the past, has recently described in an op-ed piece and posted on his web site new evidence that now illustrates the role of humans in global warming. However, as noted by Curtis Brainard and others, until these data are published by a peer-reviewed journal, they will not be considered as contributing to formal scientific knowledge.

  2. To my mind there is a “genomics problem” in the debate over stem cells. Coyne also makes the point in his book that if a survey found that only 44% of Americans believed in atoms, there would be a complete overhaul of the education system. I disagree because “believing in atoms” is not divisive the way evolution is: no one could make a political campaign out of it. Evolution is divisive, as is climate change and abortion, and therefore it’s a hot issue. I’m disappointed by how often our fellow scientists play the politicians’ games.

    • I agree about stem cells, at least where it concerns cloning. But I think stems cells have a more important link to the abortion/right-to-life debate, at least concerning embryonic stem cells as harvested from a human blastocyst that might have been left abandoned in an egg bank. It also occurred to me, but was not mentioned in the post, that one could argue for a “genomics problem” over GMO’s, particularly in food. Here, the agricultural industry would be defending the genetic modifications, which make crops resistant to drought and infestation, and the organic food folks (certainly less muscular, though no slouches) would be making the charges about the adverse impact on human health and the environment. An interesting switch, if you believe that industry and other large organizations will always be the ones attacking science rather than benefitting from it.

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