Superstition and the Smithsonian

In today’s Indy (behind the PPV firewall as usual, dammit!) Phillip Hensher has a sorry tale to tell of dinner conversation with Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal.

Rees, as he tells the story, was speaking to a senior figure at the Smithsonian Institution and having first complimented them on the Smithsonian’s contribution to the cententary celebrations of Einstein’s annus mirabilis (1905), during which he published three seminal papers, the second of which proposed the special theory of relativity, and their work in general during 2005, which had been designated the international year of physics, he moved the conversation on to note that in 2009 there would be two equally important anniversaries; the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th Anniversary of the first publication of ‘The Origin of Species’.

Naturally, for an eminent scientist, Rees was curious as to what plans the Smithsonian had in train to mark these two anniversaries and was rather perturbed to be told that the Smithsonian were having difficulty in mounting any kind of celebration at all and that it was very likely that the smithsonian would be unable to publicly mark either anniversary; not because they didn’t want to but because of difficulties in obtaining any funding to increase awareness of Darwin and his work.

As Hensher points out, this is a dinner conversation and therefore chit-chat rather than an official announcement, nevertheless one would not generally consider that a eminent scientist of Rees’ position and stature would be prone to exaggeration on such matters, so one has to take seriously the prospect that the world-renowned Smithsonian Institute, which more than any other institution in the US is charged with promoting the public understanding of science, may well find itself unable to adequately mark the anninversaries of Darwin’s birth and of the Origin of Species.

Should we be concerned with this in Britain? After all one would expect that both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum will have little difficulty in securing funding for an appropriate celebration of Darwin and his contribution to our understanding of evolution.

Well, yes, I think we should. Not only would a failure to mark these anniversaries damage the credilbility of one of world’s great scientific institutions, but to allow a situation to develop in which the Smithsonian finds itself unable to celebrate Darwin and his work would be an appalling capitulation to the superstition and mummery of creationism and its bastard progeny, so-called ‘intelligent design’ theory, one which clearly demonstrates the real agenda of ID’s supporters, which is not about having a rational public debate – a debate that ID and its supporters would certainly lose – but about the wholesale suppression of Darwinian ideas.

Disturbing as the idea of a major institution finding itself unable to mark Darwin’s anniversary might be, towards the end of his article, Hensher alludes to an even more worrying prospect, that the Smtihsonian may be funded to commemorate Darwin but only on condition that such an event must be ‘balanced’ by an ‘explanation’ of creationism/ID, treating it a legitimate alternative to evolution – no credible scientific institution could, of course, accept such a condition, which is precisely what would make it so attractive to ID’s supporters as, faced with such conditions, the Smithsonian would surely choose to have no celebration than one debased by theological pseudoscience.

There is categorically no place in science for creationism or intelligent design nor should either of the latter be ‘debated’ or discussed in a science classroom in anything other than the context of demonstrating how superstition has been superceded by rational inquiry and scientific method – if such ideas are to be discussed in the classroom, as seems to be the case as the new GCSE biology syllabus requires that:

pupils should be able to "explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (eg creationist interpretation)

Any such discussions should place creationism/ID entirely in its proper context, alongside such beliefs as that which held that the earth was flat, that the universe revolved around the earth and that sperm cells were, in fact, homunculi – and backed up by a strict marking regime that treats any effort by a pupil to cite religious texts as scientific authorities or to suggest that creationism/ID is either a valid scientific theory or, worse still, true, as an automatic zero mark on the question. Similarly, if creationism/ID is to be dealt with in science in any way, it should not be confined merely to the realm of the biological sciences, but should be dealt with across the board, not least in Physics, where the best of efforts of its supporters have still failed to deal with obvious problems in their ‘theory’ such as that of creation ex nihilo, thermodynamics, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – how does one ‘design’ anything at the most basic level when one cannot simultaneously determine both the position and momentum of sub atomic particles and, worse still, the better the position is known, the less well known its momentum is? Only by resorting to superstitious belief in a non-corporeal supreme intelligence that exists outside the realms of physics, he existance of which – or otherwise – is a fundamentally unscientific matter.

In short, the sole purpose of allowing discussion of creationism/ID in a science classroom must be to explain precisely why neither is a scientific theory at all, a purpose for which both are ideally suited, even if this is not made explicit in the requirement of the GCSE syllabus as it should be.

I’ve drifted a little, for good reason, but getting back to the original point, it is important that we support any efforts by the Smithsonian to mark the Darwin anniversaries in 2009 in true scientific fashion, which means in the absence of any discussion of creationism/ID that does not make it explicit that neither can be considered a scientific theory, much as any classroom debate on the subject arising out of the new GCSE biology syllabus should make the very same point.

The job of scientific institutions, and of science teachers, is to debunk superstition, not support it.