The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

99° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Of Ben Stein, bad science and B.S.”

    Ben Stein’s shocking documentary, “”Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,”” debuted in theaters on Friday.

    When the movie isn’t busy making demonstrably false claims that Intelligent Design supporters have been discriminated against, it’s making Mike Godwin cringe by comparing evolution to Nazism. With faux shock written on his face, Stein “”learns”” that evolutionary biology was used as a justification for Nazi atrocities – the implication being that, because the theory has bad moral implications, people shouldn’t believe it.

    For its countless flaws, Stein’s attack on evolution does provide us with a strong reminder of the conditions under which science and ethics can become illegitimately connected. Eugenics programs in Germany, the United States and elsewhere all presumed evolutionary biology as their foundation, and they have concluded that, because evolution states that the fittest survive to reproduce, only the fittest should survive to reproduce.

    This syllogistic sleight-of-hand is merely evolution taken to its logical conclusion, say Stein and his supporters. But the truth, as anyone can see, is that this is not a logical conclusion at all. Rather, it is a form of what philosophers call the “”is-ought fallacy””. There simply is no logical link between the idea that something is and the idea that it ought to be – or, if there is such a relation, 3,000 years of philosophy haven’t made it obvious.

    And while Stein’s comments will be dismissed out-of-hand by most scientifically minded citizens, he does inadvertently raise the valid point that scientific theories, when wielded by people with a poor understanding of logic, become ideological weapons. The idea that evolution implies we “”should”” select only the fittest to reproduce would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that a vocal minority of people continue to believe it – and the fact that such social Darwinism was once a popular idea.

    To be fair, my fellow non-believers often raise the same ham-fisted arguments in their attempts to discredit religion, arguing that religion has been directly responsible for witch burnings, holy wars, suppression and miscellaneous atrocities. And to continue being fair, they indirectly expose a flaw in religious reasoning.

    The religious side of the argument contends that atheists have no basis for morality; an atheistic world is one in which anything goes and people can do as they please, so we should all be religious, because that makes the world a better place. However, knowledge of supposedly “”absolute”” religious morality hasn’t prevented religious people from justifying all sorts of nasty things throughout history.

    Although this is the case, it’s likewise not clear how “”Christians sometimes do bad things”” and “”Christianity is false”” could possibly be related.

    Each side of this argument asserts that the other side is wrong merely because of some unsavory moral ideas its followers have – a common tactic in many forms of debate, but especially when the topic concerns religion or the origin of mankind.

    Feminist “”philosopher”” Luce Irigaray employed this insanity to its fullest extent, calling the famed relation E = mc” ” a “”sexed equation”” which privileges the speed of light over other important speeds. And she’s not alone: Sandra Harding, a similarly renowned colleague, described Newton’s “”Principia”” as “”a rape manual.”” The suggestion is that we should evaluate science on the basis of its moral implications and reject it.

    Of course, sensible people agree that this is nonsense. Claims about the external world can be evaluated on a number of criteria such as their consistency and agreement with evidence; moral implications are completely irrelevant and often nonexistent.

    So why do we get suckered into accepting this kind of logic when the subject drifts to the existence of God or the scientific validity of evolution?

    The real culprit here is not any single religious or scientific idea, but rather ignorance.

    All religions have been used to do a great deal of good throughout history, too – most holy books have specific verses which urge believers to do good, and most people do a decent job of listening to them. It’s the greedy and powerful few who ruin it for everyone else.

    Modern evolutionary biology shows that “”race”” doesn’t really exist on a biological level and that, because most mutations are recessive, breeding them out of existence is almost impossible anyway. So even if evolutionary theory did have moral implications – which, like most scientific theories, it does not appear to – genocide and eugenics would not be among them.

    Perhaps no one has shown that acceptance of evolution is perfectly consistent with good behavior better than Darwin himself, who wrote in “”The Descent of Man”” that our sense of sympathy, which originally evolved as an instinct, has become “”more tender and more widely diffused”” and that we cannot check this instinct “”without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.””

    Ideas about the external world can be used for good and for evil, and they can either be true or false. But for everyone’s sake, and for Ben Stein’s edification, let’s stop pretending that these sets of adjectives have much to do with one another.

    ððTaylor Kessinger is a junior majoring in math, philosophy and physics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

    More to Discover
    Activate Search