A case of scientific heresy

Paul Greenberg

March 20, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

ONE BY ONE the icons of the age begin to crack. Freudianism, the ultimate answer of the 1920s to Man's Eternal Quest, now occupies an intellectual status somewhere between the hula-hoop and the Tucker automobile. Doctor Freud himself becomes recognized as a poet rather than scientist, though he set out to be the scientist who was going to demystify the poetry of our psyches. History is full of ironies. Now it has turned against Karl Marx, who assured all that it was on his side. Nothing turns out to be so evitable as the Inevitable Tide of History.

Now the first crack has appeared in another solemn ideology of the times that was advertised as a science, a la psychoanalysis and Marxism. At the risk of shocking, I refer to Darwinism. Once the Soviets turned against Lysenko, apparently all gods have become fair game for doubt.

Wa-a-it a minute. Isn't the theory of evolution not theory but fact? Isn't it just called a theory out of an excess of scientific piety? Isn't it really a theory like the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun? "Evolution is science," we are now informed by an editorial in the Arkansas Gazette, daily newspaper and Scientific Arbiter. "Scientists still argue over the details of of the process, but there is no doubt that existing species of plants and animals evolved from earlier forms."

OK, OK, no sense arguing with dogma. But a question: If the theory of evolution ain't a theory any more, if it's science and therefore beyond doubting, why do some of its adherents exhibit the same attitudes that characterize the more perfervid defenders of other belief systems?

For example: Scientific American. It used to have a regular columnist by the name of Forrest Mims III. He wrote the "Amateur Scientist" pieces for the magazine, but about a year ago he was so indiscreet as to tell the magazine's editor that, yes, he had come to believe in -- forgive him -- the creationist origin of species. Heresy.

The reaction was much as you might have expected. It was as if Galileo Galilei, in his always open way, had confided to the chief of the Holy Office in the 17th Century that the Earth moved. The oh-so-contemporary editorial management of Scientific American pitched a hissy. It canceled any plans to make Forrest Mims a regular writer for the magazine. After considerable negotiation, and in exchange for his agreeing not to sue, the magazine accepted three additional columns from Mims and no more.

Scientific American apparently feared what might happen to its reputation if word got out that it was accepting material on any subject from a . . . creationist! Certified scientists and properly trained laymen might lose their faith in the magazine. Call it guilt by association with a heretical idea. To quote Robert Park, physicist at the University of Maryland, on the unorthodox Mims: "If he believes in creationism, he has established that he doesn't have credibility to write about science." Not since the Hollywood blacklist have a writer's ideas been cited as evidence for not letting his work appear in certain hallowed precincts.

The more offensive creationists attempt to enforce their ideas by law: Thou shalt give Creation Science equal time in school, or buy creationist textbooks. Now certain evolutionists approve of banning a writer from the respectable precincts of Scientific American because of heretical leanings. Never mind if his columns deal with topics other than evolution. To quote New York University's Dorothy Nelkin, author of "The Creation Controversy," those sneaky creationists "have a history of trying to penetrate mainline scientific organizations." The way communist screenwriters infiltrated Hollywood and subverted the movies?

According to Nelkin, creationists "do tend to play the legitimate game like people in any social movement do." These subversives will have to be rooted out by the New Inquisitors. The new defenders of the faith, or rather of science, may yet prove as zealous as the old.

It's hard to decide whether this affair is more appalling or amusing. The sight of a writer being dropped because of thoughtcrime is not new. The delicious aspect is that he's being suppressed in the name of science, which is supposed to be above matters of faith and heresy. Of course it isn't. It only sounds that way because of the shaky modern supposition that science -- unlike history or politics or government or other such "subjective" arts -- is immune to the tides of fashion and belief. Any historian of science might testify otherwise.

"The worst kind of science education," says one chronicler of evolution's change from theory to dogma, "is the kind that tells students it is wrong to question the pronouncements of authority."

Irving Kristol put it this way -- "our goal should be to have biology and evolution taught in a way that points to what we don't know as well as what we do." Instead, "Scientific" American seems to have devised a loyalty test for its writers.

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