No Such Thing as A La Carte Science

While it is true that the metaphysical foundations of science, just like those of external reality, tend to crumble to bits when you look at them too hard, I would like to second this from Alex Knapp:

Here’s an even more disturbing thought – scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates. Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact.

Radical conservative theocrats would like to deny the bits of science they don’t like (evolution, geology, climate change), while keeping the bits they do (whatever makes iPhones go, aerodynamics). But the truth is the whole project hangs together as one. Mike Manzi once tried to steer conservatives away from this kind of denialism:

Frequently, conservatives are confronted with the assertion that scientific finding X implies political or moral conclusion Y with which they vehemently disagree. Obvious examples include (X = the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary biology, Y = atheism) and (X = increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 will lead to some increase in global temperatures, Y = we must implement a global regulatory and tax system to radically reduce carbon emissions). Those conservatives with access to the biggest megaphones have recently developed the habit of responding to this by challenging the scientific finding X. The same sorry spectacle of cranks, gibberish and the resulting alienation of scientists and those who respect the practical benefits of science (i.e., pretty much the whole population of the modern world) then ensues.

I don’t think this quite grapples with the implications of empirical results on religious teachings. The Bible and other religious texts do make scientific and historical assertions which can be checked. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see folks like Ross Douthat agreeing that when it comes to facts about the world, science has the last word.


Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.