Saturday, August 30, 2008

Global Warming & Evolution

Per the Washington Post: "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location," Gov. Palin said. "I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made." The theory of the (tiny minority of) scientists who accept the reality of global warming but question the significance of human contributions to it is that over the course of geological time, the Earth goes through periods of cooling and warming, and that it's just a coincidence that the current period of warming coincides with unprecedented human release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

That's a doubtful theory on its own, but note a key premise: geological time, measured in hundreds of millions of years, substantially longer than the six or so thousand years since the beginning of time according to the Biblical account of creation. So, someone who believes in the literal truth of the Biblical story of creation would seem to be unable to rely on evidence of the Earth's warming and cooling cycles over a course of years that they believe did not occur.

It's not entirely clear whether Gov. Palin believes in the "young Earth" version of creationism or even whether she's committed to creationism. As this article at the time of her gubernatorial race makes clear, when asked in a debate, she gave support to the (unconstitutional) idea of teaching creationism alongside evolution, but later backpedaled a bit to say that she wouldn't push a requirement for creationism in Alaska public school science curricula, and that she simply wouldn't prohibit "discussion" of creationism should the issue happen to arise. That's fair enough.

And so perhaps the challenge isn't for Gov. Palin herself (although it could be; we, or at least I, don't know enough about her actual views right now). But in any event, there is a glaring problem here for the apparently substantial number of our fellow citizens who both believe in young Earth creationism and question the contribution to global warming.

Posted by Mike Dorf


egarber said...

Getting slightly off topic, I've also been puzzled somewhat by folks who embrace social Darwinism, while dismissing its evolutionary form.

To many on the Right, competition is everything -- in the market place, society, on the football field, etc.

So why is it so hard to extend that same logic to biology?

The answer of course is obvious, as it runs contrary to religious belief. But it seems like the contradiction might lead to some mental turmoil.

David Crowley said...

If Palin in fact publicly embraces a scientific theory that is in tension with her privately held religious beliefs, should we criticize her for the inconsistency?

I think not, at least for those of us who believe that candidates should not be supported or rejected based on their religious beliefs. Countless public officials are able to put aside their religious beliefs in order to execute their responsibilities, and we typically think that this is healthy for a democracy, like ours, with a heterogeneous electorate. (It's why Palin deserves credit for not protesting the teaching of evolution, even though she probably believes Alaskan schoolchildren are getting a bad education.)

That does not mean citizens cannot respond to a public official's religiously-motivated positions on public issues. When an official refuses to fund stem-cell research and explicitly cites his religious beliefs as his motivation, I think most of us would agree that a citizen who supports such funding can fairly withdraw support for that candidate. But in that case, it isn't the religious beliefs that are being evaluated, rather it is the official's performance.

Palin has identified her religious beliefs and cited them as evidence for personal decisions (e.g., forgoing the abortion), and possibly some public actions. This alone, however, should not give us license to criticize her global warming views on religious doctrinal grounds. Maybe she believes that public officials should not decide scientific issues based on their religious beliefs. Maybe she's struggling with her religious beliefs, agreeing with certain biblical teachings (creationism) but not others (young Earth). Or maybe she's unprincipled and simply says whatever the pollsters tell her to. It doesn't matter, in my opinion. If her views on global warming are questionable because of the science, then critics should rely on science when challenging her.

Unfortunately, because Rove has worked so diligently to make the Republican party the party of the Religious Right, it is tempting for Democrats to try and demonstrate that Republican candidates are not the good Christians they purport to be. Whether this is a legitimate response in today's climate depends on one's stance in the public reason debate. Still, I think it would be a sad development if pundits resorted to analyzing the devoutness of candidates and the coherency of their religious beliefs.

andy grewal said...

Does anyone actually believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old? Come on...

egarber said...

Countless public officials are able to put aside their religious beliefs in order to execute their responsibilities, and we typically think that this is healthy for a democracy, like ours, with a heterogeneous electorate.

I absolutely agree in general terms. But unlike an issue like the death penalty for instance, where personal values might differ from the obligation to enforce laws on the books, the issue prof Dorf poses pertains to factual reality.

If she personally feels the earth is only 6000 years old, she can't credibly attack global warming on the grounds that the world is billions of years old. It's the equivalent of saying, "look, I think 2+2=5, but if it helps me make a political argument, I'll *also* say 2+2=4. There shouldn't be any kind of personal / public split on a question like that. It's not a question with multiple dimensions.

David Crowley said...


I agree with you to the extent that Palin declared, publicly and in the context of the global warming debate, that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. If she did, then Prof Dorf's criticism would be purely scientific; valid because it doesn't matter why Palin thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old to poke holes in her science.

I gathered from Prof Dorf's post, though, that he's inferring from her past expressed religious views---creationism, general adherence to conservative religious ideology---that she believes in a young Earth, and, further, that she would publicly adopt that view as a basis for official action. It is that deductive reasoning that I object to, for two reasons. First, I believe it's unfair to assume that because a person is on record for having religious veiws X and Y, that she must necessarily believe in Z. From my experience, people who consider themselves deeply religious still often choose which doctrinal teachings they can fairly depart from. Second, even if a person does believe Z, it doesn't mean that they will assert it as a reason to make public decisions. Palin could believe in a young Earth, but argue that if she were to accept that the Earth is billions of years old, then she would side with the scientists who believe that global warming is not the consequence of human activities.

The larger point is that we should put officials' statements in context. When Justice Scalia, a Catholic, defends a state's ability to employ the death penalty in a Court opinion, it is clear that he is reasoning as a judge, and not as a worshipper. Similarly, if Governor/Candidate Palin is asked about global warming and she provides a scientific answer, I think we can presume that she is attempting to enter the scientific debate, regardless of her personal religious beliefs. My point is that she shouldn't be disqualified from that scientific debate simply because some of its premises may conflict with her personal beliefs, or render her religious beliefs incoherent.

None of this is intended to directly criticize Professor Dorf's post, since I don't know the context in which Palin made the comments, or whether she has asserted that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that we should take action based on that belief. (Also, to be clear, I'm confident that Professor Dorf harbors no religious bias.) Rather, I simply used this post as a launching pad for a public-reason point I had in mind.

Paul Scott said...

I am not sure I see the contradiction.
Placing myself in the shoes of a "young Earther," here is my though process.

I am human and therefor fallible. Only God has perfect knowledge. Many things happen in this world that are all part of God's divine will. I will not understand these things unless God chooses to reveal his wisdom to me, but I trust I am in God's good hands.

In the past, God has revealed his divine will to several prophets. They recorded his will and it is revealed to me in the Bible. I know the words of the Bible to be the truth, but I must also accept that I am fallible and my reading of it could be wrong. If it is wrong and God chooses to reveal my error to me, then (and only then) will I change my view.

There is an occurrence, a will of God, that we humans are calling global warming. The scientists studying this have tracked these changes and can establish that the world is, in fact, warming. I am not concerned with this because whatever is happening it is the will of God.

That said, these same scientists who are tracking the global temperature changes also believe the earth to be billions of years old. This concern of there's regarding global warming is quite odd. They believe the Earth to be billions of years old. They believe that several "Ica Ages" have occurred throughout these billions of years. Yet at the same time, they are suggesting that there is some significance to these small temperature changes that have taken place in the last 300 years. On the time scale they believe in, thee temperature changes must seem trivial. They are odd people. I will not worry about it. God will protect us and if he doesn't then that too was His will.

egarber said...

Of course, it is possible to believe both that the earth is billions of years old AND only 6,000 years old.

A while back, I read an interesting book called "Genesis and the Big Bang" (I think). The author posited that via special relativity, both could be true.

The idea is that an intelligent designer would no doubt act close to the speed of light in his / her actions. So his six days for creation could indeed be millions or billions of years on earth -- as time dilation creates different elapsed times, depending on the reference frame of the observer. Extended a little, the same mental exercise could be employed to conclude that the earth has only been around thousands of years to the supreme mover, but billions to mere mortals, who live in a separate reference frame.

Of course, I don't think I've ever heard a politician make this case, but it's interesting nonetheless!

Chris said...

I think there are a number of distinct propositions that are being run together here:

(1) The earth is billions of years old.

(2) The human species evolved from other species.

(3) The universe was created.

(4) We can tell scientifically that the universe was created.

Lots of people accept (1) but deny (2) (see, e.g., Hugh Ross), or accept (3) but deny (4) (see, e.g., Francis Collins).

Michael C. Dorf said...

1) I have no idea whether Palin herself believes the Earth is only 6000 years old or even whether she disbelieves in evolution. Thus, I offered the observation as a challenge for someone who is a young Earth creationist. There are millions of such people in America, and they vote.

2) I agree that most religious people, including most religious people who purport to accept the Bible's literal truth, in fact pick and choose what to believe. (For contemporary Christians, the notion that the New Testament supersedes the old is an obvious example, since Jesus himself followed the Mosaic law, including dietary laws). The interesting question for me, is not whether Biblical literalists are selective but how they are selective. Darwin has always been seen as a greater threat to traditional faith than have the scientists who, beginning in the 18th century, began to show that the Earth is much older than claimed in the Biblical account. Both evolution and geology are inconsistent with Biblical literalism. The fact that only evolution generates such a strong reaction shows, to me at least, that the objection is visceral. People dress up in religious garb the fact that they can't bear the thought that they aren't fundamentally different from the animals they exploit and eat.

3) Yup, it comes back to veganism. When you've got a hammer . . . .

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