In her recent blog post, Dr. Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis criticized an article by Dr. Scott Kaufman from The Raw Story, who highlighted two projects at a White House science fair to demonstrate some inconsistency on the part of Ken Ham. The Raw Story piece followed up on a claim by Ham that none of the celebrated science fair projects depended on ‘molecules-to-man’ evolution. Ken Ham apparently sees this as support for his claims that creationism doesn’t stifle real scientific development, contrary to the evidence I raised in my last post. Since two of the science fair projects addressed major developments in cancer research, however, Dr. Kaufman was quick to point out the hypocrisy in Ken Ham’s claim. He writes:
“The link [Ken Ham] included to the projects presented at the White House Science Fair… lists two studies of the behavior of cancer cells, both of which depend on theories of cellular development that are themselves predicated on evolutionary theory.”
According to Dr. Purdom, modern cancer research need not appeal to the principles of evolutionary theory to function. But to make this claim, she must limit evolutionary theory to a piecemeal, nuanced derivative of the original—a rhetorical tactic not well understood by her audience. A more honest approach would be to admit openly: “Well yes, cancer research does draw on principles of evolutionary theory, but I am still critical of and reject several components of evolutionary theory.”
I will rely on those of you with stronger backgrounds in biology to clarify, augment, or correct my own position, but to my knowledge, human cancer research interacts with and depends on evolutionary theory in at least two important ways:
- The genetic elements of cancerous cells are subject to (and often derive from) mutation, and so a major challenge of cancer research is understanding the evolution of individual diseases and the response by individual species (e.g. Davies et al., 2002; Domazet-Lošo et al., 2014).
- The behavior and treatment of human cancers can be assessed through other mammals, like mice (e.g. O’Brien et al., 2007), on the grounds that humans share a common ancestry with these animals.
Like many Americans (perhaps including some of you), Georgia Purdom rejects that humans share a common ancestry with other animals, and she is free to defend that position. Chances are, she and likeminded creationists could contribute to ongoing cancer research. But it is fairly misleading to characterize this research as employing only the “tools of good observational science”—presumably in contrast with broken tools of bad, historical science?—or to pretend that evolutionary theory “has nothing to do with it”. In the words of Dr. Paul Davies (quoted here), “we will fully understand cancer only in the context of biological history.”
Dr. Purdom’s mischaracterization of science, which propagates the false dichotomy between ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ science, along with her downplaying the role of certain fields in biology, all contribute to the growing negative attitude among evangelicals toward careers in science. The satire piece by Scott Kaufman (who, Dr. Purdom kindly reminds us, only has a Ph.D. in Literature) is thus in line with the thesis of my previous post. It also elucidates the rhetorical effort by Answers in Genesis to dissociate mainstream geology and evolutionary theory from the rest of science (you know, the part that’s “successful”). So I would like to thank Dr. Kaufman, who—despite his ‘meager’ credentials—seems to understand the nature of science better than Dr. Purdom and is willing to share that knowledge with others.
The link above is to a recent TED talk given by Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science. Therein, she addresses the paradox of science communication: all of us must appeal to authority—an informal logical fallacy—to accept conclusions reached by scientists outside of our own specialty, but we should still trust scientists and the conclusions they reach in consensus.
Most relevant to this discussion, Dr. Oreskes takes a closer look at the scientific method, which is commonly oversimplified by textbooks. She demonstrates how aspects of observation, hypothesis, laws of nature, and historical evidence have worked in conjunction through a not-so-well defined method. Scientists have to be creative to solve the diversity of research problems they face, and most endeavors will involve both ‘historical’ and ‘observational’ methodologies. According to Dr. Oreskes, however, the robustness of the scientific method is not the basis for our trust in scientific consensus. The way she arrives at this conclusion is fairly intriguing, so I won’t spoil it here.
In the introduction, this talk appeals to a slight mischaracterization of Pascal’s wager and what initially appears to be an unfair contrast of faith and science (keep watching, it’s not). In the end, though, I would highly recommend the video to inform your own thoughts on the nature of science and/or facilitate discussion (I suppose that is the goal of TED talks, right?).