Saturday, April 18, 2009
Evolution for Dummies? A Canadian Cabinet Minister and the Public Understanding of Science
Last month, Gary Goodyear (pictured left), Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, created a scandal when he refused to answer a reporter’s question about whether he believed in the theory of evolution, stating that he felt that the question was “inappropriate” because it pertained to his religious beliefs. After a media frenzy ensued, Goodyear changed course, claiming that “of course” he believed in evolution. He then commented that we "are evolving all the time" and added, "That's a fact, whether it's to the intensity of the sun, whether it's to … walking on cement versus anything else, whether it's running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment, but that's not relevant and that's why I refused to answer the question."
Needless to say, this remark did not inspire a great deal of confidence among scientists. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory of evolution--Goodyear, evidently, thinks of evolution as a deliberate process that is somehow analogous to human beings' purposive choices.
A misunderstanding like this would be less likely in the United States. Cabinet members in the United States are (usually) subject matter experts, and a qualified scientist would (hopefully) be unlikely to make an error like Goodyear’s. However, in Canada, cabinet ministers are usually members of Parliament. The Prime Minister must choose the cabinet ministers from amongst the members of Parliament (MPs) from his party, which is, necessarily, a fairly limited pool.
Still, the Goodyear incident prompts several questions. One of these is whether he should have ever been appointed to this post--Goodyear failed to complete his undergraduate science degree and, prior to becoming an MP, he was a chiropractor (there is significant debate as to whether chiropractic is scientific). Perhaps most importantly, however, his initial refusal to answer questions about evolution was seen to indicate a lack of commitment to science. Surely, one would hope that the Minister of State for Science and Technology would not possess views that were inimical to the practice of science! (American readers, however, will know that the Bush administration has offered some “great moments in inimicality”—see, for example, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and his views on the U.N.)
Yet this episode also raises a number of broader questions: what kind of understanding of science should a citizen possess? Does it matter whether citizens understand natural selection? Are there some aspects of science that are more important for citizens to understand than others? Certainly, even in his earliest work, Dewey was an emphatic supporter of the public understanding of science. He realized that, as the 20th century dawned, society was becoming increasingly reliant on science and technology. He felt that if citizens were to participate democratically in such a society, they should be able to engage effectively and intelligently with science and technology. As we know from School and Society and from the accounts of the Dewey School, this implied a deep commitment both to the experimental method and to key scientific and technological concepts.
Perhaps, if Gary Goodyear had received a Deweyan education, he would not have bungled the question about evolution so badly. At the very least, however, the whole incident has probably prompted the Minister to engage in an activity very much in the spirit of Dewey: a little bit of "lifelong learning" about the theory of evolution.