Back Talk: Kenneth Miller

Back Talk: Kenneth Miller

Cell biologist Kenneth Miller discusses the dangers of politicized science.


Adrian BellesguardKenneth Miller

Kenneth Miller, a Brown University cell biologist and biochemist, is the author of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (Viking, $25.95). He was an expert witness at the 2005 Dover intelligent design trial. Instead of demonizing the ID crowd, Miller says the best way to ensure the defeat of such quackery is to “tell the real story” and bring science, in all of its “glory and excitement,” into the “popular imagination.”

How did evolution get hijacked and turned into a “controversy”?

The theory of evolution is particularly troubling to people, because it concerns who we are and where we came from. It’s the same reason you can go into a bar and start a fight by saying something about somebody’s mother. And one of the easiest ways to dismiss literally anything in science is to say, “Well, it’s just a theory”–as if to say it’s not certain. The reality is that nothing in science is certain, and that’s one of the things that makes science so interesting. But that doesn’t translate into theories being just hunches or just guesses. To say I have put together a scientific theory is to proclaim to the world that I have a consistent, sensible, overarching interpretation that unites a large range of experimental and observational facts. Yes, evolution is a theory–just like the germ theory of disease.

Are Americans ignorant about science?

Studies comparing the American public’s level of scientific literacy with our counterparts in Europe and developed areas in Asia actually rank the American public pretty high. And part of it is because of the amount of popular science–Discovery Channel, History Channel–and because an awful lot of Americans have jobs that involve science and technology. One of the things that I attribute [the fracas over evolution] to is this American culture of disrespect for authority. We in the US really celebrate what you might call the cult of the individual. The notion that people can and should judge for themselves is part of the democratic character. And it is really one of the things I believe has made America a great scientific nation–individuals can break ground, can disagree with authority and advance the scientific field even if it goes against the grain of wisdom. Now, it also creates a climate in which it’s really easy to disagree with the findings of science, because if you disrespect authority, what do you care what the Nobel laureate at Berkeley says?

Is intelligent design therefore a threat to science?

It’s not a threat to institutional science–the researchers at the NIH or the National Science Foundation or one of the great research universities. The real threat is to how people in the US perceive science and how they understand the process of science–the faith that the scientific enterprise, with thousands of voices and complete independence, eventually gets to the right answer. The anti-evolution movement seeks to convince people that they should be suspicious of the scientific process and should support acts of government power to adjust and control that process–“academic freedom” bills, equal-time laws, that sort of stuff. My concern is that this movement, even if it doesn’t succeed in its major political goals, may result in a whole generation of Americans who are so suspicious of science that they just want nothing to do with it, and they’re happy to let scientific leadership pass to South Korea, the European Union, whatever.

ID is an attack on science from the right. What does the left get wrong about science?

When politics intrudes on science, it can intrude from either the right or left. The old USSR, which in many respects produced some great scientists in the physical sciences, lost a generation and a half of people in the life sciences. There was a geneticist in the ’30s, Lysenko, who caught the fancy of Stalin. Lysenko suggested that you could produce improved varieties of wheat by repeatedly exposing them to cold temperatures–in other words, that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Stalin jumped on that. Part of the ideology of communism was that human beings could be perfected if they were raised in a new environment–building the new socialist man. This led Stalin to suppress all of modern genetics, because he regarded Mendelian genetics as saying that characteristics are fixed. As a result, merely teaching genetics was a crime that could get you sent to the gulags through the early ’60s. So there was no modern molecular biology of any sort that came out of the Soviet Union for thirty-five years.

What do you think of the treatment science gets in the media?

The biggest problem that I see is a reflex that pervades journalism itself–the two-sides-to-every-issue reflex. Whenever any scientific issue becomes controversial, there’s a tendency to present both sides and shrug your shoulders verbally. Too little scientific journalism investigates the claims that individuals make. Too few journalists are able to distinguish a phenomenological study from a causal one. It’s taking something and running with it instead of analyzing it. Having said that, Sharon Begley, who used to write for the Wall Street Journal and who now writes for Newsweek, does consistently excellent stuff. Cornelia Dean, Nicholas Wade in the New York Times. Joe Palco on NPR is excellent. NBC has a very good science reporter, Robert Bazell. Timothy Johnson, a medical reporter, also does consistently fine stuff.

The ID crowd believes that humans are here for a “reason.” But a lot of non-ID folks also think of themselves as the pinnacle of evolution, don’t they?

I used to teach at Harvard, and everybody there thinks that they’re at the center of the universe. How many Harvard men does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just one: he holds it and the world revolves around him. It’s human nature and animal nature to regard oneself as the center of everything. Even biologists who know that we are one species among many tend to regard our species as primary. I don’t think that’s arrogance. That’s sober reality. And the reason is first of all in terms of numbers and biomass: we are the dominant land mammal on this planet. There may be more of us human beings than any other land mammal. We’re way outnumbered by insects and other animals. But in terms of mammals we’re number one. And we are by far dominant in terms of our ability to affect our planet.

What’s happening right now with intelligent design and the law?

In the last several months, in six or seven state legislatures, so-called “academic freedom” bills have been introduced, acts that would guarantee the freedom of students and teachers to criticize Darwinism. Students and teachers have always had that freedom. But what these bills would do is enshrine in law a series of anti-scientific arguments against evolution. Most of them have died. But it looks like the one in Louisiana is going to the governor’s desk. And Texas is in the process of considering new science standards, including the standard of teaching biology.

How can this happen?

That’s democracy. We have an educational system in the US that’s controlled at the state and local level. In general I like our system. I like that I can go to the local school board and serve on a committee to help revise the science curriculum. But if you have that, then by definition you also have the ability for people to get in there and tamper with the schools in ways that I might not approve of. You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

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