What if I’m Wrong? What Do You Mean “if”?

After I posted an article that stated the not-at-all-controversial fact that evolution was the best explanation for biodiversity and that creationism did not belong at all in the science classroom, a friend responded with comments to the effect of, “What are the consequences if we’re wrong?” There were other things he brought up, and we talked more about those things and not so much about this play on Pascal’s Wager. I honestly didn’t want to address that question because the question is flawed, and I don’t really want to (1) explain what a garbage philosophical argument Pascal’s Wager is, because that would mean I’d have to (2) admit that I’m conversing with people who think Pascal’s Wager is a good argument. I tried instead to present the case that there are many people of faith who have no problem with evolution, as it is the best explanation of the facts as we understand them. This worked to steer the conversation toward science and facts and away from making it a theist v. atheist thing, which may as well be insoluble as long as the two sides seem more often than not to talk past one another rather than really trying to reach an understanding.

Still, the question and its implied misconception stuck in my craw. I found the perfect rejoinder to it this morning in the form of a Phys.org article about how the Standard Model may need to be revised. That headline alone – “Hey we’re probably wrong about something!” – is enough to smash the premise of the question. That premise being that we don’t acknowledge the presence or the possibility of error in current scientific models. The whole point of capital S Science is that we know that we’re wrong somehow, and we want to find out how exactly we’re wrong. This idea of scientists declaring the answers to life, the universe, and everything from some ivory tower, never to be challenged is bullshit. What if we’re wrong? We gather more data, form another model, test it to see if it makes useful and reliable predictions, and eventually settle on a new understanding of the phenomena in question by consensus of experts in the field.

There’s this absolutist thing in the question, a black-or-white-ness that is not at all what real life is like. As if there were just those two choices, creation and evolution, that are either 100% right or 100% wrong. This characterization reveals how little the questioner knows about the topic. In every field that I’ve looked into, I’ve found that there are almost always shades on shades on shades of grey coloring every aspect of it. Things are seldom, if ever, just that simple. When we talk about things that way it is usually out of convenience – which makes me wonder, did my friend talk that way about “the two sides of the evolution debate” out of convenience? I think maybe yeah, there’s something to that. Of course he’d realize that the two positions have mini-camps within them that differ on some details, but that they agree on the fundamental things enough to count themselves as on the same side. However, the idea that there are two somewhat equal “sides” to this thing is an idea favored only by the uninformed or those who are under the sway of the charlatans on the side of creationism. For that reason, I can say that my friend is oversimplifying this topic much to my chagrin.

I am aware that even though the concepts and fundamental ideas of science, lofty though they may be, are not without flaw in practice. Malfeasance of all kinds is something that we should always be on the lookout for. It would be folly to say otherwise. If you want to bring up those kinds of problems in the scientific community, fine, but now you’ve started another discussion.

What about the other side of that question, what consequences await if it turns out that creationism was right all along? Aside from the obvious problem of which particular version of which creation story it is, we could defend ourselves by saying that the evidence we encountered led us to understand the world in the way that we did. And by every measurement we could make, it appeared that we had made a lot of correct predictions about how things worked. We were able to produce results with science. Far be it from me to know the mind of God, but it seems like maximizing life and minimizing misery – by and large the output of science in the last four hundred years – should be thought of as a good thing. So if we were able to do all this good stuff using science, how can it be bad if the employment of the same leads us to concluding that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor? What, if any, difference can be drawn between the two?

Whenever I have these kinds of discussions, I always end up asking about the epistemology of the other participants. What is it that led you to hold the position that you do? But epistemology is more than that. It’s the next question, or even the next next question or later. What do you consider to be knowledge? What attributes make a statement, or series of statements true?  

This is at the bottom of every discussion people have with one another, and they rarely realize it. We go back and forth with our talking points about this or that issue, and to the one making the statements, it seems like you must be crazy to think differently. We do this without realizing that the other person is thinking the same thing about their own view. Once we realize that people think differently than us, and that they think they have good reasons for doing so, and that we could benefit from finding out those reasons, can we hope to have productive discussions.