Right, here I am stating my opinion. In a post about opinions, and how they are really not all that great a thing after all. More than a little hypocritical, I will agree.
I do want to make a general point here about the validity of opinions, but before I do I think I should set out my stall a little more neatly than usual. We are all entitled to our opinions. There, I’ve said it. We are all not only permitted, but within the context of education and society we are actively encouraged to hold opinions on everything from which football team is better to the inherent dangers of vaccination.
Unfortunately I think we go too far in pursuit of freedom of speech however. We seem to have reached the very strange situation where not only is an opinion permissible, but the validity of each and every opinion is perceived to hold equal weight. It has led, among other things, to the BBC offering “Half an hour of news and comment” instead of a proper news programme. The Vox-Pop has suddenly the same impact as the professional opinions of the learned and qualified. And I think that is dangerous.
While your freedom to speak your mind – whether banal and uncomplicated or offensive – is important to me, what you are actually saying (in many cases) is not. If I want to hear opinions on the evolution of mankind, I will search out the missives of those who have studied it in depth, those who can quote not only the sound-bite and infamous generalities, but truly understand the impact they have. Which is why, when I wanted to know more about genetics, I started reading Richard Dawkins.
OK, here’s where some readers will undoubtedly leave me, or at least cease to stand alongside me. This man – largely but not universally upheld as a great scientist – causes a rift in opinion largely because his name is also synonymous with the great debate concerning religion. As an advocate – sometimes very outspoken – of secular life in general and atheism in particular, he naturally is seen as the enemy of Christianity and organised religion. And I couldn’t be more happy about that. He was largely responsible for my own personal enlightenment, but I’ll gloss over that for the moment.
His works, in particular The Ancestor’s Tale and The Selfish Gene are not, specifically, a gospel for godlessness, but they do lead the reader to the natural conclusion that there need not be a god in order for life to exist. In fact, in contrast to his assumed personality on Twitter and in situations where he is actively debating organised religion, he is positively welcoming the churchgoer.
So, here we have a credible vision of how the human race could have evolved. An on the other hand, we have a performing monkey. Sorry, that’s ridiculous. Instead, we’ll have dictated creationism – the belief that the world came about EXACTLY as described in the bible. Not much better than the monkey, possibly. Now, I have studied the bible. Well, I have read it and thought about the stories it contained, which is possibly more than most. And from the earliest age I can remember, reading a children’s bible, complete with brilliant illustrations, I was unable to take it at face value.
Please bear in mind I was probably around seven or eight at the time. At an age where distinguishing between allegory and truth – certainly that truth delivered by my parents or other notables who may have passed such a book on to me – was probably a tricky issue. To me, it was a good story, presented in the same manner as Grimms Fairy Tales, or the works of Robert Louis Stevenson – bound and bedecked with beautiful pictures of animals, men (usually with beards) and women (usually without) frolicking in wild gardens and being unequivocally caucasian.
OK, so the issue of the first couple’s race didn’t bother me then, and nor does it now. It’s a story. That’s all it ever was to me, a great tale of people being thrown out of a garden, almost drowning, floating down river in a basket and parting seas which were actually red, rather than only being named as such. As a child, I tried to assimilate the teachings it contained, and I don’t think my religious education did me any harm.
Right, on to the problem. There are people out there, who call themselves Christians, who seem to take these writings as a literal truth. What is written actually happened, just over six thousand years ago. Now, we could look at their evidence in favour of this proclamation. It’s written in a book, which indeed is based on some very old texts, some of which still actually exist. We can choose to ignore the evidence presented which refute it – usually very effectively. Any such written evidence is drawn from other, just as ancient texts, or from accounts of the meetings of the Councils of Nicaea etc, which ‘prove’ just as eloquently as the bible itself that the text we have now is in effect an “approved” text. Some would think that were enough.
But no, they want more. So we use something much newer to the majority of us than these parchments. We use a combination of logic, reasoning, testing and review which lead the best thinkers of the ages to create ideas of how the world works. They call these ideas Theories. Which is probably where the scientists go wrong.
To the layman, including of course creationists, a theory is an idea. The science community have a different word for this type of idea – they call it a hypothesis. Once they have designed (all right, thought up) a hypothesis, they test it. And the way they test it is not only to attempt to show it is correct, but also try (a lot harder in many cases) to show it is wrong. Once they have tried it, and shown it is as right as they can make it, they give it to their mates. Now, sometimes their mates are friendly, and other times they are more like the “frenemies” of modern parlance. Either way, they try to mangle this hypothesis too. Genuinely, they try as hard as possible to destroy the (often times life’s-) work of their muckers. And if they fail, then the hypothesis becomes gradually more and more accepted.
Sometimes, indeed you could say often – it takes years for a hypothesis to become accepted. Once it is, it is generally given the title of a Theory. It’s still open for debate, and as methods of testing become more and more accurate, they can be shown to be wrong. When they are, a new theory may arise to take its place. It is, and always will be, the best possible answer.
Which leads me back to my main point. Opinions. When we want to attempt to see within a problem, or discuss a topic which may be controversial, it seems fairly reasonable to call on the most educated (and sometimes eloquent) among the multitude of opinions available to present the case for a particular theory. And we listen in amazement as our world is – suddenly – more beautiful.
Then we go wrong. It seems fair, in any debate, to call for a voice of dissent – an opposing view to counter the argument. This happens even when the argument is as simple as “the sea is wet” but never mind. My main problem is, the majority of opinions which are counter to the well thought out, and extremely well tested theories of evolutionary biology, and certainly the most vocal ones, are from the creationist church. People with no genuine scientific interest in testing their ideas, or even discussing them at all. And yet, because opinions are all believed to be valid, we have to accept every counter-point as a valid one, and even give credence and (tellingly) air-time to these people.
So, I feel slightly sorry for Dawkins and his troupe of well meaning and enlightened colleagues. While he may have studied for decades to reach the peak of his field, and be considered a renowned expert by those whose opinion I’m sure he values, the general public’s opinion of him reflect what he is possibly best known for: Arguing against god.
And because their opinions matter just as much, that will be the truth for years to come.
Now, he may be happy with that, and I would agree with many others that religion is the cause of so much suffering and pain worldwide, and that there is no evidence for the existence of anything supernatural (note that I did not say this is evidence against god…) but I do think his work on gene-based evolution is one of the most beautiful works in modern scientific history. And it has been overshadowed.
I don’t know Prof Dawkins, although I would like to meet him one day, I do have a couple of questions regarding speciation he may be able to answer. I do however hope this man, who introduced us to the word meme and laid out probably the most credible explanation of our own origins, can eventually come to mean more than that to us all. He is just one example of the way in which, because even uninformed, biassed and divisive opinion is now considered the most important trinket out there, our minds become clouded by disinformation and rhetoric rather than true learning.
I am, though, hopeful. Science is enjoying yet another renaissance. The age of the geek is upon us, and with modern society ever more reliant on those technologies which would not be possible without the science I love, I think the future may be one where opinions are weighted, more credible when they come from a reputable source. Perhaps this is our opportunity to demand so.
So turn off the vox-pops. Disregard the ‘balanced view’. Listen to those who have shown they are trustworthy, and – above all – give yourselves and your children the tools to combat propaganda, hate, and fear of the unknown: Education, patience and understanding.
Viva la Evolution.