Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BioLogos's Brad Kramer weighs in on the "War on Science"

You might remember my comments on National Geographic's cover story on the "War on Science."  Recently, content writer Brad Kramer posted a response on the BioLogos website.  For those who don't know, BioLogos is the leading evangelical organization that advocates acceptance of evolution (and an old earth and an old universe).  As a young-age creationist, we don't really see eye to eye on that subject, but I was encouraged to read most of Kramer's article.

Kramer also noted the odd tone of the National Geographic article, as it swerved back and forth between an honest appraisal of science and insistence that science yields TRUTH.  Kramer and I disagree in the end though because he views science as generally reliable in the long run.  Science can have missteps here and there but eventually the hard work of many scientists converge on the truth.  I tend to think that science can get stuck for a long time in spots where scientists think they've got the truth but they don't.

Beyond that disagreement, I did have some quibbles with the article.  Kramer claims that science never goes backward:  "The progress of science is, in the long run, forward. We aren’t going back to a geocentric universe or a belief in the medical effectiveness of leeches."  Oops.  Bad example.

In reality, medicinal use of leeches and maggots are making a big comeback.  I know it sounds horrifying, and the idea of maggots wriggling around in a wound is already making my stomach turn, but there are evidently real medical benefits.  Here's an interesting article on the subject from Live Science which opens with a story of a woman who saved her infected feet by use of maggots.  I spent less than five minutes in Google scholar and found many scientific papers detailing the benefits of medicinal leeches.  Here's one from the Annals of Internal Medicine that shows that leeches are effective for treating osteoarthritis of the knee (PDF).  Here's another one that talks about something called an "unsalvageable venous obstruction."  I don't even know what that is, but leeches help there too.

But no, science never goes backwards ... except when it does.  Another example: How about those antibiotics?  What a godsend!  They will cure what ails you, except that overuse of antibiotics has now bred germs that aren't susceptible to antibiotics.  Oops!  Let's not use antibiotics so much.

And don't even get me started on the weird history of biogeography.  The weird thing in biogeography are the disjunctions - places where very similar species are separated by an ocean.  Sometimes the species are on islands, and sometimes on separate continents.  One explanation was vicariance - animals and plants got their modern distribution on land masses that are no longer there.  In Darwin's day, this was the favorite explanation of a guy named Edward Forbes.  He speculated that land bridges used to connect continents (like Europe and North America) so that species now separated by oceans used to have a much larger range on land that sank into the ocean.  Then Darwin argued that Forbes was wrong and instead championed the occasional lucky dispersal across oceans to account for these disjunctions.  Darwin even did experiments like floating seeds in saltwater to see how long they could go and still germinate.  Then came plate tectonics and suddenly vicariance got some new life.  There weren't land bridges, but the continents used to be all connected.  Then plate tectonics and biogeography developed to the point where scientists decided that many disjunctions were much younger than the continental split, and so we're back to the occasional lucky dispersal as Darwin hypothesized.  Today it's sort of a mix.  Vicariance and dispersal are both invoked depending on the situation.  I could go on and on.  Madagascar is fascinating case study.  You should look it up some time.

The BioLogos-ians would probably argue that these are just especially complicated examples of science moving forward, and they illustrate just how messy science can get even while eventually arriving at the truth.  Right?  Because we've arrived at the point of knowing that leeches are helpful not for the old reasons but for sophisticated new reasons that are closer to the truth.

That could be, but it still doesn't escape the unescapable tribalism.  So I'm going to side with history.  Science will change in the next century into something that might be laughable or even unrecognizable to those of us alive today.  We're just one tribe in the history of many, and we see things the way our tribe tells us to see things.  There's a truth out there, and we glimpse it from time to time.  But we can't forget that we all see through a glass darkly.

By the way, if you're interested in experimenting with leech therapy, check out Biopharm Leeches.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.