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Paul Broun, a politician who says science is all lies, and how religion denies critical thought

This week we learned that a member of the Science, Space and Technology committee in the United States House of Representatives does not believe in science. Paul Broun, a Republican from Georgia, probably earned the post on the committee because he is scientifically trained; he has a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Georgia. However, during a recent speech to a church group he said, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell."

Paul Broun was speaking to a church function, so his remarks were well received on the night, but within days of the remarks going public, over 40,000 people signed a petition seeking to remove him from the committee. I guess that many people do not want to have someone on the Science, Space and Technology committee who does not believe in the basics of scientific process and critical thought.

If a powerful politician thinks that key scientific theories are lies designed to keep us from embracing certain religious truths, then there is no opportunity for thoughtful debate and evidence based policy. Indeed, when Paul Broun said that the earth is less than 9000 years old, he was expressing an opinion that was not well argued (not argued at all) and does not deserve to be taken seriously. A recent post on this site explained the danger of allowing everyone to have ill-informed opinions.

In the same vein, just few months ago, the Texas Public School system decided not to teach higher order thinking or critical thinking skills, because they “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.“ This is another blow for science and thoughtful discourse, but possibly even more frightening, because it supports the idea of denying young people the benefit of an education. If they are not allowed to learn the difference between thinking and doing what they are told, then we are creating a generation of disempowered, helpless idiots.

Unfortunately, they may grow up to become powerful politicians themselves. Paul Broun is not alone in his ignorance of science. Many other members of the Science, Space and Technology committee have made statements that indicate anti-scientific views or deep misunderstandings of science, as pointed out by Wired.

But the thing that is really disturbing about both these cases is not the muddy thinking or the lack of evidence based arguments. The point of Representative Broun’s comments and the decision by the Texas School system is that religious views are more important than common sense. This is particularly true when politicians feel that waving the Bible around will secure votes in a conservative electorate, or when a community that lacks religious diversity can get a group of educators to agree on what ideology would be best for our children.

Ironically, both of these views are being trumped by yesterday’s news that the fastest growing religion in the USA is no religion at all. Apparently, the number of people who are not affiliated with any church group has increased 25% in the last five years, and this is more prevalent among people under 30. These “nones” are becoming a political force in their own right, worthy of pandering to if you are campaigning for office.

Apparently, the “nones” are not all atheists. Many espouse a belief in God or a desire for spirituality, but they do not want to be associated with the church of their parents or a religion that expects them to act like idiots. Probably they are not willing to believe that science consists of lies from the pit of hell. Hopefully they are capable of critical thinking, and are looking for leaders with some skills in this area.

This is an exciting time to be a human being. We’ve got the old way of thinking, the religious fundamentalists, driving a section of the Republican party and many political parties across the world. These groups may be motivated by a fear of hell and are united in a disdain for secular humanism and critical thought. Like Paul Broun, these people still think that the Bible (or Koran, or Talmud) – books written thousands of years ago – should drive public policy in the 21st century.

Fortunately, there are new ways of thinking coming to the fore at this time. Religious affiliation is not as important to young people, who share their ideas and opinions more widely than any other generation. Online friendships allow people from different cultural backgrounds to gain new perspectives and take a wider view, and political movements are jumping across national borders and shaking the globe.

In a changing world, the ability to frame an argument and base it on evidence is a powerful skill. Unfortunately, religious traditions also have power, especially to politicians who use religion to justify their own positions and ideas.

Paul Broun may have been elected in part because his religious views reflect those of many members of his electorate. Unfortunately, his scientific views could harm his constituents, particularly if decisions about science policy are made without the application of evidence based thinking.

This is a great opportunity to point out again that not everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Join the conversation

31 Comments sorted by

  1. Reg Olives

    logged in via Twitter

    I am so glad we have the benifit of observing the political people in other countries, and hope it means we don't have enough morons like Broun here to comment on.

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  2. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The link to the Texas Public School Story failed.
    However, someone should ask some conservatives whether they agree with not teaching higher order thinking or critical thinking skills because they “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.“ and the same should be asked of some of the religious based schools receiving government funding.

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  3. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Susan

    I agree with the thrust of your article, and deplore the anti-science position of people like Paul Broun.

    But I will take you to task regarding your statement about the Texas Public School System. They have not decided against the teaching of higher order thinking skills. That is a policy position adopted by the state branch of the Republican Party, not the school system itself.

    It may well be adopted at some time in the future, but it isn't the current situation.

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    1. Susan Lawler

      Head of Department, Department of Environmental Management & Ecology at La Trobe University

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike, It is a relief to hear that the school system is not against higher order thinking. As an educator, it is hard to believe that any teacher would condone such nonsense.

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    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Susan Lawler

      And I would agree with you 100% Susan.

      I would have thought that was the whole point of a school system - to teach children how to think!

      Unfortunately, there are many conservatives in places like Texas who believe that schools are there to teach children WHAT to think. What's worse, is that a lot of what they want to teach is wrong.

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  4. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Damn those science deniers, they are everywhere.

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  5. Robyn Yucel

    Higher Education science educator and PhD candidate

    Great article, Susan. If anyone thinks that surely this anti-evolution nonsense doesn’t happen in Australia, check out The Intelligent Design Network Australia website: http://www.idnet.com.au/

    As an educator, the idea of not teaching higher order or critical thinking skills appals me. Lack of these skills causes most of what is wrong with the world. This poster on logical fallacies should be on every classroom and tute room wall: http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

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  6. Stuart Smith

    logged in via Facebook

    Before I get to the main point of this post I must engage in some self disclosure for accountability’s sake. I’m not a scientist. I have a basic understanding of some scientific things but am happy to learn. Even when science is put into plain English there are still some things that I don’t understand or I don’t understand how the conclusion was reached or how rigorous the process was or how certain we can be of the conclusions or even if they are logically sound. I also don’t know how many…

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    1. Tim Niven
      Tim Niven is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Chinese Student and EFL Teacher at Tzu Chi University, Hualien City, Taiwan

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Hi Stuart,

      There is only a conflict between religion and science if one takes what they are both saying as sort of "literally true". The conflict goes away when you drop that assumption for either. We are famiiliar with Christians dropping literal truth for the Bible and sticking with some kind of "moral truth" or "spiritual truth" - yes we evolved, they say, but thank God for creating the universe and putting that train in motion (and perhaps guiding the random probablistic side of it). But…

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    2. Susan Lawler

      Head of Department, Department of Environmental Management & Ecology at La Trobe University

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Really interesting points made by Stuart and Tim. The clash of ideologies will be hard to bridge if Christians think that scientists want to create unbelievers and scientists think that Christians want to create a generation of people who cannot think for themselves.

      The question is, why are young people leaving organised religion at unprecedented rates? Is it because scientists are convincing them that there is no God or is it because the closed minds of some church folk seem increasingly out of touch with the world?

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    3. Paul Savage

      Theme Leader, Biotechnology at CSIRO

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Really interesting perspective Stuart. Science's weakness in this regard is that we fundamentally don't operate on trust, but on rather on evidence. Certainly there is an element of trust and integrity that we are reporting the evidence accurately, but drawing conclusions from that evidence and experimentation does not require trust. When I report (publish) my science I expect people to trust my integrity that I am reporting my observations accurately. However, I don't expect them to "trust" my conclusions -- on the contrary, I will draw conclusions and welcome any alternative observations so long as those alternatives follow rigorous logical deductions, etc., from the evidence. This is a big difference between religion and science. Science is built on respectful scepticism, religion is built on unquestioning faith.

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    4. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Savage

      Thanks for your reply Paul. I'll modify it slightly if you don't mind. Religion isn't entirely built on unquestioned faith. If it was there wouldn't be [at least within Christendom] a variety of denominations. Each of these has come about because at some point someone questioned a particular belief or theological perspective. Might I suggest that if you wish to bridge the gap that you need to factor in a trust element [or genome in your case]. For our part we need to be prepared to get to know you and discuss with you those aspects of what you know and where there is both agreement and disagreement with theology.

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    5. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Susan Lawler

      Not entirely true Susan. In the West there certainly is a trend in that direction, but the West is only part of the story. In Africa, Asia and South America the various denominations are experiencing growth rates similar to those of the American and European revivals of the 18th and 19th centuraries. What is happening now also is that churches in these parts are sending missionaries to Western countries. It's an odd turn of events as from their perspective they see Western countries entering a new dark age [yes, I am using their terminology]. Many of these missionaries are coming from very radical and fundamental movements [including from within known moderate churches such as the Anglicans/Episcopalians] and are leveraging off the immigrant communities in these respective Western countries. It's creating a whole new dynamic. And of course that's just Christendom. Islam is doing something similar.

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    6. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tim Niven

      Pretty close to it Tim. A culture war is an appropriate way to view it. To parts of Christendom science is an argument [thanks Bruno LaTour] that must be defeated by a counter argument. Cooperation and negotiation is out of the question. It's been reduced to a zero sum game and the trick will be to somehow redefine the discourse to something more of a chat amongst friends. The study you refer to only serves to illustrate my point [and quite well I might add]. It also doesn't help when other social interest groups latch on to published results and put it forward as endorsement of their views, even if the results are inconclusive or open to interpretation, or haven't been replicated/validated independantly. That sort of thing [and Christendom is not innocent in this regard either] only adds fuel to the fire.

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    7. Paul Savage

      Theme Leader, Biotechnology at CSIRO

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Hi Stuart. I'm not sure science can factor in a trust element, other than trust or integrity in reporting observations honestly. Science functions on the concept of the "falsifiable hypothesis", that is, scientists propose a hypothesis (usually predicated on some observation) that can be tested by experiment. Acceptance of the hypothesis becomes stronger the more tests it survives. But "Truth" is always provisional in science because the next experiment can prove you wrong. If there's one take-home…

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    8. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Savage

      If you will permit me I'd like to break this into separate parts. First, the message or more specifically, trust in the message [and I will speak broadly from the Christian perspective that I've tried to articulate thus far]. As you outline it there is every reason to trust the message. As you point out, science is a method not a belief system. Yet it is perceived as being a belief system. In such a situation it is more likely that one belief system and its adherents will engage in behaviour…

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    9. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Savage

      Oh, and a small note of explanation on Leviticus 19:19-28. There's a small book that can be written on these passages and those similar but in brief the purpose behind them is thus [with a direct application to Israel of the time and a conceptual application to followers of God now – i.e. Moving from the letter of the Law to the spirit of the Law]:
      1. Be a clearly distinct peoplefrom those around you [according to your behaviour not just physical appearance - cutting hair, mating different animals…

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    10. Paul Savage

      Theme Leader, Biotechnology at CSIRO

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Stuart, I'm happy with those explanations, but what you have done makes my point. You have interpreted the literal word to provide context so the literal word doesn't sound idiotic in the modern context. That's fine if the Bible can be considered allegory - and by the way, since Jesus spoke in parables constantly that's probably a fair call. My concern is with those who take all of the Bible as the literal, infallible, Word of God. They have to go through logical contortions to justify the many errors and inconsistencies in the Bible.

      The second concern is that if some of the Bible is open to interpretation and consideration as allegory, then which bits are literally true and which bits are just stories to illustrate, e.g., some moral perspective? And more importantly, who decides?

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    11. Paul Savage

      Theme Leader, Biotechnology at CSIRO

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Good analysis Stuart. And to be fair, there is a degree of this in the scientific community now. The opinions of some scientists are respected over those of others depending on their track record. If the science method was perfectly adhered to, a PhD student could take on a Nobel Laureate over an issue based on just the evidence. This actually does happen, but to science's great shame there are examples where the prestige of the scientist overshadows the issue and errors are perpetrated. That said, those things are usually corrected in time.

      When it comes to religion I find it quite worrisome how the medium (preacher) is held in such esteem that the message is accepted with little question. Most of the evils that have been perpetrated throughout history in the name of religion have occurred because an errant religious leader has abused this power for selfish reasons. Healthy religions are those where questioning is encouraged, like liberal Christianity, and unlike Scientology.

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    12. Stuart Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Savage

      Oh Paul, welcome to one of the conflicts of Christendom: Liberalism vs Literalism. The field of study that covers the "how to" of Biblical interpretation is called Hermeneutics. That we're not as good as we need to be is evident in the wide variety found within Christianity. You would think is would be simple [sheesh, it does my head in]. If you will excuse me momentarily for being a bit spiritual here: It will only make complete sense after we die [on in the language of modern culture, we have…

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    13. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Hi Stuart (and Tim),

      I'm really enjoying your discussion, it's nice to see friendly and intelligent communication on what is often a thorny issue.

      Stuart in particular, I have some thoughts/suggestions and would like your input.

      First disclosure, my training is in social science and I am presently an atheist who was raised Catholic -the schools, whole bit. All this means is that I'm not blind to some ideas found in that particular denomination, and happen to disagree...but never mind that…

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  7. Account Deleted

    logged in via email @drdrb.net

    All the links in this article are broken.

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Account Deleted

      They're fixed now, thanks for pointing that out.

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  8. Derek McKinnon

    Manager

    I find the tone of this article interesting. It used to be that if a politician stated he/she didn't believe in God, it was the end of their political career. That has changed (in Australia at least).

    However now seem to have the opposite starting to occur. Democracies are about the people having a voice. You may not like their voice, but you have no right to stop an elected politician from serving in any way he/she feels like. The only person they are responsible to are their voters.

    If the catholic church ran a campaign against a politican because there weren't catholic you would be up in arms. However you are doing exactly the same thing - you are campaigning against what a politician is doing because their religious belief's don't match yours.

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    1. Susan Lawler

      Head of Department, Department of Environmental Management & Ecology at La Trobe University

      In reply to Derek McKinnon

      I don't mind the fact that Paul Broun is a Christian. I am worried about someone on the science committee that decides policy saying that major scientific theories are lies from the pit of hell. How can he be part of a reasonable conversation about the direction of science if he believes that?

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  9. Baz M

    Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

    Interesting article.
    Although I agree with the fundamentals of the point that this piece is trying to get across let me clarify something as a man of faith. I'm a practicing Muslim and as such have a great deal of belief in God, the Kuran, message of Jesus, Muhammad, Mosus etc. However this does not mean I disregard science and clinch on to the Kuran disregarding all else.
    The point I'm making is, unlike popular belief held in the scientific or atheist field, not all people…

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  10. Ken Fabian

    Mr

    Science relies on an ethical foundation; accurate observation and record keeping and truthfulness. And intellectual honesty that includes review of relevant existing knowledge in order to confirm it's validity or reveal it's inadequacies. Accepted understandings are constantly open to review and to being overturned, but within those ethical standards. Whilst religion often holds honesty and integrity as crucial, they often appear to hold existing tenets as a higher truths that are not open to review…

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  11. Stuart Smith

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Emma. What you are proposing is something that I have considered over the past few years, namely God as Lawmaker. It is an adaptation of the position of God as Watchmaker [plenty of open source discussion on this]. The God as Lawmaker proposal does clash with science in one manifestation, Intelligent Design. I don’t think I need to go into the controversy surrounding this particular perspective. God as Lawmaker is a step back from this. Intelligent design requires the intimate involvement…

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Stuart Smith

      Cheers

      Ok, with the God as Lawmaker of Creation idea I get the impression that pantheism is probably most compatible with 1) the evidence 2) the theology. This would probably exclude the limitations of God of Gaps, where as you rightly point out, with Big Bang Ideas you get chicken and egg issue, as well as reducing the conundrum of Well Who/What Created God? that happens when god is treated separately from the universe or creation.

      A god definition would be something to the effect of…

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