Scientists sound off

By Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca. Yesterday we asked a number of researchers in Canada for their reaction to the story about federal Science Minister Gary Goodyear's response to the question of whether he believes in evolution. Since then, Mr. Goodyear has responded to the controversy, but his answer still left room for interpretation as to his views.

Normally when we send out generic requests for comments to researchers in the scientific community, a fraction of the researchers respond. Those that don't either decline because they aren't comfortable with the subject material, or else are away in the field and unable to respond. But something about this issue touched a nerve, and the response was overwhelming. One researcher even responded to say he wouldn't be able to comment, but only because his wife had just given birth that day.

Many of these comments appear in our story from Tuesday, but some did not. Here then is a sampling of some of the reaction from scientists:

Douglas W. Morris, President, Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution:

"Evolution and natural selection are scientific facts. They are built on a clear set of assumptions and logic. Their predictions have been confirmed on inumerable occasions. No credible alternative theory exists. A minister of science should be expected to know these things and to acknowledge them."

David Castle, Canada Research Chair in Science and Society, associate professor at the University of Ottawa:

"The minister for science and technology was asked about his views on evolution. His answer was that he was Christian. Evolutionists who are Christians will say they believe in evolution. Goodyear's deflection suggests he does not believe in evolution, which raises some questions. He owes Canadians a straightforward answer about his views on evolution because he is the minister of state for science and technology. If Goodyear thinks his personal views are not relevant to his conduct as Minister, he ought to be reminded that he is an elected official and he has a constituency that is entitled to know his views."

Dr. Anthony Russell, a zoology professor at the University of Calgary:

"The question [of belief in evolution] is often posed, but really is meaningless. One does not believe in, or disbelieve, any explanation proffered by science. Arguments can be accepted or refuted, but all of these arguments reside within the general philosophy of science. One cannot pick out certain parts and ask whether someone believes in them. One can ask, do you agree with a particular idea — but that is not the same thing. If one disagrees, one has an alternate idea that fits within the scientific framework. This is not to say that science is true, but it is to say that scientific arguments can only be refuted with opposing scientific arguments. Whether one believes or not is not grounds for rejecting an idea (or accepting one).

"His answer was evasive. It took the question, framed as belief, and replied with another affirmation of belief — a common response, but not an appropriate one, especially as the two types of idea have no need to be mutually exclusive. Claiming to be a Christian does not automatically mean that all science must be rejected. So, why this part? The response is emotional, but not rational (in relation to the question)."

John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change:

"If someone asked me about evolution, I would NOT immediately think it was about religion — I would think it is about science and the data to support it and so on. However, Dr. Goodyear clearly did interpret it immediately as a religious question. So I think what is probably important here is that he would apparently interpret a question on evolution as a question of religion. I am pretty sure there are atheists who do not believe in evolution and I certainly know people who would consider themselves very religious but still clearly believe in evolution."

Adam Chippindale, Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Genetics and Organismal Biology, Queen's University:

"I think it's a concern that we have a minister of state for science and technology whose views aren't representative of the views of the scientific community. Evolution is an uncontroversial theory, much in evidence, that's a part of our daily lives. Every time you get a flu shot, that flu shot is a product of evolutionary genetic analysis of the strains."

Goodyear is speaking to the Economic Club in Toronto today at the InterContinental hotel, so we'll update our story today should he provide further clarification of his views.