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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.

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Comments

Keith

Ontario

The journalist who confronted the minister, intentionally posed the question as a "belief" issue. That journalist is responsible for placing the question of a scientific theory in the inappropriate context of a "belief" issue.

Without taking time to re-position the question correctly the minister did well to refuse an answer. Perhaps he should have stuck to that until the question was modified to separate scientific observation and theory from belief and religion.

Posted March 18, 2009 11:51 PM

stephen macleod

To: John Smol

Please! Atheists who don't believe in evolution, name one.

Posted March 19, 2009 01:34 PM

peter

Canada

I don’t know what all the fuss is about whether the minister believes or don’t believe in evolution. I was involved in science for 33 years, and evolution makes sense. I guess there are still some missing links maybe, but so what. You can also be a Christian. That is the belief in Christ, and people argue and give interpretations to the bible, as in science. Sometimes they are wrong, sometimes right, but what does it matter. What do you think that the minister won’t give you as much money if he doesn’t believe in evolution? That is the belief in Greed. I don’t think you need to worry because we all believe in science. That would have been the proper and important question for you to ask him.
Anyway, are questions on religion potentially discriminatory?

Posted March 19, 2009 03:25 PM

zahkman

winnipeg

I find it very telling that this issue is such a big deal to the scientists polled. If evolution (macro) was just simply irrefutable science, why would they feel that they have to be heard? So the science minister doesn't beleive some scientific theory, I'm sure that's not a first.

What's also not being talked about is the arguments used by most evolution supporters, including these scientists. Instead of trying to convince you of their stance, they instead imply that anyone who doesn't believe what they believe is ignorant. They keep saying that evolution is fact, it's irrefutable, it's obviously true, but then don't provide the evidence, and don't have answers for the "mysterious" things that don't fit the theory. It seems like a subtle intimidation attempt.

So they keep avoiding making proper defences, by saying evolution is fact, and anything else is religion.

Posted March 20, 2009 01:39 PM

Big D

Alaberta

Peter and Zahkman
Please re-read the comments from the distinguished scientists. Then read them again. Clearly your bias is interfering with your vision, and a doctor can't help you because his medicine depends on the fact of evolution. Peter, evolution is a scientific fact, and the word belief is not a rationally debatable concern (reread Russell and Chippindale - they clearly state that belief is the realm of religion, not science. Science is a factual and rational process, in clear contrast to belief and religion. Scientists are concerned because of the social deterioration caused by religious intolerance and ignorance. Our ancestors were smart - they separated church and state. This is why this Minister has to resign, he is either incompetent or dangerous to our democracy.

Posted March 21, 2009 09:06 AM

disillusioned

not only does the fact that a creationist chiropractor is our science minister produce a fair amount of shame to be Canadian in me, but so does about two-thirds of the response from what I assumed were well-reasoned citizens of this country.

Posted March 22, 2009 02:37 AM

VNP

Well, we will have the blind leading the one-eyed here. A minister should know and respect what the science is about. The one we have sounds a bit like cardinal Bellarmino on Galilei: SCIENCE IS NICE TO GUIDE OUR SHIPS, BUT IT SHALL NOT INFLUENCE OUR PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION...
No wonder that after that scientists moved to Nederlands and Britain... It would be a pity for the story to repeat itself.

Posted March 23, 2009 06:46 PM

DB

Ottawa

I've got no problem with the Minister being religious, and his personal beliefs need not interfere with his job. What's absolutely inexcusable is not that the Minister doesn't believe in evolution, but rather that, from his answer, he does not appear to understand it. This is something so basic it's taught in high school. The disturbing part is that the Prime Minister's office seems to be doing the talking about science for the Secretary of State for Science and Technology. Perhaps he should be promoted to the Secretary of State for Chiropractic?

Posted March 24, 2009 07:52 AM

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