RELOCATIONS Herb Rothschild: Stick to the facts

Posted Apr. 4, 2015 at 12:01 AM

The great physicist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) thought that the age of the earth was between 20 million and 40 million years. Evolutionists like Thomas Huxley resisted this estimate because the development of species required much more time. But Kelvin stuck to his opinion because it was based on his calculations that a completely molten object would take only that long to steadily cool to earth’s current temperature.
What Kelvin didn’t know — because the discovery came shortly before his death in 1907 — was that the earth contains radioactive elements, and they continually produce heat as they decay. His calculations were right, but he began from a flawed initial assumption.
Huge numbers of contemporary Americans are “Creationists.” Like Kelvin, they regard the age of the earth as much briefer than the 4.5 billion years that is now the scientific consensus. Unlike Kelvin, they begin from a literal reading of the creation stories in the book of Genesis and then calculate the earth’s age using the number of generations they think they can count in the Hebrew scriptures.
It’s fair to assume that, had Kelvin lived long enough to become aware of the scientific discoveries that overthrew his calculations, he would have altered his view. In contrast, nothing can convince Creationists to change their minds — not radioactive dating of rocks, not an extensive fossil record, not a demonstration that the ancient Hebrews who told the creation stories couldn’t have meant them literally — because Creationists function within a closed and self-validating system.
We all hold numerous opinions. It’s inevitable. And it’s inevitable that many of our opinions are wrong. This condition of fallibility raises two questions: Are we capable of changing our opinions, and what happens if we aren’t?
There’s a saying variously attributed to Bernard Baruch, James R. Schlesinger, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan that goes something like this: “Each of us is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” Facts are stubborn things. We can ignore, suppress, distort or deny them, but they nonetheless exist. If I have a malignant tumor in my left kidney, those cancerous cells won’t give a damn what I believe about them. My family, though, ultimately will.
The administration of George W. Bush was so disrespectful of facts that, on Feb. 18, 2004, more than 9,000 scientists, including 49 Nobel laureates and 63 National Medal of Science winners, signed a petition that stated, “When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions. This has been done by placing people who are professionally unqualified or who have clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees; by disbanding existing advisory committees; by censoring and suppressing reports by the government’s own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice.”
Might the behavior protested here help explain why, when Bush left office, our nation was mired in its worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam and its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression?
I’m not sure what price Creationists pay if they go to the grave ignoring the facts. But their mindset is the same mindset that denies climate change, the high ratio of benefits to costs of vaccinating our children, and other fact-based realities that have enormous consequences for us all. It may not be possible to change such minds, so we must strenuously resist their control of public policy making.
Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.

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