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"Epistemic Closure" at the Wall Street Journal

For a couple of years, some internal critics among political conservatives have complained of the condition of "epistemic closure" that, they say, has come to afflict the conservative movement. The phrase refers to a willed ignorance and refusal to come to terms with complex realities.

We won't express a view here on the overall validity of the complaint, but when it comes to thinking about Darwinian evolution, boy does it ever ring true. We pointed out recently that liberal journals like the New York Review of Books and The New Republic have been remarkably fair-minded in reviewing anti-Darwinian critiques from philosophers Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, including respectful treatment of the theory of intelligent design.

Contrast that with an incredibly stupid op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal. Yes, it's another go-around with Marco Rubio's less-than-thoughtful, unrehearsed comments on the age of the earth. You felt that you'd heard enough about that? Not so, thinks S. Joshua Swamidass, who teaches in Washington University's Laboratory and Genomic Medicine Division.

Dr. Swamidass (that's him pictured below) sounds the familiar message of urging Republicans to forgo contesting anything that anyone says in the name of "science."

Sen. Marco Rubio recently touched a land mine in America's culture wars: evolution, creation and the age of the Earth. When GQ magazine asked him how old the planet is, Mr. Rubio's winding response never directly answered the question. Instead, he noted his lack of scientific qualifications ("I'm not a scientist, man"), posited a need to teach the "multiple theories out there on how the universe was created," and settled into the platitude that the Earth's age is an unsolvable "mystery."
Actually, Rubio didn't say anything -- not a word -- about evolution. GQ asked him about the age of the earth, and he answered the question, not with a lot of perspicacity but at least he stuck to the subject. Swamidass hardly seems even to have read Rubio's brief remarks. He wants to talk about "evolution" and how ill advised it is for Republicans, especially Christian conservatives, to advocate a "teach the controversy" approach -- notwithstanding that neither subject came up in Rubio's interview. Without referring to Discovery Institute by name, Swamidass has us in mind.

He lectures readers on theology and science:

First, the age of the Earth and the rejection of evolution aren't core Christian beliefs. Neither appears in the Nicene or Apostle's Creed. Nor did Jesus teach them. Historical Christianity has not focused on how God created the universe, but on how God saves humanity through Jesus' death and resurrection.

Currently, a debate is unfolding in theological seminaries and conferences about the correct interpretation of the Bible's Genesis account of creation. Echoing thinkers like St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Mark Noll and Pope John Paul II, many of the conservative theologians in the debate believe that a serious reading of Genesis can be compatible with the scientific account of our origins.

Joining the dialogue are evangelicals who are also scientists -- and with them comes a trend toward recognizing a "theistic" evolution: the role of God in creating us through an evolutionary process on a very old Earth.

The second reason that Republicans, including evangelicals, need to come up with a more coherent stance regarding the "age of the Earth" question -- which journalists will always be happy to ask -- is that there is simply no controversy in the scientific world about the age of the Earth or evolution. Evidence points to a 4.5-billion-year-old planet.

The evidence for evolution is just as strong. In the past, evolution rested on ambiguous fossil evidence, but now it rests on much clearer DNA evidence that increases exponentially every month. Fully appreciating this evidence takes a lot of time, reading and patience. And it is not appropriate to "teach the controversy" in science class because there is no ongoing debate in the scientific community comparable to the theological debate.

joshua.jpgNotice how he never tells us in what sense he means the word "evolution." Change in the forms of life over vast sweeps of time, reckoned in the billions of years? Common descent? Life emerging from unguided, unplanned, purposeless churning, with random variation and natural selection as the primary mechanism underlying the process? "Evolution" can encompass any of those ideas.

The last definition poses obvious problems in reconciling it with a traditional theistic framework, Christian or Jewish. When biologists speak of evolution, they often mean all three ideas, but not always. Clearly, it's impossible to have an intelligent discussion if you talk about "evolution" without saying what you mean by it.

Invoking C.S. Lewis as Swamidass does is standard operating procedure for "theistic evolutionists," but the argument is uninformed. Lewis in writing about evolution made exactly the careful distinctions that Dr. Swamidass fails to do -- as John West and his co-authors fully document in The Magician's Twin.

But Swamidass is not a theologian or a politician. If he could not be bothered to carefully read one paragraph by Marco Rubio before writing about it, it's not surprising that his study of theology has been superficial.

More disappointing, from a scientist, is his dumb-dumb treatment of the ongoing, yes, controversy about evolution among scientists. On this Swamidass can't plausibly claim ignorance. If by evolution he means the adequacy of the Darwinian mechanism in accounting for life's development, or any materialist explanation of life's ultimate origin, my goodness -- scientists arguing about those things is our bread and butter here at ENV. Our little web journal can't keep up with the volume of relevant arguments being exchanged in peer-reviewed science.

And Swamidass brings up DNA as offering evidence for "evolution," whatever that means, that "increases exponentially every month"! Did he not follow the revelations from the ENCODE project at all, that dropped a bunker-busting bomb on Darwinism's formerly chief defense, the myth of "junk DNA"?

Intelligent design, making a positive case for evidence of purpose in nature, must still prove itself in the world of science. But critiques of Darwinian theory and doubts on its adequacy go far, far beyond the community of ID theorists. Professor Nagel, an atheist, argues that ID deserves credit and gratitude for stirring these doubts. But they have assumed a life very much of their own, including among biologists and other scholars with no sympathy for intelligent design.

All this is purposefully withheld from public-school students in almost every state in the union. Perhaps you could argue that the science behind the evolution debate is too sophisticated for them. You could say that teachers must keep the narrative line simple for our science-illiterate young people. That's not convincing on pedagogic grounds, but at least it's not laughable. There is no remotely conceivable justification for keeping readers of the Wall Street Journal -- intelligent, successful adults, who follow complicated news developments with ease -- in the dark.

Epistemic closure is a fancy expression for living in a bubble, shielded from truths that overturn favored assumptions, out of what amounts to intellectual laziness. The science here is not so complicated that it lies beyond the ken of a PhD scientist like Joshua Swamidass, or whatever editor at the Wall Street Journal slapped this foolishness down on the page. There's simply no excuse, guys.