The third Republican debate suggests that the GOP race for president may be shaking down to Ben Carson as the official "outsider" and Marco Rubio as the preferred establishment candidate. While many believe that Carson's ascendancy will be short-lived, this electoral cycle has been full of surprises. We should all hope, however, that Carson soon fades because his presidency could be an unprecedented disaster for American science.
Carson says, for example, in a widely quoted speech, that Darwin's theory of evolution "was something that was encouraged by the Adversary."
The Adversary is one of many names given to Satan in the Bible. In connecting evolution to Satan, Carson places himself squarely in the strangest and most uninformed anti-science tradition in America. This is even more dangerous because Carson, as a celebrated neurosurgeon, is actually a member of the scientific community. He cannot say, as Rubio and others so often do, "I am not a scientist" to deflect a difficult question about science.
Carson has also placed himself squarely in another tradition: people who think God told them to run for president of the United States. The juxtaposition of these two positions is potentially alarming. They place what should be practical, scientific, political, and personal issues in the context of spiritual warfare, where God is on one side and Satan is on the other.
As a member of the medical profession Carson should know better than to connect any part of science to Satan. In his career as a successful surgeon Carson made constant use of the discoveries of other scientists, trusting that they had done their homework, accepting the truth of their conclusions. He prescribed medications with chemical properties that would have been unknown to him because he trusted the biochemists and the clinical studies of the pharmaceutical community; Carson kept up with research on anesthesia by reading scientific papers about research that he did not do.
Over and over again as he stood in operating rooms he drew on the work of the scientific community, trusting the process of research and peer review, trusting the integrity of scientists, trusting the power of the scientific process to discover true things about the world--things that empowered his unique skills to save lives. In his own work, he published groundbreaking research papers, carefully written and reviewed by his peers. He had every right to expect his work would be taken seriously. Carson would have been horrified if some group of, say, "natural healers" or "faith healers" had suggested that his work was inspired by Satan.
So what is the basis for Carson's rejection of evolution in favor of a creationist view that was refuted well over a century ago? Does the scientific method break down for some unknown reason when evolution is the topic? Does he not know that evolution is not even controversial in the scientific community? Did he ever wonder why he never encountered a single article in a scientific journal suggesting that everything was created in six days, as he believes? We all know the answer, unfortunately: Carson doesn't want evolution to be true because it challenges his particular reading of the Bible and threatens his faith.
Writing in the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby, argues that Carson's creationism shouldn't matter. "What I really can't see is why his (Carson's) ...doubts about evolution... should even enter the conversation." Jacoby has a point: presidents don't typically get involved in questions related to human origins so why does it matter what they think about that?
It matters for several reasons: In the first place, evolution is the central theory of biology and serves as the organizing principle of the entire field. To reject it is to stand outside the field of biology, viewing countless scientists as unwitting players in a grand Satanic conspiracy. A president cannot afford to hold such a stance toward science.
In the second place, the notion that we can simply pick and choose what parts of science we like is dangerous. You either trust the scientific community to do its work with integrity, or you don't. You don't get to say "This part of science is from Satan so we can ignore it." We live in a time when many of our most-pressing challenges--public health, climate change, genetic engineering, pollution--have a profound scientific dimension. We must not elect a president who chooses to stand outside the scientific community, especially when it is that very community that empowered his professional work.
And finally, evolution is at the heart of the controversy about what we teach in our public schools. Can we afford a president who believes our tax dollars support a Satanic explanation for origins? We should worry about this.
Imagine the following nightmare scenario: President Ben Carson, believing that God placed him in the White House, surrounds himself with like-minded advisors, and becomes convinced he should remove evolution from America's public schools. After all his fellow creationists have blamed evolution for all of society's ills, from racism and divorce, to drug abuse and gay marriage.
Suppose Carson uses all the creative strategies that the Republicans have been developing to get its way, like defunding programs they cannot eliminate directly. Suppose President Carson is successful at getting evolution out of the public schools. American science would be set back decades; many of our greatest scientists would flee to Canada and Europe; science teachers in the public schools would resign and go into industry. America's scientific stature in the world, already suspect because of our widespread rejection of evolution, would be toppled.
This is why we should care.