A seasoned meteorologist once told me that predicting the weather is like depositing a drop of ink in a swimming pool and projecting the drop’s future movements, dispersions, and flow . . . while thousands of hyperactive kids play Marco Polo in the water.
Weather forecasting is famously and necessarily inexact in a way that scientists in other fields would not tolerate. What’s more, the lay public apparently ignores, forgives, or is completely uneducated about a forecast’s inexactitude. When a predicted temperature misses the mark—which it often does, and by a long shot—the mistake goes unnoticed. Only when a precipitationforecast goes awry does the public complain, and then only when the error is flagrant and concerns the immediate twenty-four-hour period. Still, the science and technology have come a long way since Aristotle’s Meteorologica—just not far enough, not yet.
I have a bachelor’s of science in meteorology and have worked as a broadcast meteorologist for the past ten years. But if the weather has been, in a sense, my spouse, I might say that I have had a rather brazen extramarital affair with evolutionary science ever since I said “I do” to meteorology. I have a biologist mother and an anthropologist grandmother and now a husband who is a population geneticist and with whom I am writing a book about human evolution and genetic ancestry.
So when I see how little the public questions a temperature forecast, how wildly it misconstrues the nature of probability, and how fervently it believes in the prediction of a hurricane’s landfall—all the while treating evolution like something someone dreamed up while smoking crack—I can’t help but get a bit annoyed. Or worse, while the maturity and validity of atmospheric science are taken on faith, evolution and the science behind it are depicted as an elaborate hoax with a holocaust and an era of ruthless eugenics as its end goal. Scientists can study weather patterns all they want, free of any dark cloud (as it were) of polemic. But evolutionary science, Ben Stein tells us, leads to atheism, which in turn leads to wickedness. Of course, that’s why such an overwhelming percentage of the prison population is atheist. Oh, wait . . .
A 2005 article in the satirical newspaper The Onion may have been onto something rather profound: “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory.” Indeed, “it’s magic” can be an “alternative theory” to every other generally accepted scientific theory or model. And yet, beyond the creepily well-funded Intelligent design establishment, it’s hard to find any other significant, mainstream movements championing magic as an alternative to accepted science (or worse, pretending said magic is, in fact, science). Where are the pious meteorology detractors claiming that jet streams or the Coriolis force is “just a theory”? Where are the anti-atmospherists recommending that the theory of intelligently created wind be taught alongside the theory of pressure gradients inducing air flow? For that matter, where are the anti-germ theorists, the anti-cell theorists, or the anti-electromagnetists? Indeed, where are the Christian anti-entomologists, incensed that biology textbooks claim insects have six legs when the Bible tells us that they have four (Leviticus 11:21, 22)?
Perhaps the bigger question is: What if educators required to “teach the controversy” of evolution began to teach the other “controversies,” other equally plausible models of the natural world: for example, that the energy required for hurricane formation is not latent heat but that instead each hurricane is expertly crafted by an unnamed Intelligent Designer? Would those teachers be expelled for expressing a dissenting “scientific” view? If so, would they join the ranks of Richard Sternberg with a multimillion-dollar documentary to attest to such a travesty of academic freedom?
Probably not. Religious people love to get their peanut butter on other people’s chocolate, but only if they’re sure to have an audience. That is, Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) certainly overlap aplenty in the real world but only in select and particularly sexy scientific arenas, such as evolution, abortion, or whether gay adults choose to be gay. In the meantime, however, it might be an interesting experiment if a few mischievous science teachers actually put the question to the test and insist that their students be made aware of all alternative “scientific” theories—from a geocentric universe to blood-letting to demonology. Then again, what a Phyrric victory it would be indeed if “Gravity Is Only a Theory” stickers wound up on textbooks for years to come.