Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 526:
CREATIONISM AND JUSTICE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 526.

Today, we try to sort out prejudice. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1990 Scientific American hired a new editor for its feature, The Amateur Scientist. That's where Scientific American shows you how to build your own apparatus and do your own experiments. A physics professor named Jearl Walker used to write it. I felt close to The Amateur Scientist column, because Walker used some of my experiments in it.

The new editor was to be a science writer named Forrest Mims. Mims is also an accomplished amateur scientist. He had great qualifications for the job. Then it came out that he's a Fundamentalist and a Creationist. So Scientific American got rid of him before he started. And we're left wondering if they did the right thing.

Help me think this one through. The case for Scientific American goes like this: Mims's Biblical literalism denies much of the core of accepted science. He's at odds with huge pieces of paleontology, geology, biology, genetics, astronomy, and more. How can such a person work with a magazine that tries to tell the public what science has to say?

When Mims answers, he doesn't defend his beliefs. He knows they're at odds with our convictions. But they're also his own business. He doesn't mean to sell Creationism. He just wants to celebrate science.

So can he write accurately about -- say -- biology? Sure he can. He can tell about spider webs, the greenhouse effect, and how plants reflect light. He can write about artificial limbs and about pollen in the air. Still, he'd have to walk around his own beliefs. There remains some science his column couldn't treat.

The facts alone don't answer the questions. We have to turn to our own belief systems. My beliefs put high value on individualism and diversity. So I think he should have the job.

We see worse flaws than his among scientists. Some can't bear to be wrong. They do huge damage when they won't let go of ideas. Yet, regrettably, that's a trait we've come to accept.

Years ago we worried about electing the Catholic Jack Kennedy. Would he let the Pope set national policy? In the end, it wasn't Kennedy's stated beliefs, nor is it Mims's, that we must fear. It's people who want to impose their beliefs. It's people who keep their beliefs a secret.

Mims doesn't worry me. Scientists who're greedy, secretive, or self-serving do. I'll trust anyone who takes a healthy, innocent, and curious pleasure in the world -- even when I'm sure he's dead wrong about the details of its Creation.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For background on this matter, see three articles in The Scientist: The Newspaper for the Science Professional, Vol. 5, No. 4, Feb. 18, 1991.

King, J., The Mims Case: Defending Science or Persecuting Religion? p. 11.

Mims, F.M., III, Intolerance Threatens Every Scientist -- Amateur or Not. pp. 11 and 13.

Caplan, A.L., Creationist Belief Precludes Credibility on Science Issues. pp. 11 and 13.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode