There are many reasons for regarding Republican presidential aspirant Ron Paul as bizarrely inappropriate for executive office. Far the most important is his belief in the oracular quality of Osama bin Laden's pronouncements as guides for setting US foreign policy. (You think I exaggerate? Paul said in a debate in May: "I’m suggesting we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it." The slipperiness of this formulation was properly noted by one conservative writer, Jonah Goldberg of National Review.) But Paul's remarks on evolution (which I noted from Stephen Pollard, and are captured in the clip above) are pitiful too: "It's a theory... and I don't accept it, you know, as a theory.... I just don't think we're at the point where anybody has absolute proof on either side."
The confusion by populist politicians (among others) over the word "theory" has been explained many, many times. Here's a succinct statement by the late Stephen Jay Gould:
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Moreover, "fact" does not mean "absolute certainty." The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Evolutionists have been clear about this distinction between fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory—natural selection—to explain the mechanism of evolution.
Anti-intellectual obscurantism is always with us, and is far from being only a right-wing phenomenon. The variant that Paul exemplifies is especially resilient among commentators in more conservative forums, however, and not always by Protestant evangelicals. Here is an example from The Daily Mail - I'm sorry to say by Melanie Phillips, remarking on "a school of scientists promoting the theory of Intelligent Design, which suggests that some force embodying purpose and foresight lay behind the origin of the universe". And here, on the website of the Social Affairs Unit, is the historian William D. Rubinstein maintaining with a drearily familiar expression of non-specialist incredulity: "There are so many deep implausibilities in the Theory of Evolution as it is commonly understood that it seems to me, as a non-scientist, that something must surely be radically wrong."
Intelligent Design is not a scientific proposition but a metaphysical one, as surely as is Biblical creationism of the more traditional kind. The irony of ironies is that Melanie also refutes herself when she maintains in the same article: "It was GK Chesterton who famously quipped that 'when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything.'"
Well, no. For a start, this famous Chesterton "quotation" is spurious, as you might reasonably infer from the fact that it never appears with a cited source. (I try to note these when I spot them, but I will compile a list of common bogus quotations sometime, in the hope that they may eventually be rooted out of journalistic practice.) More important, Melanie has herself lately turned to the irrationalism of conspiracy theory, in speculating that the weapons expert David Kelly was murdered. She says of the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Transport, Norman Baker, who has written a book advancing that notion: "Now Mr Baker cannot easily be dismissed as a crank." Just try and stop me, Melanie. Baker's theories don't stop at the "murder" of Dr Kelly. He also speculates that Robin Cook met the same fate. That proposition requires at the very least an assumption that Robin Cook's widow - who was with her husband when he suffered his fatal fall while hill-walking - must know something about the "murder" that she is not divulging. I find that a peculiarly disgusting insinuation to make without evidence.
Outside his field of economic history, Professor Rubinstein will swallow a great deal. In 2005, he co-authored a book resurrecting the hoary notion that the works of William Shakespeare were written by someone other than the Stratford actor of that name. The chosen candidate of Rubinstein and his co-author Brenda James was a minor courtier, Sir Henry Neville. There is a garish website promoting this notion, which is like all the others: a conspiracy theory that rests entirely on circumstantial evidence and snobbery. As the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate aptly commented: "There’s not a shred of evidence in support of the argument; it’s full of errors. There’s no reason to doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare."
Ten years ago, Rubinstein produced a book of comparable scholarship but on a subject of more immediate moral import. This was The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis - a commendably self-explanatory title for an argument of extenuation. I know of no historian who is a specialist in the Holocaust who took this volume seriously. Walter Laqueur, co-editor of The Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2001, reviewed Rubinstein's book for Commentary, October 1997 (link requires fee). He described the book as "plainly wrong" and "positively absurd", and as evincing "wilful ignorance" and "lack of judgment". Laqueur located the book in a "new trend [in Holocaust studies] of staking out unsustainable claims in a preposterous way", before concluding: "There appear, in fact, to be almost unlimited reasons why people get things wrong. But why the Holocaust in particular, a subject which should be approached in a spirit of utmost caution, should attract so much charlatanism, I cannot explain. It is a matter of great and growing concern."
In charlatanism's house are many mansions, but they have an underlying consistency and common attraction.