Brownback backpedaling?

I'm not completely sure what to make of this piece in today's NY Times by Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, other than to say it sounds like he's trying to make himself more suitable for prime time, and that I worry that it will work.

Brownback, you may remember, was one of the three Republican presidential candidates who raised his hand when asked if he didn't believe in evolution. He did so unhesitatingly, which makes me question the honesty of his argument in this Op-Ed, because it's full of nuance and side-stepping, and the question of belief in evolution is a pretty straightforward.

A brief aside--I hate the term "belief in evolution," because it reduces an area of scientific study to a level on par with belief in fairies. One does not "believe in evolution"--one understands, or does not understand it. It happens whether one believes in it or not.

Back to the Op-Ed. Brownback begins by whining about our sound bite political culture--a culture he's benefited from, I presume, in Kansas, because I can't imagine a sane group of people voting for him based on his stances on issues--and then says he's going to deal with this subject with the seriousness it deserves. Translation: there aren't enough mouth-breathing creationists to get me the nomination, much less the general election, so I need to stake out a middle ground. And he tries:

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

It seems pretty clear what he's trying to do here--he's trying to let the large number of people who don't completely understand evolution or who want to balance science and faith that he's one of them, and not Kirk Cameron. I can't fault him there. But there's a major fault in his last sentence--he talks about an interaction between faith and science, and if science is done right, there's no interaction, and there's good reason for that.

I don't want to board an aircraft built by engineers who have faith it will get into the air and stay there until it's supposed to land. I don't want medical treatment from doctors who have faith that prayer will help cure my illness. I want hard science backing up that sort of thing, and I want faith as far away from it as possible.

Brownback's argument is fairly typical--science and reason deal with different kinds of truth and so there need be no contradiction. It's the same argument Richard Dawkins responded to ably in The God Delusion. It's full of the same old straw men as most arguments of this type:
Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose.

It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded.
The first is insulting, as it assumes that people who are not believers (and with Brownback, you can be sure he's talking about the Christian god) cannot understand values, meaning or purpose, a triumvirate of they-mean-what-I-want-them-to-mean abstracts if there ever were any.

The second is a strawman because the scientists who dismiss design or purpose do so for very good reason--there's no evidence for it. I'm a little out of my depth in this specific discussion, as I haven't been in a science classroom for over a decade, but this guy is pretty good at writing for the lay person, and I highly recommend his work.

And the third is frankly damaging to Brownback's own belief system. Each person has his or her own special place in creation, huh? And in case there were any doubt that he was referring to individuals, he wrote in the same paragraph, "I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose." You know what's coming next, don't you? What is George W. Bush's purpose? And what kind of God would put innocents in his path? What is Dick Cheney's purpose? To cause death and destruction on multiple fronts--environmental, social, military and otherwise? The list of people who do evil things--many in the name of their faith--is longer than I could ever hope to compile or would wish to. But they were willed into being for a purpose.

No thanks.

In the end, I don't think this Op-Ed will do much for Brownback's chances at the nomination. He's a low-profile Senator from a low-to-medium state in the middle of the country and hasn't had a lot of success raising money, and he doesn't have the quirkiness of a Ron Paul to keep him afloat. He's got the personal endorsement of James Dobson, but it's questionable how much that'll get him in the primaries.

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