It takes a political scientist…

Jodi and I hit Borders Bookstore and Cafe last night. It’s one of those regular consumer things we do: go to a bookstore, browse, buy things we shouldn’t buy, and drink some caffeinated beverages and talk. We were scanning the new arrivals last night, when I noticed that Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) had a book out entitled “It Takes a Family”. Curious, I started leafing through it.

First, the title is meant to be a response to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and her book “It Takes a Village”, which itself was titled after a common African tribal saying. The premise of this new book is that rather than instilling a value of community, where the wider group feels responsible for its individuals, it is better to instill a sense of strong family, to create a self-sufficient nuclear structure that doesn’t need the charity of the community. Noble goal. Both books are noble goals, and I’d like to take the time to read it once it’s in the library.

However, my curiosity ran away with me and I browsed the table of contents. The last (or near last) chapter was on education, so I flipped to it to see if the Senator had any words about science education. Ooh, boy. You can imagine what I found.

Let me only here comment on what I remember for sure. He at one point talked about how scientific evidence was all pointing toward design in nature, and specfically indicated the fine tuning of all the constants of nature that are part of – you guessed it – the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Of course, he didn’t name it. But there it was. Evidence for design in nature, straight from my own field.

Let me stop Senator Santorum here, to discuss the danger of what he is doing. First, let’s flesh out the Senator a bit. He is a political science major from Penn. State (B.A.) with a business degree (M.B.A) and a law degree (J.D.), according to his website, http://santorum.senate.gov/public/. That said, he appears to have no formal training in the scientific method, or experience doing research into the natural world.

The constants he refers to are things like the speed of light, the mass of the electron, Planck’s constant, etc. Indeed, as he astutely notes, these numbers are not predicted by any current physical framework and their values are set very precisely, so that even small changes would result in a very different universe where we might not exist. This fact has been known for a long time, a problem we physicists call “fine-tuning”.

Senator Santorum will be pleased to know that, unlike some in the world who look at this, shrug, invoke the word “design”, and stop working on the problem, we physicists (who receive federal funds that he has likely approved of several times in science and energy bills) look at this and see the incompleteness of our data and the insufficiency of our theories of nature. We strive to develop even tougher experiments that will open new avenues to new knowledge, which can then be used to rule in or rule out the many hypotheses competing to explain all the data.

Sen. Santorum singled out the multiverse hypothesis, wherein ours is one of many universes, each distinguished by a differnt set of values for the constants of nature. He considers this an offensive theory, meant to explain away obvious design, and one which can never be tested. Here, I feel I need to caution the Senator. In fact, while the multiverse hypothesis is a spinoff of some of the ideas embodied in string theory and cannot currently be tested, we will soon be capable of testing for the presence of extra dimensions of space. This is work he has likely voted to fund, for it will some day be done at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva and will shortly be done at the Tevatron in Illinois. While the multiverse is just one possible explanation, it is an exciting one with predictions that can be put to the test. That’s good science. Intelligent design, until it can proffer a laboratory test, is bad science. It would be wise for a U.S. Senator to err on the side of good science.

The Senator also bet that most scientists accept the multiverse hypothesis. I assume this jibe was meant to imply we’re all religion-hating ideologues. Let me assure you, Senator: my colleagues are very good scientists, and know a hypothesis from a fact. As a scientist myself, I suggest a U.S. Senator stick to the facts.

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