Readers Take Issue with Varmus's Praise of Secularism

Harold Varmus' article "Science, Government, and the Public Interest" (APS News, June 2004) makes several useful points, particularly in reference to globalizing science and disseminating scientific knowledge via the Internet. However, his antireligion rant is misguided, relying on a clear misreading of both American history and current events. For starters, the United States was founded in the main by people who considered themselves religious, regardless of what I or Varmus think. Secondly, no matter how little evidence there may have been that Iraq had WMDs (and I remind Varmus that the Clinton administration thought they were there too), it is patently absurd to suggest that Bush started some holy war against an "evil" country based on religious principles.

I question the implicit assumption that scientists should be the final arbiter of what research should or should not be conducted. Ethics cannot fundamentally be legislated by bodies such as the APS. If the objection is raised that the public is not qualified to judge such matters, my response is twofold: one, I agree with Varmus that we do a rather subpar job of educating the general public about science and we should work to improve that. Two, I question whether a PhD in any field of science qualifies one to deal with the ethical concerns of their research appropriately.

I also believe that on many questions—particularly those dealing with the definition and sanctity of human life—the view of the public is at least as important as the view of the scientific community. Varmus subtly recycles the typical party line that whatever science and technology can be done should be done, and we'll worry about ethics later. This is unacceptably arrogant, and it undermines his central thesis that the most prominent purpose of science is to create knowledge that advances public welfare. Sorry, but scientists do not and should not get to unilaterally decide the best interest of the public.

Matthew McMahon
Nashville, TN

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I found the inclusion of Harold Varmus's commentary on Science and Government totally out of place in the pages of APS News. This is a piece of political opinion barely disguised as views on science.

Statements such as "ill-timed tax cuts", and "the damage we are doing to our international reputation by our actions in Iraq and elsewhere" are political without disguise and unrelated to science. The consequences of the tax cuts, whether ill or well timed, remain to be seen, and the policies on Iraq are debatable.

I fail to see the connection between science and social policy on reproductive issues.

The criticism of the current Administration's focus on abstinence versus "realistic programs", based on contraceptives, is not very different from suggesting that it would be more effective to concentrate on occupant protection systems in motor vehicles, rather than enforcing DUI laws and promoting responsible alcohol drinking habits.

Varmus's criticism of the Administration emphasis on STD's control is not based on science, but on his underlying hostility to a policy that is viewed as based on the retrograde Weltanschauung of the Catholic religion and other conservative Christian denominations.

In the last few years, APS News has been gradually losing its focus from being the Society's newsletter to becoming one more forum where political views are aired, and the Back Page largely a free tribune for liberal views on social issues, hardly ever balanced by opposing views.

I would prefer that scientific societies devote themselves to promoting science, without falling into the fallacy of making science the religion of the 21st century. In the final analysis, science has some answers, but not all the answers.

Oscar Antonio Rondon Aramayo
Charlottesville, VA

Ed. Note: Readers are invited to look at the collection of Back Pages archived at to see if the author's contention that the Back Page is "a free tribune for liberal views" is even remotely close to the truth. Since the beginning of 2002, the only Back Page authors on the political side have been John Marburger (twice), Colin Powell, and Spencer Abraham, all members of the current administration.

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Three articles in the June 2004 issue of APS News touch on the issue of whether one must be an atheist to be a scientist. Harold Varmus addresses the separation of religion and science by saying, "As recent immigration trends have made our country much more diverse culturally, ethnically, and spiritually, we have not become more securely secular." What does he mean by "securely secular?" Does he mean atheistic? Does he mean that one cannot believe in a higher power? A God? A Creator?

Similarly, in her letter, Mary Lu Larsen makes the illogical assumption that all Creationists believe in a young Earth. There are at least three theories of creation held by Christians who are also Creationists that agree with the scientific evidence for a creation beginning approximately 13.7 billion years ago. In another letter, William Pettus states in his letter that scientists should not abandon causality to defend atheism and that he is not "fearful of intelligent design." I agree for the following reasons.

Science can be based on either the premise that the physical world we experience with our senses is all there is, or on the premise that a spiritual world existed prior to the physical world, and that the physical world was created by God. One cannot identify this God using the scientific method; one can only say that intelligence was necessary. For most of the history of science, the second premise was assumed.

It was not until the 1700s and 1800s that people began to question the second premise. They did this because of their particular view of God and the existence of evil. Many people were deist and thought of God as a watchmaker: God created the universe, stepped back, and let the universe run. Darwin and others were concerned about natural evil. Why did plants and animals have unnecessary parts? Why didn't all seeds germinate? Why were there mutations? Darwin gave us natural selection to explain the survival of plants and animals. Others expanded on Darwin's idea and came to the conclusion that God wasn't just detached from his creation, God wasn't needed. They concluded that there was no God, and became atheists.

Varmus is concerned about public funding for science. Why should taxpayers want to fund efforts requiring the premise that there is no God? Polls show that approximately 90% of the citizens believe in a God of some sort and two-thirds believe in a Creator. If science will acknowledge that it can be based on either the premise that there is no God or the premise that there is a God, then the public will be more ready to support it. I concur with Pettus: "I am more alarmed about suppression of thought."

Franklin E. Niles
San Angelo, Texas

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As a Christian, I have some comments I would like to make about Mr. Varmus's thoughts expressed on The Back Page, June 2004.

Harold Varmus [APS News, June 2004] wants our government (1) to become more securely secular, and (2) to more adequately fund scientific research and supervise with more effective peer review.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, about the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and the concurrent discovery of sparsely populated continents, a remarkable change occurred. Suddenly, things came alive. People enjoyed freedom and opportunity never possible before in history. Advances in manufacturers' production of goods, in communication and transportation, in science and knowledge concerning our environment, were truly remarkable. All this occurred while the cost of government was not a significant factor in the economy and the lives of the private citizen were relatively free from government control.

With regard to the first point, the founders of our country did an amazing thing. Religious as they were, they extended the gift of freedom to all, the Religious and the Atheist, and set up a government under which incompatible people could live together in peace. Government was not supposed to be secular; it was supposed to act as a referee and protect the freedom of all. Atheism is a religion, I insist, and secularism tends to establish Atheism and prevent the free exercise of religion. A few generations of secular public education has brought us to the "post Christian" era. Secularism is not a benign friend of all religions, but a mortal enemy; it is not a friend of a free society, but an enemy.

With regard to the second point, to give the funding and supervision of scientific research over to the government is a direct route to bring back the days of Galileo. It's a socialistic concept that does not take into account the perverse, evil nature of the human race. Socialism puts the lazy and incompetent in control and frustrates the initiative of the gifted and productive citizen. Let us keep the spark of freedom and opportunity alive in our society.

George A. Kuipers
Pittsford, NY

Harold Varmus Responds:

I appreciate these animated responses to the abbreviated version of my Carey Lecture. Two brief rejoinders. I certainly did not mean to imply that only atheists can be scientists! Science and religion are different spheres of activity, addressing different questions with different means. Second, I agree with the statement that our nation's founders were religious, and I make that very point in the full speech. ( But the founders were also careful to ensure that religious beliefs would be separated from the principles of governance, to endow their new country with protections against intolerance of thought, speech, and religious practice. This is the secularism that I am praising.

Appearance of Order is Perfectly Natural

The second law of thermodynamics should not be applied locally, as done by William G. Pettus ("Suppression of Thought is Alarming," Letters, APS News, June 2004), to infer "intelligent design" from the evolution of "increased order, regularity and life." Such free thinking would, for instance, lead one to argue for the existence of a guiding hand from the mere observation of the ordered patterns of wind on a weather map.

However, one must consider the total entropy of the Sun/Earth system in which heat passes from a high temperature to one much lower. The second law does not preclude the production of mechanical work in the process, nor a reduction in local order; it only places restrictions on the amounts. It does not assert that entropy has to increase at the maximum possible rate. The local appearance of order should be held in wondrous awe for what it is, a perfectly natural, mechanistic, albeit highly complex phenomenon.

Furthermore, I find it internally inconsistent that the existence of "intelligent direction" of the evolution of the complex universe is deemed acceptable by Pettus, whereas it is "incomprehensible that intelligent life has evolved spontaneously." This argument only works if it allows one to suppress the worrisome thought about how that directive intelligence must have spontaneously evolved.

Peter Mattocks
East Amherst, NY

Friendly Advice for Bob Park

As a physics student, I use the American Physical Society's web site frequently.

I have a brief comment regarding Bob Park's weekly newsletter, "What's New": A positive political campaign, promoting the benefits of physics, will be better received by the public than a negative political campaign of bringing down non-physics groups.

Almost all political campaigns, such as the presidential campaign, prefer positive rather than negative messages.

Ben Lee
Los Angeles, CA

"The Scream" May Reflect Munch Kin's Death

I quite enjoyed the Back Page article for May 2004, which argued that the blood red sunset of Munch's painting The Scream was produced by volcanic dust in the air from Krakatoa. My Time-Life book The Mind, which I read as a child, argued that Munch's profound reaction to the sunset was a memory of his mother's death by hemorrhage.

Assuming that the volcanic and the psychological explanations are both true, we get a prediction that his mother died before 1883.

Since his mother died when Munch was 5 years old in 1868, the prediction is confirmed, but unfortunately the date of his mother's death does not give a useful constraint on the date when Munch saw the sunset.

Theodore Lawry
Croydon, Surrey, UK

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