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Myth of Science Redux

March 21, 2010

Nice post Christian.

Here is the point of disagreement for me:

“Science isn’t a body of knowledge or a black box that gives us answers to whatever we ask of it. Science is a tool, or a process, that we use to ask and hopefully answer questions about the physical world.”

One of the things I was driving at in my post was that Science doesn’t offer much as a way of knowing to the layperson. An average Joe or Jane cannot carry out his or her own experiments or calculations. For them, Science is a blackbox, except it usually comes in the form of popular publications or documentaries. For the average person, there is no hope of ever understanding what the scientist says, they must trust the results and conclusions. Consequently, for most of the world’s population, Science is only a (shifting and inevitably wrong) body of knowledge and not a process.

The system of Science — the hypothesis making, deduction deriving process — is only partially applied by already established scientists, much less so for the layperson. Firstly, a large amount of scientific knowledge is grandfathered in, meaning that student-scientists take in large amounts of assumed priors, which is built into the current model of thinking. Secondly, the method for creating new knowledge varies wildly from field to field. I think only special historical examples like Mendel’s peas and Morgan’s fruit flies really embody “the” scientific method as stated by Christian. The grandfather process seems well justified only because occasionally the foundations of a field as stated disagree with new data and an upheaval results. However, this process is slow and tends to be unremarked upon or misinterpreted by the media and general public, thus what Joe and Jane actually know isn’t really Science, but some mangled version of Science. I am reminded of a particular experiment in the late 90s and early 00s where laser light shown through Cesium gas appeared to violate causality and went 300x the speed of light. Magazines were eager to denounce Einstein and proclaim a back-to-the-drawing-board state of physics.

My statement that “Science is an organized religion” was intentionally inflammatory, but not entirely untruthful. If I was being more sincere and less
rhetorical I might have said

Science is a Culture.

By Culture, I mean it in two out of the three senses indicated by Wikipedia.

  • An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
  • The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group

Granted, Science is a very liberal and freethinking culture that is supportive of change and open to criticism, but a culture nonetheless. Science is not as Popper would have it: A statement-making process whereby everything is falsifiable. Theoretical Physics in part is filled with a lot more modeling and theoretical guesswork than one might think.

String Theory is a prime example. The History of String Theory is largely a mystery to me, but I’ve heard that the way in which it was discovered was by a massive investigation and brute force calculation of quantum interactions via S-matrices. It was through these calculations that it became apparent that fundamental particles like the proton and neutron couldn’t be described as points. It was only a guess that one could use a 1-dimensional string to reproduce these calculations. Then in the 70s it seemed like String Theory actually contradicted experimental evidence and it wasn’t until the mid 80s that these contradictions could be resolved.

Notice how this type of Science progressed. It wasn’t the result of giant list-making as Sir Francis Bacon might have liked and then hypothesis forming. This description (and the description that Christian advocates) I call a bottom-up view of Science. What happens in a lot of Science is actually top-down, meaning we create advanced mathematical models that happen to fit data and sometimes are created un-informed by experiment! Take Einstein’s Relativity as an example. When he was asked whether he was nervous or not about what a 1919 solar eclipse viewed in Africa might have to say about the validity of his theory he replied

“Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct anyway.”

Another quote of his, encapsulating this idea of a top-down Science is

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”

I don’t mean to appeal to Einstein as an authority (BTW, I take Christian’s analysis of Science as a respectable authority to be valid.) Rather, I use these quotes to demonstrate how some Scientists think about Science. After all, shouldn’t we trust them over anyone else as to what Science “is”? Also, this compliments nicely the history of String Theory as noted above. String Theorists had to persist for nearly 10 years despite being wrong in the face of evidence (haven’t we been calling this faith? or do we require the absence of all evidence?) and many Scientists have to do this before their efforts are vindicated.

I hope by now I’ve convinced you that the Scientific Method, although cute, is NOT how Science is done in large.

Now let me address the dominant ethos of this blog. Religion has resulted in terrible crimes against Humanity and Science has too (A-bomb, Eugenics, Racism, etcetera). It is certainly frustrating to pit paradigms against one another and to have yours picked at for irrational reasons and I agree that most arguments presented by fundamentalists against Science are irrational. Nevertheless, when I read the posts here I feel like it is an echo of my past self. Allow me to explain.

When I was young growing up in conservative Virginia, I felt like an oddity in a Religion-laden world. I argued until I was blue in the face and rederived a lot of the arguments that Christian and Carl have so eloquently framed on this Blog. But I have since left Virginia and have spent my formative years in liberal intellectual city centers and universities, cloistered in ivory towers. Now, these posts seem dangerously distant and irrelevant. Isn’t everyone in the world an agnostic/athiest twenty-something with progressive ideas and impressive education credentials? Obviously not, but what I write now is perhaps better understood knowing where I stand in relation to it. Eight years ago, I would still be a pimply-faced angst-filled teenager whose only intellectual companion is a copy of The Blind Watchmaker and this Blog would have been a veritable God-send. However, I have made my peace in a way, and only because I am not currently a victim of religious-persecution. What I now see is the positive side of Religion, namely

“art, literature, philosophy, music, sport and coffee,”

and all those things sound good to me.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 9:07 AM

    Ok, so I’ll concede that I may have given a slightly rosy-tinted view of science. I’ll have to keep thinking about the religion v science question. So, removing the scientific method from my argument, what I’m arguing for is critical thinking and scepticism, things sorely lacking in religion. I see your point that for lots of people science will only be accessible as a body of knowledge, which is why it is important that these skills (critical thinking and scepticism) are taught to apply to all areas of thought. There shouldn’t be one domain that is free to be accepted unquestioningly.

    Talking of critical thinking, would be curious to see the source of that Einstein quote.

    It’s interesting to see where you’re coming from in your arguments. Obviously we don’t live in societies where we can be persecuted as atheists in the burning sense. But I think we do both live in societies where religion has a broad and undeserved influence. It claims the moral high-ground whilst claiming that superstitious ritual can atone for grievous sins. It demands a respect from society that is in no sense proportional to the grounds on which it is based. It promotes the unquestioning acceptance of teachings that can have profound effects on everyone’s lives. It is this unquestioning acceptance that is most dangerous; if I’m willing to suspend rational thought about things as important and profound as where I come from and why I should be moral, then I might be willing to turn off my rational mind in other areas of life. As PZ Myers says, if I’m willing to uncritically accept the inspiration of god I end up with George Bush in power.

    So yes, religion has wonderful things to offer, but it’s humans that are offering them, not god, and humanity needs to claim them back for itself!

  2. Justin permalink
    March 22, 2010 1:22 PM

    Ah, Critical Thinking! That was the word I wanted to hide in my post, but you are absolutely right! My Dad has ranted on and on about needing to train critical thinkers in the K-12 curriculum in the States. I still find the term a bit nebulous and would like to see a syllabus for a critical thinking course.

    The first quote of Einstein’s is bona fide. See The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred Shapiro, page 230 or

    The second quote is a little dubious and even if properly Einstein, should be read with a correct amount of sarcasm. I do think Einstein would have defended the principle of theoretical elegance over dry experimental observation.

    I think Science has inspired its fair share of art and philosophy and the like. I sometimes wish that what is going on in Religion is a just a vast game of pretend and at any moment we could end the game, but we keep it going on because it is fun. I wish we could hold onto our child-like ability to pretend and exercise it more freely, but also understand when the game crosses that line where people start to get hurt. I agree that Religion has a vast amount of influence, but I also think it is only a matter of time before it becomes less and less influential. Perhaps one day, the Church of People Who Like to Dress Up like Storm Troopers will have as much influence as Christianity.

  3. March 22, 2010 2:10 PM

    Yeah, I was fine with the first Einstein quote, the second one… a bit more doubtful. It sounds like someone twisting the words of Spinoza, I read something by him recently and he says something along the lines of “If the facts don’t fit the theory, either the theory has to change or the facts have to change”. Can’t quite see it myself.

    How to teach critical thinking? Good question. I guess a good first step is to encourage people to ask questions of what they’re told. Not sure where to go from there, but it’s a start.

    You’ve got me thinking about the whole “what can science tell us” thing again, so hopefully will have something to write in a few days.

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