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The War On Science

2015 January 18
US-VOTE-2012-REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

It’s become fashionable for politicians to say that they aren’t scientists.  While these are usually statements of fact, they are still curious.  Certainly, when it comes to issues of finance or war, we don’t see elected officials lining up to say, “I’m not an economist” or “I’m not a soldier.”

Science is what separates the kook from the professional. People who talk about aliens in flying saucers are usually written off as lunatics. Yet serious scientists are able to attract public and public funding for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) looking for alien life.

On the surface, the term “scientific” seems to be a fairly arbitrary distinction.  After all, alien hunters and SETI scientists are both engaged in a search for truth, but the difference is that the work of scientists, when properly done, is reproducible and testable and that makes all the difference.  Science matters not because of its greater truth, but its lesser solipsism.

Not So Intelligent Design

One of the great debates that politicians seek to avoid by touting their lack of scientific credentials is the one between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and intelligent design. Many people in the US, more than 40% in fact, believe in some form of creationism and want it taught in schools.

At first glance, they would seem to have a point.  After all, no one actually saw humans evolve, so who’s to say that Darwin’s theory is true and creationism is false?  Why, in the interest of academic inquiry, shouldn’t both be included in state curricula?

The reason is that Darwin’s theory is science—a subject taught in public schools—while intelligent design is a matter of faith, which is not.  Darwin’s theory produces testable hypotheses that can be falsified through experiment.  Creationism does not.  It is a matter of belief, not a subject for investigation.

There is also a practical consideration.  We expect our schools to prepare students so to contribute to future society.  If we want our kids to be able to develop new antibiotics that can treat resistant infections or to improve the genetic algorithms that make our economy more efficient, then Darwin’s theory, not creationism, is something they have to know.

Does The Age Of The Earth Affect Our Economy?

Another sticky subject that politicians seek to avoid is the age of the earth.  The bible says that the earth is several thousand years old, but astrophysicists say that it was created billions of years ago in something called the big bang (you can find a good explanation of the theory here).

Marco Rubio, rumored to be considering a presidential run, said in an interview with GQ that the age of the universe doesn’t matter because it has nothing to do with what people really care about, namely jobs and the economy.

 

I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras.

 

It’s seems like a reasonable position to take.  When we have so many other problems, does it matter how old the Earth is?  If it was seven days, or seven weeks or 4.5 billion years like the scientists say, it won’t create one job or contribute to national defense or make one iota of difference in our daily lives.

Or will it?  The big bang is not just a theory, but a set of theories, including general relativity and quantum mechanics, combined with many observations over a period of decades. Students in physics class are supposed to learn about the big bang not to shape their religious beliefs, but because of its importance to those underlying theories.

And those concepts are central to our everyday lives.  We use relativity to calibrate GPS satellites, so that we can find restaurants and target missiles.  Quantum mechanics gave us lasers and microprocessors, from which we make barcode scanners and iPhones.  In fact, the theories underlying big bang are essential for our modern economy to function.

So, in reality, teaching our kids about the big bang is crucial for our economic future.  If we are to unlock future innovations, like energy from antimatter, it is absolutely critical that we develop the next generation of scientists and engineers.

The Visceral Abstract

All of this can seem quite obscure, because we don’t think much about the redshifts of stars or rates of genetic mutation on our way to work.  If you are seeking a career in making coffee, serving burgers, advertising or trading bonds, you can probably live your entire life without even being aware that these things exist.

Yet that is because we live in a very special case, in which things are neither too big or too small and don’t move very fast or very slow.  To unlock the secrets that actually improve our lives, however, we need to think beyond our everyday existence and enter realms that are unfamiliar and strange.

The truth is, we now live in a world of the visceral abstract, where seemingly unlikely theories affect our lives more than homespun wisdoms.  That’s how we cure disease, create new technologies and discover new sources of energy to power our civilization.

And in America, we’re beginning to fall behind.  The OECD predicts that China will overtake the US in R&D spending by the end of the decade, partly because government support for research has been steadily falling for decades.  Clearly, the US government’s neglect of science has serious costs.

Faith and Science

Let’s return to the aliens for a moment.  Many people believe in extraterrestrial beings, but they are not practicing science.  Belief is based on faith.  For example, I may believe that my family loves me—and it may be true—but that is not a scientific belief.  (In fact, it is a proposition that is likely to become less true with extensive testing).

Science matters because it is not dependent on faith, it depends on skepticism and doubt. Nothing is ever proven, only disproven.  A prevailing theory can last for decades, centuries even, and then be cast aside.  Yet science moves on, making new discoveries and eliminating possibilities that have been found wanting.

As methods improve, tension between between branches of science, such as the present one between psychology and neuroscience, can arise.  Science, even competently done, is never the last word, which is probably why so many politicians avoid taking a position.  Science is not certainty, but its absence.

That’s why scientists must always leave some room for doubt, even if that doubt is qualified to some extent.  When Seth Shostak, the Director for SETI was asked whether he thought that the government was engaged in a massive conspiracy to cover up UFO’s he acknowledged the possibility.

Then he added, “Would they really be so efficient at covering up a big thing like this? Remember, this is the same government that runs the post office.”  After all, politicians aren’t scientists.

– Greg

 

8 Responses leave one →
  1. January 18, 2015

    This is on point Greg. The denial of science is a real issue. The politicalization of science helps no one, except those pandering to some specific groups. The shame is that it need not be a conflict at all. Many scientists and engineers are believers, but simply find the wonder of the universe more than enough to establish their faith. No religion or science has ever really answered the big WHY and so we all can find our own reasons.
    Meanwhile, the lack of ability to accept allegory, or to question things written by men long ago is definitely not in the spirit of science or learning. Rote following is not understanding, and the demand for it insults and often harms.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Good points. Thanks Robert!

    [Reply]

  2. Tim permalink
    April 4, 2015

    Greg, it seems strange to hear that for something to be considered science, it must be taught in public schools.

    I disagree with your view that I.D. has no part of science – I.D. isn’t trying to answer what system of belief you should have (i.e. it’s not asking religious questions). It is taking a look at observable facts and theorizing that there has to be intelligence behind what we see because things are too complex to have occurred randomly. And yes, there are those with reputable backgrounds in the scientific community who make this observation and express “skepticism and doubt” (as you say) about prevailing theories that might have been around for decades, centuries even.

    To say that things like new antibiotics will come about because of “Darwin’s theory, not creationism” appears as being ignorant of history, particularly scientific history. Many of the prominent scientists paving the way in the past few centuries were Christian theists who believed that a God of *order* created everything, and because of that order, scientific discovery could actually occur and was indeed pursued by them.

    I feel like your statements unnecessarily drive a wedge between “science” and “faith,” and it appears (my perception) that you haven’t spent time reading about I.D., or about the motivations of the early fathers of science who helped us get this far.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    I see what you’re trying to say Tim, but unless you can think of a testable hypothesis that intelligent design presents us with, it is not science. You can believe it and it may even be true, but unless it is falsifiable, it is not a subject for inquiry.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    Tim Reply:

    Greg – if a testable hypothesis is required, then how should the big bang or macro evolution theories be considered science (as a whole theory)? Yes, they are common, prevailing theories drawn from observations – but neither is testable or repeatable as a whole. And yet they still have a place in scientific consideration. How is I.D. different than that?

    After thinking about your post a little more, my main concern is with the notion of a “war on science.” I don’t believe it exists. That’s not to say there may not be a small minority who truly object to science in general, but the examples you cite don’t prove what you seem to be trying to get at. For example, the vast majority of those who disagree with presenting the theory of evolution as fact don’t hate science. Nor do their views somehow jeopardize our society’s ability to discover and harness the world around us. But your article comes across to me as stating just that. If I misunderstand your intent, please clarify. Thanks.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Tim,

    You’re right that both evolution and the Big Bang describe historical events that happened a long time ago and therefore cannot be tested. However-and this is a crucial point-they are both embedded in theories that do generate testable hypotheses.

    Darwin’s theory of natural selection, for example, has been tested extensively in the lab, using fruit flies, bacteria and other organisms. It is also used extensively in developing antibiotics and other drugs, as well as in logistics and artificial intelligence software.

    The standard model of physics, which incorporates quantum mechanics and relativity, also generates a wide variety of testable hypotheses and is the foundation for much of modern technology. In effect, the Big Bang is a theory that comes from the same principles that iPhones do.

    None of this means that evolution or the Big Bang-or any other theory for that matter-are undeniably true, but it does mean that both are consistent with scientific principles that have been rigorously tested and that are applied widely to a great variety of things that make our lives better.

    In effect, any time take antibiotics, shop at Walmart or use a smartphone, you are showing at least some tacit belief in the principles that underlie evolution and the Big Bang.

    – Greg

    Tim Reply:

    (There wasn’t an option to reply to your last reply, so I’m replying to my own.)

    Thanks for replying, Greg. Again, my main concern involves your last paragraph. Modern science is in part where it is because of people who held a worldview different from Darwin’s. That is, they believed a God of design and order created everything – therefore, everything is discover-able and worth discovering.

    Your last comment makes a leap that cannot be made. Even if I happen to think of how it is that I have access to medication, I don’t think about the Big Bang…even tacitly. You might believe that I do even if I don’t understand that I’m doing it, but that actually isn’t the case. If anything, I think about the amazing creativity inherent in the human body and the complex natural laws that are at play and the efforts of those who set about to discover how to manipulate the conditions to bring about good. There is every indication that Louis Pasteur (of antibiotic fame) did not set his sights on discovering because he believed Darwin’s theories, which historical works show he viewed with skepticism. The same could be said for other past and present scientists.

    The take away? One can’t assume that people who disagree with a prevailing theory are at war with the discipline of science, nor are they necessarily at war with some testable hypothesis that might happen to be used to support higher level (non-testable) theories.

    If I could put it simply, I perceive your thesis as the following:
    1) A = B
    2) C is theorized from A = B
    3) People disagree with C; therefore they are at war with A = B.

    Greg Reply:

    Well then, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    However, I would point out that you misharavterized what I said. My point was that science operates on testable hypotheses. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity made certain predictions with respect to gravity and motion. These were confirmed during an eclipse in 1919, when gravity was shown to bend light.

    Now you may believe that Einstein’s theory is right or wrong, but the point is that he made testable hypothesis and uncovered a phenomenon which had been unknown. If the 1919 experiment failed, relativity would have been disproven. Further, that same phenomenon is now incorporated in our GPS systems. So whenever you are using a GPS device for directions, you are inherently showing some belief in Einstein’s theories.

    Inteligent design is not science because it generates no hypothesis that can be tested and disproven.

    Greg

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