The Problem with Science is…

Dec 9, 2011

Science has a PR problem.  Perhaps it is because science is responsible for some technological developments that have outpaced our moral capacity.  Or perhaps it is because the knowledge bestowed upon us through the scientific process increasingly pushes God out of the gaps.  But some are irritated by “scientists” who arrogantly assert absolute truths about the universe when in actuality, underneath their assertions, there are only probabilities with error bars.

 

I believe that one of the most fundamental problems with science is that we cannot see it.  The vastness of time and space and the minuteness of science’s edge, right now, defy the senses.  We do not have the capacity to imagine the scope and breadth of time involved in the formation of the universe or even the time scale of the evolution of complex life.  It is beyond our capacity to imagine how incredibly insignificant our place is in the cosmos.  Likewise, the realities of life at the cellular level and the complexity of interactions at the subatomic level, escape logic and defy the rules by which we live our lives.

 

Science is a juggernaut of increasingly and unapproachable complexity.  No longer are great discoveries made with home-made telescopes or in monastery greenhouses.  Science has become so specialized and at its focus, so minute, or so vast, that it is beyond the human experience.  The technical and mathematical skills required, and the sophistication of the instruments employed, all take us deeper and deeper, and further and further beyond anything that most of us can comprehend.

These realities literally bring science to the level of science fiction.  I once read a bumper sticker that said “I don’t have enough faith to believe in science.”  Although that sticker was posted by a Christian troubled about science’s role in the diminishment of God, it strikes me, that it may, on another level, represent the level of detachment science has accomplished through its very own progress.  If one does not truly understand the scientific process and the absolute intellectual scrutiny of the process itself, it is easy to assume that faith is necessary to believe in science. To the average person, buying what science tells us does require a leap of faith.

 

Yet, there is a fundamental difference between science and faith.  I once heard Donald Johanson talk about Lucy, his famous find.  In 1973 Johanson found a fossil that dramatically changed the way we conceptualized hominid evolution.  Lucy was a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis fossil that provided evidence that hominids walked upright before the brain got bigger.  It had been believed up until then, that in hominids, a bigger brain evolved first, giving our ancestral kin the smarts needed to survive a ground based and bipedal existence. The paradigm shifted based on this new evidence.  Such is the way of science.  In his talk, Dr. Johanson clearly and simply differentiated science and faith.  What he said was:

Science is evidence without certainty while Faith is certainty without evidence

 

I guess it boils down to what degree one values evidence.

 

A related issue pertains to the fact that sometimes the results of science are portrayed with too much certainty.  And sometimes writers overreach with their interpretation of findings.  This is a legitimate concern.  The greater scrutiny I give science, the more I see that this problem generally emanates from science writers (journalists) rather than from the scientific community.  Humility and the acknowledgement of the limits of one’s findings (i.e., error bars), are the hallmarks of good science.  This becomes increasingly important as we investigate deeply remote phenomena, be it the quantum realm, the formation of the universe, or even the geological evolution of our planet.  Science attempts to form a clear picture when only intermittent pixels are accessible.

 

A wonderful example of such humility is evidenced in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Some people use his own skeptical analysis as a refutation of his own theory.  Reading the book negates such an argument.  Every paper published in a reputable peer reviewed journal includes a Discussion section where the authors detail the potential flaws and confounds, as well as suggested areas of improvement for future research.  If one accesses the actual science itself, this humility is evident.  But in the media, over reaching is commonplace, and it warrants reasonable suspicion.

 

There are however, areas of science where the evidence is so broad and so complete that certainty is absolutely asserted.  Evolution by means of natural selection is one of those areas.  Yet evolution and the dating of the planet for example run into controversy as they intersect with the beliefs of those who sustain a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is where two world-views diverge, or more aptly, collide.

 

Long ago, when we lacked an understanding of geology, meteorology, the germ theory of disease, and neurology, people tried to make sense of random events like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, plagues, seizures, depression, mania, and dementia.  We did this because we struggled to make sense of substantial, catastrophic,  and seemingly random events.  When such events occur, it is our nature to seek out patterns that help us make sense of it all.  Vengeful deities were historically the agents of such destructive forces.  Just as we are universally driven to explain our origins, as evidenced by a plethora of diverse creation stories, we are compelled to make sense of our destruction.  As we have come to develop a better understanding of the world around us, little by little, God as a creative and destructive force has been displaced.

 

This increased material understanding of our world poses a serious threat to literal religion.  Although, for most scientists, the target is not the destruction of God.  On the contrary, knowledge is the goal.  Unfortunately, because of this looming and powerful threat, science and knowledge have become targets for some religious people.  The problem with science is that it threatens deeply held ideological belief systems that, at their core, value faith over evidence.

 

It comes back to that Evidence question again.  As humans we are more compelled by stories that provide comfort and give significance to our existence, than by the data that asserts and demands humility.  This is not a problem with science, it is a problem with the human brain.

 

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2 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Mike Blumenthal
    December 10th, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Some of the “PR” problem that you speak of is “real”.

    Unfortunately all too often science serves those with power and money to further their interests.

    The other problem is that oft times the ruling model of science has been reductionist in nature. This type of approach can often result in a not seeing the forrest for the trees outcomes.

    There are many example of these problems and skepticism about science in these broader contexts is totally legitimate.

    The good news is that in the end due to its ultimately self correcting nature, science will outlive capitalism and will survive to move to a more systemic approach to ideas.

    Lets hope that humankind doesn’t screw our world up too badly before that happens.

  2. Gerald Guild
    December 10th, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I couldn’t agree more Mike. I left a glaring hole in this piece pertaining to this very issue. The application of techno science by the military industrial complex and clandestine services as guided by the “authorities” puts some of our brightest minds to the task of killing and control. The advancements thereof have, and continue to, outpace civil morality and impinge on human flourishing. I opened with a tease but my hope was to spur such dialogue through what I considered to be such an important omission. It pleases me that you saw fit to comment. Thank you! And “HERE HERE!” to a future with greatly diminished anthropogenic global destruction.

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