By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life and Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])
“It is not so much knowledge of science that the public needs, as a scientific world view — an understanding that we live in an orderly universe governed by physical laws that cannot be circumvented by any amount of piety or cleverness.”
— Robert L. Park, Professor of Physics
How do humans think they know something?
There are basically four ways in which we think we know something:
—Authority: We read about it or heard about it from a source we trust.
—Senses: We experienced it with one or more of our senses.
—Reason: We reasoned it out based on what we already think we know.
—Intuition: We intuitively know it, sometimes through a “religious insight”.
The problem, of course, is that each of these four ways of knowing can be notoriously unreliable. Authorities can be mistaken; reasoning can be flawed; intuitions can be wrong; our senses can be distorted. Consider the following once widely held belief:
“It’s common sense that the Earth doesn’t spin or race around the Sun. If it did we’d all be blown off, or at least feel something. Aristotle logically proved that the Earth couldn’t be moving and St. Augustine, in direct communication with God, agreed. Even the Bible tells us in Psalms 104:5 that the Earth doesn’t move. So there!”
Yet, our senses, logic, common sense, inner knowing and top authorities were all proved wrong. Our planet does dash through space, moving around our Sun at roughly 65,000 mph for the last several billion years! Now consider another widely held belief:
“I just know we didn’t evolve from apes. It’s too degrading and goes against God’s plan for us and His word in Genesis. Besides, you can’t prove it, since no one ever saw a human evolve from an ape. It’s just too impossible to believe.”
Yet, again, in spite of beliefs still held by over 40% of adult Americans, we really do have an extremely long evolutionary history. The supporting evidence is just too compelling for any informed thinking person to deny. Once again, those who thought otherwise based on intuition, their senses, scriptural authority, or reason, were proved wrong. How? By a collection of powerful methods of inquiry developed and polished over the last 400 years of human existence, now collectively referred to as the Scientific Method.
Currently millions of scientific and technological articles are being published yearly in tens of thousands of different scientific journals. This explosion of scientific knowledge has now imposed severe limitations on the ability of any one scientist to stay current except in very narrow specialty areas. Science today is like an extremely rapidly expanding region with a solid core of theories known to be true with a high level of certainty. As one moves outward from this core, theories become progressively more and more tentative.
The Scientific Method
The Scientific Method has turned out to be the most powerful and widely used method of inquiry humans have ever discovered for understanding how our bodies, our world and our universe work—not the way we might want things to work, not the way we believe things should work, but the way things actually seem to work. It’s a way of discovering which hypotheses among many possible explanations are wrong, thus homing in on the right ones. Correct explanations open doors to ever deeper and more profound discoveries; wrong explanations lead to blind alleys.
To do science requires a healthy skepticism and high doses of logic, reason and intellectual honesty. The rational power of the human mind is highly respected. But this is not to imply that doing science is like following a cookbook with a particular recipe to follow. It requires considerable patience while stumbling down blind alleys, taking wrong turns, and sorting through incomplete and possibly biased data.
The Scientific Method requires following the evidence wherever it leads, despite personal beliefs or expectations. Its tools include formulating testable hypotheses to explain the raw evidence (observational, experimental, mathematical) on its own terms, rather than by “forcing” the data to conform to some preconceived belief. Although imaginative speculation is essential, hypotheses have to stand up to the evidence. They also have to be capable of being proved false, at least in theory. Experiments and observations require rigorous controls and reproducibility by independent investigators
The data, theories and laws making up science are not secured by authorities. For no matter how convincing or inspired the authority may be, no matter how high in state, church, or even the world of science the authority may be, scientists always demand to see the hard evidence. When no evidence can be presented other than revelations in dreams, the “voice of God,” the writings from an ancient holy book, or glowing (yet uncontrolled) testimonials, scientists must withhold acceptance of the claim. Inserting “God did it” answers into gaps in scientific knowledge is scientifically unsound, since all research stops.
In science, extraordinary claims (claims that conflict with large bodies of evidence to the contrary) require extraordinary empirical evidence to become widely accepted. Thus, when someone claims to have a piece of Noah’s ark, or evidence that we’ve been visited by space aliens, or a human fossil found in the same rock layer as a dinosaur fossil, or evidence that intercessory prayer works in healing disease, the Scientific Method requires that one remain very skeptical. In such cases, scientists must demand strong empirical evidence obtained under conditions of extraordinary security to prevent any possibility of data tampering.
Scientific knowledge is constantly updated through peer-reviewed journals and at science conventions throughout the world. Through this process errors are eventually caught and weeded out. Disagreements in science, although acrimonious at times, are usually resolved by more observations and experiments. Though much in science is now firmly established, no theories are beyond the possibility of revision in the light of new evidence.
One of the most striking features of the Scientific Method (and its resultant discoveries) is its universality. The rules and results don’t vary based on one’s nationality, ethnicity, sex, or geography. There is no such thing as “feminine science” or “African-American science.” Science is an ongoing enterprise involving a vast inter-generational and global community.
The basic scientific ethic must be absolute honesty in recording and presenting data. It’s curbing wishes, personal prejudices and emotions when interpreting the evidence. It’s bending over backwards in trying to disprove favorite hypotheses. As difficult as this is to do in practice, it still is the essence of scientific integrity, an integrity many believe our society sorely needs.
“Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking [that] invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. “It urges us on to a no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything–both new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for democracy in an age of change.”
—Carl Sagan, astronomer
Unlike scientific knowledge, religious beliefs and truths vary enormously over the planet, with deities and sacred dogmas of every conceivable variety, seemingly limited only by human imaginations. The following comparisons between science and religion tend to refer to the more conservative and fundamentalist religious sects.
—Unlike science, religion is not a method of inquiry, but a body of belief usually grounded in sacred texts, supernatural explanations, faith (commitment in the absence of compelling empirical evidence), and religious experiences.
—Unlike science, the skeptical questioning of religious beliefs, dogmas and moral positions is often seen as sinful, even heresy. Instead, religious disagreements tend to be “resolved” by more prayer and study from holy books, or even by splintering into separate sects.
—Unlike science, different religions usually see themselves as rivals rather than interlocking parts of one enterprise. Historically, ostracism, coercion, righteous attacks and even warfare have been used against those with different religious beliefs.
—Unlike science, in religion faith is seen as a virtue. In fact, the more extraordinary the religious claim (by scientific standards), the stronger the tendency of the faithful to believe that claim as a measure of the power of their faith. Many have been taught that to hold onto beliefs that have been disproved by science represents the highest of virtues, one to be rewarded by God on the final judgment day. Examples include a literal belief in the biblical creation stories, Noah’s ark, the Resurrection and other religious miracles.
—Unlike science, religious believers “know” they have God-given inerrant truths in their holy books. Thus, religious dogmas and moral positions rarely (or very slowly) change in light of new conflicting scientific and historical knowledge. Instead, considerable energy is often spent in either willfully ignoring or attempting to discredit those scientific findings, rational inquiries and ethical advances that conflict with religious dogmas. The power of human intelligence is often dismissed or belittled in such cases. Thus, enormous ignorance regarding how our universe actually seems to work can remain hidden under cloaks of exalted and righteously guarded sacred prose.
The abuse of science
The discoveries of science and the development of associated technologies have had enormous benefits for humankind in the past few centuries. Agricultural and medical advances have exploded, markedly reducing pain and suffering and contributing to human welfare and happiness.
But in the hands of our recently evolved fallible brain and the political, social and religious institutions emerging from this brain, scientific and technological discoveries have also led to horrific nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and have dramatically accelerated our global ecological destruction.
Today, we have power structures that disregard scientific consensus and expertise in favor of ideological alliances. This abuse of power has a serious corrosive effect on the public’s trust in science. When scientific information becomes manipulated and corrupted by partisan politics and/or by corporate power and greed to achieve political, financial or religious ends, the quality and integrity of the political process inevitably suffers. “It is the failure of the public to appreciate the power of the scientific method to discover truth, and to lift the human species out of the muck that enables politicians to ignore its findings in shaping public policy.”
“What the world needs is not dogma
but an attitude of scientific inquiry”
— Bertrand Russell
Some final thoughts
Applying rational critical thought to all areas of knowledge, including formerly taboo subjects such as religion, is one hallmark of an educated mind. Being scientifically skeptical is not the same thing as being closed-minded, cynical or pessimistic. A scientific attitude helps to protect us from being seduced by superstition, prejudice, pseudoscience, quackery and error. The demand for solid evidence helps to clear the way for intellectual progress. After all, foolishness, fraud, fakery, error, wishful thinking, over-enthusiasm and delusion are very common human attributes. If we wish to live in societies that value reason, honesty, creativity, knowledge, truth and integrity—societies that are opposed to ancient, irrational and sometimes harmful superstitions and dogmas—then a scientific and rational look at these dogmas becomes essential.
Honest doubt is not a blemish upon our ability to know. The alternative to uncertainty is authority against which scientists have fought for centuries.
Inserting “God did it” answers into scientific unknowns is also bad theology. The strength of one’s faith now depends on whether or not scientists can fill this gap in our knowledge. Since scientists have been extremely successful over the last few centuries in replacing “God did it” answers with naturalistic explanations, the risk of one’s faith being undermined is quite high, as biblical literalists have been painfully discovering for centuries.
This is not to deny that in fields such as sociology, psychology and cultural anthropology, female scientists and African-American scientists have often asked quite different questions than have white male scientists and have even exposed considerable white male bias.
Some biblical passages used by believers to dismiss or denigrate rational thought: “The wisdom of the Lord can only be understood by the spiritual man. The unsaved just cannot understand these matters (Mark 9:42, I Cor. 2:13, Col. 2:8).” “Avoid the Godless mixture of contradictory notions which is falsely known as knowledge. Some have followed it and lost their faith (1 Tim. 6:20).” “Be careful that nobody spoils your faith through intellectualism or high sounding nonsense. (Col. 2:8).”