Field of Science

We Need to Work Much Much Harder

I recently spent some time with family very dear to me that I had not seen in many years (contradictory yes, reality sucks). It was wonderful to catch up, meet new cousins, and have them meet my son. It was also socially educational as many members of my family and I lie on different spots of the political spectrum, with me lying solidly in the progressive liberal side of spectrum well to the left of the democrats and them lying much further to the right somewhere between the republican and tea party depending on specific issue.

Actually that's not completely true, through a number of discussions we had, mostly not initiated by me, I think we have much more in common than not regarding specific issues. This includes even the more contentious issues. However, their viewpoint clearly originates and is framed by a right wing perspective, much like mine originates and is framed from a left wing perspective.

That being said I was glad to be able to talk to and hear what people, whom I care about, think about a number of issues important to them and to me. These discussion lacked any real debate and both sides were cognizant, I think, of each others feelings and strived to communicate clearly without being aggressive. Based on these albeit too brief interactions, I have a few posts I am planning that address some of these interactions, although I will not necessarily mention my family in them but try to introduce thoughts I heard more subtly.

Here, I simply want to bring up one thought that was mentioned in passing that I think reflects a tremendous problem scientists and science enthusiasts need to start dealing with yesterday.

"Some scientists are just trying to disprove god."
(Not an actual quote, a paraphrase.)

This one thought, which was simply stated in passing, concerns me greatly. First, the fact that it was easily stated in passing suggests to me that the idea is so entrenched and obvious (to the stater) that it doesn't justify defending or supporting. Second, science is fundamentally misunderstood. Third, what scientists do is not at all clear to people at large.

I want to be clear here, I am concerned about the scientists, the science enthusiasts, and anyone remotely interested in determining the truth and I am concerned with what we should be doing. I am not concerned with the general public, they are a victim of FOX propaganda and a massive misinformation campaign that is easily available on the internet.

From that one statement (above in blue), which almost caused another bout of seizures, it became painstakingly obvious how much work we need to do. This thought came from a caring hard working family man who I think represents almost (no one is perfect) everything good about humanity. So I am going to go out on a limb and say that this idea is not some odd minority opinion, but a reasonable representative of a vast majority of Americans. I feel comfortable in this conclusion based on the number of Americans who attest to believing in a ~6,000 year old creation plus those who believe in a slightly more refined, older, creationism.

So here are my responses to the three concerns I raised above.
1st, the fact that this was stated so easily without concern for a justification or defense. We need to do more! Anyone interested in science or approaches to define reality need to do more! We need to directly and forcibly call out supporters of pseudoscience and those who are wrong. If it is a public figure, this needs to be done loudly strongly and without remorse. If this is a friend or family member, this needs to be done with more sensitivity, but it still needs to be done. I think the forces opposing good science get a free pass by publicly calling into question climate change and at the same time requiring a measured response. This is gaming the system (FYI Fuck you Scott Walker!).

2nd, science is fundamentally misunderstood. Science is about understanding the universe, it's about understanding ourselves. Hell, it's even about understanding our place in the universe. What science is not is showing that specific religious tenets are wrong. The problem lies in that all religions make specific claims about the reality of the universe and sometimes science clearly demonstrates that these claims are wrong. It is not that scientists set out to show these claims are wrong, but that their work ended up showing these claims are wrong. (I will allow that there may be some scientists who have an underlying agenda to clearly demonstrate that Islam, or other religion, is wrong but this is not what science is. When your religion makes definitive statements about the universe, it was created 6000 years ago, it was created yesterday, the world is flat, the world is a dodecahedron, humans are not animals, humans are not related to animals, then you are subject to having science show you are wrong. That may be unfortunate, but that's the fault of your religion making statements about the reality of the universe, not the fault of science.

3rd, it's not clear what scientists do. I will speak for all scientists here, someone can correct me if I'm wrong (I'm not). Scientists do not care if your religious tenets are right or wrong. The problem is that as we ask questions about the universe, like why do people get sick and die, we learn things that contradict certain religious doctrines. While things might have been different in the 1600's, no scientist is going to get the resources to show that the earth is not 6000 years old. You might get resources to address specific aspects of science that lead to the understanding that the earth is 4.7 billion years old, but if your goal is to show that the earth is 6000 years old you'll probably fail. Kind of like if you want to get money to show that π is actually equal to 3, you won't get funding (because things like mortars only work if π=3.14.... regardless of personal interpretations of the bible).

So the short response to issue #3 is that scientists are trying to learn more about the universe, whether that is how planets form, how microbes cause disease, how economics affected German policies leading to WWII, etc. We don't have time nor the interest in showing that your personal belief in the afterlife may or may not be true. Surprisingly (to me) this is something we have to fix, unfortunately this is something we need now, since we didn't fix it in 1974.


John Seal said...

While I agree it would be beneficial to unambiguously call out supporters of pseudoscience and those who take advantage of the public’s scientific ignorance, I expect there to continue to be nothing done about those scam artists. Combating ignorance costs real money, and without money spent to oppose the charlatans nothing will change.

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Kaleberg said...

Religion is about talking to God. Science is about listening to what God says. It's sometimes hard to reconcile the two.