Wednesday, January 23, 2008

They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Cyclotron

Actually, this time my fellow atheists are making me laugh. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s an improvement.

Recently I thought I’d noticed an upsurge, on atheist / science sites, in protests that Science doesn’t offer certainty. No indeed, Science is humble and modest in its claims, and self-correcting too. When it makes a mistake, it admits it. Science doesn’t deal in proof, its findings are tentative. And so on; you know how it goes. Not wanting merely to gesture at unnamed culprits, or to pick excessively on just one person, I did a Google search to try to find some of the stuff I’d read. I found lots of goodies, including this bit from the biologist and atheist PZ Myers’s Pharyngula blog:
This is not about proof. Science does not use proof. We favor evidence, and the work consists largely of the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable. What we have on the atheist side is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the sufficiency of natural processes in generating phenomena that were once considered "obviously" the handiwork of a god — the steady decline of the relevance and support for the god hypothesis. At the same time, we see theologians like McGrath and pseudoscientists like those of the Discovery Institute trying to support their god/designer hypothesis with handwaving, sloppy logic, mangled evidence, and bald-faced assertions of unquestionable premises. Our side is growing in strength and has a solid foundation, theirs is a shambles. That's why scientific thinking will favor atheism.

Part of this is true enough. But something tickled my funny bone: Myers refers to “a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the sufficiency of natural processes…”. The verb demonstrate has several meanings, but as Myers uses it here, it means prove. He's a bit disingenuous about "proof" anyway -- one can prove a conclusion, as Webster reminds us, "by reasoning or evidence." Not just by "magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable."

Myers is also a bit disingenuous about the history of science. Notice how he carelessly (or maybe not so carelessly) moves from “science” to “atheism”, as though the two were equivalent. I don’t think that Newton, Faraday, and other devoutly religious scientists thought they were trying to demonstrate the sufficiency of natural processes in order to rule out “the god hypothesis.” Next, his reference to “the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable” represents science as relying solely on induction as opposed to deduction. This is controversial, to put it gently. Much science works the other way around: a fellow like Einstein or Hawking or Newton works out some equations with implications for the real world, and then waits for experiments to back up his theory with evidence. As Paul Feyerabend, the scourge of scientism (but a physicist by training) pointed out (The conquest of abundance: a tale of abstraction versus the richness of being, University of Chicago Press, 1999, p 244):

Darwin's theory conflicted with the fact that life seemed to start in post-Cambrian times. Leading professionals, Murchison among them, inferred some form of creation. Darwin persisted: life did start earlier, but its traces had not yet been found.

Einstein's theory of special relativity clashed with evidence produced only one year after its publication. Lorentz, Poincare, and Ehrenfest withdrew to a more classical postion. Einstein persisted: his theory, he said, had a wonderful symmetry and should be retained. He gently mocked the widespread urge for a "verification by little effects."

Schrodinger's first wave equation was adapted to the most recent view on space and time (it was "relativistically invariant") but led to incorrect predictions. This is a very interesting situation: the "better" theory fails, the "inferior" theory succeeds.

Newton's mechanics could not account for the stability of the planetary system. Newton himself thought that God periodically put the heavenly machine in order. It took about 150 years until a reasonable solution was found -- only to be proved impossible a few decades later. Still, scientists did not despair. They chose a new approach which so far seems to do the trick.

Now look at this excerpt from an encounter – I won’t call it a “debate” – between the Rev. Dr. Richard Dawkins and Ted Haggard, as reported by the pseudonymous Richard Dalton, in South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating, ed. by Richard Hanley (Chicago: Open Court, 2007), p. 43:

But once Haggard began rehearsing the slogans of Intelligent Design theory – that “American evangelicals fully embrace the scientific method” and “think as time goes along as we discover more and more facts then we’ll learn more and more about how God created the heavens and the earth…” – Dawkins could stomach no more.

“Scientific method clearly demonstrates that the world is four and a half billion years old,” he interrupted. “Would you accept that?”

Oops: “demonstrates” again. I don’t see much tentativeness there, do you? Scientific method said it, I believe it, that settles it! The odd thing is that, as I understand it, at least some Intelligent Design advocates do accept an old earth, as do some Creationists. Haggard doesn’t even pretend to be a scientist; he’s as much of an authority on ID as, say, a liberal Episcopalian minister would be on Darwin. Not that I have any sympathy for Haggard, but I do find it interesting that a dedicated atheist and rationalist like Dalton would be so impressed by Dawkins’s performance here. Scientists and their fans have their slogans too; Myers provides some familiar examples.

I’ve been reading popular science writing for most of my life, and I can’t remember seeing a lot of disclaimers in it about the limitations of science and scientific knowledge. It’s mainly the scientific critics of scientific overconfidence, people like Anne Fausto-Sterling or Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Lewontin, who point out those limitations, and they get trashed for being anti-science.

In principle, religious believers are supposed to be humble and modest too, recognizing their limits as finite human beings, sinners bound by the flesh, etc. In practice, scientists and religionists seem to stress their humble humanity only defensively, when someone calls them on their self-aggrandizement. James Barr has pointed out that despite their claim to recognize human sinfulness, fundamentalists are much given to the cult of personality, following their human pastors blindly and refusing to admit their fallibility. The history of religion doesn’t inspire absolute confidence in its truth claims, any more than the history of science does. But in both cases, the humble believer can transcend his or her human limitations by association with something bigger and wiser.

This is not to say that science is no different from religion. What I’m objecting to here is the misrepresentation of science by its self-styled defenders, many of whom are as ignorant as their religious (and non-religious) opponents, or who, like Myers, know so much that ain’t so. Scientists feel embattled, even besieged, nowadays, and not without reason: their authority, their claims to lofty disinterest, are indeed under attack from various sides. Worse, American scientists became dreadfully spoiled during the Cold War, when they could get virtually unlimited funding for any project they could pitch as a barricade against the Russkies. That arrangement came tumbling down with the Berlin Wall; the symbolic counterpart for American science was the funding cutoff for the Texas Superconducting Super Collider in 1993 after it overran its budget by about three hundred percent. A year later, the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson fumed, “Multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism.”

I don't see any reason why scientists shouldn't want proof and certainty; that some of them pretend otherwise is what makes me uneasy. Rather, I believe that scientists, like religionists, must be kept on a tight leash.