Thursday, May 19, 2005

Science Does Require Faith

In response to thx's comment:  Oh, I agree, science does require faith.  The difference between scientific dogma and religious dogma is that scientific dogma changes faster.  They both change, I realize; even the Catholic Church updates its dogma every millennium or so.  Scientists do it at least once per century, sometimes once per decade.  Not only that, but the methodology is different: scientists use peer review, whereas churches rely on a council of elders.  I suppose some may argue that dogma that is expected to change every few years is fundamentally different that dogma that is not expected to change, and changes only rarely.  But either way, it still is dogma, in the sense that ultimate proof is not possible.  Scientists, however, do not insist on absolute proof; they are happy with what I call the umpire's truth.

In professional (American) football, a player is out of bounds the moment any part of the body, or the equipment covering the body, touches or crosses the white boundary line.  Now lets say that a player jumps in the air, catches a pass, then comes down near the line.  Now let's say that there is one blade of grass with chalk on it, bent inward toward the playing area.  Let's say that, after catching the pass, the tip of a shoelace touches the tip of the blade of grass.  Technically, that player landed out of bounds, and the pass is no good.

To prevent this, we could use radiolabeled calcium in the chalk on the boundary lines, then have the player remove his shoes and use a germanium-lithium (GeLi) detector to check for isotopes of calcium on the shoelaces.  There would be all kinds of practical problems with this, including the need to decontaminate the field and all the players after every play.  We could guarantee that every play is called correctly.  Of course, nobody would pay money to watch a game like that, because it would take several years.  So in exchange for a game that actually is playable, the fans and teams live with a small degree of uncertainty.  The game is played as though the calls are correct, even if absolute proof is not possible. 

Scientists go about their business as though certain tenets are true, even if the proof is not absolute.  They try to keep an open mind, and if contrary evidence comes a long, they take a look at it.  That is like the umpire checking an instant replay every once in a while.  A few challenged calls in a game is acceptable.  If every single call gets challenged, that merely annoys people and accomplishes nothing.  Lack of absolute certainty is accepted, because it is the only practical way to get the job done. 

So, another difference between scientific dogma and religious dogma is that scientists can accept, with casual indifference, the fact that there are weaknesses in their theories.  They expect the theories to be modified over time.  For example, in psychiatry, we use the DSM-IV as a standard reference.  But the very day after DSM-IV was published, committees started working on a revised version.  Once that (DSM-IV-TR) was published, they started work on DSM-V.  They also started working on policies to guide future revisions.  There have been different versions of the Christian Bible, but as far as as I know, they don't start working on a revised version the moment a new edition is published. 

There is a precedent in society for the dismissal of absolute proof in the service of pragmatism.  In law, the standard of proof in a murder case is "beyond a reasonable doubt."  Even in capital crimes, we do not insist on absolute proof, despite the fact that it may be a life-or-death matter. 

I could amend what I said about ID having no place in science class; however, I do not think it has a place in an introductory class, such as in high school.  All areas of inquiry have controversies; biological science is hardly unique in that respect.  But you don't teach all the controversies to high school kids. They need a foundation in the majority view first, just to get an orientation to the field.  If they decide to go on, then they learn about the controversies.  This typically starts in the sophomore or junior year of college.  For example, you have to learn Newtonian physics first, before you have any hope of understanding why it is all wrong.    You have to learn the "standard" history of the attack on Pearl Harbor, before you can understand the controversies about that.  You have to learn the old way of playing jazz, before you can do meaningful improvisation on your own. 

To illustrate, here is part of an online syllabus for Psychology 281 at Vance-Granville Community College.  There's nothing special about it, I just remember having run across it recently while looking for something else:
Read ch 4
Answer in an email to me the following question:
1)     The DSM IV is generally effective, but there are fundamental limitations with any diagnostic system.  What problems or issues can you think of that are associated with the use of any classification system and diagnostic process?  Think beyond the textbook...
Presumably, those students already have had an introduction to the basic concepts of diagnosis.  Once they understand that, then they are ready to understand the weaknesses of the mainstream model. 

I suspect that there are few Sunday School teachers who tell their students, on the first day of Bible instruction, that there are different versions of scripture, and different translations, and that different religions have chosen to include some ancient writings, but not others, in their respective holy texts.  Nobody is keeping those things secret, nor is anybody rejecting the truth, but everybody knows that students have to be introduced to complex topics gradually.

So perhaps I should not have said that ID has no place in science class.  There would be nothing wrong with teaching it in a 200+ level college course.  I suspect that is not going to happen on a secular campus anytime soon, because of the unpleasant way the controversy has developed.  The majority of scientists are so suspicious of the motives of ID proponents, that they probably would not want to acknowledge it at all.  That is unfortunate for those who are truly sincere and just want to understand the controversy.  But from the perspective of a college professor, they have a responsibility to portray their field of expertise in a way that reflects what is really going on in the field.  If they learn that something they are teaching is routinely misunderstood, they have to think hard about whether to keep teaching it -- even if what they are teaching is accurate.

The way this has played out, is that the most passionate ID proponents have tried to say that their advocacy on this issue has nothing to do with religion.  If that is true, then why pick this particular topic?  Why not hold hearings on whether to teach the controversies of quantum mechanics, or the controversy over the propriety of the split infinitive?  To a traditional scientist, the insistence that ID has nothing to do with religion seems like -- there is no polite way to say it -- a lie.  Then to hear people who claim to have the moral high ground, try to justify their activism with what appears to be a lie, well, that is going to irritate people.  Rather badly, in some cases.*  The scientist experiences the constant challenges from ID proponents the way football players would feel if every single play were challenged by the other team.  After a while, it no longer seems sincere; it just seems annoying.

I have noticed that the most vocal proponents of ID get all the attention, and frankly I doubt their sincerity.  But I also have learned that there are many people who just want to understand what all the fuss is about.  They don't have any political agenda; their curiosity is a health expression of the human desire for knowledge.  I would like to encourage that, not discourage it.  But if I'm an instructor, and I try to present a minority view on something, yet somehow a lot of the students take the minority view as having equal footing with the majority view, then I have to decide whether to keep teaching it.  If others take that and try to employ it for political purposes, then I'm pretty sure I will stop teaching it.  If people start challenging me every time I enter the classroom, I'll go somewhere else to teach, or go sell used cars or something.

The view of most scientists is reflected in a recent editorial in the journal Nature.
[...] many of the students taught in introductory biology classes hold religious beliefs that conflict, at least on the face of things, with Darwin's framework. Professors rarely address the conflicts between faith and science in lectures, and students are drawn to intelligent design as a way of reconciling their beliefs with their interest in science. In doing so, they are helping it to gain a small, but firm, foothold on campuses around the country. [...]
The authors suggest that scientists should not ignore ID, although they stop short of recommending that ID be taught in science classes. 
Scientists would do better to offer some constructive thoughts of their own. For religious scientists, this may involve taking the time to talk to students about how they personally reconcile their beliefs with their research. Secular researchers should talk to others in order to understand how faiths have come to terms with science. All scientists whose classes are faced with such concerns should familiarize themselves with some basic arguments as to why evolution, cosmology and geology are not competing with religion. When they walk into the lecture hall, they should be prepared to talk about what science can and cannot do, and how it fits in with different religious beliefs.
In order for such discussions to take place with a reasonable degree of civility, it is necessary to tone down the rhetoric and for participants to address each other with respect.  I am hopeful that we can do this, even if only in a remote corner of the Blogosphere. 

*There is a controversy about whether it is ever proper to write a sentence with no verb.  I take the minority view on that one.

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I agree that a lot of ID proponents (and a lot of Christians in general) are promoting their beliefs in obnoxious ways. I also agree that it seems devious to suggest that one is promoting ID with no religious motivation, but those who are doing this may be trying to emphasize their view that ID can stand on its own scientifically.

It’s probably not possible to calculate the probabilities of the following analogy accurately, but it might help in understanding where ID is coming from, and it’s slightly different than the Yatzee analogy. I heard this in church many years before the term ID came into vogue:

The probability that the universe (and life on earth) was created by chance is lower than the probability that one could create a wristwatch by rotating a shovel full of mud in clothes dryer for x billion (I can’t really remember…19 billion?) years.

There are many other such analogies that have been calculated and proposed by creationists. I’m sure that you can refute either the analogy or the calculation; I’m just presenting it so you can see an early example of how they’re thinking.

I like the idea of discussing “integration” of faith and science in the classroom. ID would probably come up and be gone over very well, even if it wasn’t on the syllabus.
As I think about it, there are times when it’s inappropriate to challenge orthodoxy, whether religious or scientific, but it has to be done in a sensitive way because it’s always potentially threatening and emotionally charged. Academia seems to be more open to these challenges, because it’s structured to respectfully hear and discuss even dissenting ideas. Since ID/creationism is a cultural component or a building block of many people’s worldviews, and since it’s such a controversial topic of current events, it seems as if it merits at least some discussion. Totally avoiding it in the classroom (even in grade school) seems like ignoring the pink elephant in the room. In fact, since primary grades are most affected by the legal maneuverings being employed to include ID in their curriculums, a meta discussion of the topic there seems very appropriate.

It’s interesting to see some of the variety of the ID discussion on the web; as I mentioned before, I have a Christian friend at http://www.virusdoc.net/ who feels much the same way as you the subject. On the other hand, http://pharyngula.org/ seems mean spirited, if not downright mean toward anything or anyone who is religiously or politically conservative.

I wonder why I haven’t taken the time to find out if there are any bloggers who agree with me on this…too boring and no chance for a good argument, I guess.
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