Another Defense of Science

I was taking a break the other day and following some fun Twitter links to a story about Eddie Izzard’s marathon of marathons, which is a really cool and inspiring story.  (Sorry, I don’t remember who tweeted it first!) This is just days after I watched “Circle” again, and nearly spilled my wine laughing at the bit where Jesus realizes that the Last Supper promotes vampirism and cannibalism… (starts at 5:20)

Anyway, I then got distracted by a link on the side about Dan Brown and his views on science and religion. (Scroll down a bit. Yup, there it is.)  To be honest, I’ve never read his books, although I’ve seen some people get their knickers in a knot over his interpretation of religious stories.  But this blurb says that he “is sceptical about both” religion and science.  This quote from Brown follows:

I was raised Episcopalian, and I was very religious as a kid. Then, in eighth or ninth grade, I studied astronomy, cosmology, and the origins of the universe. I remember saying to a minister, ‘I don’t get it. I read a book that said there was an explosion known as the Big Bang, but here it says God created heaven and Earth and the animals in seven days. Which is right?’ Unfortunately, the response I got was, “Nice boys don’t ask that question.’ A light went off, and I said, ‘The Bible doesn’t make sense. Science makes much more sense to me.’ And I just gravitated away from religion …The irony is that I’ve really come full circle. The more science I studied, the more I saw that physics becomes metaphysics and numbers become imaginary numbers. The farther you go into science, the mushier the ground gets. You start to say, ‘Oh, there is an order and a spiritual aspect to science.’

I’m not quite sure what physics Brown was studying, but I’m pretty sure my undergraduate classes did not at some point switch to metaphysics.  Science is more of a process than a body of knowledge.  There is nothing mushy about the rigorous standards of evidence that every study must be held up to before becoming part of our working explanation of the universe.

If you delve too quickly into the cutting edge of theoretical physics, without understanding the scientific method first, science may seem like a whole lot of fantastical and “mushy” claims.  Quantum mechanics tells us that the fundamental nature of reality is probabilistic.  Relativity makes space and time malleable.  Dark energy is supposed to make up most of the energy budget of the universe, but we’re still scratching our heads over what it even is!  Although one can come up with philosophical ruminations on what this all means on a metaphysical, personal, or moral scale, that is stretching beyond science itself.

I don’t understand how one can be skeptical of science.  It is, by definition, one of the most skeptical exercises out there.  That is not to say that all scientists are skeptical, or that our discussions of reality should begin and end with science.  However, to assign to it a sort of mysticism is to talk about something that is not science at all.  Maybe it is just an admittance of where one’s understanding of science ends.

Oh, and here’s another explanation…


4 comments for “Another Defense of Science

  1. September 18, 2009 at 08:48

    I would only add that not only are the claims on the frontier sort of fantastical and “mushy” to the layperson, but the scientific frontier is also characterized by some degree of debate. On bleeding edge issues in science, there is often a difference of opinion amongst scientists about what the facts and data tell us. This may seem mushy to the outside observer. But underneath it all, none of the (credentialed professional) scientists disagree about the method of inquiry and ultimately, as soon as enough evidence is collected, the controversy will disappear and a consensus will arise.

    Also, Hi Nicole! 🙂

    • September 18, 2009 at 11:33

      HI Mike! 🙂 How was NECSS?

      You have a good point, science gets “mushy” when we get to the end of our understanding because of debate. There may be many hypotheses, not much evidence, and lots of arguments and interpretations. The example that I’m most familiar with is dark energy, because the best we can say is “it’s something that makes the expansion of the universe accelerate.” Is it actually energy? Is it vacuum energy? A cosmological constant? Something weirder? But yes, scientists to agree on the method of finding that out, though it’s hardly metaphysical, as Brown seems to claim.

    • September 27, 2009 at 15:02

      Okay, so I’ve read that post a few time, but without your comment on this, I’m not sure what you are getting at by posting that link. I think it’s important to point out examples of the misunderstandings of science in a effort to generally educate about how science works. Just my opinion from the trenches, so to speak.

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