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April 22, 1997

Science Is Not a Belief System

[The lead for the two essays about religion and science in the Insight section of Mobile Register on April 13 states, "Are Science's core beliefs on a par with those of a religious faith? If not, how do they different? Do religion and science seeks to explain the same phenomena, or do they address fundamentally different aspects of life? All such puzzles arise from two questions: What is Religion? What is Science?" The Harbinger solicited Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb's response to the word "belief" to describe science.]

Q: You have laid out the scientific method in your presentation and in your essay in the Mobile Register, why do you think the editorialists at the daily still use the word "belief" to describe science? It seems you have not gotten across your point about what constitutes science.

A: When I first opened the newspaper and I read the lead on the Insight section to Richard's (Sneed) article and my article, I have to admit that I was fuming because of two reasons. One, the word "belief." We don't use that word "belief" in science; I thought I made that clear Thursday night and I thought I made that clear in the article. In science, we accept or reject based on evidence that can be independently verified; we don't believe. The other thing that bothered me is that it seems to be an assumption, an erroneous assumption, that each (religion and science) is a belief system. It seem to me that the newspaper was setting up religion as the standard against which everything has to be measured, which could have just as easily been set up that science would be the standard against which religion should be measured, or alternatively, they could have written it differently with both being equal. So it bothered me when I read that religion was being accepted as the absolute standard against which everything has to be measured. It bothered me so much that in all honesty I called the gentlemen who were involved in putting the Insight section together. I have to go on record to say that, number one, we are very appreciative to the Mobile Register to give us space in promoting the symposium and the coverage they have given to this program; it's been magnificent. Having said that, I also want to go on record that they (Register editors) said it was not their intent to write it as I have interpreted it, that their intent was, and I hope I am not doing them an injustice, their intent was to say that they were both the same and that they didn't mean to imply that one is better than the other. They were just asking a question as a lead-in to the articles. They said that they felt that question was a natural outcome of Richard Sneed's article. Well, that might be, and certainly I know the two men and I will take them at their words.

Q: But the fact of the matter is they are not the same; it's like comparing apples and oranges. Now, if educated people like them are confused about science and the distinction between religion and science, is Alabama heading for trouble in meeting the challenges of the 21st Century?

A: I think society is. You see, as I said in the discussion following Dr. Gruender's presentation last Thursday, I said to the people that you want to hear religion and science is like a bowl of cooked spaghetti where everything is intertwined, even though there may be some separate strands. And I can't say that, I can't give you what you want to hear. In the case of those exposed to fundamentalist religion: religion gets people in their first six, seven years of their lives, the most formative period of their lives and instills in them a certain mind-set. By the time we get them, we have to try to overcome belief systems and teach them how to think analytically. And it's very difficult, because they have been taught beliefs and faith are the equivalent of fact. In fact, after the first lecture of our program, I had students come up to me and tell me how they had been hurt educationally by going through the Alabama system without being taught evolution. When time came to where they have to compete against students from other regions of the country, they were ill-prepared. Yes, we face a deep problem in society. We have become more and more of a society that although we respect science and scientists, we still have adverse views of them. Just take a look at the decreasing number of Americans going into science and engineering. Many of their graduate schools have large number of international students. I don't mean to say it in a prejudiced way, I am reporting it as a fact. Are not a growing number of faculty in engineering and science coming from outside the United States who came here to purse academic studies, because Americans are not going into science and engineering?

Q: Now, in the case of the biology textbook in the State of Alabama, where there is this silly insert. If a major newspaper in Alabama is still confused about what is science versus what is religion, is there any hope that the issue of the silly disclaimer about evolution science could ever be properly addressed?

A: I am of the opinion that the insert situation would remain unchanged until the next curriculum review, which comes about once every six years. We are in about the second year, so we are about four years away. Unless there is some sort of vote in the State Board of Education and they initiate action, I don't see anything happening. I don't see any groundswell from within the populace that demands this kind of change. If anything, in the State of Alabama, which is primarily dominated by fundamentalist-type thinking, I don't think you will see that type of spontaneous development like what happened in California, where the creationists had taken over their school board and started to put in creationist literature into the curriculum. The public became incensed and had a recall of the school board members who were originally elected because of their "stealth" candidacy. The people threw them out and redid the curriculum because they realized how bad it was for the education of their children.

Q: Despite the lead-in to your articles in the Mobile Register, do you think you have made a small dent in public's understanding of the scientific method and what constitutes science with your presentation and articles? And what is religion and why it is not science?

A: In communication it's very difficult, because people will filter what is said through their own experiences, through their own likes and dislikes, and alter what's actually being said. For those who have heard me and for those who read my essays, perhaps I made a dent. I hope I have, because if people come in with set belief systems, you cannot even begin to reason with them to dispel their beliefs


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