Religion & Science
April 8, 1997
[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt of Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb's presentation at the Harbinger symposium, "RELIGION & SCIENCE - the Best of Enemies, the Worst of Friends," on April 3.]
by Sheldon Gottlieb
Before I begin my presentation I must ask you for a favor. I will ask of you the same thing I ask of my students. Please listen carefully to what I say and please listen very carefully to what I do not say.
Let me start by telling you a story. Last September my wife and I toured the Canadian Yukon and Alaska as a 40th wedding anniversary gift to ourselves. In Alaska, at a trading store where my wife was purchasing some souvenirs for the children and grandchildren, I met a young man who is a science teacher during the academic year at a local denominational senior high school and who doubles as a store clerk during the summer. He was excited to learn that I was both a professional research scientist and an educator. We spoke for awhile and then discussed the teaching of controversial subjects such as evolution.
Suddenly, in response to one of my questions, he made a statement that sent shivers up my spine and left me to despair about the quality of science education those students in the far north were being exposed to. He said: "After all, you do have to admit that facts are only as good as the theory on which they are based." Even after I tried to explain to him that he had it backwords, he, a science teacher, failed to grasp one of the most fundamental aspects of the working of science: scientific theories are derived from facts and not the other way around.
I turned his erroneous statement about the relationship between fact and theory into a true-false exam question for my Biology 101 students: 48% of the students this past quarter got it wrong. They got it wrong even after we had a detailed discussion of what science is and a detailed discussion of the double meaning of the word theory. And I thought I had given the students a gift question.
I am of the opinion that the response of the young Alaskan and my students is an excellent example of individuals denying the basis of science. I am also of the opinion that this denial of the basis of science is primarily due to previous indoctrination and training in religion, especially fundamentalist religion. Only secondarily is it due to lack of studying.
I will return to this subject and explain to you why I am of the opinion that what the young man in Alaska said to me and why the wrong answers of my students constitute primarily a religion response to a non-religious, scientific matter.
Unfortunately, too many of my students, even too many of the adults with whom I come in contact, think they know what science is. However, inevitably, upon further discussion it quickly becomes apparent to me that neither my students nor the people with whom I speak can define science. At best they can only give me a partial answer.
As a modern society, we must be concerned with quality education. As tax payers, we must be concerned with getting the most out of our hard-earned tax dollars. Therefore, as a modern society, we must be aware that there are sub- cultures that have a stake in promoting misunderstanding of relationship between the terms fact and theory, religion and science, and faith and fact.
In fact, the existence in society of the confusion between religion and science and the tension derived from the misunderstanding concerning religion and science, was the underlying motive behind developing this program, of which tonight is the first in the series of lectures.
These same sub-cultures also have a stake in creating confusion in the minds of the public concerning the definition just of the word theory. I will return to the double meaning of the word theory in my formal presentation.
Also, the supporters of these sub-cultures unconscionably try to further their aims by attempting to make the term science pertain only to themselves and their ideology and, thereby, trying to provide a legitimate basis to their non-scientific aims while at the same time they are trying to undermine the essence of what science is.
Also, unfortunately, because of a relative lack of knowledge about science on the part of the public, these sub-cultures are capable of deliberately creating great distortions in information which, in turn, leads to unnecessary sociopolitical havoc, educational turmoil, and the unnecessary excessive expenditures of scarce tax dollars on frivolous, non-educational matters.
For example, think of the convulsions that occur in the State of Alabama every six years when the time comes to reevaluate not just the science curriculum but specifically the biology curriculum and the textbooks with which to implement it. Just think back at the rancor that existed within the past two years in Alabama over the choice of biology textbooks for the public schools. Think of the intense, world-wide ridicule that was heaped upon Alabama when the State Board of Education passed the inane requirement for a ridiculous insert.
And, unfortunately, the antics of Governor Fob James with respect to this issue only served to bring further ignominy upon our state. Can you picture the governor of a state walking across the room while imitating an ape when the resolution was passed and having his performance televised around the world?
By adopting the word science to try to lend support to their false arguments and by preying on the public's lack of knowledge about the workings of science, the leaders of these sub-cultures successfully have denied the essence of what science is within their own sub-cultures. For years, they have been trying to do the same in the larger culture.
Equally unfortunate for our society, these exists many people who, either because of their religious fervor and/or their lack of knowledge about science either do not understand or choose NOT to understand the elementary relationships between fact and theory, fact and faith, and science and religion. These are issues which I will deal with in my presentation.
Let me tell you about an incident that occurred in my Biology 101 class just about a year ago, that underscores the misunderstanding between religion and science, belief or faith and fact. One male student spoke out saying: "That which I believe has more validity than any scientific fact." Another student, sitting next to him, assented, as did quite a number of other students.
One cannot help but wonder why these students are going to a university, since all they have to do is to believe and they then would possess perfect knowledge. Yet, the blatant misunderstanding of faith and fact as expressed by these individuals is one that is all too prevalent in my classes and in the larger society. The fact is that these students have faith but that which they have faith in is not necessarily fact.
What is science? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines science as "the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena." That is quite a mouthful. As we proceed, I will break down the definition into its component parts. Before I do, permit me to first point out to you that I consider this pretty good definition to be deficient in two respects.
This first deficiency is that this statement does not specifically say who is making the observations, the identification, the describing, investigating, and providing the theoretical explanations.
It happens to be one or more humans who are doing the observing, the identification, the describing, the investigating, and the explaining. Therefore, underlying this dictionary definition is a very important concept, i.e., science is an intellectual activity carried out by humans to understand the structure and functions of the world in which they live.
The intellectual activity called science stems primarily from the human desire to satisfy the innate curiosity of the human animal. It stems from a desire to overcome ignorance and to overcome fear. Some of the fear comes from the ignorance.
Secondarily, science stems from the all too human wish to satisfy human needs. Satisfying needs provides greater creature comforts for humans -- food, shelter, protection from the elements. Thirdly, science was and still is being used to satisfy material wants. Wants and needs are not the same.
Science is an intellectual activity carried on by humans that is designed to discover information about the natural world in which humans live and to discover the ways in which this information can be organized into meaningful patterns. A primary aim of science is to collect facts (data). An ultimate purpose of science is to discern the order that exists between and amongst the various facts.
Science is an intellectual human activity that is concerned with integrating and coordinating, in a systematic way, new information with an existing and ever expanding reservoir of information. This integrating gives a more complete description and explanation of the natural world in which humans live. This increasing fund of information available to scientists and society is supplied from many different fields of exploration.
This brings us to the second deficiency in that dictionary definition of science, which is the absence of an overt mention of organizing the information into meaningful patterns.
When scientists integrate information they are successfully creating more complex patterns of relationships between and amongst the various pieces of information, they are establishing higher degrees of order of knowledge. The higher degrees of relationships, in many cases, actually simplifies understanding the knowledge base by making it easier to understand seemingly unconnected pieces of information. These higher orders of relationships are called theories, principles, and laws.
As a result of the intellectual activities associated with science, we conclude that science is also a way of obtaining objective knowledge. Science is a way of seeking principles of order in the universe. Thus, science becomes a way of objectively knowing about the physical, chemical, and biological worlds in which humans live and the myriad interrelationships. The result of the organized, intellectual activities called science is the obtaining, by humans, of an intelligible picture of the natural world in which they live.
The intellectual activities of scientists, people who do science, when not perverted by politicians, enhances the human condition. Science helps lift humanity from the nadir of ignorance, fear, and superstition and helps to transform human beings into more rational individuals capable of exerting their inherent free will to a maximum.
For scientists to succeed in their endeavors, it is necessary for this intellectual human activity to be associated with learning how to identify problems. Science is associated with learning how to break problems down into smaller, manageable components that lend themselves to solution.
Thus, science also may be considered a human intellectual activity that is concerned with learning how to solve problems. In solving certain problems, scientists obtain facts about the structure and functioning of the natural world.
Science, as an intellectual activity, encompasses observations about the natural world that can be measured and quantified, and the ideas based thereon can be tested, verified, falsified, or modified.
Quantification, the use of measurements and mathematics, provides the precision and helps prevent vagueness. Along with measurements and mathematics, scientists also use probability theory. Scientists, when speaking about scientific finding, do not speak in absolutes as is done in the name of religion.
With respect to solving problems, scientists use a method of operation commonly referred to as the scientific method. However, before we look at the scientific method we first have to step back and review the assumptions on which the superstructure of science is built.
One aspect that religion and science have in common is that they both are built on underlying assumptions, albeit they are different ones, i.e., each discipline has its own set of assumptions. Not only do religion and science rest on differing underlying assumptions, only one -- science -- goes about rationally testing its assumptions.
Religion, in the western world, is a belief system that is based on one primary assumption, that there is a God who is endowed with certain powers. These powers are those that humans impart to an idealized person. However, there is no way of testing the truth of that assumption. There is no way of testing the deductions that are made from that one assumption. The underlying assumption on which religion is based involves not the real world but a made-up artificial world we refer to as the supernatural.
Science has little-to-nothing to say about the supernatural, since the supernatural can neither be measured, quantified, tested, verified, nor falsified. Although science may have nothing to say about a supernatural being, it does have a lot to say about some of the concepts that are put forth in the name of the supernatural (for example, the soul). Unfortunately, this is a subject that we will have to save for another day.
(Inevitably, whenever I mention that science rests on assumptions, I get questioning looks of disbelief. Those looks seem to be asking: isn't science supposed to be factual? Yes, science attempts to be as factual as possible.)
Let us now examine the assumptions that underlie science. There are at least three basic interrelated assumptions:
1. Oginsky and Umbreit, in their classic textbook on bacterial physiology, stated the first assumption very succinctly -- The unknown is knowable and we are capable of knowing the unknown.
2. The second assumption is that there is order in nature.
3. The third assumption is that the collective human intellect is capable of discovering this order. Underlying this third assumption is that the human senses can observe accurately and that the human intellect and judgment -- the higher functions of the brain -- can deal with the observations and discover their order by progressing from fact to fact through a process called reason. In other words, the collective human intellect can deal with these facts and by integrating and coordinating them into coherent patterns.
In science, it is insufficient to just state these assumptions. These assumptions, taken on faith, must be validated. Thus the question is raised: how do we verify the assumptions of science?
Let me point out to you that because there are underlying assumptions in science, religionists have tried to force the idea that science is just another belief system and that one could therefore choose between belief systems.
Well, science is not a belief system. (1) Science is an activity. (2) In science the underlying assumptions are tested and retested. Such validating activities are not found in belief systems.
This brings me to the next point before I can tell you about how we validate assumptions in science. I must point out that religion, too, is based on assumptions taken on faith. And, as I just alluded to, it is in the validating procedures that we find one of the important differences between the faith of scientists and the faith of religionists.
Validating the assumptions of science is done through experience based on a certain methodology. It is the continued successes of our experiences based on the specific methodology that is the basis of the validation process. In science, scientists look for violations of the assumptions. Scientists even set up experiments to find violations.
Since prolonged experiences involving measuring and testing and remeasuring and retesting have indicated no such violations, scientists have concluded, at least until evidence to the contrary is generated, that the assumptions underlying science are valid. The continued testing of its assumptions and the retesting of its ideas lead to science being a self-correcting and honest, intellectual activity. Science is perhaps the most honest intellectual activity the world has ever seen. As far as the history of humanity is concerned, science is far more honest than virtually any phase of religion.
As I said, it is in the validation of assumptions that one finds a major difference between science and religion. In contrast to science, religion is not self-correcting, it does not continuously and carefully test and retest its underlying assumptions.
As a modern society we must be aware that the testing of assumptions is anathema to religion. Religion could not tolerate learning that its assumptions are invalid: that its assumptions are wrong. Therefore, religion as a discipline does not involve self-correction.
There are at least three additional assumptions that accompany the first three assumptions: (unknown is knowable and we can know the unknown; there is order in nature; and we can discover the order). These are: causality, uniformity in time and space, and common perception.
Let us spend a few minutes looking at each of these:
Permit me to introduce the subject of causality with an example. In ancient Greece seizures associated with grand mal epilepsy were considered to be a visitation of the gods. This visitation could be viewed favorably or unfavorably. Thus, the ancient Greeks called epilepsy the "sacred disease." Yet, even in ancient Greece not all physicians accepted this religious view of epilepsy. One physician wrote: "It seems to me that this disease called sacred has a cause, just as other diseases have. Men think it divine because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine that they do not understand, there would be no end of divine things....In nature all things are alike in that they can be traced to preceding causes." His last statement is the essence of causality: In nature all events can be traced back to preceding causes. There is no interruption between cause and effect.
The mechanisms of natural phenomena such as night and day, wind, ocean tides, lightening, earthquakes, volcanoes, infectious diseases, and even getting pregnant were not understood by ancient humans. Thus, it was easy for the ancients to answer their question concerning natural phenomena by considering natural phenomena to be associated with the activities of different gods.
These evolutionary developments in religious thoughts brings to fore an important insight into the origins and workings of religion, i.e., that the origins of religion are somewhat similar to those of science, namely the origin of religion is steeped in ignorance, fear, and superstition.
Like science, religion also tries to deal with ignorance and fear. However, the way religion goes about understanding the world is different from that of science. Religion deals with ignorance by postulating a supernatural deity with a variety of powers that control the workings of the universe. Religion did not go about obtaining objective knowledge by measuring and testing.
In contrast to religion, science sought to overcome ignorance and fear by seeking objective knowledge. As humans learned about the natural causes of each of the natural phenomena it explored, humans began to deny the existence of the gods their ancestors created. They even gave up their beliefs in these gods.
Today, historians, anthropologists, and others refer to these beliefs and the associated gods as mythology. Students learn of these religious beliefs and practices in courses such as ancient civilization, or Greek or Roman civilization.
Society no longer sacrifices young virgin girls to the God of the Volcano to assuage his wrath. We even refer to these past religious beliefs and practices with the term "Paganism," which has a somewhat derogatory connotation. Sometimes we even use the equally derogatory term, "heathenism." Eventually humans gave all the attributes that were assigned to numerous gods to a single deity.
Humans will have difficulty in accepting the principle of causality because of its full implications which would involve having them give up their belief in a single deity. The majority of humans in Western society still think in terms of a personal God who will suspend the laws of nature just to satisfy their selfish needs or wants as requested of the God in an activity called prayer.
Science cannot deal with laws of nature supposedly being capable of being changed at a whim. The principle of causality means that the data we collect about the causes of natural events is not deliberately distorted to give false clues. Thus, when fundamentalist creationists claim that fossils were placed on earth by God to test man's faith, they are denying a major principle of science, the principle of causality. And they do so without a shred of evidence to substantiate their claim.
If humans cannot trust the evidence provided by the universe, then all science becomes futile; the search for objective knowledge becomes futile; and no scientific knowledge gathered to date can be true.
This religious stance that certain natural phenomena are distorted to give false clues to test human faith is the ultimate denial of science. As Einstein once said, "God does not play dice with the universe."
Thus, the belief system in which a God behaves according to whim and caprice means that we humans can only live in a world of perpetual ignorance. Fundamentalist religion, especially its derivative, creationism, is anti- intellectual, and it prefers that humans live in perpetual ignorance.
Before some of you become more angry at me than you already are for what I have said over the years or for what I am saying tonight, permit me to remind you that we do not kill the messenger because we do not like the message. As to the message, permit me to quote the headlines from Peter Monaghan's article in the February 28, 1997, issue of the Chronicles of Higher Education, page A14) in which he reported on the symposium on evangelicalism in higher education that was held in Seattle Pacific University:
"Evangelical colleges advised to step up fight against anti-intellectual bias. Scholars say the rise of fundamentalism could threaten the future of Christian higher Education...Evangelical colleges should do more to combat the anti-intellectualism that has limited the evangelical movement."
Although I and other scientists have been expressing these thoughts for years, it now seems that even some members within the fundamentalist movement have come to the same conclusion.
Let me illustrate this anti-intellectism with an other classroom incident, one that occurred just this last quarter, just two months ago.
A young woman told the entire class: "I have no desire to learn about evolution because it contradicts what I was taught from childhood on." Then she went on to say: "I do not want to be the only kid in the playground who knows the truth about Santa Claus."
Wow! "I desire not to learn" has to be one of the most powerful statements in favor of ignorance that I have ever heard.
This student, along with the students who do not know or who choose not to know the difference between faith and fact, personify the anti-intellectual attitude referred to by the evangelicals and about whom I and other scientists - - even non-scientists including mainstream religionists -- have been complaining all these many years. And now the evangelicals are joining our ranks.
In essence the principle of uniformity in time and space states that natural laws do not change with time and distance. The fundamental forces at work in nature are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow and they hold no matter where in the universe we may be. Our space craft voyages to the outer planets were based, in part, on these principles as is the tracking of comets and other celestial bodies.
This principle is very important in science since many events of great importance happened and continue to happen over a long period of time, namely astronomical, geological, and biological events involving the formation of the universe, the shaping of the surface of the planet, and the emergence of life from non-living materials and the evolution of today's living organisms from pre-existing ones.
In essence, the principle of common perception states that all human beings perceive natural events in fundamentally the same way. We expect our senses to agree.
Let us now put all of this together as we discuss the methodology by which science develops its understanding of the natural world: The Scientific Method.
There are several formulations of the scientific method. Irrespective of which formulation one uses, they all must include certain commonalities. There are marked advantages to the use of the Scientific Method to obtain objective knowledge of the world in which we live. As you will see, the scientific method leads to the generation of objective information unconstrained by any preconceived ideas. Further you will learn, as I said earlier, that the methods of science, unlike those of religion, are self-correcting.
The method of science consists of several interrelated steps: Observation; Hypothesis Formulation; Experimentation -- Hypothesis Testing, Search for Causes; Conclusion; Classification; Communication. Let us look at each in turn.
In the 17th Century there was a revolution in thought initiated by the great philosopher Francis Bacon and his contemporaries: in essence the philosophers put forth the idea that if one wants to understand nature one must consult nature and not the beliefs and writings of ancient authority figures. Understanding nature involves making one's own observations. Observation involves an interaction of our senses with the environment. If need be, scientists even build instruments which enhance the range of their senses, such as magnifying glasses, microscopes, telescopes, spectrophotometers, etc.
One important aspect of observation in science is that any observation must be capable of being observed independently by other objective observers. To aid in making objective observations, scientists will measure and quantify their observations. Independent observers will be able to check their objective observations with those previously reported.
Objective observation leads to the establishment of facts. Facts are repeatable or reproducible natural or experimental phenomena. Facts stand alone. Contrary to what many of my students and other people in society think, facts are not something one believes to be true. In science, a fact is something that must be demonstrated, irrespective or whether it fits with a preconceived idea. Facts are not beliefs. Beliefs are not facts.
In religion, beliefs are statements people accept as true despite the absence of supporting evidence and even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, real data may have no meaning in religion. Francis Beacon said, "Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true."
Let us take a recent example of the illogical acceptance of beliefs as facts. The group in San Diego who committed mass suicide within the last two weeks believed that an alien space vehicle was following the Hale-Bopp comet despite the fact that scientists were unable to verify the existence of such an object. Or what about those who still believe the shroud of Turin to be Jesus' shroud, even after the Roman Catholic Church removed it from its list of holy relics.
In science, scientists do not believe in data or concepts. In science, scientists accept or do not accept concepts based on scientifically derived evidence. Belief is a religious, not a scientific, concept. Acceptance or rejection based on data is a scientific concept.
In trying to understand natural phenomena, scientists search for causes. In searching for causes scientists develop ideas that require testing. Ideas to be tested are called hypotheses. Hypotheses are in a sense guesses, or educated guesses, hunches, or theories. However, whether an idea is a guess or a hunch, or whatever, each hypothesis is stated in such a way that permits it to be tested in a manner such that the data obtained will either support the idea, not support the idea and, thereby, cause the idea to be rejected or modified.
An hypothesis is usually stated in such a way as to provide for a prediction. However, it must be understood that the word prediction has special meaning in science. The term "predict" is not used by scientists in the sense that it is used by seers and psychics. Scientists do not predict the future based on divination, reading of palms, tarot cards, birth dates, nor by the position of the stars in the sky. The predictions of science are based on the principles of deductive and inductive reasoning. Predictions are based on cause and effect relationships. If such and such is the cause, then the following should occur or be seen.
As we have already seen, causality is one of the fundamental concepts in science. By stating hypotheses in terms of cause and effect, they can then be verified or falsified or, depending on the data, modified. In a sense hypothesis testing is the heart and soul of science. Hypothesis testing is what makes science exciting, exhilarating, and even frustrating.
However, in testing hypothesis, and before accepting the validation of our findings as to causal relationships, it is equally important that scientists attempt to rule out competing explanations. All hypotheses must be consistent with natural laws. Although one could always invoke supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, in science, as I pointed out earlier, it is not possible to test for supernatural explanations. The supernatural cannot be measured, quantified, verified, or falsified.
Experimentation in a sense may be conceived of as being part of observation in that it is an attempt to observe phenomena under controlled conditions. All experiments must have built into them appropriate controls so that the conclusions drawn from the data obtained can be related back to a specific cause. Thus, a well designed experiment should have built into it the potential not just of verifying an hypothesis but also the potential of falsifying it. Thus, as scientists test hypothesis, they gain insight into the search for causes.
Once the data have been obtained, one has to analyze the data as to what exactly they do show. Before analyses, it may first be necessary to subject the data to statistical manipulations -- a process called data reduction -- to determine whether or not the results are statistically significant. One aim of the analyses is to learn whether or not the results of the experiments verified or falsified the hypothesis.
As part of analysis, a scientist may have to reexamine all details of the experiment to make sure that there were no flaws in the experimental design and in its execution. Many were the times when I would sit with my undergraduate and graduate students and step by step go over all the intimate details of an experiment, leaving absolutely nothing out.
Based on the data, a scientist will then ask whether the tested hypothesis should remain unchanged or whether it should be modified in light of the new information or whether it should be rejected. Analysis of data leads to other questions that have to be asked in order to obtain further insight into the natural phenomenon being examined. The testing of these new questions, when placed in the context of hypotheses to be tested, i.e., in the form of cause and effect predictions, provides for further testing of the original idea.
As a result of observations and experimentations a body of knowledge starts to develop and grow. This reservoir of information is added to by numerous investigations from the same and even from different disciplines.
The growth of the body of knowledge resulting from the intellectual and practical activities of scientists leads to the next step, classification. Classification refers to the fact that the intellect works on the information and, through the rational processes of inductive and deductive reasoning, looks for patterns of unity or similarity and patterns of diversity. In this higher level of analysis, a scientist also formulates ideas that integrate the knowledge pertaining to cause effect relationships, i.e., mechanisms as to how a natural phenomenon occurs.
This higher analysis leads to theory formulation and even the formulation of scientific principles or laws. As I said earlier, in science, theories are based on facts, not fact on theory, as the young man in Alaska thought. And, contrary to what some of my students think, facts stand alone and are independent of preconceived theories. Before we can continue with the subject of classification we must first discuss what constitutes evidence in science.
Evidence in science requires that all observations, whether they be of natural phenomena or derived empirically from controlled experiments, must be capable of being independently observed or confirmed by other scientists, or even by non-scientists. Beliefs or faith do not constitute evidence in science. Beliefs not supported by data -- by facts -- obtained by independent, objective observers do not constitute evidence in science. Thus, the aforementioned statement of my students about their beliefs having more validity than any scientific fact is a religious statement that has no validity in science.
Visions experienced by an individual and which cannot be seen by anyone else or which cannot be reproduced under controlled conditions do not constitute evidence in science. Revelations, a supposed form of communication between humans and God and upon which most Western religions are based, do not constitute evidence in science.
It is through the rigorous application of the scientific method that evidence is obtained that constitutes scientific evidence. The more times an experiment is repeated and the greater the number of different people successfully accomplishing the repetition, the greater is the credibility of the observations or the experimental results: the greater is the reliability of the evidence.
It is the demand for objective evidence along with science being a non- authoritarian, self-correcting activity, that helps to differentiate science from religion. In religion we find claims for which it is not possible to provide evidence that meets the scientific rigor. In religion society finds claims that cannot be subject to independent testing and verification. Religion depends on the voice of authority, not the voice of experimentally derived evidence.
For classification to be successful at integrating knowledge, there has to be an intermediate step. This intermediate step is communications. Communications consists of presenting one's ideas and work to the scientific community for review. However, critical review is only one aspect of communications. There are other benefits that derive from communicating one's work, aside from getting constructive criticism and developing a personal reputation. Communications may stimulate ideas in other scientists and inspire them to take the original idea down completely different paths or to add to the original idea by asking other types of questions and devising experiments to obtain answers. By having other scientists around the world independently verify one's work or by having them find errors in the work, scientific endeavors become dynamic, self-correcting activities.
In religion, there also is communication. However, the aims of the communications are different. In science the primary aim is understanding through furtherance of knowledge. In religion, communications serve to increase knowledge about beliefs or to make people become believers or to increase the intensity of people's beliefs or to make a holy icon out of a supposed site where a supposed miracle occurred and, thereby, get people to believe in and worship at what some individuals hope will become a new holy shrine.
With the introduction of the word theory, we enter into a new realm of science. As I promised, I am returning to the subject of the word theory. It actually gets us into the realm of the English language and its limitations -- as I intimated before -- and the deliberate abuse of this limitation. There is a problem with the word theory. Theory can be used on two different hierarchical levels of knowledge, on two different intellectual levels, if you will. On the lowest intellectual level, or lay level on the hierarchical basis of knowledge, a theory is equivalent to a hunch, a guess, a gut feeling, even an hypothesis. This is the context in which the ordinary lay person uses the word theory. For example, in the 1980 Presidential campaign, candidate Reagan, when asked about the theory of evolution, responded "It is only a theory. They really do not know." Candidate Reagan, as expected, used the word theory as lay people do, on the lowest intellectual level.
On the other hand, scientists use the word theory on a higher intellectual level. To scientists, theory represents an overall explanation of facts. To scientists, theories are statements that explain mechanisms underlying natural phenomena. Theories tend to unite information obtained from a variety of different sources into an overall, unifying concept. Theories are important statements about the workings of nature. The fact that a theory is based on facts, makes a theory more than just a hunch or guess, it makes it a powerful statement about the working of nature.
Theories, in science, are not statements of absolute truth in a religious sense. Religious people state that they have what they believe is "the truth," as if there is only one truth in the world. Further, there is no evidence to support these religious beliefs. These are just authoritarian statements by individuals or their followers who claim that the benefits were revealed to them directly by God. That is why Western religions are referred to as revealed religion.
There is always a certain degree of uncertainty associated with scientific theories. That is why theories, in science, are always subject to testing and retesting. Scientific theories are tentative and always subject to rejection or modification based on the existence of appropriate evidence. Such measuring and testing and retesting and verification, falsification, or modification activities represent the dynamic nature of science.
The dynamic nature of science is seen by the changes in concepts that develop as new information becomes available. Excellent examples include the evidence, starting with Gregor Mendel, that indicated that the gene was a physical entity; the mounting evidence that the gene was composed of nuclei acid and not protein. Another excellent example is Mendel's second law of inheritance which had to undergo refinement as new information concerning the relation of genes to one another on chromosomes became available.
In some cases, the new information required concepts to be discarded in favor of newer ones which incorporated the new facts. In some cases new information did not undermine the concept, all it did was require that the concept be modified to accommodate the new information.
Observing, measuring, testing, retesting, rejecting or modifying concepts and generating new data and concepts and further testing are the ways by which science works and advances. These procedures stand in contrast to the authoritarian beliefs and unyielding dogmatism of religion.
I promised you that I would explain why that statement made by the young man in Alaska is primarily a religious statement and why the erroneous answers of my students to the true-false question: "Data are only as good as the theory on which they are based" is also religiously based.
First, let me point out that when I was teaching anatomy and physiology one of my favorite true-false questions was: In humans, males have one less rib than women. It was unbelievable how many students got that question wrong despite the fact that they had text books and they had both male and female skeletons in the lab to work on. Inevitably, the students who got that rib question wrong were those who believed in the literal interpretation of Bible stories. They let their religious beliefs with which they were indoctrinated from the time they were born take precedence over their own observations and facts.
I realized that the man in Alaska was making religious statement when I remembered that one way in which religion differs from science is that religion starts with a conclusion and everything else must be interpreted to meet the dictates of that conclusion. The young man in Alaska had a couple of conclusions (evolution does not occur and nature tests faith) and only those data that fit his preconceived conclusions would be considered valid by him. Observations that cannot be made to fit his preformed conclusions are either to be discarded or disregarded.
The students in my classes who do not understand the difference between faith and fact are ready to discard anything that did not fit their preconceived ideas. These are ideas that they were indoctrinated with from their earliest years, just like the students with the rib question. The young woman in my class who said that she did not desire to know about evolution because it contradicted that which she was taught as a child and that she did not want to be the only kid in the playground who knows the truth about Santa Claus is an excellent example of people who discard and disregard data in the name of religion.
The discarding and disregarding of data -- even the falsification of concepts -- are very prevalent in creationist literature pertaining to the denial of evolution.
The discarding and disregarding of data is exactly the opposite of what occurs in science, as I have tried to explain to you. Should scientists discard or disregard data, there are others who will quickly remind them of the existence of the information. This is one of the areas in which science demonstrates its dynamic, self-correcting nature. The requirement of considering all scientifically derived evidence is what makes science the most honest of human endeavors.
In closing, permit me to show you just one social consequence of not understanding the proper functioning of science, of not understanding the differences between science and religion, and the need for understanding definitions of words and using them in their proper context.
I will use as an example a subject I have referred to several times tonight, namely evolution and the unnecessary and non-sensical evolution/creation controversy. It is unnecessary and non-sensical for the following reasons. When creationists discuss evolution they deliberately use the word theory on the lowest intellectual level as evidenced by the ridiculous insert required in Alabama textbooks. They refuse to use the same terminology as do scientists. If they did, they would not have any bases for their arguments.
By playing to the scientific ignorance of the general public they can and do create intellectual, social, and political confusion and havoc. They even deliberately distort the nature of the controversy. By appealing to the courts, in which they have repeatedly lost, the creationists are also creating further confusion in the minds of the public.
From my discussion, I hope it is clear that issues of science can only be solved in one place and one place only, and that one place is the laboratory. That place is not in courts of law. That issues of science cannot be solved in courts of law is one of the great lessons taught by the Scopes Trial and by subsequent court decisions.
A court of law is not equipped to solve issues of science. Only people engaged in science who challenge ideas based on evidence that meets scientific rigor are best equipped to challenge scientific ideas.
By permitting such issues of science to come before courts of law only underscores the scientific illiteracy of those in our legal system. By permitting the courts to adjudicate issues of science we are not only seeing but participating in the denial of science and also we are witnessing and participating in its perversion. Simultaneously we are also seeing and participating in the perversion of the law. Society is asking the law to do that which it is not equipped or qualified to do. It is also costing the public unnecessary expenditure of vast sums of money while creating sociopolitical rancor.
This, in part, is what I meant when I said early on that there are sub- cultures in our society that are trying to undermine the essence of science. People who accept unsubstantiated beliefs and faith and the words of authority figures as scientific truths are not equipped to challenge scientific data and the ideas based thereon on scientific grounds.
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