23 May 2009

Science as a form of "faith"??

About one month ago, a Unitarian Universalist theologian on a UUA-sponsored email list claimed that modern science is a form of "faith" and a form of theism -- here's the first part of this claim:
Modern science presupposes confidence (or faith) that the same physical laws always apply throughout the universe.
Actually, the "confidence" that scientists have regarding physical laws applying to places beyond our local surroundings isn't a "faith" issue.

It's a result of empirical observations coupled with parsimony (aka "Occam's Razor").

That leads us to a very reasonable working assumption of the same physical laws applying throughout the universe.

The same laws of physics developed by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc to explain the motion of objects on our Earth also appear to work very well in space for predicting the paths of artificial satellites and space probes, planets, and stars.

The same spectrographic pattern that indicate the presence of chemical elements observed on the Earth are also observed in planets and stars far away from us.

One simple explanation to explain the commonality in physical and chemical observations on the Earth and in the heavens is that the same physical laws apply in both places.

A more complex explanation would be that there are different physical laws on Earth and in the heavens that appear to produce the same results in terms of motion and spectroscopic analysis.

However, the more complex explanation runs into problems due to "Occam's Razor" - a very useful principle for evaluating competing scientific explanations for phenomena.

One short definition of "Occam's Razor" is the following:
" ... that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory."
So ... the simplest explanation for the accumulated facts and observations that we have comparing chemistry and physics on Earth and the heavens is that the same physical laws apply both here and elsewhere. And so far, this assumption has worked very well for us.

Of course, this isn't written in stone and future exploration may change or modify the assumption of physical laws applying in all places.

Here's the rest of this theological claim about the sciences:
If scientific experiments produce contradictory evidence, scientists do not accept it, no matter, how many empirical tests may replicate it. The scientists' faith can be rightly called philosophical monotheism (even if they call themselves atheists).
The idea that scientists routinely reject evidence just because it contradicts existing theories is an astounding claim that borders on the outrageous. I would like some well-documented examples to back up this claim.

I'm not working as a scientist in my job today, but my college education was in the natural sciences (microbiology with a sprinkling of physics, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and applied mathematics). And my 1977-1981 education is a bit rusty.

Based on what I remember about the history and philosophy of the sciences, this is a very inaccurate depiction of how the sciences works.

It may be painfully slow to watch new results move from new and untested to established science but that's a safeguard to keep us from deceiving ourselves.

Remember that we are talking about a human-run enterprise and there are very human imperfections in how we do science.

A good example of the human imperfections affecting the work of science was difference in the acceptance of the results of the 1944 "Avery-MacLeod-McCarty" experiments and the 1952 "Hershey-Chase" experiments.

Both experiments were used to demonstrate that genetic information was contained in DNA and not proteins. The Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiments were chemically much more "rigorous" than the Hershey-Chase experiments but the social climate among biologists in the 1940s was less accepting of the idea that DNA contained genetic information and was anything other than a dull and boring polymer.

Hershey and Chase built on Avery's work and their experiment was more "convincing" because the scientific audience was ready for the results. There was also the comfortable familiarity that the early molecular biologists had with the E. coli - T-2 bacteriophage virus experimental model that Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase used.

However, there are examples of rigorous experiments that changed how we view the world and how observations can change previously held ideas about creation:
  • Luria-Delbrück experiment (established that variation -- the raw material in natural selection -- arises through a random undirected process)
  • Michelson-Morley experiments ("the most famous failed experiment" -- this experiment helped disproved the theory that light required an invisible "luminiferous aether" to move across a vacuum and led to Einstein's theory of special relativity)
  • Evelyn Hooker's research (she establishing that homosexuals were as mentally healthy as heterosexuals -- her work led to changes in social attitudes and the eventual decision that homosexuality is not a mental illness)
There are safeguards built-in to ensure that we don't deceive ourselves when science is done properly:
  • Falsifiability -- Can a scientific claim tested and proven, in principle, false?
  • Reproducibility -- Can the results be verified independently? For historical sciences like paleontology and astronomy, are other researchers allowed access to the observations (e.g. fossils, raw astronomical data, etc)?
And many of the methods of science (double-blind experiments, statistical analysis, etc) are some of tools we do to keep from deceiving ourselves into "discovering" what we want to believe to be "true" when what we want to believe may not be an accurate description of creation.

Keep in mind that many of the "new atheist" writers like Daniel Dennett who are approaching religion with the same methodology that has been proven successful in the sciences are not trying to be jerks who want to piss off religious people.

It's just that the tools of science have been very useful for learning more about creation (and religions certainly are a part of creation).

And who would be against exploring the idea that religions are at least partially natural phenomena?

21 May 2009

So Religious Bigotry and Stereotyping is OK if Atheists are the Target? (Response to Charlotte Allen)

Here is my response to Charlotte Allen's recent column in the Los Angeles Times ("Atheists: No God, no reason, just whining," LA Times, 17 May 2009):
Dear Editors,

I was shocked to read Charlotte Allen's recent display of religious bigotry and stereotyping in your paper. Ms. Allen's essay is something that one would expect to find in the "Bible Belt" towns of Shreveport and Bossier City, Louisiana where I live.

But her bigotry wasn't something that I would expect in a major daily newspaper in California.

Instead of criticizing ideas connected to atheism, free-thinking, and naturalistic philosophy, Ms. Allen simply goes to the cheap stereotype ("crashing bores," "atheist victimology," etc).

Imagine if she had done this sort of stereotyping with any other group -- let's say Christians, Jews, Moslems, women, homosexuals, etc. Would the LA Times print unfounded smears about these groups like they did about atheists?

Atheists and other free-thinkers may sound angry but their anger is justified. Given the role that religion (as it is actually practiced and not as it's taught in seminary) has in promoting injustice, ignorance, hatred, war, and terrorism, we can't afford to be unquestioning about religious ideas anymore. Religion is too influential and has the power to hurt too many people to go unquestioned.

For example, Proposition 8 in your state was heavily supported by religious people -- the exit polling showed a strong correlation between church attendance and voting yes on 8. However, atheists and non-religious people didn't support treating some Californians as second-class citizens.

With Charlotte Allen's column in your paper and the recent Proposition 8 vote, it appears that California isn't really that different from a "Bible Belt" state like Louisiana, Texas, or Oklahoma.

You may have better museums, restaurant choices, and entertainment options than we do. But you also appear to have the same religious prejudices that we have in the "Bible Belt." Welcome to the club.

Steve Caldwell
Bossier City, Louisiana

13 May 2009

Children's religious education is tougher than it looks ...

... and I'm sure that this sort of probing questioning has happened at least once to every minister or DRE during the worship moment for all ages.

08 May 2009

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Astrology

And here's an explanation from an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (American astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City) on the Scholastic News web site about the debunking described in the video:

People come in here [Hayden Planetarium] assuming that they'll get their horoscope. They don't know that astrology has been [disproven] for centuries, but it's a billion-dollar industry, so it's not going away soon.

I did this experiment in a college class. I found some widely read horoscope column, and I said, "Pick one at random, and put it on the wall. Is this your horoscope, or not? Type yes, no, or maybe." Eighty percent of the people thought it was their horoscope!

Some sleepless, creative person 5,000 years ago invented the constellations. If we were to make constellations today, there'd be no serpents. There'd be a cell phone and an SUV and a microwave oven and a baseball field. There would be things that are in our modern culture, expressed in the legends of the sky.