Science in Review: Science Orthodoxy

Image of Venus transiting the sun

Venus crossing in front of the Sun. This observation is taken as evidence of the Earth going around the sun, but it took telescopes to first see it. (Public domain)

“How Do I Show Religious Freaks That Science Wins?” So that happened in my Facebook feed this week. The title was obviously provocative. The fact that someone asked that of musician and party enthusiast Andrew W.K. of all people was fascinating and puzzling, although to be fair his response was reasonably measured and avoided the bait provided by the question. What most intrigued me, though, was the sentiment that “science wins.”

Is winning something that science aspires to?

Life is full of winning and losing. It’s playoff time for American professional basketball and hockey; teams need to keep winning to keep playing. Candidates are beginning to campaign for next year’s US presidential election; only one of them will succeed. On the big screen, the Avengers are about to have a conflict with Ultron and, barring some big swerve, one of them will likely be punched into defeat by the other. Doesn’t everything come down to winning and losing? And isn’t winning better than losing? So why wouldn’t science want to win?

How does science win, then? I imagine Andrew W.K.’s advice-seeker would answer “by being right.” That’s certainly a natural standard as, again, being right seems better than being wrong. Only, on those terms, science loses pretty regularly. We saw earlier this month the question of whether the brontosaurus ever existed; since science has now staked a claim on both sides of that fence, it’s going to wind up wrong one way or the other. And that’s just a small, recent example. Science was wrong about aether, the medium through which light waves travel; science was wrong about diseases being caused by bad air; science was wrong about gametes containing tiny little versions of us that just expanded in size. I’d guess that if we did a full tally, science would be wrong more often than not.

What if being wrong was actually part of how science wins? The prevailing paradigm on how science works is that it does not prove anything to be right, but it can prove statements to be wrong. If that’s really the case, then science isn’t just doing its job when it proves something wrong. Science is also doing it’s job when it comes up with wrong ideas in the first place. After all, science doesn’t really work if there are no ideas to prove wrong, or if those ideas are so muddled or vague that they cannot be tested and revealed wrong. Stating wrong ideas clearly enough to test them could then be a win for science!

Schematic of Big Bang

Even among physicists who agree about the details of the Big Bang model disagree on whether to describe it as an explosion. (Public domain)

If being wrong is part of winning in science, how then should we respond to an article such as this one about the allegedly sad state of public science awareness? Is it really lamentable that some people think the sun goes around the earth? They are in good company with scientists of previous eras. One imagines they have observed for themselves the sun traveling across the sky while the earth stays in place; isn’t collecting data and making inferences from it scientific? Sure, heliocentric models displaced geocentric models among astronomers several hundred years ago, but lots of folks still haven’t looked in a telescope for themselves to make the observations that motivated that switch. Are we looking down on those folks for not having that experience, or for not taking the word of those who have? And again, why are we criticizing them for being wrong when being wrong counts as a win for science?

Just how wrong are these survey respondents anyway? This is the centenary of Einstein’s general relativity model, which did away with the notion of privileged frames of reference from which one can state what the real or correct relationships are between objects with respect to their motion. Instead, all motion is defined only with respect to a chosen frame of reference; if you pick the earth as the starting point then the sun does move around it. So are these 1 in 4 behind on adopting a Copernican model of the universe, or are they ahead of NPR in embracing general relativity? (And that’s not even getting into the semantics of whether the Big Bang was, in fact, an explosion.)

Now, I don’t want you to have the impression that I think there are no truths about the universe, or that science is unable to help us learn about them. I am a big fan of truth, and of the enterprise of science. What I’m not a fan of is the attitude that when someone is shown to be wrong about one of those truths, that science wins and that person loses. I’d much rather embrace the opportunity to create a win for science and for the individual that wrongness can provide.

As a “religious freak” I’m also intrigued by the possibility of getting a win out of being wrong where faith is concerned. Can there be value in being wrong about God? If I can state clearly who I understand God to be, even if that God doesn’t exist, aren’t I better off than if I believe in a God so indistinct that I can’t even begin to figure out if he exists? At least in the first situation, I am closer to knowing whatever God actually exists because I’ve ruled out one (or more) who doesn’t. For that reason, I see a lot of value in what Nancy Abrams is doing here with her description of what she thinks God is, or what Stuart Kauffman does in his book Reinventing the Sacred where he elaborates on his worship of creativity. Yes, they believe in different, incompatible concepts of deity from mine. But at least they have been willing to articulate their beliefs clearly enough that they can be engaged with; they have a possibility of being wrong. It is my desire as a Christian to do nothing less — to clearly describe the God I know and risk being wrong for the sake of truth.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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