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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Truth and Science: Incompatible ideas?

I am often asked, and often observe people questioning, whether or not science is to be trusted because it is always changing. In its simplest form, the question is posed by doubters as follows "Science is always changing. Once Piltdown man was thought to be a missing link and now we find out it was a fraud. How can we trust science?". Aside from the fact that Piltdown was never really considered a 'missing link', let me turn to the more important question.....Why should we trust science?

It is true that science changes when new discoveries are made. It is true that science is always tentative. It is absolutely wrong to view this as a weakness of science. The notion that science is not to be trusted because of its tentativeness is an absolute expectation of dogmatic fundamentalists who view the bible as an absolute document. How does/should science demonstrate the usefullness of science as a tentative enterprise?

First, and foremost, a dogmatic stance is always a more comfortable position. This is true for scientists (who become wed to their pet hypothesis) and also for the biblical literalist who has been told how to properly interpret the verses of the bible. It is a particularly dangerous position for the scientist, less so for the dogmatic literalist. If one thinks they have the solution, why bother listening to alternatives? Fortunately, most scientists are aware of the fact that even the best pet ideas can be improved upon (and sometimes rejected). Scientists, for the most part, develop a tought skin regarding their ideas. We all want to be right, but we must also admit that we just might be wrong.

It is here that science and dogma part ways. Wanting to be right is entirely human. Admitting that we might be wrong is a blow to the ego. Most, but certainly not all, of the scientists I have encountered have little trouble when others test their assertions. Some will fight to keep their ideas alive long past the flat line. By and large, science progresses and ideas are either adopted as reasonable explanations of nature or rejected as flawed approximations.

Creationism is unchanging. Creationists have already decided what the answer should be and all data are interpreted to support that answer. Anomalous data are rejected because there can be no anomalies to absolutes. Intelligent design is only slightly different in its philosophy. Intelligent designs response to criticism is simply to move the goalposts. If an 'intelligently designed' or 'irreducibly complex' structure is explained by science, the ID movement simply declares it was never one in the first place. Intelligent design responds like the child who loses the game and then insists that under the new set of rules, it still is victorious.

Science, on the other hand, is best viewed (in my humble opinion) as a bumpy asymptotic approach to truth. Science closes in, but never reaches, a stance that is absolute. Some ideas are closer to the asymptote than others (evolution versus 'dark matter'), but the bumpy road assures us that scientists must pay attention to the map/conditions and adjust their course in the face of new evidence. Science is not perfect nor is any purely human endeavor, but the flexible nature of science and its unwillingness to behave dogmatically is a proven commodity. Science is successful because it listens to the evidence. Creationism/ID is a failure because it creates evidence to fit an incorrect conclusion.

Cheers

Joe Meert

2 Comments:

At 6:39 PM, Anonymous Emanuel Goldstein said...

There is no conflict because science does not present us with truth, but with provisonal theories subject to change at any time.

Given the fact that all of our observations affect that which is observed, and are subjective anyway, and that all of our experiments rely on the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent, science is often false but never true.

the problem is that the atheists, especially over at Kansas Citizens for Science, want to pretend that science supports there views when in fact it does nothing of the kind; it can't support ANY view.

 
At 7:23 PM, Blogger Joe Meert said...

That's an interesting viewpoint, but religion does us no better. It only presents us with one view based on personal opinion. IN fact, it's far worse than science because we cannot falsify (or even test) an individual's belief. At least in science we have the hope and the ability to falsify an idea. I don't see the relevance of bringing atheism to this discussion. It is irrelevant.

Cheers

Joe Meert

 

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