Saturday, November 24, 2007

From the First Sentence

I knew that something was wrong:
SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses.
"We are repeatedly told," huh? This guy just lost every reader not already in his choir, and I'll bet he doesn't even realize it. I'd guess that to him there is no logical catastrophe in this sentence. But he's just giving us the definition of the word, with a rhetorical "doubt" between the word and its definition, with the intended result of separating the word from its definition. Reading no farther than this first sentence, my guess is that he's planning on telling us that "science" is just another "religion"!
Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue. The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system.
Called it! Or should I say, "hypothesis confirmed"? By his argument this would be equal to "prophecy fulfilled." So what are the "articles of faith" of a scientist?
All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.
Oh, okay: you can't be reasonable and logical (scientific) if you aren't reasonable and logical, seeing patterns and principles and fundamental "reasons behind," instead of thinking that every time you drop a ball from a building, you might get a different result: eventually it might just fly into the sky! So now logos itself is "faith." Boy this guy does like to redefine things.
When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
Uh, no it hasn't. In fact, the history of human inquiry is filled with scientists who expected to find one result, found something else entirely, and were forced by this necessity to completely rethink their previous suppositions. This is how we learn. You don't know that? So who the hell is letting you flash your ignorance all over the NY Times?
When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance.
Wow, what total bullshit. What does he mean by "when I was a student"? When he was an undergraduate in college learning the basic principles? Lordy-loo. Even when we teach writing, we start them off with the basics, tell them to structure their essays and paragraphs and even sentences a certain way -- no fragments, for example -- giving them rules frequently violated by masters of the language. What we say is, "you have to learn the rules before you can break them." Is this guy really suggesting that all scientists at all stages in their careers are equally capable of questioning with reason and purpose the existing theories? Does he believe that all students hold those learned facts as "scripture" for the rest of their lives?
The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore.
Oh, yeah, I guess he does. Well, he's completely wrong.
Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.
This is a lie. In order to receive a degree in science, you have to pass tests that require you to understand the best current theories we have. That is not an act of "faith." You don't have to "believe" in them, and in fact if you doubt them you are more likely to evolve to the level of a Newton or Einstein or Hawking.
You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
Okay, now he's just being silly.
Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
Insisting that there must be a reason for everything is what is deeply anti-rational. Here are a few: why did New Orleans get hit by a hurricane? Why did my nephew die at 5 years old? Why do cats like to eat beef? There are two different ways to ask for "reasons things are as they are": one is to look for physical principles (air pressure, wind currents; DNA defects; proteins on the tongue; etc.); the other is to look for vast ego-driven whys, like, New Orleans was hit because it's full of sinners, or because the Bush Administration needed to be exposed, or because it taught us all something about community, or something like that. This guy is conflating the two. And suggesting that physicists' failure to answer the ego-driven whys "makes a mockery of science."

I'm not sure how much more of this guy's idiocy I want to post here. He essentially uses these ideas to go on and expound:
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.
Oh, clearly. Believing in an ego is the same as recognizing a physical property. Why, the reason that rock sits on the ground is not because of gravity or inertia, but because it wants to, because it likes it there. Maybe gravity and inertia are the same as want and like. If you're this guy.
This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way.
Yes, physics is a theological discipline because the first person to define the field was theist. You know what? It's also a male field, and a British field. Also, America is a Deist nation, because the founding fathers were all Deists.

It's his last sentence that really puts his problem on display, though:
But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
Some people just can't handle the concept of contingent knowledge: that you operate on the best available information, without believing that what you're operating on is absolute "truth." This seems to be his problem. Perhaps he is only capable of understanding absolutes. That is sad for him. But lots of people understand that when we see 7 historical models of the solar system or historical models of the atom, we're not seeing a series of "debunked beliefs," but the progress of continued scientific inquiry: each model was tested and its failures led to modifications which led to better understandings of the physical world. We don't conclude from this that the current models are completely right and the old ones completely wrong, but that there may well be a next and a next and a next that we will never see because we'll be dead by then. If that bothers you, you're not interested in science, you're looking for a faith. So look elsewhere. Because this conflation of science and faith is insulting to both.

In the end, though, I don't see this writer as dishonest; I see him as simple-minded. He wants "the truth" and he wants it now. But humankind will only get marginally better at understanding the universe, baby step by baby step; the models we use now will surely be shown insufficient. That isn't "faith" being upended. That's progress.

Unless you're this guy.

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