Don’t Have Faith In Science

From last week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory:

Sheldon: “Dr. Greene.  Question?”

Brian Greene: “Yes?”

Sheldon: “You’ve dedicated your life’s work to educating the general populace about complex scientific ideas.”

Brian Greene: “Yes, in part.”

Sheldon: “Have you ever considered trying to do something useful?”

Last week I read an interesting article titled, “Is Science Just a Matter of Faith?”  (I actually stumbled across it via Slashdot, where it very quickly generated well over one thousand comments.)  I disagree with much of the article… but I like the article anyway, because I think it raises some very useful and thought-provoking questions.  As usual, I recommend reading it first.

The main point of the article is the suggestion that some scientist-authors who write for a “general public” audience use religious connotation, particularly in book titles, as a means of “signalling that they have the authority to speak scientifically to the fundamental questions that formerly only religion had the authority to address.”  The author provides an array of book jackets, over half of which have the word “God” in their title, to make his point.  The idea is that if you mention or at least allude to religion, then non-scientists will be more likely to read, to believe, to have faith in, your explanations of how our world works.

I tend to dismiss the religious angle rather quickly.  In most cases, this is at worst a marketing hook on the part of the publishers, and not actual intent of persuasion on the part of the authors.  Consider Feynman’s The Meaning of It All, for example.  To infer religious authority even from just the title is a stretch for me.  Also, the book was published posthumously by Feynman’s daughter; the title has little relation to the titles of the three lectures of which the book is a compilation.  And certainly nowhere in any of his writings do I find even the suggestion that we should “believe Feynman because God told him.”

In short, I think “faith” is the wrong word to use here.  “Trust,” on the other hand, is more accurate, and less charged with unintended additional meaning… and here we have a valid and much more interesting question.  Science is complicated– how hard should scientists work to try to present those complicated ideas to an uncomplicated public?  When to give up and simply say, “Trust me; it works this way”?  Even within the scientific community, to what extent do we, or must we, trust and depend on the observations and theories of others?

In the situation of explaining complex science to a general audience, I think the answer had better be pretty simple: it is never acceptable to give up and say, “This is too complicated, so just trust me.”  To do so would be to miss the point of scientific debate in the first place.  To do so would suggest to the listener that, even at a single link in the long logical chain of reasoning, dogma is an acceptable foundation for understanding how our world works.

Striving to achieve this very difficult goal does not just benefit the non-scientific audience.  It benefits the scientific community as well, since it forces us to be clear, visual, rigorous, etc., which can often end up strengthening or even extending our understanding of what is going on.  In other words, you never really understand something until you teach it (I am not sure who first said this).

The challenge is that these are not just esoteric questions specific to particular scientific fields of interest.  Every human being wants answers to basic questions like: How did we come to be here?  Why are we here?  What, if anything, happens after?  What is the “meaning of it all”?  And the problem is that, when pressed to come up with answers, in the absence of anything better, humans are more than willing to make something up.  The resulting comfort with faulty, “missing link” chains of reasoning leads to things like religion, which is mostly harmless… but I suppose also to things like the Tea Party, which is rather less benign.

Contrary to Sheldon’s attitude, I think communication between scientists and the general public is indeed worthwhile and must continue.  It is important to provide accurate explanations of our current best understanding of the world– not just so that we will have the facts, so to speak, since the facts and theories themselves may not be particularly useful to John Q. Non-Scientist; but perhaps even more importantly, so that we can see what the reasoning looks like, which can then be re-applied everywhere, by everyone.

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