18 Oct 2005

Contact

I just watched Contact again for the first time in a while. A major theme of the movie is that the goals of science and religion are so hard to untangle that the two main protagonists have a very complicated adult relationship based on it.

In the current context of the debate about religion in the science classroom, I think about my own feelings about science quite a bit. Far from feeling that science and religion are incompatible, I actually feel that they are two sides of the same coin. I mean, think about it. How often do people’s deeply held, innermost core beliefs actually tend to be different? Can we really believe that, given the size of the universe (which I guess you’ll have to grant me) and all the diversity of our planet, that two of us humans could really be all that tremendously different in our innermost models of what our purpose is in the universe? OF COURSE SCIENCE AND RELIGION ARE THE SAME THING, HOW COULD THEY NOT BE? WE’RE ALL PEOPLE, WE ALL WANT THE SAME THINGS AND WE ALL FEEL THE SAME WAY!

I hope that a more sophisticated dialogue is going on somewhere in the world, and that it spreads to this country. In particular, I wish that some religious representatives would realize that pursuing science is a way of appreciating the Universe, or God, or Nature, or whatever Large Thing you care to call it. If God did create the Universe, why wouldn’t he want us to understand all the wonders he created? Is it sinful to break apart an atom and see what God made inside the atom? Far from it, it’s an expression of wonder to pursue such knowledge. If you interviewed all the scientists who do stuff like that, you’d find many or most of them are on a search for something larger than themselves, a way to be connected to the Universe. Listen to the moving speech that Jodie Foster’s character gives to James Woods’ character and his committee at the end of the movie.

09 Oct 2005

Irrational Design?

There is a great deal of controversy at the moment over Intelligent Design (ID) being taught in science classrooms. I have always felt very strongly about the dangers faced by science in our society, and this crisis is a perfect example of what can happen without careful vigilance on the part of science teachers and practitioners.

I will be trying to understand this issue thoroughly in the coming months, though I must admit my conclusion is rather clear in advance. Nonetheless, I believe there are subtle arguments being made in ID, and if I am truly worried about the role of science in my society, then I owe it to my children to understand the debate completely, so that I can be an informed participant in any future discussions that involve my district.

The main themes I’ll be keeping in mind as I read are: is ID a purely religious point of view? Is ID a “God of the Gaps” argument? Can a falsifiable scientific theory of ID exist? Are our children being taught that science produces facts rather than theories? Are our children being taught that science and religion cannot coexist?

I’ll be getting to these questions over time. At the moment, I want to say something about science to get the ball rolling. Science is many things, but right now I feel especially protective of its adherence to falsifiability. Any scientific statement or prediction must be testable against nature, and such tests must be able to either confirm or contradict the statement. When Einstein proposed the theory of General Relativity, it was known right away that its predictions of the movement of bodies did not vary very much from the Newtonian formulation of gravity. If Einstein had been unable to think of an experiment or observation that would be able to confirm or contradict his theory with respect to Newton’s, then the scientific community would have rejected General Relativity completely. Einstein and Sir Arthur Eddington were able, however, to use GR to predict an observed anomoly in the orbit of Mercury that had previously gone unexplained. Moreover, they were able to use GR to predict the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, and observe such lensing during a solar eclipse. Once these observations were made and proved to be consistent with GR to great precision, GR became the new working theory of gravity. If we make an observation tomorrow that is inconsistent with GR, and in some sense we already have because quantum theory is known to be incompatible, then we will start looking for a better theory that explains everything explained by GR and also the inconsistent observations. Science does not hold any given theory dear, and each one is always ready to be rejected as soon as it fails. The system only works if falsifiability is held as the highest goal. Skepticism, peer review, and measurements against nature are the tools of science.

Now let me extend this idea to science class. We should teach only scientific theories in science class. This means two things. First, no non-falsifiable theories need apply. Those are not testable by science, and so they lie outside the domain. They are as irrelevant in science class as anything can be. It would be the same as requiring students to learn to tell fortunes with Tarot cards in history class. Secondly, we must be very careful in how we teach science. I suspect that many teachers do not give students the impression that scientific theories can be overthrown, or how that happens. Rather, they teach theories as if they were final facts. Gravity is the curvature of spacetime. Electrons do orbit the nucleus in fixed orbitals that are physically real. Galaxies definitely have black holes at the center. The universe definitely started with the Big Bang. Now, I’m not saying that every sentence like these needs to be qualified with “…, we think” every time you say them, so long as you spend a good amount of class time explaining that everything is just a working model. Science does not claim that the world really works in certain ways. Rather, it is a process for better modeling the world, and it requires certain criteria in order for the forward movement to continue.

So, if ID is not falsifiable, that’s the only piece of information I need to decide if it should be taught in science class. Others like to discuss how religious Newton was, or how uncertain of natural selection so-and-so actual practiciing biologist is. None of this matters. Every falsifiable theory of biology that explains all the known facts should be taught in science class, and nothing more. If someone says “God created some of our biochemical machinery,” then I’m very interested to hear their argument, but not in science class. It can never be proved wrong, because we will never know what actually happened in the past, and so it gets science nowhere.