It’s true – science doesn’t know everything. It’s also true that science has been wrong about things in the past. There have also been cases of scientists committing fraud by falsifying their research results, and some of the big research companies have not exactly been untouched by charges of outright corruption. I’ve even highlighted some of that on this blog myself. So is it time to give science the heave-ho?
Actually, although science has to face up to the same problems that confront every other institution or business, it is in fact the most valuable and successful enterprise humanity has ever created.
It goes without saying, of course, that the religious and the woo people don’t like it because it usually contradicts their cherished beliefs. Religious and paranormal claims have nothing to support them by way of testable hypotheses: science cannot even confirm that anything supernatural or paranormal is happening anyway, never mind what these mysterious forces might be. What is “psychic energy,” for example? Science happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy, so why can’t it detect so-called psychic energy? Is it just because science doesn’t know everything?
When you get down to it, though, the religious and the woomeisters accept and rely on science in every aspect of their lives except one specific area – their own particular, closely-held cherished beliefs. I detect some hypocrisy here.
Take religion, for example. Ask a believer to do something extraordinary by prayer (that they believe works), and you get a refusal because “it doesn’t work like that.” God will not be put to the test, or some such excuse. A religious person whose life is saved by medical science prays to and thanks their particular god for their cure; the physician or surgeon who did it gets a polite thank you as an afterthought.
Take woo in general. If you meet someone who claims to be psychic, ask for next Saturday’s lottery numbers, but you will be told “It doesn’t work like that.” (Psychic powers are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will – or any of a list of similar excuses.)
For these people, science is regarded as useless – only because science doesn’t support their beliefs. But science is not about belief, it is about things that can be tested. When yet another psychic fails an objective test of his or her powers, there is always an (untestable) excuse for their failure. Does the presence of an unbeliever (a sceptic) really “upset the vibrations”? What vibrations? Psychic vibrations? What are they and how can they be tested?
The remarkable aspect of all investigations into the alleged paranormal is that parapsychologists assume the existence of the paranormal only because they are unable to find a natural explanation for what they can’t explain. It’s a bit silly, if you consider it for a moment: “I have observed something; I can’t think of how it could have been done by normal means; therefore it is paranormal activity.”
Personally, I have watched magicians do things that I can’t explain. Then again, after some consideration, I have been able to work out for myself how some of those tricks were done. There are many other tricks that I cannot work out. But one of my correspondents told me some time ago that he had interviewed Uri Geller who, he believes, bent one of his keys, and he “knows” that Geller (magician) just could not have fooled him.
Similarly, some years ago, when I was arguing a point on another blog, I asked my correspondent if he would be confident enough to sit with me in a theatre, watching a stage magician, and explain to me as the act went on, just how those tricks were being done. I got no reply of any significance to that, but I think he might have realised that maybe he, like me, cannot just see through the trickery and deception that stage magicians use to entertain us all. But some alleged psychics do the same thing – is there a good reason to think that just because you can’t immediately explain something unusual that it must be paranormal, supernatural or just actual magic?
Science tries to find out what is going on out there. It’s true that science doesn’t know everything, and there are lots of gaps, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to fill in those gaps with guesswork that just happens to align with their personal beliefs. In fact, historically, every time science takes a step forward, religion and woo have to take a step back. Those gaps are closing.
It’s an easy claim, of course: “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore this or that paranormal or supernatural claim must be true by default. What else could it be?” But look at it this way: does science know more than it did last year? What about the state of scientific knowledge a hundred years ago? Until the late 19th century, science as we understand it now was called “natural philosophy,” but in those days science – a systematic search for knowledge – was still going on.
Think back to the ancient Greeks (or should that be the ancient Geeks?). Although they believed in gods, the work they produced was nothing short of astonishing. Eratosthenes worked out that the Earth is a sphere (approximately), and its size to within a few miles, for example, although in the same society Socrates was regarded as something of a heretic and was sentenced to death. Rather like today, any scientific research is OK just so long as it doesn’t contradict religious dogma.
Clever as they were, though, the Greeks didn’t develop radio telescopes, space flight, antibiotics, electricity, computers, the internet, a theory of nuclear fusion (they thought the Sun was a burning hot stone), a theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, a global positioning system, television, radio, etc., in other words, all of the things we just accept as normal nowadays. Philosophy preceded natural philosophy, which in turn preceded science as we know it now. Back in those days, there was plenty of scope to say philosophy (science, in other words) “doesn’t know everything.”
Things weren’t much different from now, two and a half thousand years ago, when it comes to wanting to know what makes the Earth and the universe “tick.” As clever as the Greeks were, they still had the same psychology that humans have today – an inbuilt need for answers. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to accept any answer, however wrong it might be, just to feel that they know what is out there. Thunder and lightning? If you don’t know about electrical charge and how it builds up in a cloud, leading to a lightning strike, then a made-up angry god will be a good enough explanation. And once you and your tribe have that belief built into your culture, woe betide any upstart philosopher, natural philosopher or scientist who tells you that you don’t need to sacrifice animals – or humans – to appease this non-existent god. The philosopher or scientist who shows that disaster can be avoided with a lightning rod could end up on a pyre for disagreeing with accepted religious doctrine.
I notice, however, that every church I pass when I drive around just happens to have a lightning conductor that reaches even above the steeple of that church. Why should that be? And why should that piece of copper cable reach higher towards God than the top of the steeple itself? Maybe it’s a better protector of God’s house than God himself.
The empirical knowledge we have now is way beyond anything the ancient Greeks had, and since then, that knowledge has increased and is still increasing. And over the last two and a half thousand years, there has been opposition to scientific knowledge from ignorant people – often as a mob – who think they have some insight unavailable to those who actually test and measure the universe around us. From the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by (probably) a Christian mob, to the famous book burnings by the Nazis in the middle of the 20th century, to the burning of priceless books and the destruction of ancient relics right now at the Mosul Library in Iraq by Islamic militants, the fight against knowledge by the ignorant continues.
Although it’s true that science doesn’t know everything, it knows more and more as time goes by, steadily closing the gaps that were formerly filled by claims of a god or gods. But science knows better than the ignorant that as questions about the universe are answered, more questions are thrown up in their wake. That’s what spurs science on.
The religious can claim, “God did it,” as if that answers anything at all, but religion does not lead to new knowledge, it leads to stagnation.
The paranormalists also stop further inquiry by not only failing to demonstrate anything paranormal, but by excusing their failure to do so by criticising science – those closed-minded researchers who are hell-bent on “preserving scientific dogma at all costs.” But while they accuse science of preserving some imagined, unchanging dogma, they also claim that science is always “changing its mind” about things.
The reality is that science tests the testable. It makes no attempt to actually explain nature, science merely describes nature. Why nature and the laws of physics are the way they are will likely never be explained. But the facts of nature and the laws of physics can be described and utilised for our benefit, even if no one will ever know “why” they are the way they are.
I don’t why E=MC^2, but it does. So we have GPS satellite navigation, nuclear reactors providing our electricity needs and so on. When you get down to it, piety and prayer provide nothing of practical value in the world, paranormal claims provide nothing of practical value in the world, no amount of belief in anything gives us anything of any use whatsoever.
If you have an electricity supply in your home; a connection to a safe water supply available, literally on tap; if you can access the internet or health care or even a library, then you are reaping the benefits brought about by science. If you really want to claim that because science challenges your deeply held beliefs that it doesn’t support, then just stop using science and its benefits. You don’t have to go far to prove you are right and science is wrong; just contact your energy supplier and have your electricity supply cut off. If you have a gas supply for your heating, that’s even better – have that disconnected too. Have your water supply stopped. Pray to your god to sustain you, or use your psychic powers to survive. If you can do it, science can measure it and confirm that there is something going on here.
That’s not going to happen, is it? In the meantime, science might not know everything, but it works. Religion and woo don’t.
Then again, I’m a sceptic. I can change my mind in the same way that science changes in the light of new evidence. Show me the evidence. Or show me next week’s lottery numbers. Or create world peace with a prayer.