Once Again, on Science Versus Other Methods of Discerning, Evaluating, and Applying Truth
By Ken K. Gourdin
As it often does, yet again, the utility of science as a means of discerning and applying truth came up at Sic et non, the blog of Brigham Young University (Provo) Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies Dan Peterson. See the following address (last accessed June 2, 2019): https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/05/on-the-scale-of-creation-in-space-and-time.html.
And, yet again—indeed, as if on cue!—the blog’s resident atheist appeared to extol the virtues of science in discovering truth, to the exclusion of all other methods. Essentially personifying science, he began one reply by writing “science strives …” I responded (ellipses are all mine throughout this post):
“Science strives” … As though science were some sort of self-existent, sentient being with an independent will and a mind of its own? Science is practiced by … humans, which [practice] produces a wide variety of results comprising “good science” and “bad science” and numerous permutations between those two poles.
He protested that he employed the expression as nothing more than a metaphor. However, given his regular habits (indeed, they seem more-or-less constant) of extolling science above all else and, in turn, of minimizing the potential of any other discipline to have anything reliable or worthwhile to contribute in pursuit of truth, I don’t think my reading of him on this occasion was unreasonable.
My interlocutor implied that in order to defend the ground they have staked out against unwanted intrusions by other methodologies for discerning and applying truth, the religiously devout must denigrate science—as though, while it is true that they may constitute a distinct minority in their respective disciplines, there are no religiously devout scientists! Our conversation continued, with me excerpting him in quotation marks and then responding:
[Screen name redacted]: “Historians don’t consider tales of miraculous events to be historically valid.”
So there is no such person as a historian of religion, then? Huh. Who knew? I’m sure that news will come as a shock to those in that discipline, then. Good luck setting them all straight! And I doubt historians of religion are seeking “historical validity” as much as they are seeking to understand how religion influenced the way the people who lived at a certain time saw the world. But, according to you, that’s a useless pursuit anyway, so …
[Screen name redacted]: “Without evidence and consensus, historical claims are viewed either as tentative, or possibly suspect if they reflect the prejudices of competing chroniclers.”
Replace the words “historical” and “chroniclers” with the words “scientific” and “scientists,” respectively, and that sounds like a perfect description of … I forget, what is that, again? Oh, yeah … science!
He derided the concept of “bad science” as a crutch, apparently invoked only by the religiously devout when they find out that their convictions cannot withstand scientific scrutiny—again, as though (while, admittedly, such people are in the minority) there are no religiously-devout scientists!
[Screen name redacted]: “… religious people have to mention ‘bad science’ …”
So “bad science” merely is a chimera invented by religious people? Balderdash! Other scientists talk about “bad science” all the time! (I rarely read scientific journals, but it wouldn’t take an exhaustive search of such journals to find more than a few examples: For one such example, surely you’re familiar with the whole controversy surrounding cold fusion?)
And “bad science” isn’t mentioned solely with respect to experiments that were conducted or theories that were believed, say, 50 years ago (again, see cold fusion, a relatively recent controversy). Such theories and such experiments actually may have been good science according to the data then known and the principles thought then to be in effect. Or perhaps they are good science as far as they go, but they fail to account for all available data or misinterpret the data for which they do account in some way, or perhaps subsequent experiments find new ways to work with the object(s) under study, with the principles involved, or with the data that were not available to previous researchers. (In other words, they are, just like the humans who theorize them, limited in some way.) As you yourself have pointed out, newly discovered ways of working with the objects, the principles, and the data then are incorporated into subsequent research, and the caravan of discovery marches on!
He then proceeded, gleefully, to take flame-thrower to several straw men whom I reminded him that he, and not I, had invited to the discussion:
[Screen name redacted]: “… as if understanding how the universe works is a trivial task that’s sullied by all the unreliable practitioners who are as likely to get it wrong as not …”
If you want to correspond with yourself in comments, that’s your business: have at it. But the foregoing excerpt is an example of you reading a whole bunch of stuff into my comment that I didn’t actually write. Not only did I not write it, I never even implied it. Science is, or at least it can be, an incredible and wondrous thing. My only point is that since science is engaged in by humans, often, it is subject to the same foibles and limitations to which any other human enterprise is subject.
[Screen name redacted]: “But it’s a bit ironic when religious folks instantaneously communicate their doubts about science to people all over the world by pressing a few keys on a computer, while there’s possibly a story about a return trip to the moon being mentioned on a nearby TV.”
And as I’ve already explained, religious people aren’t the only ones who doubt science which, for whatever reason, might be limited or suspect in some way. Religious people aren’t even the only ones who believe that it’s possible to use more than one paradigm for discovering and evaluating truth. Such people make cameo appearances here on this blog regularly, gemli, both when its purveyor briefly describes their backgrounds and excerpts their work and when devout people who engage in various kinds of empirical study comment thereon.
Then, he accused me of “denigrating science” when I had done nothing of the sort—in fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of an occasion when I have ever done so; if anyone wishes to point out such an instance, or such instances, to me, I will be happy to retract or to clarify my remarks. And not only did he accuse me falsely of denigrating science, in a nifty bit of rhetorical gamesmanship, he put me in the same company as crackpots who think that the earth is flat or who deny that U.S. astronauts actually went to the moon.
[Screen name redacted]: “You’re free to denigrate science, as are people who claim there’s a flat earth or that the moon landing was faked.”
Recognizing that humans are fallible and that enterprises in which they engage might, therefore, be limited in some way(s) in no way denigrates science, any more than to say that the same principle applies to humans who practice religion denigrates religion. It’s simply a recognition that, often, whether they view the world through a religious lens or through a scientific one, they see the world, not as it is, but, rather, as they are.