Austin Event: John Lennox and Steven Weinberg

UPDATE: Sadly, Professor Weinberg has withdrawn from this event. Philosophy professor Daniel Bonevac will take his place, and the event will proceed as planned.

Also, for some reason, “Veritas Forum” has been scrubbed from the promotional materials, so the new poster is below.

For those of you in the Austin, Texas area, the Veritas Forum is hosting a dialogue between John Lennox and Steven Weinberg Daniel Bonevac. For those who can’t make it, Veritas tends to post videos of their events on their website, so check in with them afterward.

_Has_Science_Rendered_Belief_in_God_Irrelevant_postcard_front

 

Science as true worship, Part II

truth

Part II: The truth will set you free

In Part I, we talked about the Christian influence on the philosophy of science and the increasing corruption of science the further it moves from its Christian roots. I identified the two significant corruptors of science as

  1. the desire for worldly approval.
  2. the desire to cling to a cherished idea or worldview.

Christianity acts as a brake on these corruptors, because encoded in the Christian way of life is the struggle to resist worldly things and to embrace the truth (John 8:32), however difficult it might seem.

As we discussed before, this does not mean Christians are immune to these corrupting influences, and particularly have to guard against dismissing uncomfortable truths because they go against a cherished interpretation of scripture. I promised Christians a way to avoid this trap, and here it is.

Have faith and go where the evidence leads.

Do not be afraid of the truth, because the truth will set you free. That’s how you avoid falling into trap #2. If you truly believe God is the sovereign creator of the universe, then honest scientific inquiry can only reveal truths about God’s character.

So, have faith and go where the evidence leads.

How that works in practical terms is up to you. You can take the approach of Georges Lemaître, and compartmentalize your religious and scientific views, or you can take the approach of Gerald Schroeder or Hugh Ross and attempt to reconcile the two. It will astonish no one that I favor the latter, since that’s what this blog and ministry is all about.

In my last few posts, I repeatedly hammered on the importance of evidence in science, and how that standard is gradually being eroded. Mostly I have criticized atheists for this, but Christians are guilty of it, as well. As Christians, we must not abandon that standard out of a misguided sense of devotion to scripture, but rather uphold that standard as being fully according to God’s will.

Here is a lesson in the importance of empiricism from an unlikely source:

While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe … and that the sun does not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.

These words were spoken by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who was head of the Inquisition that prosecuted Galileo. As Dinesh D’Souza commented in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity, this is a model of sensible procedure. D’Souza goes on to say:

Bellarmine assumed that there could be no real conflict between science and scripture, which is what Christianity has always taught. Consequently, he argued, if we have been reading scripture one way and the natural evidence shows that we are wrong, then we need to revise our interpretation of scripture and acknowledge our mistake. But first let us make sure that there is in fact conclusive scientific proof before we start changing scriptural interpretations that have been taught for a very long time.

It’s unfortunate that Galileo’s arguments in favor of heliocentrism were flawed, otherwise Bellarmine might well have been convinced. (If you want to read more about Galileo’s run-in with the church, go here.)

History treats the Church rather unfairly with regard to the Galileo affair, because we know in hindsight that Galileo was right (albeit for the wrong reasons), and we now have no difficulty reconciling scripture with the notion that the Earth moves around the Sun. In Bellarmine’s time, there was no conclusive scientific proof of heliocentrism, so he and others like him should be forgiven. We, however, are at the point where there is “conclusive scientific proof” of the very old age of the universe and the Earth, among other things. It is time for Christians to revise our interpretation of scripture, and understand how an old universe is consistent with a literal interpretation of Genesis.

Have faith and go where the evidence leads. And here is why you should not be afraid to do so.

Science does not progress in timid little steps, but in courageous leaps. The history of science is full of revolutionaries who had the courage and perseverance to go where the evidence led, and as a result overturned old, incomplete ideas and replaced them with new ones that have given us astounding insights into the workings of the universe and the character of its Creator.

Here are just a few scientists who had the faith to go where the evidence leads:

  • Copernicus: Overturned the almost 2,000 year-old Earth-centered model of the universe with a model in which the Earth goes around the Sun. The heliocentric model represented the beginning of the scientific revolution.
  • Galileo: Demonstrated the importance of observation and experiment in science, and was one of the first scientists to emphasize the mathematical nature of physical laws. He also laid the groundwork for Newton’s laws of motion and Einstein’s relativity.
  • Newton: Though he made many important contributions, he is best known for uniting the heavens and the Earth with his law of universal gravitation. Newton’s work represented the closing book end of the scientific revolution.
  • Lemaître: Demonstrated mathematically that the universe isn’t necessarily static and eternal, but could be expanding and finite in time. His dedicated work on this idea earned him the informal title of “Father of the big bang.”
  • Planck: Discovered a solution to the so-called “ultraviolet catastrophe” and in the process discovered that energy in particles is quantized. His work kicked off the quantum revolution, and earned him the informal title of “Father of quantum mechanics.”
  • Einstein: With his special and general relativity, he expanded our understanding of gravity and overturned the rigid and distinct concepts of space and time with the concept of a flexible spacetime.

Note that all but one of these men were Christian. Copernicus and Lemaître were both priests, and Newton wrote more about theology than anything else combined. Einstein, though not Christian, characterized his immense curiosity about the natural world as “wanting to know God’s thoughts.”

Science is true worship. The question is, does science worship the world or God? If it abandons empiricism and places anything ahead of the search for truth, it worships the world. If it embraces empiricism and goes where the evidence leads, it worships God.

We will discuss the ways in which science is currently being corrupted in Part III.

Science as true worship, Part I

Part I: The Christian roots of the philosophy of science

When I was a grad student, I had a brief conversation with a biology grad at another university. We talked about evolution, and when I brought up some criticisms of Darwinism, I expected him to push back. Instead, he told me that biologists were well aware of its deficiencies. I was taken aback by this, because we certainly don’t hear about them in the popular news, let alone in classrooms. I asked him why biologists weren’t publicly acknowledging these deficiencies, and he said, “We don’t want to hand a victory to Christians.” I was floored by this response, because it was one of the most unscientific things I’d ever heard anyone say.

Unfortunately, this sort of dogmatic and unscientific approach to science is becoming more prevalent the more science becomes divorced from its Christian roots. It also trickles down to the popular level, especially with the “I f—ing love science” crowd. These are the people who neither understand how science works nor respect its limitations. You can often recognize them by the way they declare “evolution is a fact” or say that the science of climate change is “settled” or refer to anyone who is skeptical of popular opinion as a “denier.”

But it’s not just the science fetishizers; many people, even some who practice science, fail to understand that science is not merely a body of facts and explanations, but that it’s a system of knowledge held together by a particular worldview. This is what’s referred to as the philosophy of science. From Wikipedia:

Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions concern what counts as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the purpose of science.

However, we can express it more simply:

  • The purpose of science is the search for truth about our material universe.
  • Any discipline or process that follows all of the available evidence counts as science.
  • The scientific pursuit of truth is based on the faith that our universe (including our own minds) operates according to natural laws.
  • Everything else is elaboration and details.

Recently, I discussed the Christian foundation of modern science, which consists of three core principles:

  1. Christian belief: the utterly counterintuitive biblical notion of linear time.
  2. Christian faith: faith in a deliberately ordered and knowable universe created by a rational being.
  3. Christian purpose: the obligation to test every claim; an obligation to understand God through study of the natural world.

There would be no modern science without #1 and #2. I said in a previous post that it could perhaps be argued, in principle, that while #3 did in fact play a significant role in the development of modern science, it was not absolutely necessary. In practice, however, I believe #3 is as essential as the first two.

newton

It is an undeniable fact that the great pioneers of modern science were Christians who wanted to know the mind of God. From Mitch Stokes’ biography of Isaac Newton:

For Newton, “To be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.” This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians.

I am not saying a person has to be Christian in order to be a good scientist. Just as you can have moral individuals who aren’t religious, you can have good scientists who aren’t Christians. But by the same token, just as you can’t have a moral society without religion, you can’t have a thriving scientific culture without Christianity.

As with any institution, the continued survival of science depends, not on the beliefs and conduct of a few individuals, but rather on the overall vigor of its culture. Science that is mostly practiced by people who believe what they are doing is a form of true worship is less susceptible to corruption than science that is mostly practiced by people who are motivated by other considerations.

There are many reasons science can go off the rails, but history and human nature tell us that the two greatest corrupting influences on science are:

  1. the desire for approval. Sometimes this is to gain social acceptance or accolades, but it is also sometimes necessary to maintain employment or funding.
  2. the desire to cling to a cherished idea or worldview.

Christians are not immune to these corrupting influences. We are all fallen and we live in a fallen world, after all. But the point is, a sincere desire to understand the mind of God is far less likely to lead to corruption than a desire to win someone’s approval or to get a lot of money. Christianity is necessary to resist this corrupting influence, not because Christians are inherently better people, but because the struggle against the desire for worldly things is coded into the Christian way of life.

But how do Christians guard themselves against the desire to cling to a cherished idea? No matter how principled you might be, it is still possible to fall into the trap of ignoring uncomfortable facts and conclusions because they seem to contradict your favorite interpretation of scripture. However, not surprisingly, all it takes is faith to avoid this trap.

In Part II, we’ll look at a lesson on good science from an unlikely source, some of the great Christian revolutionaries in science, and where science is falling into corruption.

Why do scientists believe in untestable theories?

strings

That is the question being asked by philosophers of science.

Physicists have long relied on a notion advanced by philosopher Karl Popper, that a theory is scientifically valid if it is falsifiable. But in recent years, many serious physicists seem to have abandoned this model. String theory, for example, is one of the most exciting ideas in modern physics. But it’s not testable—so how can physicists be confident that it’s sound?

Physical science is increasingly moving in the direction of accepting ideas that are practically or fundamentally untestable, but, contrary to popular sentiment, the reasons for it are not arbitrary.

According to philosophy of science researcher, Richard Dawid, there are three reasons a physicist will believe in an untestable theory:

  1. the theory is the only game in town; there are no other viable theories.
  2. the theoretical research program has produced successes in the past.
  3. the theory turns out to have even more explanatory power than originally thought.

Any of these arguments by themselves is not enough to convince a physicist that an untested theory has merit, but all three together are pretty powerful. That said, this powerful combination still doesn’t replace empiricism as the gold standard for determining scientific truth. It’s as though we’re circling back to the protoscientific methodology of the ancient Greeks, who relied on thought experiments, because they mistrusted experience. While it’s true that our perceptions can be subjective, the history of science clearly points to the superiority of thought + empiricism over thought alone.

My personal opinion as to why a lack of empirical support in science seems to matter less and less is that the empirical nature of physical science is rooted in Christianity, and science is increasingly divorced from its Christian roots. I’ll discuss this more next week.

Image credit: String Theory II by Digital Blasphemy 3d Wallpaper

There is no modern science without Christianity

How often do you hear that Christianity is not compatible with science? The next time you hear that claim, refer the critic to this list of Christians in science and technology and ask how it’s possible that so many Christians were able to make significant contributions to science and tech in spite of that incompatibility:

John Philoponus
Bede the Venerable
Rabanus Maurus
Leo the Mathematician
Hunayn ibn Ishaq
Pope Sylvester II
Hermann of Reichenau
Hugh of Saint Victor
William of Conches
Hildegard of Bingen
Robert Grosseteste
Pope John XXI
Albertus Magnus
Roger Bacon
Theodoric of Freiberg
Thomas Bradwardine
William of Ockham
Jean Buridan
Nicephorus Gregoras
Nicole Oresme
Nicholas of Cusa
Otto Brunfels
Nicolaus Copernicus
Michael Servetus
Michael Stifel
William Turner
Ignazio Danti
Giordano Bruno
Bartholomaeus Pitiscus
John Napier
Johannes Kepler
Galileo Galilei
Laurentius Gothus
Marin Mersenne
René Descartes
Pierre Gassendi
Anton Maria of Rheita
Blaise Pascal
Isaac Barrow
Juan Lobkowitz
Seth Ward
Robert Boyle
John Wallis
John Ray
Gottfried Leibniz
Isaac Newton
Colin Maclaurin
Stephen Hales
Thomas Bayes
Firmin Abauzit
Emanuel Swedenborg
Carolus Linnaeus
Leonhard Euler
Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Joseph Priestley
Isaac Milner
Samuel Vince
Linthus Gregory
Bernhard Bolzano
William Buckland
Agustin-Louis Cauchy
Lars Levi Læstadius
George Boole
Edward Hitchcock
William Whewell
Michael Faraday
Charles Babbage
Adam Sedgwick
Temple Chevallier
John Bachman
Robert Main
James Clerk Maxwell
Andrew Pritchard
Arnold Henry Guyot
Gregor Mendel
Philip Henry Gosse
Asa Gray
Francesco Faà di Bruno
Julian Tenison Woods
James Prescott Joule
Heinrich Hertz
James Dwight Dana
Louis Pasteur
George Jackson Mivart
Armand David
George Stokes
George Salmon
Henry Baker Tristram
Lord Kelvin
Pierre Duhem
Georg Cantor
Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Dmitri Egorov
Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin
Pavel Florensky
Agnes Giberne
J. J. Thomson
John Ambrose Fleming
Max Planck
Edward Arthur Milne
Robert Millikan
Charles Stine
E. T. Whittaker
Arthur Compton
Ronald Fisher
Georges Lemaître
Otto Hahn
David Lack
Charles Coulson
George R. Price
Theodosius Dobzhansky
Werner Heisenberg
Michael Polanyi
Henry Eyring
Sewall Wright
William G. Pollard
Aldert van der Ziel
Mary Celine Fasenmyer
John Eccles
Carlos Chagas Filho
Sir Robert Boyd
Richard Smalley
Mariano Artigas
Arthur Peacocke
C. F. von Weizsäcker
Stanley Jaki
Allan Sandage
Charles Hard Townes
Ian Barbour
Freeman Dyson
Richard H. Bube
Antonino Zichichi
John Polkinghorne
Owen Gingerich
John T. Houghton
Russell Stannard
R. J. Berry
Gerhard Ertl
Michał Heller
Robert Griffiths
Ghilean Prance
Donald Knuth
George Frances Rayner Ellis
Colin Humphreys
John Suppe
Eric Priest
Christopher Isham
Henry F. Schaefer, III
Joel Primack
Robert T. Bakker
Joan Roughgarden
William D. Philips
Kenneth R. Miller
Francis Collins
Noella Marcillino
Simon Conway Morris
John D. Barrow
Denis Alexander
Don Page
Stephen Barr
Brian Kobilka
Karl W. Giberson
Martin Nowak
John Lennox
Jennifer Wiseman
Ard Louis
Larry Wall
Justin L. Barrett

Nobel laureates are highlighted in red.

roger-bacon-statue

Be sure to emphasize that it was Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk, who originated the scientific method, and was thus the first modern scientist.

If the critic has any response to this at all, it will likely be to wave his hand and respond that it is in spite of their professed Christian faith that they made their contributions. This is simply untrue; and while it’s not surprising that a critic of Christianity would be ignorant of both this list and of Christianity’s part in the development of modern science, it’s very surprising — to me, anyway — that Christians likewise tend to be ignorant of these facts.

The first time I showed this list to a Christian audience during one of my lectures, there was an audible gasp. Most Christians are not only unaware that the claim of incompatibility is flatly false, but that the long list of Christians in science and technology is a testament to the fact that modern science is a direct product of the Christian faith.

I’ll say it again: Not only is science fully compatible with Christianity, it is extremely doubtful that we would have modern science without Christianity.

Entire volumes have been written on this topic, but the claim essentially rests on two beliefs. There could never be modern science without:

1. the counterintuitive notion of linear time, which was inferred from the Bible by St. Augustine in the 4th century.

2. belief in a deliberately ordered and knowable creation by a rational being (Genesis 1; Psalm 19; Proverbs 8:22-24; Romans 1:20; many more). C. S. Lewis, in his critique of atheist rationality in The Case for Christianity, explained it this way:

Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. … Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought…

In contemporary terms, this is called the Boltzmann brain idea, which effectively says, in the absence of a conscious creative force, it is statistically much more probable that we are simply “brains in vats” hallucinating these experiences than that we actually inhabit a highly ordered universe. In other words, you have to have faith that even your perceptions and thoughts are accurately reflecting a reality that operates according to non-arbitrary and knowable rules. That’s a given in Christianity, but there is no reason to believe otherwise if you don’t believe in a rational conscious creative force behind the universe.

While it could be argued, in principle, that perhaps the following point is not absolutely necessary for the development of modern science, it nevertheless played a significant role:

3. belief that we must test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and that we must study the natural world to better understand the character and purpose of God (Psalm 19; Romans 1:20). Mitch Stokes, in his biography of Isaac Newton, observed the following about Newton and his contemporaries:

For Newton, “To be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.” This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians.

Personally, I think it’s extremely doubtful that modern science could have emerged without this third principle, but I’ll save this for a later post.

One of the greatest achievements of modern atheism has been to divorce Christians from their scientific legacy. Modern science is one of the crowning achievements of Western civilization, built upon the foundation of Christian faith, belief, and purpose. But how many Christians are aware of this? Instead of questioning the source, many Christians have willingly accepted the lie that Christianity and science are mutually incompatible. This is the classic mistake of accepting an adversary’s frame. Christians must reject it by educating themselves on the history of their faith and the great part it played in the development of modern science.

The path to delusion — redux

Several readers have asked me about the purported new evidence for multiple universes, and what truth there is in the claim:

Have scientists discovered a parallel universe? Bright spots from after Big Bang may be another universe bumping into our own

In response, I’m reposting this article from last year. It links to a must-read interview with physicist, George F. R. Ellis, who offers sobering commentary on a growing tendency to mistake good theory for reality.

Update: A friend of mine encapsulates the goofiness this way:

Yesterday I was eating my Wheaties, and I noticed that my cereal pieces were smaller on average than than the Wheaties I’d eaten the day before. Now, there are alternative explanations that some have given, like maybe my Wheaties box is almost empty now so I’m getting down to the crumbs at the bottom, but my experience is also consistent with the possibility that my Wheaties box switched places with a Wheaties box from a parallel universe where Wheaties are smaller. If so, this would be the first time we’ve directly observed Wheaties from another universe. We can’t rule this out at this time.

In this excellent interview, eminent physicist George F. R. Ellis discusses the ill-advised direction in which some scientists are going:

Horgan: Physicist Sean Carroll has argued that falsifiability is overrated as a criterion for judging whether theories should be taken seriously. Do you agree?

Ellis: This is a major step backwards to before the evidence-based scientific revolution initiated by Galileo and Newton. The basic idea is that our speculative theories, extrapolating into the unknown and into untestable areas from well-tested areas of physics, are so good they have to be true. History proves that is the path to delusion: just because you have a good theory does not prove it is true. The other defence is that there is no other game in town. But there may not be any such game.

Scientists should strongly resist such an attack on the very foundations of its own success. Luckily it is a very small subset of scientists who are making this proposal.

It is indeed a very small subset, but it is also a very vocal and visible subset–many of these scientists are in the popular media as representatives of science. Ellis also takes them to task for formally rejecting philosophy while unwittingly engaging in a weak form of it.

The great irony here is that any atheists who claim to champion evidence and reason are abandoning both if they claim that the multiverse hypothesis, or any other fundamentally untestable idea put forth by scientists, is very likely true, because it’s elegant or the math is convincing or it’s beautifully consistent with what we believe, and so on. I have to check myself here, too, because I find some of these untestable ideas compelling for the same reasons. But, in terms of the irony, as Ellis points out, it was Galileo and Newton—both Christians—who revolutionized science by making it primarily an experimental, evidence-based endeavor, and now this is being dismissed by those who also ostensibly dismiss faith; they have abandoned evidence and reason in favor of what may only be a beautiful delusion.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire interview with Ellis (who is himself a Christian, incidentally) for an engaging discussion of what’s going awry on the modern scientific landscape.

Don’t trust the pop media on science

Last week, an atheist acquaintance of mine showed me this article, to which she added the triumphant notation “BAM!” as though science had finally pulled the plug on God.

express_headline

However, as I proceeded to explain to her, the article merely shows: a) she doesn’t understand how science and logic work; b) pop media reporters don’t understand how science and logic work; and c) you can’t trust the pop media to report scientific news accurately.

In a follow-up article, I’ll explain why the reporter’s claim is wrong. For now, I’ll talk about how you can tell right away that this article is not trustworthy.

In parsing this turkey of an article, a few things immediately jumped out. First of all, the headline is ludicrous. No respectable scientist would ever say anything like that. You can’t prove God didn’t create the universe unless you prove that something else did. Second, the ridiculous Daily Express article doesn’t really support that claim. Third, if you read the actual scientific paper, it makes no such claim whatsoever. In fact, I contacted one of the paper’s authors, a scientist at the University of Waterloo who was interviewed by the Express reporter, and he was surprised and dismayed by the way his work was misrepresented. He said he was expecting an article on inflation and relativity, not God.

This is part of a pattern I’ve noticed developing in the pop media. Prior to this, we had another declaration that the universe didn’t have a beginning (implication: Genesis 1:1 is irrelevant). I’m pretty sure what reporters are doing is combing through the arXiv eprint service for theoretical cosmology papers that have something to do with the origin of the universe, calling the authors for a quickie interview, and then shoe-horning the information into a narrative that the universe has no beginning, God is irrelevant, etc.

I keep telling you, my dear readers, atheists hate the big bang. They know exactly what it means — someone or something created the universe, and they cannot rule out God.

Does this mean you can’t trust anything the media say about science? No. There are good science reporters out there, you just have to be judicious in deciding what’s trustworthy and what’s not. I had a good experience being interviewed by a reporter from Discovery News about black holes a few years ago; it was clear she knew her stuff, and she wrote a good article. But then, unlike the Daily Express, which is a tabloid, Discovery News is a respectable science-oriented publication. But even then you have to be careful.

So, how do you know when to be skeptical? It can be hard to know, especially if you’re not a scientist who knows what to look for. I sometimes get duped by misleading articles when it’s about something outside of my area of expertise. But there are a few reliable tells. You should be skeptical any time you’re reading a science article that includes:

  • An outrageous headline. If the headline claims something impossible (“Science has finally disproved God!”), you can immediately dismiss the claim. Read the article with extreme skepticism.
  • An agenda. Does the scientific discovery require you to change your behavior or your worldview? If so, view it with skepticism. Look at who is making the claim and what they stand to gain from it. Read the actual scientific papers if you can. Read through legitimate criticisms of the discovery.
  • Controversy. Is the scientific discovery shocking or revolutionary? If so, view it with skepticism.

Keep in mind that editors have the final say over headlines and even the content of the article. There’s a good chance the reporter of the Express article did not choose that insanely provocative headline. A newspaper makes money through advertising, which means it needs to generate a lot of clicks from readers. The more grabby the headline, the more likely it will generate clicks. Once you click, it doesn’t matter to the bottom-line people at the newspaper if the article doesn’t entirely square with the outrageous headline.

Also, not everything that has an agenda or is shocking or revolutionary is necessarily going to be untrue. After two millennia of believing the universe was eternal, the news that the universe had a beginning was shocking and revolutionary, and required a lot of people to rethink their worldviews. Einstein’s relativity was pretty revolutionary. Quantum mechanics was revolutionary and just downright weird. But here’s the kicker — they were all supported by an abundance of very good evidence that continues to mount to this day. Also, two of these discoveries (quantum mechanics and relativity) have led to practical technological breakthroughs that have improved everyday life, like modern electronics and GPS.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the specifics of why the Express article was wrong, and how you can spot similar bad reporting in the future.

Scientific revenge poetry

There are few things more annoying for a scientist presenting at a conference than to be scheduled as the last presenter. A lot of attendees have lost interest by then or have left the conference, leaving you with a sparse and worn-out audience. When Australian astrophysicist, J. W. V. Storey, found himself in this unenviable situation in the 1980s, he got his revenge by presenting his research in the form of a poem and then later submitting his paper to the conference proceedings in poem-form.

Here is a sample:

I wrote my abstract, sent it in,
With words that don’t offend.
Imagine my horror to find that I
Am scheduled at the end.

Let me say, to be last speaker,
There are very few things worse.
And so this talk, to get revenge,
Will be entirely in verse.

The subject I address today
Is that of star formation.
And what we’ve found out recently
About the situation.

Stars start out as clouds of gas and
Dust and bits of spinning stuff.
Collapsing gravitationally
Until they’re dense enough.

They form themselves in little lumps,
(Or so says this bloke Jeans).
‘Dynamic Instabilities’
Whatever that term means.

It goes on for quite a while and includes figures, some of them charmingly hand-drawn. But the story doesn’t end there.

Last year, Storey’s family shared the following with one of my colleagues, which shows that the referee assigned to review Storey’s paper — who can now be identified as John Whiteoak — responded in kind, by producing his own poem to express his commentary (“Dick-Ed” is Richard McGee, the proceedings editor):

Whiteoak review

 

The sleeping beauties of science

The success of a researcher depends a lot on how influential his scientific papers are. This influence is usually determined by how many people cite a paper in their own papers within a few years of its publication. A professor of computing and informatics and his team went through millions of scientific papers to see just how long it takes after publication for a paper to reach a peak number of citations, and in the process, they uncovered what they call “sleeping beauties.” These are papers that fail to get much notice when they’re first published, only to be revived after decades, or even a century, of languishing. Included among these sleeping beauties is a paper Einstein co-authored with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen concerning the eerie phenomenon of quantum entanglement. That paper went largely unnoticed for about 60 years until it was revived in 1994.

Nobody is quite certain why these particular papers get revived, but one interesting factor is that for many of them, the later citations come from other disciplines.

The path to delusion

In this excellent interview, eminent physicist George F. R. Ellis discusses the ill-advised direction in which some scientists are going:

Horgan: Physicist Sean Carroll has argued that falsifiability is overrated as a criterion for judging whether theories should be taken seriously. Do you agree?

Ellis: This is a major step backwards to before the evidence-based scientific revolution initiated by Galileo and Newton. The basic idea is that our speculative theories, extrapolating into the unknown and into untestable areas from well-tested areas of physics, are so good they have to be true. History proves that is the path to delusion: just because you have a good theory does not prove it is true. The other defence is that there is no other game in town. But there may not be any such game.

Scientists should strongly resist such an attack on the very foundations of its own success. Luckily it is a very small subset of scientists who are making this proposal.

It is indeed a very small subset, but it is also a very vocal and visible subset–many of these scientists are in the popular media as representatives of science. Ellis also takes them to task for formally rejecting philosophy while unwittingly engaging in a weak form of it.

The great irony here is that many of the atheists who are self-styled champions of evidence and reason are abandoning both when they claim that the multiverse hypothesis, or any other fundamentally untestable idea put forth by scientists, is very likely true, because it’s elegant or the math is convincing or it’s beautifully consistent with what we believe, and so on. I have to check myself here, too, because I find some of these untestable ideas compelling for the same reasons. But, in terms of the irony, as Ellis points out, it was Galileo and Newton—both Christians—who revolutionized science by making it primarily an experimental, evidence-based endeavor, and now this is being dismissed by those who also ostensibly dismiss faith; they have abandoned evidence and reason in favor of what may only be a beautiful delusion.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire interview with Ellis (who is himself a Christian, incidentally) for an engaging discussion of what’s going awry on the modern scientific landscape.