How to make science great again


It’s incredible that in the wake of financial crises and populist movements around the world anyone would wonder whether a glitzy awards gala and lavish prizes would help improve the public’s view of science, yet that is one proposal to boost the public’s opinion in the wake of floundering financial support.

Bruce Y. Lee, who comments on science issues for Forbes magazine, observes a decline in science in the U.S., largely due to diminishing funding and brain drain, and says that to reverse it, “our society’s views of science have to change.” It’s true that reversal isn’t going to happen without public support, but I doubt the public is going to buy his proposal to reverse it, which is to lavishly fete scientists:

One way to do this is to give real scientists more celebrity treatment through awards shows, television, movies, advertisements and other means. Again, real scientists and not actors playing scientists. Seem a little far-fetched? Think that scientists can’t handle the spotlight and do anything besides science? Well, you only have to look in our country’s history to find numerous scientists playing more prominent and leadership roles in society. Moreover, after this year’s presidential election, anything seems possible.

This is cargo cult thinking. Celebrity is the result of public interest, not the cause of it. Celebrity isn’t what makes people love entertainment, it’s the ability of entertainers to connect with audiences in a deeply personal way that makes people love the medium and those who create it. It’s no different with science.

The moderately good news is that according to surveys by the National Science Board and the Pew Foundation, Americans remain generally positive about the benefits of science. The bad news is that: a) trust in and support for science is gradually declining; and b) while Americans are generally supportive of government investment in research, they are overwhelmingly disinclined to support increases in funding. I don’t know the exact reason for the latter, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that, given record government and personal debt and no pressing scientific issues on which Americans are united, most of the public doesn’t see science funding as a high priority. As for the former, I think a lot of this has to do with Americans feeling increasingly disconnected from the enterprise of science.

I’ve been studying and working in science for twenty years, and my experience during that time is that Americans are almost uniformly fascinated by science. People are just naturally inclined to be interested by the natural world, and more so as discoveries increasingly reveal what a complex and strange world we inhabit. It’s no surprise, then, that at least since the early 20th century the general public in the U.S. has been happy to confer celebrity status on the best-known and most personable scientists, including the original rock-star-scientist himself, Albert Einstein, as well people like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. These scientists captured the public’s imagination, not just because of their endearing personal quirks, but because they had a passion for popularizing science and making it seem accessible, relevant, and personal to the average person.

So, why is science, as Lee observed, in a state of decline in the U.S.? A lot can be said about this, but I’ll see if I can distill it a bit. For most of the history of science, funding has come from wealthy private donors and monarchs. While private donation remains an important source of funding, the vast majority now comes from the federal government. Government funding of science in the U.S. is a relatively new thing that had a modest beginning about a hundred years ago and really got going during the Eisenhower era with the military-industrial complex. Since then, there have been temporary peaks in funding during times of great political interest in science — world war, food crises, the space race, etc. — which led to gluts in science infrastructure, including more scientists, which then require ongoing investment to continue. However, it was naive to expect that science funding would’ve steadily increased indefinitely into the future. With a declining economy, few pressing social issues to galvanize the public about supporting science, and a gradual erosion of trust, there’s not much reason to be optimistic about the future of funding.

I want to go back to the idea of ostentatiously celebrating scientists to bolster public support for science and explain something that many in the upper echelons of science seem not to understand. There was already a deep reservoir of appreciation and admiration for science and scientists that was built up over hundreds of years of dedicated work and relatively recent attempts by scientists to connect with the public through popularization. We already had science celebrities like Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking who made the average person feel connected to science in a personal way. So, what happened? What happened is that much of that celebrity and public goodwill was squandered over the last several decades by over-politicization, ideologizing, and corruption of science. If Lee and others have any interest in generating public support for science, they need to address and reverse these things.

As far as I can see, the most pressing PR problems for science are:

  1. The politicization of science
  2. The use of science as ideological weaponry
  3. Corruption in science
  4. The over-sensationalizing and misreporting of science by the popular media
  5. The dumbing down of education

1. When the average person is told that, in spite of his concerns and reasonable skepticism, he must alter his lifestyle because of something he’s not allowed to question without being labeled a science denier, he feels disconnected from science. This started when certain scientists and their supporters began using language like, “the debate is over” and “there is a consensus” to shut down discussion. This is bad. It has to stop.

2. When the average person is told that science is hostile to his most cherished beliefs, he feels disconnected from science. This began at least as far back as Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s infamous “bulldog,” who deliberately misused the theory of evolution to undermine Christian belief by claiming that evolution had rendered God superfluous. This has unfortunately continued not only in biology, but in physics, as well with Stephen Hawking trading in his admirable career as a physicist and popularizer of science in order to become an anti-religious amateur philosopher. This isn’t to say scientists shouldn’t have their own opinions about the philosophical meaning of their work, but they should certainly be circumspect about using their work as a way to attack the dominant belief system of the people who fund it.

3. This one isn’t entirely the fault of scientists. The collapse of government funding bubbles has created a hyper-competitive environment that not only promotes the propagation of honest errors, but provides perverse incentives to cheat. This taints all of science, and creates an image problem with the public. Nobody wants to subsidize errors and fraud, after all. Ironically, logic dictates that the best way to deal with this is to eliminate government funding.

4. This one annoys scientists to no end. The media have a bad habit of grabbing hold of a mildly interesting scientific result and blowing it wildly out of proportion, mostly to get clicks and more ad revenue, but sometimes to reinforce an anti-religion bias. A recent example of this was the ludicrously over-sensationalized headline that physicists had disproved the big bang and a beginning to the universe.

I contacted a physicist whose results had been given this media treatment, and, contrary to how the reporter had spun the article, he expressed confusion and frustration over how his work had been misrepresented to serve an anti-religion narrative. This is why I won’t talk to the popular media about my work anymore unless the journalist is a credentialed scientist and the journal has an established track record of scientific accuracy. But other scientists keep falling for it, because they’re far too trusting of the media.

Again, when the average person is told that science is hostile to his most cherished beliefs, he feels disconnected from science. Furthermore, the average person, though he may not have advanced training in science, also has a sense of when he’s being sold a bill of goods. Frustrated, he may not realize it’s the pop media that can’t be trusted, and he just tosses everything out as untrustworthy. This won’t stop until scientists start refusing to feed the madness and hold the media accountable.

5. Schools are failing to teach children not only essential skills and knowledge of facts, but how to think critically. Most young people can recite at least the most basic scientific facts — for instance, they know that the Earth goes around the Sun — but given my experience, most of them have no idea how science works. The Pew survey results likewise indicate that both scientists and average Americans hold a negative view of STEM education at the K-12 level. Until this changes, it’s unreasonable to expect that science will not continue to decline in this country.

Unless something significant changes, I’m skeptical that the decline in government funding will be reversed. Personally, I would prefer some version of private support — I think it encourages better research and accountability — but, whatever your preference, it’s extremely doubtful that we can reverse this trend by trying to manufacture a culture of celebrity around scientists. Rather, I think we should deal with the core issues of science’s PR problem, and make Americans once again feel connected to the enterprise of science. Then, maybe, we can make science in America great again.

Why Rationalia is doomed to failure

Earlier this week, science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed a virtual nation that sounds like a science-fetishists dream-come-true:

It provoked some mocking responses on Twitter, like this one

The idea is ripe for mockery, because, of all people, a scientist should understand what a subjective basis for policy this is.

As a scientist, I’m very much in favor of evidence and reason; but to base an entire nation’s policy on the weight of evidence is ludicrous, for one simple reason. Has our knowledge of the world stayed the same in the last 500 years? the last 100 years? the last 5 years? the last six months? The last six minutes? The answer, of course, is no. The weight of evidence is constantly changing. There have been so many major revolutions in science and philosophy based on the current weight of evidence that our view of the world has been upended more times than you can probably count. Ironically, to base your policy only on the weight of evidence means that your policy is completely subjective, not objective.

Also, who decides how to interpret the evidence? Interpretation is subject to limitations, like current technology, limited human perception, and human emotions. This is why bad theories persist for so long in spite of evidence to the contrary, and why there are alternate theories for just about everything. And even when there’s consensus, that’s hardly a guarantee that the evidence won’t support an entirely different view in the future. Remember, there was a time when most people thought the Sun went around the Earth and that there were no such things as germs.

But for the sake of argument, let’s accept the premise of Rationalia and apply its sole law of the land to judge whether Rationalia would be a place in which anyone would want to live. We don’t need to imagine it, because there have already been at least two major historical movements based on reason and evidence — the French Revolution and communism. The first devolved into an orgy of violence and produced the exact opposite of what it intended, and the second led to misery and genocide on a scale never before seen on earth before it ultimately collapsed under the sheer weight of its opposition to reality. The weight of evidence says that any nation whose policy is based solely on the weight of evidence will be an unmitigated disaster.

Don’t misunderstand me. The point here is not to reject evidence and reason — evidence and reason are important and have their place in any decision-making process — but they cannot be the sole arbiters of policy.

[This isn’t the post I alluded to yesterday. That one probably won’t be posted until next week. -Ed.]

Why haven’t we been back?

Bill Whittle observes that it’s becoming increasingly common for young people to question whether we ever landed on the Moon, despite reasonable explanations for their objections:

Now, I have no problem with people who are by default skeptical until they find compelling evidence and a logical argument for a claim. That’s actually pretty wise. But, like Whittle, I do have a problem with people who are too intellectually lazy to examine the arguments and evidence.

Whittle cites a common objection to the idea that we put men on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s, which is that we haven’t been back since. Like other objections to the Moon landings, there’s a reasonable explanation for why we haven’t been back.

What’s truly astounding is that, in terms of technology, it really doesn’t take anything more than Newtonian physics and 1960s technology to go to the Moon. The proof of that is the mirrors placed on the Moon in the 1960s for experiments called laser-ranging — we use them to accurately measure the distance from the Earth to the Moon by bouncing laser-beams off of them. So, there’s no doubt we sent something to the Moon in the 1960s. But did that include men? There’s good reason to think so just based on the technology available, but there is one other ingredient that’s necessary to pull off a feat like that, and once you know what that is, you will understand why we haven’t been back.

The first thing we need to consider is the historical and cultural context of the Apollo program. The space program of the 1950s and 1960s was an outgrowth of Eisenhower’s powerful military-industrial complex. NASA’s budget at that time represented a whopping 5% of the federal budget (compare that with NASA’s current budget of just 0.5%). Two major wars in which the U.S. was victorious were still fresh in the memories of Americans. Our economy was doing well, and, culturally, the U.S. was still united. We also had a powerful common enemy — the Soviet Union. So great was our animus for the Soviets, that the U.S. at that time was almost singularly devoted — militarily, culturally, and economically — to beating them in the Cold War.

For those of us who were not around in the 1950s, it’s impossible to understand the shock and fear Americans felt in 1957 when the Soviets successfully put Sputnik in orbit. Then there was Yuri Gagarin and his historic orbital trip around the Earth. The Evil Empire, as Reagan would later call it, had made it to space before anyone else, and Americans were fearful that the Soviets would soon dominate space. So, it was determined that we would do everything in our power to beat the Soviets in the space race, and what better way to beat them than by going to the Moon?

Mountains of money and countless hours of manpower went into the Mercury and Gemini programs, eventually leading up to Apollo. But even then, by the mid-1960s, the political and cultural infrastructure supporting the space program was beginning to weaken. It was after the success of Apollo 11, when men finally set foot on the Moon, that the cracks began to show. NASA continued with five of six remaining Apollo missions, because they had already been planned and budgeted, but with the exception of the doomed Apollo 13 mission, the public wasn’t all that interested in these anticlimactic follow-up trips to the Moon.

By the 1970s, the fervor that had kept the Apollo program going was simply no longer there, and going back was of little interest. What were we going to do there that we hadn’t already done? Establishing a Moon base would require dedicating economic and technological resources far in excess what was required for the Apollo missions. Going to Mars was a long ways off. That didn’t much leave in terms of foreseeable goals for manned missions. It also didn’t help that there was an energy crisis at the time, with the emphasis on conserving energy as much as possible. For those reasons, there was little public or political support for continuing to fund NASA at such a high level.

The government shifted priorities and decided to focus on orbiting space stations and satellites, the reusable Space Shuttles, and the much more feasible robotic explorers that could go anywhere in the Solar System for a fraction of the cost and none of the risk of sending human explorers. With this shift in priorities, the military-industrial infrastructure and the technological and engineering manpower that went into designing and manufacturing manned lunar rockets disappeared.

By the 1980s, the Cold War was also increasingly winding down, or at least competition with the Soviets wasn’t seen as such a high priority. When the Evil Empire formally collapsed in 1991, there was nothing against which the U.S. needed to push back. Much like we build body strength by pushing weights, cultural strength is often achieved by pushing back against some external cultural force. But what Americans were pushing back against by the 1970s wasn’t even clear. Gas shortages? The Iranians? Disco? And what do Americans have to push back against today, except perhaps the increasingly confused and demoralized War on Terror? It’s costing the U.S. trillions in the long term, and it has absolutely nothing to do with space. No politician is going to divert any of that money to going back to the Moon.

So, what else is America fighting against? Global warming, trans-fats, a never-ending list of social justice grievances? I hope you see what I’m getting at here. Unlike the America of the 1950s and 1960s, we have no coherent culture. There is no common enemy. More importantly, there are no common values and goals, and no common vision. All you have to do is look at the political landscape to see that we’re a fractured and demoralized nation, and that’s effective death for any culture.

It didn’t take much in the way of physics to land men on the Moon. What it did take was enormous cultural capital — a compelling reason, a monumental economic and technological effort, and the will of a strong, united, and invigorated people. We need a compelling reason to return to the Moon, and the only reason would be to establish a semi-permanent human settlement. Do we have the will to do that? The America of today hardly resembles its former self, so it shouldn’t be surprising in the least that we, as a nation, haven’t taken any meaningful steps towards expanding the human exploration of space.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. There are still parts of America that remain strong and invigorated. One of those parts is in Mojave, California, where there is a burgeoning private space enterprise. Bill Whittle talks about the Free Frontier here:

Physicists must defend the integrity of science

** Written by “Surak” **

German climate scientist, Lennart Bengtsson, is speaking out about the overwhelming pressure he experienced after joining a group skeptical of climate change:

News that Lennart Bengtsson, the respected former director of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, had joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), sent shockwaves through the climate research community. GWPF is most notable for its skepticism about climate change and its efforts to undermine the position of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The tremors his decision sent through the scientific community shocked Bengtsson.

The scientist said colleagues placed so much pressure on him after joining GWPF that he withdrew from the group out of fear for his own health. Bengtsson added that his treatment had been reminiscent of the persecution of suspected Communists in the United States during the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s.

It is time for physicists around the world to wake up to what is happening to science. They cannot sit back and do nothing as their colleagues in climate science are being harassed, having their jobs threatened, and being denied the opportunity to publish their works for political reasons. Physicists have to feel and express outrage whenever politicians make nakedly self-serving pronouncements that the scientific debate on climate change is over. Physicists know better than anyone else that’s not how science works. How often during the centuries from Aristarchus to Copernicus to Lemaître have physicists witnessed the lone individual prevail in the search for truth over the mistakes and objections of the multitude?

The threat to science is not confined to the study of climate change. Consider the field of biology, which, since the time of Thomas Huxley, has been dominated by the flawed theory of Darwin. What true scientist could accept the near deification of another scientist or the effective canonization of his works? Physicists certainly venerate the pioneers of astronomy and physics, but they do so even as they attempt to fulfill their scientific responsibility to do everything they can to prove those great scientists wrong. Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton did much for humankind, but physicists don’t try to shield them from criticism. They fully accept and honestly proclaim that these great luminaries were often wrong. By contrast, try getting any biologist to publicly admit the truth that Darwin was seriously wrong about evolution. They don’t dare.

And then there are the behavioral and social sciences—the benighted drudges of left-wing political ideology for so many generations. Take a few moments to investigate the latest pronouncements from the professional associations that represent the mainstream of psychology, anthropology, sociology and all the other behavioral disciplines; you will quickly understand the anti-science they truly represent. Psychologist, William James, was correct when he wrote about the study of human behavior over one hundred years ago, “This is no science … ,” but he was tragically wrong when he continued, “… it is only the hope of a science.”

There is no hope of science in these fields, because in them there is none of the overriding desire for or genuine commitment to truth that can defeat the human failings that physics took two millennia to overcome. That is why the social and behavioral studies have failed to accomplish the paradigm shift, the empirical conversion, and the discovery of natural laws which are the necessary steps to true science. Instead of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and the light of truth, these fields have give humankind nothing more than scientific abominations such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

Physicists must understand the terrible and dangerous imbalance in human knowledge their lack of leadership is allowing to occur. Physics and the other physical sciences have given humankind an incredible power over the forces of nature. We can harness nuclear energy, create a multitude of new chemicals, manipulate the building blocks of matter, reshape the surface of the Earth, and change the atmosphere. But, because we do not understand or have any power over the inner forces that cause human behavior, we are like little children handling loaded weapons.

It took 1800 years before Copernicus realized the truth of what Aristarchus said about the structure of our solar system and took the first step toward true science. We can’t wait another 1800 years to develop a true science of human behavior. We won’t last that long. All sciences have to be put back on the path to truth. That’s why physicists must find the courage and determination to act as the keepers of the scientific flame and light the way for the others.

Physicists must shine a scientific light on all of the pretenses, the dishonesty, and the abuses that pass for science in other disciplines. Physicists must turn their love of science into a rage against all efforts to bend science away from the search for truth. Physicists must react with intellectual fury against all attempts to subvert science into the service of greed (yes, I’m talking about you, Al Gore) and the lust for political power (yes, I’m talking about you, IPCC).

Physics is the father and mother of all science. Physicists must act like the loving but determined parents of a hoard of unruly children who, instead of working hard to become real scientists, spend their time playing at and pretending to be scientists in the fields of biology, climate change, and human behavior. Physicists must guide and instruct those who are willing to learn from the magnificent successes of the physical sciences. They must relentlessly call out, scold, and discipline those who aren’t. If physicists lack the foresight or are simply too wimpy to take charge and lead the way, science will fail. Only God can help humanity if that happens, because we won’t be able to help ourselves.

Replay: Politics, science, and a false dichotomy

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

** Written by “Surak” **

There was a political confrontation last Thursday [August 2011] in New Hampshire between conservative politician, Rick Perry, and a liberal woman protestor. The dispute concerned Perry’s views about evolution and creationism, and it demonstrated why we need to be concerned about the future of science in America. Governor Perry spoke to the woman’s young son in front of the usual swarm of reporters eager for a headline. Perry gave them one by telling the boy that evolution was a theory with gaps in it. In an obvious attempt to contrive an unflattering media incident to hurt the Texas governor’s campaign, the mother could be heard urging the child to ask Perry why he didn’t believe in science. Perry ignored the mother and told the boy that in Texas both evolution and creationism are taught, “… because I figured you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” I am appalled by what the mother did and troubled by the implications of Perry’s response.

The mother undoubtedly thinks of herself as a defender of ‘science,’ by which I guess she means the usual vague understanding of the currently popular but failed mid-20th century version of evolution. Whatever her beliefs, it was an abuse of science to pull a cheap political trick like this. And, it was a disturbing corruption of her child’s innocence by putting words in his mouth he couldn’t possibly have understood. She obviously thought she was protecting him and other children from false ideas, but her actions amount to nothing more than a crude form of indoctrination based on the prevailing conviction that any questioning of ‘evolution’ is an intellectual sin.

I do not endorse Rick Perry or his political viewpoints. Having said that, I do agree with two important things he said. First, evolution theory, even in its best, most current form, does have serious gaps. For instance, it cannot explain how life began, the incredible explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, the fossil record that shows the sudden appearance of a multitude of new organ, limbs and species with no apparent transition stages, or the very recent appearance and mysterious nature of human consciousness. One cannot defend science by becoming indignant when someone else points out the obvious.

More importantly, I hope Governor Perry was sincere about trusting students to get it right. Science education in America should be based on that trust in (and challenge for) young minds. The foundation of modern science, as well as the basis of genius, is the ability to ask good questions, usually in the form of ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what if.’ Einstein’s thought experiments are a famous example. Scientific questioning, if it is to continue to lead to amazing and useful new answers, should never be shackled by politics, religion, or philosophy. Children must be taught and encouraged to ask their own questions no matter how strange, silly, or politically incorrect they might seem to parents and teachers.

Years ago, my high school science classes consisted mostly of rote memorization of facts and stale reenactments of old experiments. We were forced to think about other people’s questions (including a lot of mind-numbing ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘where’) rather than our own questions. The whole process was as divorced from real life concerns, important philosophical questions, and religious beliefs as possible, and therefore totally irrelevant and boring. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the wonders and power of real science.

I have a deep commitment to the scientific method. But, that commitment is tempered by an understanding that science is a tool that has limitations which must be acknowledged. Science cannot continue its positive role in society by becoming some kind of false idol, something created by humans but worshiped as infallible. Scientists and science teachers need to model a necessary and healthy humility that includes the need to state up front that science can only deal with our material world and can have nothing legitimate to say about anything that might lie outside our universe, such as God or heaven. Then maybe we’d get fewer annoying distractions at political events, and politicians could focus more on what they really need to do.

But humility is not happening. Science is being promoted by some as the complete, unerring, and only way to arrive at the truth. So, instead of being a good example for others, we witness more than a few scientists make the grave mistake of denigrating other people’s deepest beliefs and alienating them from science. Look up the latest silly musings of the great scientist Stephen Hawking to see a sad and disturbing example of this. If humility fails on a large enough scale, science can’t help but slide in the direction of political correctness and eventually petrify as dogma.

We won’t be able to avoid this fate if protecting science comes to mean putting young people like the woman’s son in an educational bubble to protect them from philosophy and religion under the guise of separation of church and state. Remember that science started as something called natural philosophy and was given its modern form by its devoutly Christian founders. You cannot separate these three things without damaging science. If our current generation of students is to become the next generation of effective scientists, they must be given the opportunity to understand how science relates to and differs from religion and philosophy objectively without the biases and fears that currently stifle our schools and rupture our communities.

So, Governor Perry is right about teaching creationism, because it is a powerful force in American history and culture that needs to be studied not just in social studies classes but also in science classes. Even young-Earth creationism, which I view as sadly non-scientific, should be squarely presented to high school students. Students need to understand what science is not in order to understand what it is. They will benefit from understanding young-Earth creationism, have fun debating it, and discover the truth for themselves if given the necessary tools, opportunity, and encouragement.

My challenge to the mother and all others on the left of the political spectrum is ‘what are you afraid of?’ If all the variations of creationism are so totally wrong, if the science you believe in is so strong, won’t it be obvious to the vast majority of students by the time they finish high school? Allow creationism, intelligent design, and the various forms of evolutionary theory to contend with one another in an honest competition of ideas, and then trust students to get it right. One can only object to this if his or her real goal is indoctrination.

This open approach to science education would include a spirited defense of Darwinism in the schools, because Darwin is a prime example of a great scientist asking important questions and coming up with an original and compelling answer. But evolutionary theory must be presented truthfully and fully, including not only its strengths, but also its many weaknesses. In the spirit of an open and effective science curriculum, would the liberal mother from New Hampshire be willing to have science teachers discuss the totally unexpected results of evolutionary development (Evo Devo)? Is this ‘defender of science’ even aware that the findings of biologists in this new field have turned evolutionary thought on its head in the last few years? (I refer the reader to Sean B. Carroll’s excellent book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom). Would she be willing to have students informed that the three great enduring mysteries of biology – the origins of life, the inexplicable explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, and the sudden development and mysterious nature of human consciousness – correspond to the three instance in Genesis that the word ‘creation’ is used to describe how things came about? (As an agnostic about religion, I’m not sure what this means, but it is really interesting.) Or, would she insist that young people be kept ignorant of all this in defense of some quasi-sacred belief she calls evolution?

To be fair, it is likely and terribly unfortunate that most people on the political right and the Christian side of the science/religion debate don’t trust young people either. As the religious and political conflict continues to intensify, which it seems to be doing, each side will probably do all it can to indoctrinate and control children. I fear that, as a result of this irresolvable conflict, science as the search for truth will eventually be fatally corrupted and seriously diminished as a force for good in people’s lives.

So, I want to say this to people on the left who declare their desire to protect science: you don’t protect science by sanitizing education and excluding other ways of thinking. You must look at yourselves in the mirror and realize that you are just as susceptible to political dogma and metaphysical prejudice as the people you oppose. Quit trying to use science to score political points and undercut Christian influence. In other words, if you have to fight, fight fair and leave science out of it.

To the people on the religious right who want to protect their faith: you can’t protect it by rejecting science or promoting false scientific views, because it will only make you look foolish and alienate your children in this age of science. Young-Earth creationism in particular is self-defeating because it leaves Christian youth vulnerable to the powerful (but false) scientific arguments of prominent atheists who are increasingly successful in turning young people away from faith. You believe, or at least many of you say you believe, that the Bible is true. You also understand that God gave us minds capable of comprehending his works. Won’t both paths, scripture and science, eventually lead to the same truth?

If you doubt this, consider the following quote from Gerald L. Schroeder’s bestselling book, The Science of God:

At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was so thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin noncorporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudosubstance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is and will be formed.

As Dr. Schroeder points out (p. 56), “This … could be a quote from a modern physics textbook.” But in fact it comes from the 13th century biblical scholar, Nahmanides (1194-1270), who was able to anticipate modern science by 700 years using nothing more than a literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s true that the best scientists in the world were not capable of this level of understanding of our universe until after 1965, but science did finally catch up with scripture. Christians must have faith that scripture and science are two paths to the one and only truth, and God intended us to use both. (See Psalms 19:1 and Romans 1:20.)

This is why I am concerned about Governor Perry’s statement. His indirect response to the mother’s attack assumes that either science (in this case, evolution) or Christian scripture (in this case, creationism) is right, that they can’t both be right. Christians must not buy into the imagined conflict between science and faith — there is no inherent schism. I believe both the scientific view of our universe (effectively understood) and the Genesis account of creation (properly understood) are entirely compatible.

You don’t have to be a believer in scripture to accept the possibility there can be more than one path to the truth. It would be wonderful if we could all wish each other well on whichever path each of us chooses and help one another in the search for truth. If we can’t manage that level of good will, then we should at least accept, in the American spirit of freedom, that no one has a right to tell anyone else what to believe. I hope that all Americans will embrace science as the objective search for truth and keep it above the fray, that Christians will not see science as the enemy but will once again become fully involved in the scientific adventure, and that our brothers and sisters on the left will refrain, even if they must see religion as the enemy, from using science as a weapon. Otherwise we will all lose so much.

The scientific method and ‘real science’

The following is a comment left by a reader at Vox Popoli about a year ago, in response to another reader who was concerned about the current state of science. I had written the following response with the intention of posting it here, and then forgot about it. Surak is about to offer some commentary on a disturbing development in science that bears on this, so I figured now was a good time to dig it up and post it.

To answer your question as to what ever happened to the scientific method, here’s the shocking truth: Science does not operate according to the scientific method unless there’s a crisis. Never did.

Science, just like every other avenue of human endeavor (why should it be different, honestly?) operates under the thrall of a power structure. Always has.

The scientific method only applies when challenges come up against prevailing paradigms. Then, it is utilized, and don’t be a fool understand that every effort is made, always, to doom the challenger and to favor the prevailing paradigm.

The great merit of the scientific method is that under these rare conditions reason and proof hold sway. But please do not be so foolish as to assume that science is governed by the scientific method on a basis, because it is not.

Science is governed by egos. And nothing more.

It is true in a grand Kuhnian sense that crisis precedes advancement. It is also true that egos are a factor in science. But so what? Science is the triumph of the human mind over ego and a multitude of other human failings—limited perspective, misleading emotions, dominant philosophies that act as closed boxes, and the corrupting effects of the universal desire for fame, fortune, and/or political power. The scientific method is the means by which these frailties are remedied. Since these obstacles to advancements in knowledge will always be with us, there will always be a turbulent interplay between human nature and the pursuit of science.

The key element of the scientific method that keeps it from flying off in the direction of wild, unsubstantiated speculation is the peer-review process. If you want to know if the scientific method is alive and well in any branch of science, simply observe how rigorously the peer-review process is being used. I go through the peer-review process on several levels every time I submit a research paper for publication.

The first hoop I have to jump through is the judgment of the referee assigned by the journal in which I hope to have my paper published. The most important thing the referee does is check how well I have accomplished the observe –> hypothesize –> predict –> test –> theorize part of the process. If the judgment is that my work is scientifically sound, the paper is published. Then the whole body of my profession passes judgment on my work by deciding whether or not to cite my work. At the next level of the peer-review process, decisions are made about which scientists are deserving of funding, tenure, and promotions. At the final level, judgments are made about which work is deserving of awards. The end result of this in physics is a steady advance in knowledge where occasional detours from truth are corrected and dead ends are usually recognized and reversed.

I accept that there are some areas of science in which the scientific method does not currently function as it should. So-called “climate change science” is the most obvious example of science being corrupted by politics, money, and dogma. Surak will have something to say about this soon with regard to a disturbing development in this field. Meanwhile, there is a simple test one can apply in this regard: any time the name Al Gore or the terms “scientific consensus” and “the debate has been settled” are used in regard to any branch of science, it has undoubtedly strayed from the scientific method.

Biology certainly suffers from an ego problem to the extent that it is nearly impossible to get a mainstream biologist to utter the words, “Darwin was wrong about some important things.” He was wrong about some important things, and a paradigm shift is long overdue in the field of evolution. But, it must be acknowledged that a multitude of biologists are doing very good work that is firmly based on the scientific method.

The real test of any field’s application of the method is whether that field petrifies into dogma or if it routinely accepts change. I must speak in defense of my field of physics/astrophysics. It has a long history that includes the initial establishment of the scientific method as well as continuous successful applications of its process. After the Copernican revolution and the invention of precision clocks, experimental methods were sufficiently advanced that it didn’t take all that long to accumulate enough evidence to overthrow old ideas and adopt new paradigms. To name but a very few examples: Newton’s uniting the heavens and the earth under one set of laws, Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism, Poincaré’s relativity of time and space, Planck’s quantum, Hubble’s confirmation of other galaxies and the expanding universe, Einstein’s new view of gravity, Lemaître’s big bang theory, Zwicky’s dark matter, and the supernova teams’ accelerating universe.

You say this is rare, but how often do you think this is supposed to happen? How often can it happen on such a large scale? The Hubble/Lemaître paradigm is an especially important example of the scientific method working as well as it possibly can. Most physicists did not like the idea of a universe with a beginning, but the scientific method is so firmly established in physics that the vast majority of them accepted it once there was sufficient evidence to overcome all reasonable objections. Those who clung to the notion of the eternal universe for reasons of ego and non-scientific concerns were discredited for straying from the scientific path.

The application of the scientific method does not have to be perfect to be functional. My own everyday experience in the field of astrophysics has been that the method sometimes proceeds as the classic observe -> hypothesize -> predict -> test -> theory. But quite often it is something very different: observe -> huh? -> observe -> what the … ?! -> hypothesize -> predict -> test -> getting close to a theory! -> test again -> wait, what? -> OH! -> hypothesize -> test, and so on. As long as it is evidence- and prediction-driven throughout the confusion, that’s good enough.

As for the system being set up to doom the challenger, how else would you have it? That’s the way it should be, as long as this resistance is not rooted in ideology (e.g. “climate change science”). It’s not unlike a court of law, where the presumption should be the innocence of the accused and the burden of proof lies with the accuser.

Egos, admittedly, often get in the way of true science, but on the other hand I doubt science could proceed without them. Scientists will always be fully human and infinitely closer in nature to Captain Kirk than to Mr. Spock. The vast majority of people I work with are truly driven by a desire for truth, but also the competitive hope for recognition and reward (which is why science has always been a traditionally masculine endeavor). And yes, they also have an understandable instinct to protect the fruits of their labor.

The point of all this, do not confuse the inevitable imperfect application of the scientific method for its absence.

Zombie science

There’s a simple reason for the corruption of biology and the social sciences: these studies are not based on Christian beliefs and faith the way science originally was and must always be. Modern science developed in only one place—Christian Europe. If you look up the great pioneers of physics and astronomy, you will find that they were almost all devout Christians, from Copernicus to Galileo to Newton to Maxwell to Planck to Lemaître.

The one glaring exception was Einstein, but even he famously said, “I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.” Even though Einstein was not Christian, he was the product of the Christian European culture that gave birth to science, and he was a willing participant in a process based on Christian principles:

But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. (Albert Einstein, 1941)

The prime motivation of Einstein and so many other great figures in science was to uncover divine truth and know the mind of God. People who feel they are doing God’s work are far less likely to succumb to human frailties and engage in activities that corrupt the search for truth. That tradition remains strong in physics, the original science. That is why the field of astrophysics was able to resist the degenerative effects of an increasingly atheist society. When the devout Lemaître conceived of the primeval atom (aka big bang theory) and demonstrated that the Genesis account of a universe with a beginning was scientifically sound, the stubborn resistance of scientists with a hatred for the idea of God was quickly overcome by the evidence.

The other branches of science have not fared as well. Atheists stole science from Christians in the mid and late 19th century with the false social science of Marx and behavioral science of Freud as well as the misuse of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the gross misrepresentation of Christian scripture. Over the last century and a half, secular humanists have successfully alienated Christians from the scientific method the faithful created and taken over most of its areas of study. Physics still has a substantial minority of Christians (and people with a general belief in God), and much good work is still being done. The social and behavior studies, on the other hand, are the tools of secular humanism and the zombies of the scientific world—active but not alive. Biology was bitten long ago and is gradually succumbing to the humanist infection. There is an easy way to tell a zombie biologist from a true biological scientist; ask him to say the following words, “Darwin was seriously wrong about some important things.” If he can’t bring himself to say this, you are speaking with one of the walking dead. Climate change ‘scientists’ are just garden-variety corrupt hacks who have sold out for money, prestige, and political favors. Bundle up for the coming ice age or thank the polluters for preventing it.

The lesson here is that the further any area of study is from the Christian foundations of true science, the more corrupt it is. The United States has been the source of a great deal of the productive science done in the 20th and early 21st centuries. It is also the most Christian of all developed countries. If atheists succeed in turning the United States into anything similar to what the formerly Christian European nations now are, science will die and humankind will experience a dark age.

Replay: The free frontier

Traffic’s up after the informal announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

Yesterday [April 12, 2011], on the 50th anniversary of the first man in space, The Atlantic featured an article by Jim Hodges lamenting the decline of American exceptionalism in space:

[In the 1960s] Americans didn’t talk of their exceptionalism. They did exceptional things, and the world talked about it. In many places around the world, in science labs and classrooms, the NASA “meatball” was as recognizable as the Stars and Stripes.

People remember that President Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade [of the 1960s] is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Forgotten is that just before that challenge, he said this as a preamble to it: “I believe we possess all of the resources and talents necessary [to lead the world into space]. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time as to insure their fulfillment.”

The government is certainly not doing that now, and we can’t count on it to do these things ever again.

However, I do not see this as occasion to despair. As well-intentioned as NASA has been, government almost always does things slower, costlier, and with less innovation than private enterprise. In fact, while government has been slashing NASA’s budget and scaling back its goals, private companies out in Mojave have been quietly innovating like crazy:

Surviving the scientific age

** Written by “Surak” **

Humankind has one chance to survive the scientific age. The use of scientific knowledge must be restrained and guided in positive directions by the values of the same religion that gave birth to modern science, Christianity. It is not by accident that the great founders of modern science (from Copernicus to Lemaître) were Christians or at the very least the product of Christian values and beliefs (Darwin). Only by reuniting science and Christianity can humankind survive. I say this as a non-Christian and ask you to consider the differences between Christian and non-Christian societies in the age of science.

The Communist regimes in the USSR, Red China, and Cambodia demonstrated how militantly atheist societies would make use of any kind of power, including scientific knowledge. Their destruction of human life was unprecedented in the history of the human species. The argument that this will not be the case as soon as the right kind of secular belief system and enlightened leaders are found has no evidence to support it and, without further convincing evidence, it must be dismissed as nothing more than wishful thinking by the intellectual left. Power always corrupts.

We can learn a great deal about the interplay of religion and science from the Nazi experience. Nazis were scientific-minded materialists determined to create a new civic religion capable of instilling a fascist moral system in all the generations to come. To accomplish this they worked vigorously toward the gradual divorce of German religion from its Christian roots. Christian beliefs and values were already waning in Europe from the late 1800s and first decades of the 1900s, largely as the result of the assault on Christianity by secular humanists. The Nazis took the opportunity to fill the spiritual void in German society. There can be no doubt about what the Nazis would have done with their rockets, the atomic weapons they hoped to create, the results of their truly evil medical experiments, and their belief in social Darwinism. It is a nightmare too horrible to think about.

Compare the Communist and Nazi regimes to the American experience. The United States is the last bastion of Christianity in the developed world. It has possessed enough destructive power for the last 60 years to destroy our world many times over. So what has it done with this power? We can’t argue that American hands are clean — the million or more Vietnamese killed in the 1960s and 1970s are testimony that Americans are potentially as imperfect as anyone else. But it is telling that the American people finally put an end to the war they were tricked into fighting, and they accepted defeat rather than continue the slaughter. In other words, there was some meaningful degree of restraint on the use of destructive power by a people who were guided by their predominately Christian values.

There is more evidence that Christianity has been an effective restraint on and positive guide for humankind’s violent tendencies during the scientific age. Christian America possessed all the destructive power modern science provides from the time it took effective control of much of Europe, Japan, and Korea. It did not exploit and repress these nations as the Soviet Union did to Eastern Europe; instead, America helped these nations become free, prosperous, and independent.

The values and beliefs that restrained American behavior during the last half of the 20th Century were the same as those that motivated an earlier generation of Americans to march into battle and die by the hundreds of thousands to end the abomination of slavery. We can wish with all our hearts that war would never occur, but if it has to happen, there could be no more noble reason for it. The American Civil War is arguably the greatest moral event in the history of the human species. American has not been perfect, but it has been significantly different, and that difference is the result of its Christian foundation.

America has produced the most science, which has helped it possess the greatest destructive power ever, but so far it has abused that power to a degree far less than what human history would have led us to expect of any group of humans. Think about it, would you trust France with the same power? I hope not. But the United States is changing for the worse, and Leo Tolstoy can help us understand why.

In his book, The Kingdom of God Is within You, he explains how humanity has experienced three stages. The savage stage is a person’s self-love expressed in the mere striving for immediate gratification with little or no concern for others. The next highest stage is the social stage where self-love has been expanded to include all of those who are important to a person’s well-being and survival. Tolstoy argued that self-love can be expanded to many levels, including the family, the clan, the tribe, the village, the nationality, the party, and even the state. But it can never encompass all of humanity — an abstraction with which human understanding and emotions can never cope.

Only the final stage, the spiritual, can accomplish universal love and the end of violence. But, according to Tolstoy this can only be achieved in a roundabout manner. First, people must love God. Then, because God is perfect love, our love of God results in our love for all humanity since we recognize each other as sons and daughters of one Father. I do not know if this is true, but I hope it is. There is no other alternative for humankind’s survival. The only force on Earth that has effectively restrained the potentially destructive results of science is the same force that gave birth to science — a Christian belief in a rational world created by a loving God combined with Christian values based on love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, and the sacredness of all human life.

America came closest to love of all humanity, but the level of love even in the United States is slipping back from the spiritual to the social and even the savage (look at the American inner cities). The cultural war between Christians and humanists, along with the trauma of 9/11, has caused the contraction of love back to the level of the nation or the party. In places in the United States, it has even become tribal in nature. I don’t know if Jesus was the Son of God. What I do know is that Christianity has been the greatest force for good the world has ever seen.

Politics, science, and a false dichotomy

** Written by “Surak” **

There was a political confrontation last Thursday in New Hampshire between conservative politician, Rick Perry, and a liberal woman protestor. The dispute concerned Perry’s views about evolution and creationism, and it demonstrated why we need to be concerned about the future of science in America. Governor Perry spoke to the woman’s young son in front of the usual swarm of reporters eager for a headline. Perry gave them one by telling the boy that evolution was a theory with gaps in it. In an obvious attempt to contrive an unflattering media incident to hurt the Texas governor’s campaign, the mother could be heard urging the child to ask Perry why he didn’t believe in science. Perry ignored the mother and told the boy that in Texas both evolution and creationism are taught, “… because I figured you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” I am appalled by what the mother did and troubled by the implications of Perry’s response.

The mother undoubtedly thinks of herself as a defender of ‘science,’ by which I guess she means the usual vague understanding of the currently popular but failed mid-20th century version of evolution. Whatever her beliefs, it was an abuse of science to pull a cheap political trick like this. And, it was a disturbing corruption of her child’s innocence by putting words in his mouth he couldn’t possibly have understood. She obviously thought she was protecting him and other children from false ideas, but her actions amount to nothing more than a crude form of indoctrination based on the prevailing conviction that any questioning of ‘evolution’ is an intellectual sin.

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