Sunday, August 21, 2005

  Science, Belief and What Is What

Last night, I was listening to some am talk - something I do not infrequently - and I heard one of the hosts voicing something I've been hearing a lot of recently. Look, I'm worried overall that America is not graduating enough engineers and scientists to compete with the world market. Worse still, America isn't producing enough engineers and scientists to keep up with its own internal demand. We can discuss education and values but I feel the real problem lies in the very attitude the host exhibited on that syndicated talk show.

Lately I've seen the argument put forth that science is a belief system. While I honestly believe that this issue is largely born of misunderstanding, bad grammar and semantics, there remain those who honestly don't see any difference between their beliefs and science. Let me make clear that this is an issue that will literally, if followed to its ultimate conclusion, force me to leave my country (America) and never look back. I can forgive a host of evils readily embraced in my country today. A backslide into dark-ages barbarism is not among them.

Let me explain the problem.

First let me highlight some obvious differences between science and belief systems for the sake of clarification. First, science is a process, not a codex. Science isn't what you read in books, it's the engine used to test the veracity and accuracy of data, theorem and methodology. Science is the process by which those things you read were discovered or proven - but not those things in of themselves. Belief systems typically, in whole or in part, are codified. They are a list of things accepted as true. Yes, belief systems can take the form of a process similar to a methodology but usually the process is secondary to the core belief that guides such a process. In either case, a belief system places parameters on accepted truth a priori of any examination of the facts. I make these clarifications not as criticism but as points of definition.

Science is, by manner of execution not a belief system. This is demonstrated simply by stating that any rule or fact established by science can be disproved. Indicate any inaccurate data or fallacy in the methodology and science changes its conclusions to follow the facts. As a citizen of the 21st Century, it has been my privilege to witness neck-snapping turnarounds of cosmological importance. Nearly everything I was taught in high school and college astronomy has been proven wrong by more recent exploration and observation of the universe. Even from the point of abstract mathematical extrapolation, I have seen black holes pass from supported hypothesis to accepted theory to "look, there is one in the center of our galaxy!" When the bird in question is proven not to be a swan as previously accepted but in fact, a duck. Science reprints thousands of textbooks and simply moves on.

And don't talk to me about politics. Yes, there are politics in the scientific community. Yes there are emotional impediments to change. Yet science is a process of peer review. Just as we are all flawed and biased we are also burdened with different flaws and bias. Hence when subjected to extensive peer review, any individual's flaws and bias are easily placed in their own context. The conclusions of that individual can be criticized from outside those flaws and bias.

Belief systems, by contrast are not based on a system of criticism and review. Yes beliefs can and do change but not from external examination. This is the difference between belief and knowledge. This is not to say that belief is wrong or somehow unimportant. Belief is a powerful and fulfilling inner strength. But belief does exist in the absence of testing or critical methodology.

Now it is my belief that the host I listened to last night was trying to say that science is a belief system directly comparable to a religious belief system. He never made this explicit assertion but that was the argument I understood the man to be making. If so, then the contrast becomes even more obvious.

A religious belief system is by definition improvable. By its very nature, religious belief is not scrutinized by means of scientific testing. Religious belief systems are supported by the inner strength of the person who holds them. This is faith. Their value is based on assumed intrinsic truth. Quite often when evidence to the contrary is encountered, the reaction from adherents can be quite strong.

So it boils down to this. Belief is a something held to be true. Science is a process for examining evidence and models. Belief systems exist typically without proven evidence. Science requires proven evidence to assert anything. Belief systems - especially religious belief systems - cannot be disproved either by their design or the actions of their adherents. Science constantly adjusts or rewrites entirely what has been previously accepted as true based on better data, accurate criticism or improved methodology.

I have beliefs. I have faith. I recognize that both exist quite in spite of the day-to-day behavior of our universe. I am a man of science. Science is the tool that has for these past, brief two hundred years best deconstructed and predicted the behavior of our physical universe. Often my belief system clashes with my science. When this happens, science can only look back at me without concern. "The rocks are what the rocks are. I cannot change them..." it tells me. When I turn to my beliefs, I get an answer that is at once more compassionate yet far less satisfying. "If what you believe cannot exist in the light of scientific evidence then perhaps the problem lies neither with science nor your faith. Perhaps the problem lies with your ability to understand what is true." Yes, as with all other areas of experience in my life, when I arrive at a conflict in cosmology, I always suspect user error. To date, this methodology has been sound.


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