David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting

david swain2In the December 2015 issue of The Australian Friend Reg Naulty had an interesting article titled “A parable about science for our time”. I don’t want to argue about Reg’s main point, ways of finding God, but he makes some observations about science which call for comment.

Reg says “What makes scientists suspicious, are claims surrounded by controversy. That doesn’t happen in science, it is claimed. Scientific methods yield unanimity.”

That’s not how science works[1]. Firstly, scientists rarely make definite, black-and-white statements. Rather, scientific statements have a probability attached to them. Look at the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[2]. Its statements carry qualifications such as “it is very likely”, “it is unlikely”, “confidence is low”, “confidence is medium”. Only rarely does the panel make a definite statement: “It is certain that atmospheric burdens of the well-mixed greenhouse gases targeted by the Kyoto Protocol increased from 2005 to 2011”.

That’s all highly frustrating for the non-scientist-in-the-street. “Is it or isn’t it?” they cry, or more often “Is it safe?” The scientist can only answer “There have been no significantly adverse effects in experiments done to date, but perhaps there may be some situations where it may be unsafe.” This is why there has been a long-standing conflict between scientists and journalists who want simple answers.

And unanimity? Unanimity would be the death of science. If scientific methods led to unanimity we would still be using the Ptolemaic earth-centred model of the universe, or the phlogiston theory of burning[3]. Karl Popper[4], one of the best known philosophers of science, stated that for a scientific statement to be valid it must be falsifiable. Scientists must be continually questioning the model of the system they are studying, modifying it where necessary, or abandoning the model completely for a new one – something that philosopher Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift”[5].

Even when there is apparent agreement in areas of science, scientists still have differences of opinion on the details. For example, although 97.1% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming[6], there is still robust debate about which models give the most accurate predictions. And, although the theory of evolution is universally accepted among biological scientists, in 1972 palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge put forward the concept of punctuated equilibrium, suggesting that rather than evolution proceeding at a uniform rate, there were periods when there was little change, interspersed with periods of rapid formation of new species. This concept has not been widely accepted[7].

But perhaps most importantly, science does not make normative statements. It will say “If you do A, the result will probably be B.” It will not say that you should, or should not, do A. It will try to explain how the universe works, but will not suggest a meaning or purpose for it. That field is left to religion and philosophy.

In return, science only asks for religion not to impinge on its field, and gets a little annoyed at people like the Special Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents.

[1] A great explanation of how science works was given by Rudi Lemberg in his 1966 Backhouse Lecture http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.quakers.org.au/resource/resmgr/_pdf/JBhL1966_SeekingInAnAgeOfImbalance.pdf

[2] http://www.climatechange2013.org/report/full-report/

[3] Geoff Pilliner gives more details on the phlogiston theory and its possible spiritual analogues in
Pilliner, G. 2015. Phlogiston and stuff. The [British] Friend 21 August 2015.

[4] There’s a good article on Popper at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper

[5] Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Cook, J. et al. 2013. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 8 (2): 031003.

[7] Dawkins, R. 1998. Unweaving the rainbow. London: Alan Lane

Share This