The Hope of Science


Science is universal . No matter where one travels, no matter what discipline, no matter who the scientists, the method of query stays essentially the same:


* Positing of a hypothesis (if we do x, we expect a result of y).

* Developing experiments that result in empirical observations that validate, reject or modify the hypothesis.

* If a construct is developed to consistently and predictably explain the empirical observations of the experiments, that construct is labeled a theory.

*Back to Step 1 with a new hypothesis.

When we use the results of science in our everyday lives, theories allow us to rely on so many things. When we flip a switch, we expect the TV will turn on and display a clear picture. When we open the fridge, we anticipate it being cold and preserving our favorite food and beverage. When we crank the auto in the morning, we predict that we’ll hear the purr of a well-designed engine.

But sometimes things do not work as we predict. The TV blows a tube, the fridge’s compressor gives out, the car’s circuit board has an unexpected bleep. That’s because no matter how good our science is, we haven’t figured out how to design or make things perfectly. Our technology is sometimes flawed. We are, in a word, human.

Scientists have never promised perfection, only the ability to best explain and predict phenomena. For instance, there are unexplained matters pertaining to both evolution and climate change, two of the areas most commonly under attack by religious fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives. The absence of certainty, however, does not undercut in any way the most sensible explanation; it only suggests that as new data are obtained, scientists will determine whether or not they support the prevailing theoretical constructs.

But those who attempt to defile science hold scientists to a much different standard, one of perfection, when issues that overlap with religion come along. In other words, if there are unanswered questions and they can be used from a religious perspective to attack science and scientists, rest assured that some imagined conflict between science and a belief in God will be inserted into the equation.

Those who naysay typically rely on the views of tiny minorities of scientists (many of whom are fundamentalists themselves), thereby deliberately creating the impression that the science of the vast majority of researchers is seriously flawed. Nevermind that these same folks will partake in the creature comforts that the very same scientific method has given them.

In homage to Groucho Marx’s quotable, “Love goes out the door when money comes innuendo,” for some fundamentalist voices the message might instead be, “Science goes out the door when religion comes innuendo.” The basic message — accept science when it’s convenient to your faith; discard it when it’s not.

Two recent examples of this approach are evident in proposed laws in Mississippi and Kentucky. The former, which fortunately died in committee, posited that require lessons present arguments from those who support and those who oppose the theory of evolution. The latter called for encouraging teachers to engage in “objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories” such as “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” You can see where the illogic of the anti-science crowd is broadening beyond creationism into areas such as climate change, where a refusal to teach and apply scientific principles could cost us all that is near and dear.

Proponents of such laws cannot see the great irony in their efforts. What’s truly objective? Why, applying scientific principles, of course. Trying to explain unexplainable phenomena in science curriculum is not only the essence of subjectivity, but is a losing bet and violates what New York Times columnist Ross Duthat, in a column on March 8, calls the “central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.”

Truth be told, with the exception of those who must eschew science because they literally believe that all of creation occurred in seven 24-hour days, there is no conflict between science and faith. Science explains what we observe and can know, faith what we cannot. Those who try to drive a wedge between us by pitting one against the other (the same would be true of atheists who would deny our access to faith) are wreaking unnecessary havoc for the sake of their own self-interests, not for any higher good.

We are blessed with a world in which we can simultaneously peel away the mysteries of the unknown while rejoicing in the wonders of that which we quite likely will never know. That is a duality which should bring us amazement and joy, not disdain and discord. When we can all appreciate and celebrate that the universe that God has given us is both, in a manner of speaking, left- and right-brained, we will be better off, and both humanity and the world will have a much better chance of surviving.