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Archive for September 3rd, 2017

Having taught for 25 years, I have indeed seen many changes in public school. Some represent major cultural shifts while others reflect minor cycles of fad and fashion. One very curious change I have witnessed is a loss of faith in Science. Students used to almost universally confess that science and technology would eventually solve all of man’s problems. Disease will be defeated, genetic difficulties overcome, hunger eradicated, environmental problems will be historical artifacts of developing technologies, mysteries solved, a perpetual motion machine created that would solve all energy problemss, the galaxy traversed. Older minds may have written this off as so much blissful, youthful optimism and ignorance. Instead, I think that it was a product of a worldview that viewed science as the source and conduit of all truth. There were, of course, the rare skeptic that did not trust science or its message.

I see the opposite trend to be generally true today. It is the rare student that has an unflinching faith in Science, or anything for that matter, other than himself. Science and Technology have not solved all of our problems. Epidemics continue, hunger persists, climate change threatens, nuclear proliferation has rebooted, natural disasters terrorize, and people still don’t get along with each other. Unfulfilled expectations and personal discontent are on the rise. Science and technology are frequently viewed as the cause of environmental problems and stressed out living styles.

There could well be many sociological, cultural, and economic reasons for this shift, but I think that in a narrower sense of views about science as a human endeavor, both the blind faith in science and the skepticism of its merits arise from a basic misunderstanding of what the limits of science are. Science is neither the source and conduit of all truth nor the cause of the world’s most pressing problems. Science is a tool. As such it has limits. When I use my large ratchet as a hammer, I damage the tool and very poorly drive the pin I am trying to remove. In a similar way Science used in the wrong way brings harm to its prestige and to the understanding and application it is meant to drive. Science has at least 4 related limits.

Science may only be applied to things which are observable. This observation includes our 5 senses and any other remote sensing we may devise: camera, thermometer, radiation detector, ultrasound, etc. If only time, space, material, and energy exist as many insist, then this observability is not a limit. There is, however, evidence of more than the physical world (the source of beauty, information, purpose, emotions and will) and observability does not automatically exclude the spiritual realm. Scientists use inference (drawing conclusions) as a powerful tool, but it must be based on observation (quantitative data or measurement enable the observation to be unambiguous).

Science is also limited by the requirement of being testable. Scientists test hypotheses with controlled experiments to acquire a deeper understanding of the physical world. There are things that an experiment cannot test which nonetheless exist and effect our lives.

Scientific experiments must be repeatable. Other scientists must be able to use clearly set forth procedures and obtain the same results. If the results are different, some variable has not been controlled for or the experimenters were not careful enough in their observations. Therefore, scientists ask for procedures, data, and analyses from colleagues in order to determine if the conclusions are valid. The best way to do this is to repeat the experiment.

Finally, conclusions resulting from observations must be falsifiable. This does not mean that all evidence or conclusions will be falsified, but rather there must be the possibility of demonstrating that a conclusion is wrong. The essential function of Science is not to reveal truth but to eliminate falsehood. Based upon observation alone, one may never know for sure if something is true. But the ability to falsify wrong ideas narrows down what science accepts as true sufficiently to act upon it. This does not mean that there is no truth. It means that science does not have the ability to state truth in any absolute way. That must be done from other pursuits.

Many ideas are parading around, claiming to be scientific theories when they do not rise to the level of even a hypothesis, let alone a well substantiated hypothesis, that is, a theory. As an example, consider the issue of origins. How did we get here and how did it all begin? Can anyone who is living or has lived observe the beginning of the world? Since they cannot, can they possibly do an experiment on beginning a world? Is that experiment repeatable? If no experiment or observation by scientists may be done directly on the beginning of the world, then it is not a falsifiable idea. Therefore, though evidence may be given from subsequent events as to which version of origins is most likely, presuppositions are inevitably required in any discussion of origins. Another name for presuppositions, those assumptions made in order to begin a discussion or make inquiry, is beliefs. Any discussion of origins by definition is based on a worldview or belief system. It may be labeled religion or science, it does not matter, but it is essentially based on belief.

What this means for any discussion of origins is matching present evidence to the best presuppositional explanation. Does your belief about origins fit the evidence?

What this means about faith in or loss of faith in Science is a need to reconsider its value. Science is a valuable tool wielded by mechanics of varying training and skill, operating from differing worldviews. Retain a healthy skepticism that desires to understand what has been discovered and understood. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathe water. That is, don’t throw out the valuable tool of Science or the useful evidence it provides when you have to wade through false claims, poorly substantiated ‘theories’, intentionally falsified conclusions, or presuppositions that don’t match up with what you know to be true. Science is a useful tool.

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