Tree of Life // © Open University

Science is not just an opinion

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom
of it too?” —Douglas Adams

People often write heartfelt pieces about the personal history of a certain belief of theirs. Virginia Heffernan recently attempted just that on her blog, when she felt an urge to explain to the world why she happens to be a creationist.

However, the insight she shared into her intellectual shortcomings when trying to grasp science and evolution came across as an incoherent rant, riddled with bizarre reasoning gaps. Her description of scientists as “super-skeptical types who can be counted on to denigrate religion, fear climate change and think most people … are dopey sheep who believe in angels” would be almost insulting to anyone engaged in science, if it wasn’t such a blatant fallacy.

Ultimately, one person’s failing to grasp such basic tenets of rationality as hypothesis, observation and scientific method is no big deal. If they want to telegraph that to the world and be criticised for it, that’s fine too.

However, Heffernan’s column is a curious and outspoken example of a wider attitude that unfortunately rears its ugly head even in a highly educated society, and at least in part stems from terribly misguided postmodernist relativism. As Carl Zimmer summarised it: “I have my belief, and you have yours. We can all get along in our own little belief bubbles. Even when it comes to science.”

Other people have lamented this attitude, too. As James Gilbert recently wrote on The Conversation: “High profile debates over HIV, passive smoking and, latterly, climate change, have increasingly questioned the social context of science as well as the facts. They gained momentum during the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s which popularized the idea of scientific findings as socially constructed, inseparable from the people producing them.”

Time and time again, scientifically literate people have to keep reminding people with postmodernist attitudes, like Heffernan, that science is not a belief system, it is not an opinion. Science is about observations and facts. We have no better method to discover facts about the world than the self-correcting process of science. Yes, along the way scientists might make contradicting claims, but that is part and parcel of the method. And it’s still better than just-so stories.

If one reads a scientific book such as Darwin’s Origin of Species as “enchantingly arid English” literature, doesn’t understand the scientific arguments and then skips over decades of archaeological, biological, genetic and other research to claim that the Biblical story of life on Earth is just as plausible, science has not failed there. The individual and their education has.

There is one last claim emerging from Heffernan’s column that I would like to address, probably the easiest to refute, and yet so persistent. Some people, hampered by their understanding of how science works, arrive at a feeling that science is not magical, it is not moving and amusing. Now that is an attitude that I find most difficult to empathise with.

Have they never looked up at the night sky, wondering about the distant stars and galaxies, about other possible civilisations out there? I guess they can’t have ever felt that indescribable tingle of pure awe when one learns that every single atom in our world and in ourselves was once a part of some distant star in the universe. Every single atom. And what about the DNA that all known living organisms on our planet share? Isn’t that something… wonderous?

If you need to be swayed by beauty to find a scientific fact convincing, there is immense beauty in the natural world, and no shortage of stories revelling in it. I think a great place for Heffernan to start would be the new TV series Wonders of Life by Professor Brian Cox.

But I need not go on, because Carl Sagan probably said it best, as always:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

Your thoughts
    1. Thank you! I’m off to read yours.

      I think it’s the relativism that upsets me the most. One may not like or understand science, but claiming not to believe in it as if it was an opinion as good as any, that’s… sigh.

  1. You are saying that science is “about facts” like the very concept of “fact” is something that you can put your hands on directly by some weird magic and not through language (which by its very nature is ambivalent) and the history of the discipline of science. You are talking about postmodernist critique of science, but it seems that you have very poor idea about what postmodernism really stand for. Have you ever looked through writing of, for example, Foucault? Or you are like those religious people that just deem some works as heretic to their “quest for truth” and intentionally avoid them? You really should educate yourself on this matter is you are planing further on debunking postmodern thinking, because it sounds like pastor talking about evolution. Postmodernism is not saying that religion can be as good as science when it comes to making cell phones, it claims that neither production of cell phones nor idea of god can privatize the notion of truth because there is none, it is an empty, metaphysical idea. Truth is the regime of the description that has gained the power position – once it was religion with its order of things, now the science is trying to declare its regime – truth is historical. Postmodernism is sceptical towards all totalization (there is one truth end ever will be) attempts and science with its “method” is one of many that are trying to prevail.

    1. I find it rather difficult to respond to objections when they object notions that I have neither claimed in my article, nor implied, such as your imaginary picture of me as a dogmatist of science.

      However, yes, I specifically criticise that postmodern relativism of thought from which stems the “no truth is better than other truths” attitude. It’s nonsense.

  2. But that exactly is the dogmatism to say that science is “better” truth, hence implying that it is the “ultimate truth”. Science works, I agree, no arguments against that, but it has nothing to do with the truth. “No truth is better than other truth is nonsense” if you specifically define truth as something that gives you X. And if that X is, say, cars and airplanes than of course scientific truth is better than religious description, but it is just one perspective. Science can not produce any value judgments (can you prove scientifically why holocaust was bad?) – here we must look for other sources of “truth”. There are lot of scientists who have made questionable ethical choices, as well as there are all sorts of priests that have done the same – there is no pure and unbiased description of reality – they all are human, all to human. I agree that it is probably fulfilling to believe that what you are doing is something special, but it could really be useful to read something from the opposite camp. I seems that your knowledge about postmodernism is from wikipedia or works of Alan Sokal.

    1. Allow me to quote myself: “Science is about observations and facts. We have no better method to discover facts about the world than the self-correcting process of science.”

      No mention or implication of value judgements, ethical choices or “ultimate truth”. Just observation of the natural world, finding out how it works and making decisions and inventions based on that. Can religion give us something? Of course, if you’re into that sort of thing. Can religion tell us how gravity works? No. Is gravity true? Well, what do you think?

      Now, if you cannot agree with that quote, you will have to do a better job of explaining why not.

      Speaking of my knowledge of postmodernism, hasty assumptions about my knowledge base do not advance discussion. I know plenty.

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