Years ago at a science fiction convention I attended a panel discussion wherein some scientists first expressed a different approach -- "You know how you get hit with an insight," one of them said, "and you just know what the truth is and what the answer to your hypothesis is going to be? Then you have to just make the data fit." I sat there agog. Did she really just say that? That went against everything I had always believed science to be. So strongly did I cling to my belief that science really was an honest endeavor to find the truth of the natural world and its functions, that I chalked the remarks up to one eccentric individual.
Apparently she's not as unusual as I believed.
My reading of last week included Richard Lewontin's review for The New York Review of Books of Carl Sagan's 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. (Lewontin is Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard University, and the author of several books.)
Sagan's book, from what I can tell, is basically a treatise on how people need to think right in order to know the truth. Not surprisingly, I agree! However his idea of "thinking right" and mine are not the same. He is trying to convince people to stop believing in "superstitious nonsense" and accept science as their new god and religion. Of course he doesn't use those words, but almost.
Here are some quotes of Lewontin's review (with my comments):
"First, no one can know and understand everything. Even individual scientists are ignorant about most of the body of scientific knowledge, and it is not simply that biologists do not understand quantum mechanics. If I were to ask my colleagues in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard to explain the evolutionary importance of RNA editing in trypanosomes, they would be just as mystified by the question as the typical well-educated reader of this review."
(So then the implication is, we must take it on faith when Scientists assure us that this "proves" evolution)
"Second, to put a correct view of the universe into people's heads we must first get an incorrect view out. People believe a lot of nonsense about the world of phenomena, nonsense that is a consequence of a wrong way of thinking. The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of, for that vast project is, in its entirety, hopeless. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.
"Sagan's argument is straightforward. We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities. The vast majority of us do not have control of the intellectual apparatus needed to explain manifest reality in material terms, so in place of scientific (i.e., correct material) explanations, we substitute demons.
"Most of the chapters of The Demon-Haunted World are taken up with exhortations to the reader to cease whoring after false gods and to accept the scientific method as the unique pathway to a correct understanding of the natural world. To Sagan, as to all but a few other scientists, it is self-evident that the practices of science provide the surest method of putting us in contact with physical reality, and that, in contrast, the demon-haunted world rests on a set of beliefs and behaviors that fail every reasonable test."
And yet, in his earlier paragraph, Lewontin said that the vast majority of us lack the knowledge to really understand the specifics of whatever a discipline of science is telling us. Even scientists in other disciplines remain ignorant and must accept the claims of their fellows as fact purely on faith.
Again, he says himself, toward the end of his review:
"Carl Sagan ... has devoted extraordinary energy to bringing science to a mass public. In doing so, he is faced with a contradiction for which there is no clear resolution. On the one hand science is urged on us as a model of rational deduction from publicly verifiable facts, freed from the tyranny of unreasoning authority. On the other hand, given the immense extent, inherent complexity, and counterintuitive nature of scientific knowledge, it is impossible for anyone, including non-specialist scientists, to retrace the intellectual paths that lead to scientific conclusions about nature. In the end we must trust the experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand.
And they denigrate Christians for having blind faith! Then turn around and say it's okay, so long as you're believing in "science." I don't think I've ever seen so clearly the spiritual aspect of the science belief system. Nor have I seen so clearly that it is indeed a belief system.