The Eclipse of Science and Reason
Scan the shelves of a bookshop or a public library and you will
see that most of the books are about the evanescent concerns of
today... They take so much for granted, wholly forgetting how hard won
was the scientific knowledge that gave us the comfortable and safe
lives we enjoy. We are so ignorant of the facts upon which science and
our scientific culture are established that we give equal place on our
bookshelves to the nonsense of astrology, creationism, and junk
science. At first, they were there to entertain, or to indulge our
curiosity, and we did not take them seriously. . Now they are too
often accepted as fact.
Science will flourish only in a society that cherishes its norms. The
reason, openness, tolerance, and respect for the autonomy of the
individual that distinguish the social process of science ... are
norms desirable in every human community. They describe a world in
which, we can agree, all of us want to live.
Post Modernism as Post Sanity
A student asks: why should we believe in global warming, and
you respond with a meticulously logical argument, along with a citation of
scientific research. As you continue, the student's eyes begin to glaze and
the student-bodies begin to squirm in the seats. And as you conclude, you
hear that dreaded question: "but who's to say?"
At length it finally dawns on you: to these kids, logic, science,
rationality, are just "cultural artifacts" -- no more or less credible than
witchcraft, astrology, divination, tarot cards, or plain off the wall
Nor are these views unique to our students. Just listen to the media, to
corporate public relations, to televangelists, or worst of all, to the
policy pronouncements of the Bush administration. Consider the spectacle of
the tobacco company CEOs telling the Congressional committee, under oath, "I
do not believe that nicotine is addictive" – this, despite overwhelming
scientific evidence that nicotine is, in fact, addictive. We are all aware
of the evangelical Christians' avowed disbelief in evolution, the
fundamental organizing principle of modern biology. And George Bush (who
also has his doubts about evolution) is confident that he and his associates
in the "awl bidniss" are fully qualified to dismiss the reports on global
warming by two thousand leading atmospheric scientists of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the National Academy of
Sadly, the virus of irrationalism has spread even to the colleges and
universities of the realm, in the guise of "post-modernism” whose most
extreme adherents regard competing theories of reality, such as astronomy
and astrology as "social constructs" and "stories," each with an "equal
right to be heard and appreciated." Post-modernism was (or should have been)
discredited by Alan Sokol's notorious hoax: A parody article, "Transgressing
the Boundaries..." which the post-modernist publication, Social Text
swallowed hook, line and sinker, in its Spring 1996 issue. Sokol thus
describes his article as "a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths,
falsehood, non-sequitors, and syntactically correct sentences that have no
What was Sokol's motive? First of all, he writes, "I'm a stodgy old
scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that
there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to
discover some of them." And furthermore, "my concern is explicitly
political: to combat a currently fashionable
postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse – and more
generally a penchant for subjectivism – which is, I believe inimical to the
values and future of the Left."5
He has a tough battle ahead. For, as most of us who have taught college for
more than a couple of decades will testify, the struggle to defend the
integrity of critical intelligence against the onslaught of subjectivist and
post-modernist mush has, of late, lost considerable ground. Thus, as George
Englebretsen, a Canadian philosopher reflects:
We've become increasingly a society of people who consider
channeling as effective as archival research for discovering the past, who
believe therapeutic touch can heal more than modern medicine, who believe
it appropriate to teach Klingon in the university but doubt that Latin
serves any academic purpose. And why not? After all, many of them have
been taught by professors who cannot distinguish between a legitimate
treatise on a problem physics and [Alan Sokol's] bald, outlandish parody
How has it come to this? Throughout the just-completed
century, the United States has been the world leader in technological
innovation and scientific advancement. And yet, the American public, by and
large, is dismally ignorant of basic scientific information. Thus the Los
Angeles Times reports that a third of Americans believe that astrology "has
some scientific merit," and reportedly half do not accept evolution.7
And in May, 1996, the Associate Press reported that "fewer than half of the
American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly... Only
about nine percent knew what a molecule was, and only 21 percent could
Is Science Just Another Dogma?
However ignorant the average American might be about the
content of science, that ignorance is exceeded regarding the method of
science. And from this ignorance of scientific method emerges the widespread
belief, embraced by large portions of our population, including the
post-modernists, that science is "just another dogma" – a "story" that
deserves no more credence than any other "story" such as astrology,
aromatherapy, or whatnot.
A library of books have been written about the methodology of science, many
of them quite controversial. Among philosophers of science one will find a
myriad of hotly contested theories about "how science works." Even so, there
are a few fundamental features of scientific activity that most observers of
science will accept, and which the ordinary non-scientific citizen might
readily understand. They are also features that set science distinctively
apart from non-scientific truth claims. I will discuss just seven of these
First, scientific activity is public and replicable.
The community of scientists is elite and restricted, and yet, paradoxically,
it is also open. Few individuals are qualified to conduct an experiment with
a particle accelerator, or to carry out a DNA test. But anyone with
requisite intelligence and diligence who is willing and able to undergo the
required training may, in principle, perform these activities. Moreover, any
and all such qualified individuals must be able to repeat the experiments
and produce the evidence claimed by other scientists. Remember "cold
fusion," that "revolutionary scientific breakthrough" that was going to
supply us with and endless supply of cheap energy? It failed the "replicability
test." Repeated failures by other scientists to duplicate the results
claimed by Fleischman and Pons led to the well-deserved demise of this
"breakthrough." "One-time-only" episodes of "Divine revelation" and
"anecdotal evidence" from singular events do not cut it, scientifically.
(However, as we will see below, some accounts of singular events can launch
fruitful scientific investigations).
Science is Cumulative.
"If I have seen further," said Isaac Newton, "it is by standing on the
shoulders of giants." And thus, of course, Newton became another of those
"giants." Mathematics necessarily developed sequentially, from arithmetic to
algebra (the Arabs) to analytic geometry (Descartes) to calculus (Newton and
Leibniz). Without Galileo and Kepler, there would have been no Newton.
Without Linnaeus, no Darwin. Because science is ever open to new discoveries
(see "falliblism" below), science allows nature to "speak to us" through
experiment and observation. But only if we ask nature the right questions
-- i.e., if we know what we are looking for and describe it with an adequate
(often mathematical) vocabulary. The science of the preceding "giants" gives
us those questions. Thus science, as an accumulating body of knowledge and
theory, is vastly greater than any individual scientists.
Science is Systemic, Coherent and Comprehensive.
Scientific theories are marvelous structures built out of scientific
concepts ("vocabularies"), laws, empirical facts, and logical entailments. (They are not, as "creationists" say of evolution, mere unconfirmed "facts."
More about this below). As theories encompass more observed and confirmed
facts and formulate new "laws," this growth reverberates throughout the
entire theoretical system. Thus, for example, post-Darwinian discoveries in
genetics, bio chemistry and paleontology have not "refuted" evolution, they
have enriched and expanded it.
Robust scientific theories are characterized by their scope of application
(comprehensiveness) – another indication of their structure and coherence.
Thus, for example, "natural selection" explains such diverse phenomena as
dated sequence of fossils, comparative anatomy and physiology, comparative
species DNA, declining potency of insecticides and antibiotics. Similarly,
Einstein's theory of relativity explains observations at the working end of
particle accelerators, nuclear and thermonuclear reactions, the behavior of
clocks on spaceships, astronomical observations, and the apparent bending of
light near massive objects (e.g., during a solar eclipse).
Science is Empirical.
A scientific investigation "begins" and "ends" in experience. A scientist
might find, in the field or his laboratory, an interesting phenomenon worthy
of investigation. For example, Darwin found varieties of finches on the
Galapagos Islands and the South American mainland. Why both the variety and
the similarities? And Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally made a momentous
discovery while experimenting with X-Rays in his laboratory. In a desk
drawer below his apparatus, a key was placed atop an unexposed photographic
plate. He later discovered an image of the key on the plate. How come? His
search for an answer led to X-Ray photography.
Darwin and Roentgen developed hypotheses ("hunches") to explain these
experienced phenomena. Some failed to "pan out" in experience, so new
hypotheses were formed. Eventually, they came up with hypotheses which, in
conjunction with settled scientific concepts and data, predicted events
which were empirically confirmed by experiments.
Scientific theory and laws are not made up of "hunches." And yet creative
imagination ("hunches") can play an important role in scientific
investigation. Legend has it that Archimedes came upon the concept of
specific gravity while taking a bath. (Did he really? Who knows? Who cares? The story is illustrative, not scientific). James Watson tells us that the
idea of the double helix came to him as he recalled his boyhood exploration
of the spiral staircase at a lighthouse. And Einstein thought of relativity
as he was riding a Zurich trolley and contemplated the "relative motion" of
a passenger walking in the trolley .
But when the scientific community demanded confirmation of the theory of
DNA, Crick and Watson did not look to lighthouses. Nor did Einstein
demonstrate Special Relativity with a trolley car. These insights were the
beginning, not the end, of scientific inquiry. The inquiry "ended" with
empirical confirmation in the laboratory or the field.
Scientific assertions are Fallible and Falsifiable.
For any statement whatever in the body of science, we know what it would be
like for that statement to be false. (I exclude "formal" statements: e.g.,
definitions, logical rules and tautologies – a technical point which I can't
elaborate here). It is thus possible, in principle (i.e., through the
wildest imagination), to describe a refutation of a scientific claim. In
other words, scientific statements, hypotheses and theories are falsifiable
– not "false," but falsifiable. The distinction is crucial.
To put it another way, for an hypothesis, prediction or confirmation to have
scientific meaning, one must be prepared to say, "expect to find
such-and-such empirical conditions in the world, to the exclusion of other
describable conditions." If you find these conditions, you statement has
been proven true of this particular "real nature," and not some "fanciful
nature." For example, Galileo determined that a free-falling object falls at
a distance of d = ½ gt2 (with "d" for distance, "t" for time, and
"g" for a gravitational constant at the Earth's surface). Not 1/4g or 1/3g,
but 1/2g. And not time cubed, or time to the 2.5 power, but time squared. In
other words, that sample equation describes one sort of nature to the
exclusion of an infinitude of other "natures" described by different
formulas. But experimentation and observation has proven that Galileo's
formula applies to the "nature" we live in. In short, the free-fall formula
is falsifiable. We can easily describe how it might be false, but have
determined experimentally that it is true.
Similarly, in Eddington's famous 1919 eclipse experiment, Einstein's theory
of relativity predicted that star near the eclipse would appear in a
precisely defined location, and not in any other location in the night sky
(a falsification). And sure enough, it appeared where predicted by the
relativity theory. Confirmation!
In contrast, dogmas give us unfalsifiable assertions. Once in a debate with
an evangelical minister, I asked: "Why should I believe that the Bible is
the inerrant truth, and that I must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved?" He
replied, "just you wait – when you die and face your maker, then you will
find out." Of course, that challenge was utterly unfalsifiable to anyone
alive, which is to say, to anyone at all. Similarly, economic dogmas, which
are "theory rich," have an "explanation" (after the fact) for every and any
developments in the national economy. What they cannot do is describe a turn
in the economy that would disprove their dogma. In short, unfalsifiable
assertions, because they describe every possible world, describe nothing
unique about the world we live in, which is to say that they "describe"
nothing at all.
An important implication of the falsifiability rule, is what Charles Peirce
called "Falliblism." Because every scientific statement is falsifiable, we
must be forever open to the possibility (however remote) that some new
observation or experiment will prove it wrong. The "falliblist" says, in
effect, that "while I have strong beliefs, I am forever prepared to change
these beliefs if confronted with compelling evidence to the contrary."
The Order of Scientific Inquiry proceeds from evidence to conclusion.
In science, as in jury trials, the outcome remains in doubt until all the
evidence has been examined and evaluated. Evidence is assembled, hypotheses
and theories are tentatively formed, and from all this, events and
conditions (all "falsifiable") are predicted. Only if the predictions "pan
out," are the hypothesis and theory confirmed, whereupon science progresses
In contrast, dogmatists take the position of the Red Queen in Alice in
Wonderland – "verdict first, trial afterwards." The caption of a New Yorker
cartoon that I have used for years in my classes summarizes that "method"
perfectly: "That is the gist of my position, now go out and get some
evidence to base it on." This is the strategy of the preacher, the
advertiser, and the political propagandist. The doctrine, or the client's
product, or the party policy are all sacrosanct – not to be questioned. Beneath this exalted and unalterable truth, a scaffold of concocted
"evidence" and argumentation must be assembled. This is the methodology of
"creationism," of the Tobacco Institute, of the Global Climate Coalition
(funded by the fossil fuel industry), and of the Supreme Court decision of
December 12, 2000, Bush v. Gore.
And, of course, it is a "methodology" that is unfalsifiable – no amount of
evidence to the contrary will budge these advocates from their pre-ordained
In Science, the Burden of Proof is on the Affirmative.
We've all heard it in political and religious debates: "Prove me wrong." It
a cry of despair. A belief, innocent of supporting evidence, is proclaimed
to be true, absent a compelling argument in the negative. (Logicians call
this "the ad ignorantum fallacy.")
This tactic of placing the burden of proof on the negative is inadmissible
in courts of law, where the burden must fall on the prosecution (to prove
affirmative guilt) rather than on the defense (to negatively prove "not
Common sense shows us the wisdom of placing the burden of proof upon the
affirmative. For example, no one has found any evidence of Noah's ark on Mt.
Ararat. "So prove to me that it isn't there and never was!" Of course we
can't. Is this sufficient reason to believe the Bible story, and that this
mountain is the place in question? Similarly for stories about Atlantis, the
Bermuda Triangle, and UFO abductions. "Prove me wrong!" Well I can't, but so
The rule of "burden of proof on the affirmative" is a splendid device for
de-cluttering the mind of intellectual rubbish. One might approach the world
with the attitude of believing everything not disproved or, on the other
hand, believing nothing unless proved. The latter, the approach of the
scientist, is a far more reliable guide to truth, not to mention the
management of one's practical affairs.
George Santayana had it just right: "Skepticism is the chastity of the
This list of seven (among many more) distinguishing qualities of science
indicates, I trust, that science is "not just another dogma." This fact is
demonstrated by the universal appeal and application of science. Scientists
from around the world and from numerous cultures and traditions, readily
communicate with each other, as scientists. Science is an institution and
tradition which, while not without subjective elements (e.g. creative
"hunches" and imaginative theories), attains an objectivity through its
constant commerce with nature, and through the discipline of its methodology
which ruthlessly culls out theories and hypotheses that fail the test of
confirmation. Science is not perfect – no human institution is. Nor does
science encompass all human knowledge, for there is much more to be learned
from the arts, from literature, from moral reflection and practice, and from
living in the company of fellow human beings. But science is supremely good
at what it does – discovering the nature of physical, biological, and social
reality, and articulating that reality in abstract and general laws and
All Americans affirm science every time they boot up a computer, start a car
or make a phone call. These everyday activities take place only through the
successful application of thousands of scientific laws and theories. When
Jerry Falwell stands before a TV camera to denounce evolution, or George
Bush to debunk global warming as "unsound science," they both know that the
device that is pointing at them will send their image and words to millions
"out there." Thus they implicitly affirm the validity of physics, chemistry,
advanced mathematics and computer science, even as they deny biology and
The downgrading of science is quite agreeable to the religious right, of
course. But also to the corporations that own the Congress and that put
George Bush in the White House. And as the pesticide and tobacco cases
vividly demonstrated in the past, and the global warming issue reminds us
today, scientific research and discovery can be very threatening to the
corporate bottom line. A scientifically educated and sophisticated public
would appreciate the significance of that research and discovery, and would
see through the sophistry of corporate public relations. That same public,
under a democratic system, would select leaders that act in behalf of all
citizens, act to preserve the natural environment that is our ultimate
source and sustenance, and act to the benefit of future generations. Accordingly, those corporate elites whose concerns are confined to their own
self interest have no stake in a public that thinks critically and is
scientifically informed. Sadly, the American public today gives those elites
little cause for concern.
Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Devolution of
Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed. (John, 20: 29)
Cursed are they that have seen and yet do not believe. (Partridge)
It seems that you can't keep a bad idea down. Readily refutable dogmas, such
as astrology, "trickle-down" economics, and creationism all seem to possess
some Dracula-like immortality, and no matter how much logic, experience and
demonstrable proof is arrayed against them, scientists and educators seem
unable to drive in the fatal stake and dispatch them, once and for all.
Consider "creationism." Despite the Scopes Trial and numerous court
decisions barring "creation science" from the public classrooms, not to
mention the phenomenal advance of the life sciences, this ancient dogma
refuses to die and stay dead – as is evident to anyone who pays even casual
attention to cable TV and radio "talk shows." Numerous public opinion polls
report that about half of the US population does not accept evolution
including, we are told, the present occupant of the White House..
In 1999 creationism was given new life when the Kansas State Board of
Education voted to remove evolution from the required public school
curriculum. This so embarrassed and outraged the intelligent citizens of
Kansas, unaccustomed to voting in School Board elections, that they were
motivated to throw the troglodytes off the Board, whereupon evolution was
restored to the curriculum. Undeterred, the regressives regained control of
the State Board in 2002.
Until recently, biology textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia, were required to
bear a sticker warning that “evolution is a theory, not a fact.” A law suit
put a stop to that – for awhile at least. But the school board in Dover,
Pennsylvania, has mandated the teaching of “intelligent design,” an
“intelligently designed” incarnation of creationism, alongside of evolution.
This decision has been disputed by some Dover parents and is now in the
Is there any point in going over the arguments for evolution one more time?
Probably not. Those who accept evolution, need not hear a retelling of the
evidence, and those who do not accept evolution will surely not have their
minds changed by anything I might say here. Still, these few
"meta-scientific" reflections might be of some use to those who are willing,
once more, to join the good fight for enlightenment.9
First of all, the Chair of the Kansas Board remarked that "evolution can not
be observed or replicated in the laboratory." We promise her that we will
take notice if she can produce a case of "special creation" in the
laboratory. More to the point, plate tectonics and astronomy also can not be
demonstrated in the laboratory. Are we thus to conclude that Copernicus'
"theory" is "unproved?" Or that the alleged San Andreas Fault, which I cross
every day I drive south off my mountain top home, is mere speculation? (Tell
that to my insurance company). Of course, the data that support these
theories can be "observed or replicated," in abundance, in the laboratory
and in the field. So too with evolution.
Then, once again, we heard that "evolution is just a theory, not a fact."
How often must the defenders of evolution re-iterate that this complaint is
based upon an elementary ambiguity: that "theory" in ordinary language does
not mean the same thing as "theory" in science,10
and that it is the second sense that is meant by "the theory of evolution"?
Apparently, we must repeat this point as long as the creationists continue
to complain that "evolution is just a theory" - which means, effectively,
So here it is again. As we all know, in ordinary speech, "theory" means "a
hunch." And as we gather practical evidence, that "theory" may "grow up" to
be a proven fact. (The scientist uses the word "hypothesis" in roughly this
sense). In contradistinction, to the scientist, a "theory" is a complex
model of reality, composed of "facts," laws (generalizations), and a
carefully defined vocabulary of concepts, all woven into an intricate
structure of implication and mutual support. Scientific theories are no more
capable of "growing" (dare we say "evolving"?) into "facts," than a raisin
cake is capable of "growing into" a raisin, a solar system into a planet, or
a molecule into an atom. In science, facts are ingredients of theories!
This is why it never occurs to most people to discount Newton's theories of
motion and gravity, or atomic theory, or the theory of relativity, or
numerous other scientific theories, as "mere theories, not facts."
Ya got that, Rev. Falwell? (Don't count on it).
Scientific theories can be amazing accomplishments. As they develop and
mature, theories predict and explain widely diverse phenomena, and as they
do so the theories themselves become ever more robust and secure. For
example, the theory of relativity explains both microcosmic and macrocosmic
events: e.g., phenomena at the end of a particle accelerator, the behavior
of clocks on spaceships, the bending of star light near a solar eclipse, the
behavior of pulsars and black holes, and the evolution of galaxies. All
these are elegantly tied together into a structure, at the center of which
The structure and scope of the theory of evolution is no less impressive. It
explains such widely various phenomena as the distribution of fossils in
rock strata, the structure and distribution of extant species, comparative
anatomy and physiology, the development of embryos, animal husbandry, the
declining efficacy of pesticides and antibiotics, and the molecular
structure of DNA, RNA, and other constituent chemicals of all life forms.
Indeed, as Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed, "nothing in biology
makes sense except in the light of evolution."
No, scientific "theories" are not "weak facts." They are magnificent
structures, built out of the "bricks" of "simple facts."
But never mind all that. From pulpits throughout the realm, now and into the
indefinite future, the word goes forth: "evolution is merely a theory, not a
fact." Though shot through with fallacy and elementary error, this
battle-cry remains rhetorically effective. And that is all that is required
by the creationists.
How is it possible that seemingly intelligent (and manifestly clever)
individuals can, given the weight of evidence and theoretical scope, reject
evolution? It seems incredible, so long as we see creationists as misguided
quasi-scientists and scholars, who have somehow read the evidence
differently from the mainstream of bio-scientists.
But such a view misses the point that "creation science" is an oxymoron, and
not a "science" at all. Instead, creationism is religious apologetics, and
as such the very opposite of science. With science the conclusion follows
from the evidence. With apologetics, the conclusion selects the "evidence."
Science is based upon verified and replicable facts, organized into theories
which (ideally) yield hypotheses that are, at the same time, both
confirmable and falsifiable, as explained above. In science, hypotheses
follow from inquiry, and are the most open, tentative and vulnerable part of
the enterprise. And scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable - from a
hypothesis one must be able to describe, either directly or by implication,
numerous observations which, if encountered, would disprove the hypothesis.
Scientific confirmation, in other words, consists of an encounter with
predicted observations, to the exclusion of all those other describable
disconfirmations. For example, in Eddington's classical eclipse experiment,
Newtonian physics would have placed the apparent position of the star at a
different location than that predicted by relativity theory. Indeed, any
apparent location other than that predicted by Einstein would have refuted
his theory. Instead, it appeared just where it was predicted to be, assuming
E=mc2 (and much else). As Karl Popper noted, scientific confirmation is a
failure, despite deliberate effort, to disconfirm, and thus scientific
hypotheses are, in principle, forever logically "open" to revision or even
Religious apologetics is the exact opposite. The conclusion (i.e., "the
doctrine") is assumed at the outset, and its disconfirmation is ruled out, a
priori (i.e., absolutely). What remains is a search for "confirmation,"
however it might be obtained - by citation out of context, by equivocation
(cf. "mere theory" above), and by the employment of any of the other devices
in the vast armory of fallacies well-known to skilled debaters and salesmen.
Unlike scientific hypotheses, religious doctrines are unfalsifiable, and
therefore detached from the world of observable phenomena. An example from
my youth serves as illustration. When I asked my fundamentalist mentors to
account for the existence of dinosaur bones and other fossils, I was offered
two "explanations." The first was that the Lord put them there to test our
faith, and the second was that Satan had put them there to lead us astray
from the truth. An interesting feature of both "explanations" is that they
are unfalsifiable. However convincing the apparent evidence for evolution,
we can be sure that the Lord or Satan have even greater capacities to "test"
or "deceive" us (as the case may be). Thus, in principle, we can never
disprove that we are being either "tested" or "deceived" by superior
intelligences. Unfortunately for the creationists, the other side of the
logical coin of "non-falsifiability" is "non-confirmability."
Creationist attempts to present "arguments" for their position are thus, in
the final analysis, insincere. They are not prepared to abandon their
position, whatever the refuting evidence might be. To the scientist, holding
to a view in the face of confuting evidence is plain stubbornness (not
unknown in the history of science). To the dogmatist, such "stubbornness" is
a virtue - a triumph of faith over "temptation." And the greater the
evidence, the greater the faith required to overcome the temptation to
believe, and the greater the faith, the greater shall be the reward
The creationists insist that they have a "right" to have their viewpoint
heard in the public schools, alongside of evolution.11
And if denied this right they may, as in Kansas, attempt to exclude the
teaching of evolution in the schools. But there is no ban against teaching
creationism in the churches, at home, or in private "Christian schools." Nor
should there be. The regulation of religious teaching is no business of
But neither should religious doctrine be falsely identified as "science" and
taught alongside science in the public schools. For that is an
"establishment" of religious doctrine, and thus contrary to our founding
And so, the struggle continues. Thus the National Academy of Sciences has
published, first in 1998, a booklet entitled "Teaching About Evolution and
the Nature of Science," and now a companion "Science and Creationism." The
latter can be downloaded, but both should be purchased from the National
Association Press. I can not improve upon the concluding paragraphs from the
NAS publication, Science and Creationism.12
Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of
supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not
science because they are not testable by the methods of science. These
claims subordinate observed data to statements based on authority,
revelation, or religious belief. Documentation offered in support of these
claims is typically limited to the special publications of their
advocates. These publications do not offer hypotheses subject to change in
the light of new data, new interpretations, or demonstrations of error.
This contrasts with science, where any hypotheses or theory always remains
subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of
No body of beliefs that has its origin in doctrinal
material rather than scientific observation, interpretation, and
experimentation should be admissible as science in any science course.
Incorporating the teaching of such doctrines into a science curriculum
compromises the objectives of public education. Science has been greatly
successful at explaining natural processes, and this has led not only to
increased understanding of the universe but also to major improvements in
technology and public health and welfare. The growing role that science
plays in modern life requires that science, and not religion, be taught in
The eclipse of science and reason should concern every
discerning citizen. Science and reason have been carefully devised to allow
nature to speak to us and to divulge its secrets, quite independently of
what we would prefer to hear. Once we realize this, and we thus become
willing to accept unpleasant but validated truths in place of comforting
myths, we are far better prepared to recognize, address, and perchance
solve, the myriad of problems presented to us by a complex civilization and
a threatened natural estate. It is true that technology, applied without
reasonable foresight or moral constraint, has brought us to our current
environmental peril. But organized, cumulative and institutional reason -
which is to say, science - is our best way out. Attuning ourselves to
reality can be a tough assignment, but after all is said and done, it is the
only reality we have!
Ignorance and irrationality will always be with us. When someone appears on
Larry King's show and tells of his abduction by aliens in a flying saucer,
we respond with a mixture of amusement and pity. And when we are told that
in the United States today, one hundred and fifty years after the
publication of The Origin of the Species, half the population does not
believe in evolution, we can only wonder at the dreadful condition of public
education in our country.
But when such ignorance and irrationality is operative in the highest
executive offices of the realm, this is a very serious matter.
Given sufficient political power and support by a compliant media, a
President can write and enact laws, arrange the ouster of scientists in
international committees, destroy the careers of still other dissenting
scientists, and even persuade the general public of all sorts of
pseudo-scientific nonsense. What he cannot do, despite all this political
influence and craft of persuasion, is change the discovered and validated
laws and facts of nature, as disclosed by the sciences. Exxon-Mobil can
order Chairman Robert Watson off the panel of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change. But it can not alter the facts of atmospheric chemistry and
physics discovered and confirmed by that international body of scientists.
The religious right’s and the regressives’ quarrel is not simply with the
democrats, the liberals, or even the scientists; their quarrel is with
nature itself. This is a contest that they are fated to lose, and so long as
we associate ourselves with their delusions, we too will lose, all of us:
ourselves, our fellow species, our posterity.
"Never, no never," wrote Edmund Burke, "did nature say one thing and wisdom
On the Morality of Science
"Scientific morality" is widely regarded as an oxymoron,
since it is commonly believed that science is "value neutral." This belief
embraces a pernicious half-truth. The logic of science stipulates that the
data, laws, hypotheses and theories of science exclude evaluative terms and
concepts, and that the vocabulary of science be exclusively empirical and
formal. There are no "oughts," no "goods and bads," no "rights and wrongs."
(The fact that social sciences deal with values descriptively, is only an
apparent violation of this rule). Capitalist and communist missiles are
subject to the same laws of trajectory. The same laws of physiology apply to
the physician who heals, and the murderer who poisons. The "value-free"
status of scientific vocabulary and assertion is the "truthful half" of the
belief that science is "value free."
But as an activity, science is steeped in evaluation, for the "value-free"
methodology that yields these "value-free" statements, requires a discipline
and a commitment that appears to merit the name of "morality." Thus the
advancement of science is characterized by behavior that can only be
described as "virtuous," and the corruption of science as moral weakness. In
other words, the activity of science (that is to say, of science as a human
institution) is highly involved with values. Consider an example:
When Gregor Mendel published his studies of the genetic properties of sweet
peas, he apparently gave a scrupulously factual account. Moreover, his
failures and unanswered questions were reported alongside his verified
hypotheses. Had Mendel not been impeccably honest, humble and open with his
work, his reports thereof would have been, scientifically speaking, far less
valuable. In short, the moral quality of the researcher gave explicit
(non-moral) value to his findings. Yet Mendel's scientific papers themselves
have not a bit of moral evaluation within them: no prescriptions, no
exhortations, no "shoulds" or "oughts" -- only the straightforward
exposition of observations and hypotheses. The accounts were value-free; but
the conditions required to produce these documents and to give them
scientific importance were profoundly moral. In contrast, consider the case
of the fraudulent Soviet agronomist, Trofim Lysenko, who displayed neither
honesty, candor, tolerance or modesty. Because of these very failings, his
work was scientifically worthless. Once more: the primary findings of
science, and the language that reports it, are value free, but the
conditions that permit scientific work and the attitudes of the scientists
toward their work, are deeply involved in morality.
In his little book, Science and Human Values,13
Jacob Bronowski gives a masterful presentation of the moral preconditions of
science. The fundamental moral premise, says Bronowski, is "the habit of
truth": the collective decision by the body of science that "We ought to act
in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so." This habit, this
decision, gives a moral tone to the entire scientific enterprise. Bronowski
By the worldly standards of public life, all scholars in
their work are of course oddly virtuous. They do not make wild claims,
they do not cheat, they do not try to persuade at any cost, they appeal
neither to prejudice or to authority, they are often frank about their
ignorance, their disputes are fairly decorous, they do not confuse what
is being argued with race, politics, sex or age, they listen patiently
to the young and to the old who both know everything. These are the
general virtues of scholarship, and they are peculiarly the virtues of
science. Individually, scientists no doubt have human weaknesses. . .
But in a world in which state and dogma seem always either to threaten
or to cajole, the body of scientists is trained to avoid and organized
to resist every form of persuasion but the fact. A scientist who breaks
this rule, as Lysenko has done, is ignored. . .
The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its
members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every
profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of
science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice.
And this is but the beginning. For if truth claims are to be freely tested
by the community of scientists, then this community must encourage and
protect independence and originality, and it must tolerate dissent.
Science and scholarship are engaged in a constant struggle to replace
persuasion with demonstration -- the distinction is crucial to understanding
the discipline and morality of science.
Persuasion, a psychological activity, is the arena in which
propagandists, advertisers, politicians and preachers perform their stunts.
To the "persuader," the "conclusion" (i.e. what he is trying to get others
to believe: "the message," "the gospel," "the sale") is not open to
question. His task is to find the means to get the persuadee (i.e., voter,
buyer, "sucker") to believe the message. Whatever psychological means
accomplishes this goal (apart from "side effects") is fair game. (When the
"persuader" and the "persuadee" are one and the same, this is called
Demonstration (or "argumentation" or "proof"), a logical activity, is
the objective of the scholar and scientist. Therein, hard evidence and valid
methodology is sought, and the conclusion is unknown or in doubt. However
discomforting the resulting conclusions might be, "demonstration" has
evolved as the best "proven" means of arriving at the truth -- or more
precisely, at whatever assurance of truth the evidence will allow.
"Demonstration" is exemplified in scientific method (in particular, through
freedom of inquiry, replicability of experimentation, publicly attainable
data, etc.), in legal rules of evidence, and in the rules of inference of
A scientist or a scholar is an individual who has determined, as much as
possible, to be (psychologically) persuaded only by (logical) demonstration.
Being human, every scientist falls more or less short of the mark.
The temptation to resort to persuasion to the detriment of demonstration is
universal in mankind. But the ability to resist this temptation is variable.
Thus science has been devised to ensure the highest humanly attainable
degree of non-subjective demonstration. Much of the strength and endurance
of science derives from in its social nature, and the severe sanctions that
are entailed therein. Thus the scientist who claims a discovery must tell
his colleagues how he arrived at his knowledge, and then offer it for
independent validation, at any suitable time and place, by his peers. If
this validation fails, the "discovery" is determined to be bogus. If the
failure is due to carelessness, the investigator is subject to ridicule.
(This was apparently the case with Fleishman and Pons' claim to have
discovered "cold fusion.") If it is due to fraud (i.e., "cooking the data"),
as was the case with Lysenko and Dawson (the "discoverer" of Piltdown Man),
the investigator is liable to be exposed, whereupon he loses his reputation
and credibility -- which is to say, his profession. Due to its social
nature, the institution of scientific inquiry is more than the sum of all
scientists that participate therein.
To reiterate: the activity of science fosters such moral virtues as
tolerance, mutual respect, discipline, modesty, impartiality,
non-manipulation, and, above all, what Bronowski calls "the habit of truth."
That is to say, in the pursuit of his or her profession, the scientist
forgoes "easy" gratification through a steadfast allegiance to "truth," and
the implicit willingness to acknowledge a failure to find the truth -- both
of these, abstract moral principles. The scientist endures such morally
virtuous sacrifice and constraint, because the discipline requires it, and
the cost of violation is severe: lying and cheating in the laboratory are
fruitless iniquities, since, by the nature of the enterprise, they are
likely to be uncovered.
Yet, to be sure, scientists are capable of morally atrocious behavior. They
performed experiments at Auschwitz, and they serve today as apologists for
the tobacco and pesticide industries. Scientists are human, and thus
vulnerable to all the usual temptations which flesh is heir to.
Still, for the scientist and scholar who chooses to pursue a moral life, the
insight and discipline acquired from scientific training and practice,
offers a significant "boost" to that pursuit.
The "virtues of science" can even lead to saintly behavior. Consider the
case of Andrei Sakharov. Without question, Sakharov carried his allegiance
to truth, and the habit of yielding to principle, beyond his laboratory. In
this passage from his great 1968 testament, "Progress, Coexistence and
Intellectual Freedom," note how the extension of scientific method to
politics and social activism, conveys essential moral qualities and
We regard as 'scientific' a method based on deep
analysis of facts, theories, and views, presupposing unprejudiced,
unfearing open discussion and conclusions. The complexity and diversity
of all the phenomena of modern life, the great possibilities and dangers
linked with the scientific-technical revolution and with a number of
social tendencies demand precisely such an approach...15
Out of his respect for the truth and the institution of
scientific inquiry, Sakharov would never hide evidence, whatever the
apparent personal advantage. By analogy, he would not compromise a moral
truth, even to save himself. When duty called, that was reason enough. It is
this step, from the laboratory to practical life, that characterizes the
saintly scientist. Saintly behavior is manifest when intellectual discipline
of the laboratory, the willingness to accept evidence and follow the clear
logical implications of perceived and discovered truth, is applied to
personal life, even at the cost of personal sacrifice, and even when one has
clear opportunities to "get away" with a distortion or denial of the truth
and a compromise of one's principles.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
8 May, 2000
2. Science, 17 January, 1986
3. See my
"Whose to Say?"
The Online Gadfly.
4. See my "The President of
Fantasyland," The Online Gadfly.
5. Sokol and Bricmont,
Fashionable Nonsense, Picador, 269-270.
7. Skeptical Inquirer,
8. See my
"Regarding Junk Science
and Other Detritus," The Online Gadfly.
9. For more, see John Rennie:
"15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense,"
Scientific American.com, July, 2002. See also the November, 2004 issue of National
Geographic, and an excellent bibliography from the National Academy of
10. Jerry Wilson:
Scientific Laws, Hypotheses, and
11. A June, 1999,
CNN Gallup poll indicates that 68% of the public agrees that both should be
taught in the schools.
12. National Academy of Science:
Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences,
13. Jacob Bronowski,
Science and Human Values, (Harpers, 1965).
14. Ibid., 58-60.
15. Andrei Sakharov:
"Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom," in Sakharov Speaks,
ed. Harrison Salisbury, Knopf, 1974, p. 56.