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Card games: Science versus Religion

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For some time, I have used email to engage in a discussion about science and religion. My correspondent is very religious and does have some background in science and technology. He is willing to accept the science involved with areas like gravity, electricity, heat and light, but on topics like evolution or human activity causing climate change, he takes a Marco Rubio position. In his (not so humble) opinion, science is wrong.

I refer to this discussion “technique” as playing the “opinion card”. Religious leaders and politicians with little or no scientific background frequently use this technique.

There are many areas of discussion where opinion is important. Sports, movies, music, literature, and art are some of these areas where two rational, reasonable people can have a difference of opinion based on individual experiences, personal taste, and values.

For example, I may feel that a film is emotionally realistic but someone else might consider it to be maudlin. We can have a long discussion giving examples to support our opinions.

When prominent leaders use the opinion card to further their political or popular status, it has an air of being contrived. For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R Florida) is seeking support from the far right wing of the Republican Party for a possible presidential run in 2016. To further this goal, he says things that agree with far right wing ideas. They consider that either global warming doesn’t exist or, at least, is not caused by human activities.

Rubio says, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it, and I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy."

Leadership is, to some, determining which way people are running and then getting out in front. Many political leaders do this by echoing the words of their most extreme followers.

In a real discussion, one person states a point or their opinion and then gives a reason to support that point or to explain why they hold that opinion.

In politics and popular media, people tend to skip the second part. They only state their point or their opinion and expect others to accept their statement as coming from authority. Even though their bona fides may be based on the fact that they were elected to public office, starred in a movie or TV series, or had a hit record.

They play the “authority card” by indicating their position. They may announce themselves, “Hi, I’m Senator Marco Rubio,” or they may have themselves introduced, “Model, TV host, and actor, Jenny McCarthy.” This is then followed by playing the opinion card. “I do not believe that human activity is causing … changes to our climate,” or “…vaccinations triggered [my son’s] autism.”

Why anyone should accept the opinion of people whose popularity is based on how many viewers tuned in to watch as they performed is beyond me. When a lawyer or a business owner gets more votes in an election, they do not, magically, become an expert in science or economics.

Politics, popular culture and religion do not deal with ideas the way science does. Religion, for example, starts with an idea and looks for information that supports that idea while discarding or denying data that is contrary. Seashells have been found on top of a mountain? Proof that Noah’s flood occurred. The seashells are in layers that show a gradual accumulation as opposed to a catastrophic event? Disregard.

When science and religion are in conflict, religion plays the authority card. “Science is wrong because it conflicts with the Bible which was inspired by God.” Many people in politics or popular media fall back on that same authority when challenged.

In a recent exchange, my discussion partner made the claim that science is financed by special interests that prevent independent testing of ideas. This is the “conspiracy card.”

It is reminiscent of the conspiracy ideas that floated around before the Internet was invented. A very popular idea was the “forever razor blade”.

Somewhere, scientists or engineers had discovered a way to make a razor blade that never got dull. Instead of a few shaves before needing replacement, this blade would never need replacement. Buy it once and you’re done. However, the blade was not available for purchase because the company that owned the patent refused to market the blade since it would cause a severe drop in the company’s profits.

This type of story fit into popular beliefs: company owners were greedy and conspired to insure profits, things that could benefit people were hidden, and science was marvelous.

There are some logical holes in the story. If a patent has been filed, other engineers or scientists could look at it and reverse engineer a similar product. If a person had discovered the secret, why would they sell the patent, even for a huge sum of money, when more money and fame could come from marketing the blade themselves? There is also a scientific hole: If a material was invented that does not get dull, that is, the edge doesn’t wear away and becomes blunt, how would you sharpen the blade in the first place?

What my discussion partner was saying was nearly the same thing: the people who give grant money to scientists so the scientists can make discoveries control the scientist’s investigation. The scientists discover what the funding source wants them to discover or make up s#!t that looks like science. Then, the funding source somehow prevents other, honest, scientists from testing the results of the bought and paid for scientists.

There is a huge gap in the public’s knowledge of science, how science works, and what scientists do. Most people see the obvious technological improvements to their lives; cell phones, digital cameras, flat screen TVs, computers, and so on and think that is science.

Since most people do not understand how the technology works, they think science is too complicated for them to understand. This lack of understanding leads them to easily accept the idea that a conspiracy could hide scientific truth from the public.

TV conspiracy shows, like the “X-Files” and all the conspiracy memes on the Internet do not help.

There are real conspiracies. There are people who hide the truth from the public. But that is not the way science works.

Science starts by making an educated guess based on observation, previous experience, and previously shared experiments. These guesses are called hypothesis, from the Greek: foundation. This is the point where science diverges from non-science. Both science and non-science offer hypothesis or possible reasons for why things happen. Non-science stops at the point of proposing hypothesis while science proceeds to test the validity of the hypothesis by making and testing predictions based on the hypothesis.

In some cases, it is not possible to test a hypothesis. If a hypothesis involves supernatural beings, the thoughts of a dead person, or events in the distant past, it may be impossible to make a prediction or to test the idea.

If a writer were to suggest that Abraham Lincoln knew about the plot against him and went to the Ford Theatre because Lincoln wanted to commit suicide or because Lincoln thought that his sacrifice would bind the states together again, there is no way to check on these ideas since we can’t read Lincoln’s thoughts or question him about his motives.

Science works best when there are testable predictions based on a hypothesis. For example, Christian Doppler knew from experience that the pitch produced by an approaching source of sound was higher than the sound of the same source when it was at rest. The whistle of a train has a higher pitch as the train approaches an intersection but decreases to a lower pitch as the train passes the intersection and then moves away. The sound heard by the engineer on the train is a constant pitch.

Doppler’s hypothesis was that the pitch of an approaching source of sound depends on the object’s speed and he developed an equation to predict the change in pitch. A whistle approaching faster would have a higher pitch than that same whistle approaching at a slower speed.

He tested his idea by having one set of musicians play a set pitch [musical note] while riding on an open flat car and another set of musicians stand by the tracks and record the pitch [musical note] of the sound they heard. Doppler did not have the technology to measure frequency and needed to rely on the ability of musicians with a trained sense of pitch.

Doppler then published his results. Any other scientist could duplicate Doppler’s experiment or devise other experiments to test Doppler’s hypothesis. If Doppler had hidden the details of how he arrived at his conclusion, other scientists would have considered his conclusion baseless and unfounded.

Does this mean there are no controversies in science, that there are no disagreements between scientists? Not at all. There are arguments about many aspects of science. Generally, these arguments are about the details of an idea or are disagreements that occur before an idea is tested. Sometimes, the results of experiments are questioned and verification is required.

Frequently, an idea arises that contradicts previously tested ideas. Until the new idea is tested and confirmed, it is generally not widely accepted. Once it is tested and shown to be better than the old idea, the new idea is accepted. Generally, the older, conflicting idea is discarded.

When Alfred Wegener first proposed his idea that the crust of the Earth was composed of moving plates, his untested idea was met with skepticism. Over time, experiments and new data confirmed that Wegener was correct and his idea became the standard while the old ideas were discarded. Again, this is the process of science.

To have an idea and not test it is not science; it is non-science and nonsense. To have an idea and somehow not allow others to test it is also not science.

If we consider Senator Rubio’s statement, he is claiming that science is driven by opinions and that his opinion, as a non-scientist is as valid as the opinions of trained scientists. Rubio is wrong on both counts. A scientific idea is not based on how many people or even how many scientists believe something to be true. If that were the case, we would still think the Earth is flat and the Sun, Moon and stars revolve around it.

When a statement such as: “97% of climate scientists accept the idea of human caused global warming,” is made, it means that the vast majority of scientists with training in this area have looked at the evidence, the tests, the other possibilities and found the idea that human activity is causing global warming is the most likely answer to the question of what is causing global warming.

The vast majority of scientists and non-scientists believing that rockets would not work in space where there was no air to push against did not keep scientists from developing rockets that eventually flew men to the moon. A few scientists suggesting other causes for global warming and the vast majority of untrained right-wing politicians should not delay America from taking action on a real crisis.

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