You Will Get A Real “Keck” Out Of This!

I write this the morning (13 February) after Diane and I had a wonderful, long, and calorie-filled dinner with two very senior people associated with the Keck Telescopes and the other telescopes atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a memorable evening that still resonates with me. One reason that conversation sticks with me -- aside from having discussed dark energy, blue-sky (black-sky?) projects for exploring the Proxima Centauri system, gamma-ray bursts, gravity waves, black holes, etc., etc. – is that one of the subjects we touched on banged down pretty hard on one of my hot-button issues:  scientific illiteracy in general in the US and the western world, and the need for informed, literate teaching of science to non-scientists. I mean science per se, not just astronomy. Given that scientific illiteracy is being actively promoted, not merely tolerated as in previous generations and in previous political regimes, please consider this “Skeptic’s” column my modest effort to piss into the hurricane wind of right-wing scientific ignorance.

Without attempting to sketch a linear, step-1-step-2-step-3 description of the scientific method, I will instead describe some of the most salient ways in which a scientific attitude / approach differs from its politically and religiously conservative counterpart. I do not believe that religion, even conservative religion, and science are necessarily and always in conflict. But conflict is virtually guaranteed to arise when conservatives fail to take meticulous note of the following different orientations:

o Regardless of their virtues in conservative politics and religion, appeals to authority are always out of place in science

In fact, it is the rule rather than the exception that lack of deference to authority has usually been required for any radical progress in science.  This is one way of understanding Thomas Kuhn’s account of scientific progress in terms of “paradigm shifts” in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:  the prevailing scientific paradigm is, however unconsciously, accorded a certain authority, and that authority only changes when observations that fail to conform to the paradigm are repeatedly discovered and repeatedly corroborated.  Examples abound.  Newton’s emphasis on absolute space and time was decisively refuted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Einstein’s “classical” conception of the lawful regularity of all natural phenomena was likewise decisively refuted by, e.g., Schroedinger, et al., and the incorrigibly statistical character of quantum theory. With both relativity and quantum theory, “refuted” is perhaps too strong a word. Rather, the physics of Newton and Einstein came to be seen as special cases of more general theories. Newtonian mechanics is fine for the macroscopic natural world, where events occur at much less than light-speed.  Similar remarks hold for quantum mechanics:  we do not need quantum theory to describe the flip of a coin.

But “refuted” is not too strong a word in other instances. The Divine special creation of human beings was refuted by Darwin’s theory of evolution and speciation by natural selection.  The orthodox conception of dinosaurs as, essentially, overgrown lizards is apparently now in the process of being refuted such that many species of dinosaurs are coming to be seen as, essentially, overgrown birds. Even in such supposedly indubitable fields as mathematics and logic, the once-regnant belief that mathematics and logic are, at bottom, completely interchangeable was refuted in 1931 by Kurt Goedel and his monumental Incompleteness Theorem. I could go on citing other examples, but the point would always be the same:  the authority once ascribed to the prevailing paradigm was overthrown. None of these advances would have been possible if the previous system of belief were held to be sacrosanct. Science is incorrigibly and essentially anti-authoritarian.

o But this does not mean that science is uncritically democratic; on the contrary, science respects ability, aptitude, and credentials.

Artist's conception of a view from Trappist 1F

So, for example, Ken Ham’s views on evolution are not “just as good as” the views of, say, the late Stephen Jay Gould or Prof. Richard Dawkins.  Ken Ham is not an evolutionary biologist. The other gentlemen are. The point is not the people, but their credentials:  Gould and Dawkins have done distinguished, doctoral-level, refereed-and-published work in the field. Ken Ham has not. Science does not respect authority, but it has profound respect for professional competence. That accounts for the tendency of many conservatives, especially religious conservatives, to reverse that order of priority and ascribe scientific competence to people with degrees, not only in theology, but in certain fairly well-defined types of theology. Science is much like a medieval guild, which enforces its professional boundaries by insisting that, while anyone is free to learn science – in fact, the more, the better! -- being free to do science and to contribute thereto presupposes demonstrated competence in the field. The emphasis is truth, not ideological purity.

Proxima Centauri

o This “guild-ness” of science implies that science is an incorrigibly social phenomenon

Even if, in certain conspicuous cases, individual genius produces revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, scientific discoveries must always be verified and substantiated through the activities of other scientists. The voice of one person, even if she turns out to be right, is not in and of itself decisive. Two examples from Einstein’s work vividly illustrate science as a social phenomenon. Prof. Arthur Eddington, on 29 May 1919, observed a solar eclipse and compared the position of a star on the edge of the solar disc before the eclipse with the position of the same star during the eclipse. The star’s apparent position shifted, during the eclipse, by the miniscule amount predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. (This was the result of the influence of the sun’s gravity warping the space through which light travels.) In fact, the shifting of the apparent position of stars during a solar eclipse became one of the “classical” tests of general relativity. It is also worth noting that other observers, over the years, have repeated Eddington’s observations with the same result:  phenomenal agreement of observation with theory. Only a few years ago at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN in French), there was a few-day period when CERN scientists believed they might have detected faster-than-light (“superluminal”) neutrinos – an explicit contradiction of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. They inspected their equipment, reviewed their results, and concluded that the observation was due to a faulty equipment configuration. But the point is that even Einstein’s eminence as a physicist did not absolve his theory from review by the physics community:  authority has no place in science.

o The result of the incorrigibly communal nature of science is that science is always in the process of revision, of critique, with the consequence that scientific theories are always undergoing revision – and this is a sign of the health of science

Science is always reliable precisely because it changes in response to continually revised understandings of Nature. On the Ionian coast in the 6th century, BCE, Heraclitus said panta rhei -- everything changes – so that, as he also said, “You cannot step into the same river twice … or even once”. Conservative politics and spirituality seem, to the same extent, to be enamored of the Unchangeable.  E.g., originalists' claims that the real meaning of the Constitution is to be discerned in the original -- by definition, unique, one, and only -- intent of the Framers, also, e.g., the original text of the Bible. (That latter meaning is no less problematic, given the variety of manuscripts, translations, and glosses on the biblical text, together with the inevitable linguistic ambiguities, like the ones that fuel debates about the New Testament's attitude toward homosexuality.) Science enjoys a salient advantage, in that constant and ongoing change is not only expected, it is welcome as a sign of robust health. Things that never change are usually dead.

o Science changes in response to evidence

Prior to the work of Edwin P. Hubble, the received wisdom of astronomy was that the entire Universe consisted of just the stars we see around us in the night sky and through telescopes. But in the process of observing "nebulae" -- literally from the Greek for "fuzzy clouds"  -- it became evident that these "nebulae" were not comparatively nearby clouds of dust, but rather great clouds of stars at truly cosmological distances of millions of light-years. What was once believed to be the entire Universe was revealed as only a single galaxy -- the Milky Way -- among what turned out to be hundreds of billions of galaxies comprising hundreds of billions of stars. Note that this change was effected by immense volumes of evidence gathered by a community of hundreds of astronomers worldwide.

Artist’s impression of planet Proxima B orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri.

By contrast, the more conservative one is, politically and religiously, the less difference actual, empirical evidence seems to make in one's final conclusions. High-nineties of percents of climatologists have concluded that (a) the earth's climate is changing because of (b) anthropogenic (human-caused) climate activity resulting from increased greenhouse-gas emissions.  If anything, evidence for biological evolution and speciation through mutation and natural selection is even more massive. But the present Secretary of Housing and Urban Development -- a Johns Hopkins-caliber brain surgeon, no less -- insists that evolution is a deception hatched in Hell. Ditto the Big Bang. In such cases, the scientific paradigm has obviously been overtaken by "fact-free" faith.

In summary, I think much, quite probably most, and arguably all, the hostility toward science displayed by politically and religiously conservative people originates in what may well be an unconscious and inchoate, and almost always unacknowledged, insight into the fundamental nature of science:  it is the task of science to account for natural phenomena via naturalistic means. I.e., via means that do not involve the intervention of a Deity who works with a purpose toward some superordinate end.  Divine purposes can best be descried in a static Universe:  essentially the static Universe of pre-Newtonian science (though Newton himself was a devout Christian). So any hint of dynamism, any hint of the Random, any hint of the "Stochastic", any hint of change that can be accounted for in terms of purely natural causes is automatically suspect, no matter how much data and evidence there is to substantiate such a view. In that sense, I would affirm the more radical view of the relationship between conservatism (both political and religious) and science. As long as you insist on believing in a static Universe where anything other than empirical evidence is the ultimate Arbiter, you will never understand science.

In that sense and to that extent, yes, an either / or choice is required.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Keck Observatories ... NASA ... Public domain
Trappist-1F ... NASA / JPL ... Public domain
Proxima Centauri ... 2-Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) ... Public domain
Apollo 14 lunar lander ... NASA ... Public domain
Galileo observation notes ... Univ of MI ... Public domain
Scientific method ... ArchonMagnus ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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