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Why science is the way, not a way

signpost This posting was inspired by some comments I received on the (mostly negative) article about homeopathic medicine on my Web site, and by some conversations I've recently had about the whole idea of teaching 'young-earth creationism' in school science classes. I don't find it easy to articulate what I find so disturbing about both these activities, but I think I can sum it up quite succintly like this: science is not a way, it is the way, to find out about the natural world.

Now I'm sure this sounds like a grandiose claim, even an arrogant one. But I'm not claiming something special for science; instead I'm claiming that 'science' is just a fancy word for the way we humans instictively go about finding about the natural world. Children are naturally scientific — they are intensely curious about the world, and spend hours investigating it (so long as they aren't distracted by too much television and computer gameing). Science is simply a word for the process of observing the world, and then thinking about it.

If there is a better way to find out how the world works, then I certainly haven't come across it. It's certainly been stupendously successful as a way of improving the material quality of life for millions, perhaps billions, of people. Of course, I'm not claiming that science (as I understand that term) has a scratch for every itch. There are questions that cannot be answered by the scientific process: a good one is ''Why is there anything?''. Science, as I understand it, operates on stuff that exists, material stuff. It has nothing to say about why it exists in the first place. And science is ill-equipped to answer questions about morality, or about religion, or about politics, except in very narrow areas. Science won't tell us whether there is a God, for example. It just doesn't operate in that area of enquiry.

Now, people who defend homeopathy will often concede that homeopathy is not supported by modern science, and then go on to add that there are things that science cannot tell us. And of course that is absolutely true. But one of the things that science can tell us is that, in order for a substance to have an effect on the human body, there actually has to be some of it present. The processes used in homeopathy make it highly unlikely that even one molecule of the active substance is actually delivered to the patient. When we examine the natural world (i.e., apply the process called 'science'), we don't find one single instance of a chemical interaction that can take place when the relevant chemicals don't actually come into contact with another. To make sodium chloride (salt) you need sodium and chlorine, in some sort of proximity. You can't make sodium chloride with sodium and some water than once had chlorine in it. It just doesn't happen like that. It never has, and there's no reason to think it ever will. The fundamental assertions of homeopathy contradict the direct evidence of our own senses.

And the same sort of arguments apply to young-earth creationism. The young-earthers postulate that the material world was bought to its current form in a relatively short time (days, usually), and a relatively short time ago (thousands to tens of thousands of years). But when we observe the natural world, it certainly looks a lot older than this. There are, to be fair, different ways of dating the Earth by observation, but none of these ways puts the age at less than a few hundred thousand years, and most put it at billions of years. To say that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago simply does not agree with the evidence of our senses.

Of course, observations can be wrong. And the method of science is based on the fundamental assertion that direct observation is a reliable indicator of what is actually going on in the world. That is an assertion whose truth or falsity has to be argued on philosophical grounds, not scientific ones. But there no doubt that, as a working hypothesis, it's a very powerful and sucessful one.

In short, science is the way, because there is no better, no more reliable, way of understanding the natural world than by looking at it and thinking about it, and 'science' is a word for doing exactly that.

So why should we not teach young-earth creationism as a 'theory' of universal origins in school science classes? I think that should be obvious: science is about observation, and the claims of creationism are at odds with direct observation. Therefore they cannot be 'scientific', at least in the sense I use that word. Creationism, like homeopathy, takes as its basis not observation, but claims made by people who are believed to have some kind of special insight into reality. I'm certainly not going to argue that there are no such people — I rather suspect there are — but nothing that starts from such a basis can properly be called science.

Copyright © 1994-2013 Kevin Boone. Updated May 14 2010