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Why science is the way, not a way
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.