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Home » Science is not based on absolutes–Richard Dawkins proves that

Science is not based on absolutes–Richard Dawkins proves that

dawkins-bus-advertOne of the tropes of pseudoscience pushers is that science is too fungible, that is, scientists can change their mind or, horrors of horrors, refuse to make an absolute “this is the TRUTH™” statement. There are numerous articles, published in peer-reviewed, high impact factor journals, that state “more research should be done to confirm these results.” The anti-science crowd uses these comments as “evidence” that science isn’t sure about something.

Black/white absolute truth doesn’t exist in real science. Many people state that science “seeks truth,” and it does, if we do not ascribe moral qualities to the word “truth.” Actually, science seeks evidence to support or refute a hypothesis (or some other scientific principle like a theory). It’s all about the evidence (and the quality thereof), not about proving that it’s either this or that.

Part of the problem, amongst both “pro-science” and anti-science types is that they both think that science is some magical word to either be loved or despised depending on the answer it provides. But science is, in reality, a coherent method to find an answer to a question about the natural universe, but it is not itself the answer. Science is a systematic and logical process, using the scientific method, that finds and builds data, and eventually knowledge, into testable explanations and predictions about the natural universe. it is not a magical word that implies truth, but it is a rigorous process to separate meaningless information from high quality evidence in support or refutation of an explanation of the natural world. 

Oftentimes, someone will report that “scientists believe that birds are living dinosaurs” or “scientists believe humans cause global warming.” To the lay audience that sounds like a bunch of men and women, sitting in an apartment with a keg of beer, a dartboard, and inventing some new theory. OK, in my experience, we have often sat around with a keg of beer and a dartboard, but we were discussing 10 years of research and how to sum it up clearly. Or wondering if a new set of results adds to the data or may actually move us in a different direction. But all of it was based on many years of hard work (including education, bench and field research, withering criticisms from peers and mentors, and countless nights of worrying if an experiment would fail because the power went off), not just making a random guess.

Moreover, even after hard work, publications, and critiques, science is filled with doubt. New evidence, as long as it is as strong as the evidence that supported a previously held explanation, can create new explanations and predictions. The whole scientific process is based upon criticism, open-mindedness and accumulation of new data. It’s not based on “ok, we’re done, we’ve answered all of the questions.” Science evolves over times, because it simply isn’t dogmatic.

This appearance of scientific doubt is often misused by those who stick with a pseudoscientific view of the natural world.  For example, no scientific publication will state that “homeopathy doesn’t work”, what it will say is “no evidence so far supports the use of homeopathy in treating a clinical condition.”  There is no doubt that homeopathy is just water, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility, however remote, that someone would provide outstanding evidence that supports the claim that homeopathy works (and thereby causing us to set aside every single law of physics and chemistry). The chances of this happening are vanishingly small, right along the lines that vaccines cause autism. Real science accepts, and sometimes actively seeks, evidence that might refute its explanations of the world. Pseudoscience, populated by science deniers (despite their claims to the contrary), is purely dogmatic so they neither seek out more data to support their beliefs nor do they look for data that might debunk their pseudoscience.

In 2012, there were stories that seemed to indicate that Richard Dawkins, noted secularist, author and evolutionary biologist, might believe in a god (more specifically a “creator”). A British newspaper reported about an exchange between Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the traditional head of the Church of England (or the Anglican Communion as it is known to most of the English speaking world, outside of the USA and Scotland):

There was surprise when Prof Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator.

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.

An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: “You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.”

Of course, a number of theist bloggers and authors jumped on this discussion as proof that Dawkins was unsure of his atheism, that maybe he was an agnostic or even a theist at heart. However, Richard Dawkins is a scientist, and science is not dogmatic; so not expressing 100% certainty that any god didn’t exist is very scientific and open-minded. People come to their atheism from a lot of directions. Some find the bible and churches to be abhorrent immoral constructs. Some become atheists out of some fashion sense. But many of us become atheists because when we apply the scientific method to supernatural beings, we find no evidence. However, that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t examine or accept high quality evidence that supported the existence of god, but after several thousand years of trying, many of us have lost hope in finding it.  

But my article here isn’t about atheism per se, it’s about how real science works. One of the basic tenets of real science, and one that shows just how open-minded the scientific process is, is the principle of falsifiability, which is the ability to imagine an experiment that refutes or discredits the scientific hypothesis, theory, or principle.  Science moves forward by always attempting to nullify its theories, hypotheses or principles. There is an old joke about falsifying the theory of evolution.  If someone shows us a rabbit fossil in a precambrian rock layer (the Precambrian happened some 300 million years before rabbits evolved), and it’s not a fraud or mistaken dating, then we have falsified the theory of evolution. Now, most scientists would work hard to show that such data was wrong, but if they couldn’t, it would be a sea-change in our understanding of the development of life on earth. Or rabbits figured out time travel, and ended up in the Precambrian. On the other hand, Dawkins stated any modern animal, like a hippo, would do (see The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design).

The essential premise of falsifiability in science probably makes religion and science incompatible.  For example, Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest, discovered the Theory of the Big Bang (origin of the universe, not the oft-mentioned TV show around here), calling it “the hypothesis of the primeval atom.”  He never mentioned that a supernatural being was involved, because he knew it could possibly be falsified, and if he went down the path of a religious basis for the Big Bang, then his god could be falsified.

The crucial definition of pseudoscience is the practice of declaring an unfalsifiable theory to be scientifically true. Pseudoscientists cannot properly describe their methodology as scientific, because they start with the conclusion and refuse to change it regardless of the evidence developed during the course of the investigation. Just name your pseudoscience, and you’ll observe this unscientific method. Vaccine deniers believe that vaccines are neither safe or effective. That is their conclusion. And no matter what the evidence, and they try to construct impossible experiments to get evidence, they will not change their mind. Real science, on the other hand, is always trying to test it’s conclusions. Billions of dollars were spent trying to show a link between vaccines and autism, and unsurprisingly, all failed. There is no link.

Creationists, properly they are evolution deniers, do the same thing. They claim that their beliefs are scientific, yet, typical of all pseudoscience, they have a conclusion, that a god created the universe, and all evidence either supports their belief, or they ignore the evidence. Or both. 

It’s important to understand that science is not pragmatic or dogmatic, no matter how it is depicted by those with an anti science agenda. And when science isn’t being dogmatic, the pseudoscience pushers leap on the idea that science is “unsure.” Well, science isn’t a conscience being–it is a method of understanding nature. That’s all.

So, Richard Dawkins, the noted evolutionary biologist, correctly described his beliefs or lack of beliefs in a supernatural being using common scientific verbiage. He’s probably 99.9% sure that there are no gods. He’s probably 99.9% sure that there is a lack of evidence in a god. So why is it that some people insist on rounding 99.9% down to a 0.00% probability that gods don’t exist? I guess for the same reason that pseudoscientists round up 0.0001% to 100% that the evidence supports their junk science.

Science is all about the evidence. That’s all. Evidence is gathered that either supports or nullifies the principles, hypotheses and theories of the natural universe. Occasionally, it’s hard to tell if it reinforces or refutes an idea, so you keep repeating. But a real scientist keeps gathering evidence, because they’re never 100% sure, like Dawkins and his lack of acceptance of a creator. We leave the 100%’s to the pseudoscientists.

Michael Simpson
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