Sunday, 5 February 2012

Is science the new religion?

 Perhaps it should be. - What science means to me and why it is so much more than just a worldview.
I grew up with the Voyager probes.  My childhood seemed to mirror their grand journey from drawing board to launch pad to touring the solar system.  Well, in my head anyway. I had a plastic space shuttle hanging from my bedroom ceiling and at least three separate models of different bits of the Apollo hardware.  All poorly made and badly painted, but to me they became symbols of my own view of the world.  My own grand tour consisted of getting a job in a local bank and starting a family.  I wouldn’t change any of this but one thing has now lead to another and I find that my relationship with science has changed again.  
Creationist meddling in my children’s school (a state one, probably yours too, only you don't know about it) and a close look at their loony materials inspired a renewed fascination with science, biology in particular, and I am now more than half way through an OU Life Sciences Degree which I work on around my full time job and family.  I surprised myself at how strongly I cared about the science budget being protected from the cuts imposed by the newly elected coalition government.  I am now active in an anti-creationist group (BCSE), have had lunch with Genie Scott and I attend talks at local Skeptics in the pub meetings and sometimes I am the one doing the talk.  
So I feel that I am part of a growing section of society that reads science news with interest, glories in the latest TV documentary spectaculars and actually feels that some progress is being made in opposition to nonsense and pseudoscience with the fast approaching libel law reforms.  Evidence based thinking is becoming more common with the phrases “evidence based medicine” and “evidence based politics”  no longer a rare curiosity.  
So what does science mean to me?  Well, I think that it is all about the journey, or more accurately the method of locomotion.  For me the crucial thing is this. How do we move from one opinion to another better one?  If that isn’t very clear then let me tell you what it isn’t and then I might be making more sense.  
Science is not really a worldview.  
A worldview is an answer.  It is a forgone conclusion. E.g. the world is 6,000 years old.  It is a dead end, a reason to stop.  It is also often a great comfort because the answers claimed by worldviews always seem to coincide with something that the "worldviewer" seems to want anyway , e.g. "eternal bliss", or perhaps "being part of a small group of heroic people who have the truth and are persecuted by an ignorant majority who will shortly learn the error of their ways on the end of a toasting fork".  It is also true that having a worldview can save you an awful lot of time and effort. You don't exactly have to look into both sides of an argument do you? You don't ask genuine questions to try to trip up your own arguments do you?  I mean, who wants to make life difficult for themselves  like that anyway?  Just be nice to yourself, relax and stick to the script. 
Why is this an important question?  Sagan spoke about the importance of society understanding science when civilisation was built upon it.  I agree but also feel that numpties and deniers alike have gotten much better at aping science and they are also much louder.  
We now see numpties and deniers producing rhetoric that can sway the non-science educated intelligentsia and non-science educated non-intelligentsia alike.  God of the gaps is so yesterday. Today the appeal of the rhetorically beautiful over plainly spoken facts means that this old tactic has evolved. You no longer need a god or even a gap. Creationists proceed sans gap and have developed the god of the shoe horn.  Here is one veritable unsinkable rubber duck of an example as previously broadcast by BBC1 bending over backwards to have a balanced debate and so inflating the creationist side of the scales several thousand fold.   We were treated to the desperate creationist cry, "But where does the information come from?"  Now, there are huge sections on this topic in the degree I'm doing. But courtesy of the BBC, I listen as Prof. Andy McIntosh pleads with an obstinately sinful world. I can almost hear him thinking that if he can just sound sincere enough then the atheist conspiracy that reaches worldwide through all branches of science, stretches back decades and crosses national, political and even ideological borders, will immediately begin to crumble. 
As it happens he just sounds desperately deluded. But if you don't know what he is talking about, lets say you haven't just spent weeks working through it on an OU course, and lets also say that you don't have a way of finding out, of weighing the pros and cons of his position, then you can be swayed by him and people like him.
People like Andy no longer bother looking around for rocks that science hasn't looked under yet. They don't even bother looking for areas where not enough evidence is in yet and we can't pluck out a winning theory from competing hypotheses. Nowadays a glib phrase is enough "Where does the information come from?". 
"What?", says the intelligent, eloquent, politically aware and socially mature person who also just happens not to be very scientifically aware, "You mean they don't even know that?". 
Other folks manage the god of the gaps tactic without a god. Homeopaths certainly don't dilute their heavy handed hints that there is stuff about water we just don't know. Through that gap they squeeze into the public's wallets to sell their magic water. 
We even have people that use the god of the gaps rhetoric with neither a god nor a gap. Step forward the intelligent design brigade.  Denying their origins. And ignoring a lack of gaps they just spout empty rhetoric. They have hit upon the fact that if you make your claims totally scientifically ridiculous you will avoid the attention of the big beasts of the science jungle and perhaps even the media too who dismiss you as not worthy of their attention. Leaving you free to use your rhetorical powers on those who may well be intelligent and fair minded but lack the basic science education to realise that they are being lied too.
What leads people to perpetrate such nonsense  Apart from the fact that it works?
It's that worldview thing again. It is a final destination for most. It is the end of a quest for an easy life. It is an end to all that hard work involved in making your mind up about something and it is the very antithesis of science.  It doesn't involve thinking, just reacting. When you get into it it takes hardly any effort at all. 
I can't think of a better contrasting example that makes my point for me than James Dellingpole describing the moment when he couldn't answer a question put to him about his views on Global Warming, by the gently smiling science bruiser Paul Nurse, as "intellectual rape".  Being asked a pertinent question that you have no answer to is about as far from rape as I can imagine.  In fact it’s just the kind of thing that science loves.  It might just, after all, be a precursor to learning something and perhaps even (brace yourself James) changing your mind. 
Changing your mind about something is one of the objectives of scientific thinking. Well kind of. I mean to say that changing your mind in the light of logical argument backed up by evidence is one of the objectives of science.  Nobel prizes are given for this kind of thing. Far from being intellectual rape this is pretty close to an intellectual orgasm. 
So OK, yes, take science as your world view. But remember that it is a world view that actually frees you from all worldviews while censoring you from none. Welcome to intellectual freedom. Welcome to taking pleasure in changing your mind. Welcome to a rewarding , stimulating and (this will surprise those of other world views) comforting and purposeful way of living your life. 
Anyway must get back to exploring this wonderful reality with help of a madly grinning Mancunian, that scottish geologist bloke and the folks on Bang Goes the Theory.

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