November Letters (Physics Today):
Teaching, Propaganda, and the Middle Ground
Singham replies: A set of common assumptions underlies nearly all of the
responses to my article.
An empirical world (known as "nature") exists that is external and
A clear distinction exists between experiment and theory.
Experimental data serve as surrogates for nature.
Theories can be evaluated by comparing their predictions with data.
This view of science is expressed in various ways by the letter writers.
Gary Powell says that "science is a framework built around observations in
nature." W. C. Morrey adds that science uses "data and deductions," and
Moorad Alexanian tells us that "such data are the sole input for scientific
theories," and "physics is essentially an experimental science in which laws
are arrived at by generalizing results obtained by experiments." Hoi-Kwong
Lo adds that all scientific theories must be subjected to the same test,
with the evidence "weighed objectively."
A hierarchy of knowledge structures is also postulated, with science rated
higher than others because of its empirical basis and its method of
operation. These two features make belief unnecessary because the data
(nature) force theories on us (or at least constrain them). Hence we science
teachers are not propagandizing but are justified in asking our students to
accept the theories of science because, as Morrey puts it, "informed opinion
is more valuable than uninformed, and experiment-based systems are more
valuable than belief-based." Phil Baringer points out that we can safely
rely on "experts [who] appear to have good evidence and to have followed
proper scientific procedures." According to Pantazis Mouroulis, "Once proof
has been achieved, belief becomes irrelevant." Charles K. Sharnberger notes
that science relies on "rational interpretation of empirical evidence . . .
as the pathway to truth."
Among scientists, this formulation of scientific endeavor is widely held and
seems so self-evident that people who disagree with it are perceived as
irrational or oppositional. But is the distinction between the knowledge
structures of science and nonscience really that clear-cut?
Clearly, science can make one particular claim: It works. Unlike any other
form of knowledge, science provides a means of constructing machines and
theories that are unequaled in their ability to predict and provide control.
Our modern technological society is a monument to its success. Science also
has created an intricate structure of knowledge to provide coherent and
self-consistent explanations of a wide range of phenomena.
But while this success is incontrovertible, it may well obscure the
subtleties of science's knowledge structure. Consequently, we may construct
a model of scientific knowledge and evolution that makes science seem more
different from other forms of knowledge than may actually be the case.
Philosophers and science historians such as Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos1
have wondered why science works so well. They have looked at its structure,
its evolution, and the mechanisms by which scientific theories have
progressed. Their analyses and conclusions will be unsettling to many
scientists. They find that experiment and theory are not distinct
categories, so that when one compares experimental data with theory, one is
not really testing a theory by comparing it with nature. Instead, one is
making a choice among competing theories, and no set of objective rules
governs such a choice. The scientific community arrives at its theories in
ways that are not entirely objective. No clear line of demarcation exists
between experiment-based knowledge systems and belief-based ones. Some
philosophers of science have even argued that the demarcation problem--that
is, defining science so that it can be distinguished from religion--is
Scientists can ignore or summarily reject these conclusions by saying that
we know that scientific knowledge is objectively obtained even if we cannot
articulate exactly how we know this. But just as Mouroulis accords his
"cosmology colleagues the same respect and skepticism that he expects from
them," we should extend this courtesy to the philosophers and historians of
science. Their works are scholarly, peer-reviewed, and critiqued by their
colleagues. And these philosophers are admirers and supporters of science,
not opponents. We at least owe it to them to study and understand their
views. Otherwise we will be doing what we often criticize nonscientists for
doing: rejecting counterintuitive ideas (such as waveparticle duality or
time dilation) because they are "obviously" untrue.
One other aspect of this discussion puzzles me. The scientific community
takes young-Earth creationists to task for holding irrational views but
tends to ignore the views of mainstream religions, when the differences seem
to be matters of degree and not of principle. Any theistic religion
typically asserts the existence of at least one scientifically inexplicable
supernatural event. Should scientists reject all such claims?
The committed naturalist would argue that we should, otherwise the entire
framework of science will collapse. Science starts with the assumption that
all natural phenomena are explainable by natural laws that can be discovered
using the methods of science. No deviation from these laws is allowed.
Miracles, which by definition are direct contradictions of the workings of
natural laws, presumably have no place in this framework. Evolutionary
geneticist Richard C. Lewontin2 says it plainly: "We cannot live
simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one
miracle can occur, there is no limit." His point is well taken. If the
scientific community concedes even one miraculous event, then how can it
credibly contest the young-Earth creationist view that the world (and all
its fossilized relics) was created in one instant just 6000 years ago? So if
we reject creationist views on this basis, should we also reject any
supernatural claim from any religion?
These are thorny and nontrivial issues, which need the kind of extended
discussion that I have provided elsewhere.3 But for the present, I can only
echo letter writer Philip E. Kaldon, who sums it up beautifully:
It is easy to say that we physics teachers do not teach "belief" because we
are teaching science. It is not so clear-cut to the students--and sometimes
those of us teaching. And at the end of the day... I am grateful to those
who have spent the time to think about what they are being asked to think
about, no matter their personal conclusions.
1. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, U. of Chicago Press,
Chicago (1970). I. Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research
Programmes, Cambridge U. Press, New York (1978).
2. R. C. Lewontin, Scientists Confront Creationism, L. R. Godfrey, ed., W.
W. Norton, New York (1983).
3. M. Singham, Phi Delta Kappan, 81 (6), 424. M. Singham, The Quest for
Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs, Phi Delta Kappa
Educational Foundation, Bloomington, Ind. (in press).
Case Western Reserve University
© 2000 American Institute of Physics
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