Teaching and Propaganda (Part 3)

From: Moorad Alexanian (alexanian@uncwil.edu)
Date: Thu Nov 02 2000 - 10:07:13 EST

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    November Letters (Physics Today):

    Teaching, Propaganda, and the Middle Ground
    Singhan replies

    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
    inherently insoluble.

    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).
    Mano Singham
    Case Western Reserve University
    Cleveland, Ohio

    © 2000 American Institute of Physics

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