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[Phys-l] science, religion, and politics

Much posted regarding science and religion. I would like to offer a perspective on the "war" between science and religion, and I'll begin with the easy subject--evolution.

I have heard many biology colleagues say, and I've seen it written in many places, that evolution is a fact. The mechanism of evolution, natural selection, can certainly be called a fact because it has been observed in action and in so many different settings. But global evolution--the explanation of the fossil record through diversity and natural selection--never seemed to me to be a fact. It's a theory, based on inference from evidence. And it's a good theory so far. So, I once asked a colleague why we should state that evolution is a fact. His answer was that you had to combat the religious types. You can't admit that global evolution is a theory because, "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile." So in his view, and clearly in the view of others, better to misrepresent the science than "give an inch." To me, it seems we ought to be educating people on what theories are, and what makes good ones (we do a terrible job of that in K-12 science overall), and laying down criteria for a scientific theory. Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. We can make that case easily. But too many choose not to stop there. They wish to state that evolution is fact, when clearly it isn't. That shows a faith that belongs in religion, not science. I don't think that overstating the scientific case helps, but rather it hurts, the cause of scientists. Now you might say that, "They (religious fundamentalists) don't play fair--they try to convince everyone that ID is science." So what? We can counteract that with what true science is and that all theories are not "just theories" but they do have flaws. When we claim something is a fact and it isn't a fact, all that does is bolster their claim that we are lying about things.

Before going on the the second example of AGW, I'd like to address the fact that it seems that not all scientists understand the limitations of science. Science can answer "why" in terms of scientific concepts. We can come up with a host of reasons and different theories for why a ball falls to the Earth, but in the end a ball falls to the Earth because it falls to the Earth. If you want a deeper answer, you must consult your religion. Science cannot answer why we are here. Yet, Stephen Hawking has made more than one statement indicating that science is on the verge of understanding God, or what God intended (don't remember an exact quote, but there was a statement like this in A Brief History of TIme, and I sat back when I read it). WIll try to find the exact quote if anyone is interested. Then there is Lederman's unfortunate coining of the term God Particle. When religious people read that, naturally they are going to see science as their enemy, when in fact science and religion answer different kinds of questions and should not really be in conflict. Science answers the "why" question, but only in terms of science concepts. Religion answers the "why" question in a completely different way.

On to AGW. Below is an excerpt from a NOAA article on the Web, at .

11. What about the future?

Due to the enormous complexity of the atmosphere, the most useful tools for gauging future changes are 'climate models'. These are computer-based mathematical models which simulate, in three dimensions, the climate's behavior, its components and their interactions. Climate models are constantly improving based on both our understanding and the increase in computer power, though by definition, a computer model is a simplification and simulation of reality, meaning that it is an approximation of the climate system. The first step in any modeled projection of climate change is to first simulate the present climate and compare it to observations. If the model is considered to do a good job at representing modern climate, then certain parameters can be changed, such as the concentration of greenhouse gases, which helps us understand how the climate would change in response. Projections of future climate change therefore depend on how well the computer climate model simulates the climate and on our understanding of how forcing functions will change in the future.

I find this to be refreshingly honest in its appraisal of the current situation. While the authors might be convinced that AGW is the right answer, they are careful to state the limitations of computer models, and make it clear that computer models are what constitute the projections. Contrast this with the alarmist comments from James Hansen and others, that AGW is a fact, undisputed, and settled beyond all reason. There might be a lot of evidence, compelling to some, but when scientists overstate the situation, they lose credibility. Particularly telling are the comments by Phil Jones at EAU. When asked if the Earth had warmed over the last decade, he admitted that there was no statistically significant warming. He followed that, though, with the statement that 10 years was too short a time to see a trend and well, by golly, he saw an upward trend in temperature. He sees an upward trend in statistically insignificant data? He's trying to sell something. And that's the real lesson from East Anglia. Not that all climate research is bogus, but that the researchers are making their point in excess of the data. I read an article by Stephen Schneider (sp?) around 1990. He stated the position of global warming, concluded that we really weren't sure what was happening, and ended with the recommendation that scientists make the claim that AGW was a fact, because people needed to act. I can respect the argument that the evidence is strong and therefore we should act even if we're wrong, but I cannot respect misrepresenting conclusions in order to achieve a goal. Scientists do science, and it's fine for scientists to make political statements, but it's wrong for scientists to misrepresent conclusions for their purposes.

Scientists hurt themselves when they overstate their position, because eventually it catches up with them. If you're worried about religious people undermining your efforts, then the last thing you want to do is lie about the science. When you are found out, you are in a deep hole. The East Anglia purloined emails are at one level not a big deal. But any indications of suppression of dissent, which is clear from those emails, is a serious problem. Lewis's remarks on APS are also damning. While I would never call AGW a hoax, it is disturbing that APS suppresses dissent ( if that happened, I can only take Lewis's word for that). That's not supposed to be how scientists behave, and again it does the opposite of the intended result. You want to convince the public that AGW is a fact, and you are caught being political. You overstate your position in order to counteract religious people, and you shoot yourself in the foot.

Along with all the overstatement of positions are the pejorative comments. As I was studying physics and then teaching it, I learned that skepticism was the hallmark of science. One should not only be skeptical of others' science, but skeptical of one's own science. Skeptics of AGW are now labeled "deniers." So, people who are not completely convinced that humans are ruining the planet are lumped into fools who say the Holocaust never happened? Really? Really? Do you actually want to use that word to define people who do what scientists are supposed to do--question? "Deniers" is a political term, not a scientific one. If you use that term, then you are not acting scientifically.

Not too long ago, I did a video-conference with a group of fifth and sixth graders. I was asked to do this because I was a "skeptic" on global warming and the children needed a jolt. (Ignore the fact that the teacher in question couldn't bring herself to provide an objective opinion herself.) The students had studied global warming. Every question I got assumed AGW, and wanted to know what I thought about their various concerns. I asked them what research they had done. Unanimously, they had seen An Inconvenient Truth. The all thought that CO2 drove temperature, always, and were surprised that the ice core data indicated no causation either way. They had learned about the greenhouse effect, and had learned that AGW was a fact. None had seen the 500,000 year cycles of the ice core data. None were aware that current projections were based on computer models. In short, they were indoctrinated. I would hope all of us here would agree that science education is not about spewing facts for the students to absorb, but that is how AGW is presented. By all means present the data and present the entire picture. Let them know about the uncertainties and their place in scientific research. But again, these were fifth and sixth graders. I have no doubt they could understand many nuances of the issue, but that would take a great deal of time. Too much time for any teacher to spend on the issue. Instead, in most schools we are simply breeding activists. Do we want students to see science as a "cause?" What if the next cause is something you don't want them to promote?

In summary, I think scientists hurt themselves when they treat science as a religion. One is not to question the orthodoxy. Could anything be further from the enterprise of science? One should always question. I haven't made up my mind on AGW, but it would sure be nice to have people not label me a denier. How unscientific. I am a member of a science education listserv separate from this one, primarily occupied by K-12 teachers. I merely laid out a few questions I had about AGW, and why I wasn't completely convinced. The hate mail came in. My education, upbringing, and intelligence were questioned. One teacher insisted, several times, that I tell her what college I got my degree from. I think I told her National American University, and she probably bought it because she didn't trouble me again. We hurt ourselves as scientists when we don't tell the truth. We should explain what theories are, and explain what makes a theory acceptable. We should talk about science and non-science. We should not misrepresent scientific conclusions, or lack thereof, to reach a goal, even if that goal fits with our political needs.


William C. Robertson, Ph.D.