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Re: [Phys-l] science, religion, and politics

Thank you, Bill, for your thoughtful points. I am 100% in agreement with
you. You have reached the same conclusions as I did this past spring
after spending several months wrestling with the various arguments from
"believers" and "skeptics." I

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

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

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.

Forum for Physics Educators