You can’t have it both ways

I have genuine difficulty understanding a person who looks down on science and yet has no problem benefiting from it. A letter-to-the-editor writer in today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal did exactly that – denigrate science while praising its products – in response to my column published Sunday. He writes:

Science. It sounds so, well, scientific. The word conjures images of brilliant, bald men in glasses and white smocks unlocking the secrets of the universe. Not quite. Mark Twain said in “Life on the Mississippi,” “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such a wholesale return of conjecture for such a trifling amount of fact.”

To those who worship science, like Brandon Haught (author of the Community Voices column in Sunday’s paper, “Don’t mix science, religion in public schools,”) this will be painful to accept — but most of science is speculation, extrapolation, or simply made up. Eventually, nearly every scientific fact turns out to be wrong. From phantom planets to phlogiston theory to luminiferous aether to phrenology, all of which were at one time generally accepted scientific facts. That’s the problem with science; you just can’t count on it.

I understand the scientific process. It’s humanities’ most valuable tool as we try to understand the universe in and around us. I value science for its amazing utility. I don’t worship it. Science in its infancy may have had more than a fair share of speculation and fantasy but it’s come a long way since then.

According to some pundits, 98 percent of scientists accept the current theories of global warming. At one time, probably 98 percent of scientists accepted the theory of spontaneous generation. Didn’t make it right.

I agree. The majority believing something doesn’t make it right. The facts do.

Of course science is useful. But to teach it in schools to the exclusion of religion and philosophy is silly. Consider the progress we have made: We have airplanes that fly faster than sound, we have vast networks of communication, we have cured many of the diseases which afflicted mankind for centuries to the extent that life expectancy is almost double what it was only 150 years ago. And yet, we are still fighting wars over the same casus belli which incited cavemen.

Wait. The writer said earlier that you can’t count on science. But now he’s listing science and technology-based achievements as good things. I’m sorry, buddy, but you can’t have it both ways. And in my column I never said religion and philosophy shouldn’t be taught. I did say that religion shouldn’t be taught as science or as an alternative to science. There’s a difference. I’m actually all for there being comparative religion courses in schools. But I seriously doubt that’s what the writer has in mind.

You want to teach science in school, feel free. I would encourage it, but let’s not discount the probability that what we teach will eventually be obsolete. The only sensible approach is to teach philosophy and religion in the classroom next door to the science lab. If we are ever to truly see significant progress in the evolution of homo sapiens, we are far more likely to accomplish it through philosophy than nebulous scientific facts.

And here he goes, back to bashing science. I don’t think anyone is saying science is necessarily going to alter who we are as human beings. I don’t think that’s ever been the stated purpose of science. Correct me if I’m wrong. I’m not convinced religion or philosophy will do the trick either, though. And I’d like to point out that many of the wars the writer mentioned earlier were sparked by conflicting religions.

Finally, this writer’s nonsensical response to my column actually grasped at a very small element of my piece. Regrettably, the column’s headline “Don’t mix science, religion in public schools” was misleading and missed the point of the column. I had no control over the headline. But the actual content of the column focused on who should have influence over the review and selection of instructional materials. Creationism was only mentioned toward the end. That shows you where this letter writer’s head is at.

(Cross posted at Florida Citizens for Science)