Science for dummies

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I have often mentioned the subtle danger inherent in toleration of moderate religion. In short, the most insidious aspect of moderate religion is that it not only permits, but encourages, belief in things which are not supported by evidence. At first, this may not seem like such a bad thing. Many cultural traditions involve harmless (and even fun) promotion of things that are not “scientific.” There are probably hundreds of thousands of people who look back at their childhood years with fondness, remembering the excitement they felt at the thought of a midnight visit from Santa Claus. Millions of people worldwide check their daily horoscope, and they live perfectly functional lives. Despite cases like this, I believe it's crucially necessary to draw a cultural divide between that which is credible, and that which is mythical.

Before making my case, it is important for me to mention that I am not advocating a world without imagination, nor am I suggesting that we all live in a cold, calculating world of probability and detached analysis. In fact, what I'm proposing is the exact opposite in many ways. Even so, my critics will surely play the standard card, accusing me of attempting to rob their lives of any meaning or joy. Of course, the final judgment is to be made by you, the reader, but it is important to me that you understand my intentions at the beginning so that perhaps, if you are prone to making such accusations, you will suspend sentence until you have absorbed my entire argument.

What is Science?

The first step in dismantling the power of religion is to establish the power of science. There are many misconceptions, particularly in America, about not only what science is, but what it can do, and why it is certainly reliable. There is a perceived battle between science and religion, and much to the chagrin of the religious, the whole thing is a sham. The war has long since been won, and much like the stereotypical southern Good Ol' Boy with a confederate flag on the back window of his pick-up truck, many a religious man persists in believing that there is still something to fight over.

Science, very simply, is a process. It is a method, like math or logic. More precisely, it is the method for learning about our universe. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the sole milieu of trained academics and stodgy old men with glasses. Science is practiced by everyone on the planet on a daily basis. In fact – and this is a crucial point – it is impossible to avoid using science.

A simple way to learn the scientific method is to perform a series of thought experiments. Let's start at the very beginning. Imagine that you are walking along a road, and you spot an object on the sidewalk. It is metallic, roughly circular, and covered with a sticky black substance. Now suppose you decide that you want to know what it is. The first thing you are likely to do is pick it up. Imagine that when you do, you discover that it is very hot – so hot, in fact, that you are unable to hold it for very long. Out of sheer reflex, you drop it again.

At this point, we have quite a bit of data to work with. First, we have a physical description of the thing, and we have verified, as well as possible, that our eyes reported approximately accurate information to our brain. From picking the object up, we've learned that the object feels like it looks. It does indeed feel metallic. It has a heft that we would expect from metal. In short, we now have corroborating evidence – feel and touch – to help us decide what it might be.

If you will forgive the pedantic nature of this next observation, I promise it will be worthwhile. Picking the object up is a very important step in our little science experiment. We have all learned that our eyes are often not reliable sources of information. Not only are they often fooled, but many substances look very much like other substances, even though they are quite different. We might very well have discovered that the object, which gave every appearance of being metallic, was actually styrofoam covered with metallic paint. The simple act of verifying our initial observation with a second kind of observation is crucial to science.

Now, after you have dropped the very hot object, you make a third observation. When you put your fingers near your face, you notice a distinct smell that you recognize as that of burning motor oil. This new data puts an idea into your head. Perhaps this object is part of a car, and has recently been expelled from a running engine, landing on the sidewalk only a few moments earlier. In support of this idea, we have the following set of data:

  • Metallic object
  • Much hotter than expected from the current weather
  • Appears to be mechanically crafted
  • Appears to be covered with oil
  • Found very near a road

By itself, any one of these pieces of data might not be enough to reasonably conclude that the object is a car part, or that it was recently in a running car. However, when you put all of the information together, it seems a reasonable conclusion. Now, suppose that as you look up, you see a disabled car about fifty feet ahead, and a man working under the hood. At this point, you will probably feel confident enough to take the object to the man, certain that you have found something he needs. If, having done so, you watch him place the object back into his engine, in a space that appears specifically designed for it, you can leave satisfied of the facts.

Removing the details, what can we say has happened here in terms of general principles? First, you encountered something unknown. Second, you made multiple observations. Third, you tested the observations against one another for consistency. Fourth, you made a guess, based on your observations, about a likely explanation for the unknown object. Finally, you devised a test to determine if your guess was correct.

This, in a nutshell, is the scientific method. There's nothing magical about it, and certainly nothing requiring years of education. In fact, without consciously thinking about it, you performed the steps in exactly the correct order! The reason for this is that the correct order is the order that works and you intuitively knew it.

For comparison, let's try thinking of ways in which you could have deviated from the scientific method and reasonably hoped to get the correct answer. Is there any way that you could have looked at the object without recording the observation as data in your brain? Unlikely, to be sure. Could you pick it up without noticing the texture, temperature, or weight? Again, no. In short, there's no way to avoid recording empirical data about the world. Simply by interacting with the world, we are collecting evidence.

Likewise, if a pattern emerges from your observations, it is entirely unreasonable to suggest that our brain will not try to subconsciously make sense of it. That's what brains do. The process of forming guesses about patterns is ingrained in our consciousness, and cannot be avoided. It is the way we think. Literally.

Very simply, the scientific method is just the expression of what we as humans unavoidably do. We make observations and predictions based on patterns of information. Now, let us do another thought experiment about the same situation. Suppose that after having gathered all your data about the mystery object, you decided that the object was likely a piece of debris from an alien spacecraft. Would that guess be a good one? There are obviously several problems with it. First, nobody on earth has ever produced an alien spacecraft for observation, so it's hard to test the idea. Second, unless alien spacecraft are invisible, there would be considerable evidence against the notion. Local radar, observations of other people, and satellite imagery could all demonstrate rather conclusively that no alien spacecraft were in the vicinity in the recent past. In short, there is a mountain of evidence against the guess.

Furthermore, there are clearly better guesses. Anyone noticing the broken down car could hazard a guess that makes more sense to the circumstances. In fact, a simple test will tell us whether this guess is accurate or not. If the man didn't actually need the part, and it didn't fit anywhere in his car, we would have to perhaps refine our guess. Perhaps it was from another car, which didn't suffer badly enough to stop running when the part was ejected. Perhaps it's from a riding lawnmower. (If there was a John Deere store in the vicinity, this guess would gain more credibility.)

Suppose now that after guessing that the part was from the broken down car, you tested your hypothesis by asking the man working on it, and it turned out that the part was not from that car. Has science failed us? Of course not! We have simply ruled out one possibility. The part might still be from a car. We could easily take it to an auto parts store and compare it with their inventory. If we found an identical part, we could be sure of it's identity. If, having tried several auto mechanics and auto stores, we were unable to find anyone with knowledge of cars who recognized the object, we would be forced to conclude that, barring any new information, the object was not from a car.

At this point, we could try various machine shops and manufacturing plants, repeating the same set of tests, until eventually, we correctly identified the object. This, again, is precisely what the scientific method prescribes. When we rule out one possibility, we keep looking for as long as it takes to find enough evidence to say what something is, or how it works. Here, we may ask a very pointed question. Supposing that we exhaust all of the known avenues for identifying the object, and we have still not determined its true nature. What is the correct answer to the question: “What is it?”

The answer, of course, is “I don't know.” This seems patently obvious, but it's astonishing how many times people forget this simple bit of logic. Suppose that, having exhausted our resources, we still had no evidence for what the object was. Would it be correct to say that since there was no evidence for its nature, that it must surely be part of an interstellar space station from the Andromeda Galaxy? Of course it wouldn't! In fact, it would be preposterously wrong to suggest such a thing, since the very result of our search demonstrated that there was no evidence for what the thing was!

It should be obvious at this point that whenever we don't have evidence for something, there's no way to form a reliable guess about its nature. However, just to drive the point home conclusively, let's do one more thought experiment. I have, on my desk at this moment, a picture of something. What is it?

Clearly, you have no idea. Perhaps, through random chance, you will guess the subject of the picture correctly, but it's highly unlikely. The only thing you know is that the subject can be rendered in picture form. You don't even know for certain that it exists on earth. Perhaps it is a photo of a far away galaxy, or of the upper atmosphere on Mars. (You don't even know if it's a photograph. Perhaps it's a drawing of something imaginary!) The point is that with no evidence, there is absolutely no way to make any kind of guess about what a thing is.

Suppose I ask you to now make a bet with me. If you guess correctly, you get ten thousand dollars, but if you guess wrong, you owe me ten thousand dollars, immediately. Unless you are a complete fool, you wouldn't dream of taking the bet, and for good reason. You have virtually no chance of winning. Now, suppose I gave you more information. Suppose I told you that it is a photograph of a baseball helmet. Would you be comfortable making the bet now? Probably not. If I added more information, and told you that it was a helmet from a Major League team, you would still only have a slim chance of guessing it – Far less than fifty-fifty, at any rate. However, if I told you that it was either a Chicago Cubs helmet or an Atlanta Braves helmet, you might feel sufficiently brave to take the bet.

Now, imagine that I told you that it's a photo of a Chicago Cubs helmet, and then asked you to make the bet with me. You'd be a fool not to take it, right? Or, would you? If you examined the evidence carefully, you'd realize that all you had to go on was my word. In fact, I would have a very strong motivation to tell you something inaccurate, so the weight of my testimony is almost nil. However, if I invited you over to my house and showed you the photo, allowing you to examine it to your heart's content, you would then have enough evidence to confidently take my bet.

This, again, is a step by step explanation for how (and why) science works. Some evidence is more reliable than others, and certainty can be measured in degrees. Imagine that I invite three people to make the same bet with me, and give each three sets of evidence. To the first person, I say only that I have a picture of something. To the second, I say that I have a photo of a Major League baseball helmet. To the third, I provide the photograph itself. Each one of these three people, if forced to make a bet, has a certain likelihood of getting it right. The first person's chance is virtually zero. In fact, we could probably let him take thousands of guesses with confidence that he would not get it right. The second person, on the other hand, would certainly guess it within thirty tries, since that is the number of teams in Major League Baseball. The third person, unless he was monumentally stupid, would guess right on the first try. Though we cannot be 100% certain of his guess, it's fair to say that for all practical purposes, he will win ten thousand dollars in the next few seconds.

All of this, I hope, seems really straightforward and simple. Perhaps it is even insultingly so. However, it is apparently something that needs to be drilled into a lot of heads. The number of times I have had to defend the scientific method against other “sources of truth” is staggering. In fact, I have no doubt that there are many people who, upon reading this, will still cling to the idea that science isn't the only way to get knowledge.

The Problem of Induction

Most objections to science come from people who have heard of the Problem of Induction, but don't understand it. Put simply, it is the observation that nothing empirical (that is, existing in the material universe) can be known with certainty. People who subscribe to a philosophical concept called solipsism insist that the only thing that can ever be known is self. That is, I can never know for certain that anything besides myself exists. In fact, I can never know exactly what I am, only that I am. This is sometimes referred to as the “Brain in a Vat” theory. That is, we might simply be brains in vats, and that everything we perceive of as reality is an intricate illusion.

This supposed problem is not nearly as difficult to resolve as you might immediately suppose. For one thing, there's an obvious issue with the “Brain in a Vat.” Even if it is true (and we can't conclusively prove that it's not) we cannot help the fact that we can't test the idea in any way. If we are trapped in an illusion, then we are trapped, and the illusion, for every conceivable purpose which we might have, is real.

Furthermore, if there is some evidence that we are brains in a vat, the theory becomes testable. If we discovered a “tear in the Matrix,” for lack of a better term, we could scientifically study it, and if there was enough evidence to sway our opinion to the conclusion, it would no longer be in the realm of philosophy. It would be scientific fact.

We must, it appears, conclude that all the available evidence suggests that reality is what it appears to be, that other people exist, that our senses are basically reliable, and that through rigorous testing, we can verify the reliability of our observations.

Nevertheless, some will argue that even granting the reality of this existence, the fact that science cannot prove anything with certainty negates the value of science. This is clearly absurd, and we can prove it with the somewhat tedious examples I gave in the previous section. When provided with overwhelming evidence – the actual photo in question, in this instance – we can say with virtual certainty that a thing is a fact. We can clearly demonstrate that some sets of evidence are stronger than others, and that for all practical purposes, science does have measurable value.

Finally, (and forgive me for getting a little bit technical) scientific certainty isn't based on guesswork. It's based on deduction. Math is deductively true. That is, it is 100% certain. Probability equations are math, and therefore, based on deduction. When we can say with mathematical certainty that a thing is 50% certain, for example, it is certainly 50% certain. What we cannot say is that the two things we're assigning probability to are 100% certain. However, as we've seen, we can be so overwhelmingly sure that there's no point in questioning them.

Consider this very simple example. Suppose that I am in a soundproof room (and suppose that I have used science to prove with overwhelming certainty that it really is soundproof) and there are only four things in the room – three boxes and me. The boxes are all across the room from me, and there is a noise coming from that general direction. With no other information at all, I can say that I am scientifically certain that the noise comes from one of the three boxes. However, at this point, any box I pick is only 33% likely to be the correct box. Now, suppose I ask an assistant to remove one of the boxes that is not making the noise. Now, I have a 50% likelihood of guessing correctly. If the assistant removes another box, and the noise persists, I can be 100% certain that the box is making the noise, even without doing any more experiments.

Here's where we need to be sure to separate empiricism from probability. I cannot be 100% certain that I am standing in a room, or that if I am standing in the room, I am not the subject of some elaborate hoax, or that I am not suffering from a hallucination. As I've shown, I can find ways to be so certain that it would be absurd to suggest otherwise, but to be pedantic, I am only nearly certain. However, if reality is what it appears to be, it is 100% certain that there is a 33% chance of each box being the source of the noise. In other words, once we have decided to trust our senses, we can invoke mathematical certainty and be completely certain of the numbers.

In many cases, this is what science attempts to do. When there are multiple possible explanations, scientists try to eliminate as many as possible. If they can do this successfully, and only one explanation remains, they can feel certain that it is the correct one. At every step of the scientific process, everything is questioned, tested, and retested. Nothing is ever assumed until it is demonstrated to be so certain that it is worth assuming. Even then, scientists are perfectly happy to concede that new information could exist which would change their conclusion.

However, it's important to note that there is also a way to calculate the probability of this happening. Suppose that science has observed a phenomenon thoroughly, and has determined that it has happened one hundred thousand times, and in all cases, it happened in exactly the same way. Furthermore, the explanation of the phenomenon made it logically necessary that a certain other phenomenon happen in a very particular way, and that has been observed a hundred thousand times, without incident. Now, suppose that there is a chain of events, where there are a hundred thousand things that would logically have to happen a certain way, and all hundred thousand have been observed a hundred thousand times, without a single instance of deviation.

How likely is it that the logic is wrong? How possible is it that our predictions are wrong, and that there is some other explanation for our observation of all of these events? Obviously, it's staggeringly improbable. It's so improbable that without any other reason to believe otherwise, we can say that this is a fact of nature. Again, this is what science attempts to do – demonstrate things so many times that certainty becomes nearly complete – so nearly complete that it becomes unnecessary to provide a disclaimer because of the “Problem of Induction.”

Religious Claims

Theists everywhere claim that they receive their “truths” about the universe from a source other than science. They must, for science contradicts the claims of the religious. Any wonder that theists claim that science is incapable of addressing the questions of religion? Unfortunately, this is simply not true, and a careful examination of religious claims will prove it.

When a Christian claims to know something about the nature of God, where is he getting his information? There are several possibilities. One of the most common sources is the Bible. Also, many claim to have “heard the voice of God” in one way or another. Perhaps they got a strong intuitive feeling about something. Perhaps they heard a voice in their head. Perhaps there was an event in their life that led them to believe that God was manipulating events in order to “send them a message,” or reward or punish them. Perhaps they heard the testimony of hundreds, or even thousands of people claiming to have evidence of God's nature. Perhaps they were swayed by the fact that millions of people share a belief in the Christian God.

Here, we must ask a pointed question. What do all of these circumstances have in common? Quite simply, they are all empirical evidence for God's existence! Evidence, as we have seen already, is nothing more and nothing less than bits of data for our brain to interpret. All of these bits of data that Christians mention when asked about their belief in God are just that – bits of data. Like any other pieces of data, they have a certain degree of reliability.

Without laboriously dissecting each category of evidence, let's just admit the obvious. Only a few minutes ago, you certainly agreed with me that taking my word about something was basically useless as reliable evidence. Without reliable physical proof of my photo, you would be unwilling to bet ten thousand dollars that you could guess its subject. If you think about it for a moment (without thinking too much about God) you will quickly realize that testimony is only good when there is a reason to believe it.

As for internal “feelings,” we can make the same observation. Everyone has had feelings that turned out to be wrong. Without other reliable evidence, feelings are not good enough. Likewise, we have all seen things that were highly coincidental, but turned out to be just that – coincidence. Finally, it should be patently obvious that a book is nothing more than a written version of someone's testimony, which we already established as unreliable.

Having laid bare the truth about religious claims of knowledge, we see that they are false on two counts. First, they are not relying on non-empirical claims. Quite the contrary. Every bit of “proof” is based on something that they observed in the material world with one of their senses. Second, none of their evidence passes muster as reliable. Instead, each one is inherently untrustworthy, and easily proven to be so. Does this prove that Christians are wrong about the existence of their God? No, it does not. However, it does expose a very nasty truth about it: There is absolutely no good evidence for it.

If you remember the first example of science that I gave you, you will realize that the claims of God's existence are as outlandish as the claim of alien spacecraft or space stations from Andromeda. None of the three have any basis for certainty, and as we have seen, the question is most certainly not outside of the realm of science. In fact, (and this is THE central message of this whole chapter) it is absolutely impossible NOT to use science to answer questions. The only question is whether or not we will use science that is reliable.

This last point is important enough that we shall linger on it for another moment. As I said, science is nothing more and nothing less than the description of how we learn about the universe. There is no way for us to avoid processing evidence and reaching conclusions. The only question is whether our methods will be testable, repeatable, and verifiable. Like any other method, science can be done well, or done poorly. Scientists have spent hundreds of years using deductive logic, empirical evidence, and inductive reasoning to refine and perfect the methodology of science, to the point that well trained scientists can achieve astoundingly accurate information about the world. Scientists are always willing to admit that they are not 100% certain of their conclusions, but if they are good scientists, they will also be quick to point out that there is a degree of certainty to their conclusions that is extremely reliable – so reliable that you can bet everything you own on it and be assured of winning.

Back To Religion

Having established that it is literally impossible not to do science, we must return to the question of religion and how it perverts and degrades science. Remember, every conclusion about the world is scientific. The only distinction is whether the conclusion was reached by using good science or bad science. In the case of religion, it is unquestionably the result of bad science. (Think about it. If it was good science, scientists would call it scientific, right?)

By separating itself from good science, religion is admitting conclusively that its conclusions are at best unreliable and at worst completely wrong. This is not a trivial matter. As we are all too aware, religious conclusions are used in everyday life in all walks of life. In politics, they can be bitterly divisive. In classrooms, they blur the lines of separation between church and state. In the homes, they are used to teach moral and sexual norms. What possible reason can we come up with for allowing conclusions that are admittedly suspect at best from being the default conclusions, simply because they are religious.

The answer that is most often given, at least in my experience, is that religion is not addressed by science. Unfortunately, as I have just demonstrated, it most certainly is. There is no basis for the claim that knowledge can be gained any way except through empirical observation and inductive conclusions. In fact, when the religious are pressed, we notice that they never describe in any meaningful way what method they use for gaining knowledge of God. They can't, for if they did, they would be admitting to scientific scrutiny.

The Cult of Credulity

Now, I wish to leave Christianity for a moment and focus on other areas of American life. Several years before I began writing, America invaded Iraq, based on the testimony of a president and his cabinet whose political motives could hardly be described as morally pure. Though the signs of deceit were everywhere, Americans followed blindly into a war that has cost tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of lives. The best evidence for this decision was a dubious link between Sadaam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and equally dubious evidence of “weapons of mass destruction.”

It's easy to look at this in hindsight and say that we were deceived, and that it is the fault of the president and his political cronies. It may comfort us to say that it is not our responsibility, but the cold facts are a little less rosy. As a nation, we are credulous. We believe that sending money to faith healers will cure cancer. We believe that three sentence blurbs in newspapers have personal relevance to us based upon where the stars were positioned in the sky when we were born. We believe that humans are not just animals, but creatures placed on earth by God, and given authority over the whole earth. We believe that Global Warming isn't a problem. We believe that love is unconditional and that marriage is supposed to last forever. We believe that psychics can tell us where lost babies can be found. We believe that we can talk to our dead relatives through mediums, if only we use the correct crystals while summoning spiritual energy. We believe that God loves us more than the Muslims.

In short, Americans are an incredibly gullible people. To be fair, the same can be said for most of the people on earth, but Americans are, in many ways, uniquely gullible. We are the only nation in the civilized world that actually considers teaching children that the earth is six thousand years old. This is a symptom of a larger problem, and that problem, I believe, is the notion that “Faith is a Virtue.”

Faith, or rather, the belief in things that defy evidence, is the source of thousands of bizarre beliefs. Regardless of the scientific explanation for it, the reality is that people really, really want to believe in a lot of nonsense. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not that desire is enough justification for allowing a culture to continue down the path of unscientific conclusions. We can clearly see that things which are “natural” are not necessarily good. We cannot assume that our natural inclination to credulity is good, either. In fact, it should be patently obvious that it's harmful.

Since there is no way to gain knowledge except through science, we can ask the question very simply. Which is more likely to give us correct answers: Good science, or Bad science? The answer is so patently obvious that we wonder why everyone doesn't know it. My explanation is that our culture teaches two blatantly false ideas. First, we teach that science is just “one way” to get correct answers. Second, we teach that science is dangerous because it threatens the “human spirit” or that it encourages immoral conclusions about government or personal ethics. I believe I have sufficiently demonstrated the ridiculous nature of the first claim. The second will require a lot more information to dispel, but that is what I intend to do. Having established that science is the only way to learn true information about the universe, we must try to learn what science says about human morality, and if we can, determine whether or not science really does lead us down a path to moral depravity and the devaluation of human life.

The Alternative

We must return to something I mentioned in the first paragraphs of this article. Namely, I want to address the claim that I'm attempting to take all the imagination and fun out of life by making it all about cold hard science. I hope it's already becoming clear that this is absurd. Imagination and fun are part of the human experience. There are perfectly good scientific explanations for why we have imaginations, and why fun is important to us, and these often end up telling us things about how we came to be human in the first place. Will the knowledge of what makes “fun” fun make it any less fun? Of course not, any more than having a degree in linguistics makes a great novel any less entertaining. Knowledge adds to the human experience, and those who say that it makes life cold are either ignorant of the true nature of science, or afraid science will render their own view of life irrational.

By examining all aspects of what it means to be human, I hope to give you the freedom and the knowledge to make your own life better, and perhaps happier. By dispelling myths that have been hanging over us for centuries, I hope to give you more options for how to have a fulfilling and meaningful life. In fact, I can assure you that the only option I intend to take away is the option to accept bad science as good science and feel good about it.

Article by hambydammit

Reprinted from Rational Responders: Science for dummies

William Hamby now writes articles at Examiner.