Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Science and Truth

Despite my last post here, I am not a particular cynic about science. I am happy for my children to have the MMR jab and unlike Mr Blair, I will say so. I trust scientific medicine over so-called alternative medicine. I have as much time for homoeopathy and Chinese herbs as I have for Galen's humours. I majored in Physics at Oxford and feel I understand what science is and what it isn't.

All of which makes me rather annoyed with people who suggest that the scientific = true actually holds. In common parlance, using the adjective 'scientific' seems to add no end of credibility to a proposition. Advertisers know this well. They are not the only ones to misuse the term. In their new books, Lewis Wolpert and Daniel Dennett have both come up with some just-so stories to explain religion naturalistically. They call their stories 'scientific' to add credibility but in fact there is nothing much scientific about them. Judging by the summaries I have seen they are just interpretations foisted onto a few observations and then extended with a series of non-sequiturs. Just because an explanation is naturalistic, does not make it scientific. A scientific explanation is one that has been subject to tests independent of the observations from which it was derived.

Another abuse of the false 'scientific = true' equation is the treatment of Intelligent Design ("ID") theory. This is often attacked as not science. In fact, it passes almost every test that determines whether something is scientific. The only test it fails is where it stands in the opinion of most other scientists (which is a test that would fail all pioneers). In fact, what people mean when they say that ID is not scientific is that it is wrong. But being wrong is no bar to being scientific.

Part of the reason for widespread public mistrust of science is that scientists have been guilty of overselling their product for too long. Science will not win back credibility until it admits that it is a method and not the truth. It certainly produces reliable objective knowledge but only within a limited sphere. Dennett and Wolpert are guilty of building up further mistrust of science by abusing the term and trying to merge it with metaphysical naturalism.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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