17 May 2007


If anyone is offended by sarcasm and angry ranting, go ahead and point your browser someplace else. Gone? OK.

Everyone else, I'm going to use lots of science words. Some I have linked to Wikipedia. The rest you can look up yourself.

This post is spurred by our long discussion on Wednesday (that drove me crazy), specifically people's contention that science is not fact, but belief. This is just false, and I'm sorry if you feel that way. Now, I don't have anything against people who don't know anything about science, that's OK. But please don't form such strong opinions about things you don't understand and then go around insisting that you're right. Science can't explain everything, and I don't claim that it can. Most scientists are with me on that. But it prove (or at least provide amazingly strong evidence for) a remarkable number of things. And once it's been proven, it is a fact. Let's not go to the place where we debate whether or not we can actually know facts, that's not the point and this isn't philosophy.

Science is, ultimately, a way of proving what is true. For this, we use the scientific method, which you can look up on Wikipedia if you're unfamiliar with it. Hypothesis, experiment, observation, verification. As an example, I'd like to use the Big Bang (what an awesome name!). This theory (yes, technically it's a theory, but so is Newtonian gravitation) states that the universe expanded from a single point, and that created everything that there is. Including spacetime itself.

Now, once upon a time, somebody had this idea of a big bang. They thought it was pretty cool, but you can't test it. Shit. That's a bit of a monkey wrench. But nonetheless, cosmology carried on, and people talked and did math about what that would mean. Eventually they came to the conclusion that, if the universe began out of a single point, everything would be getting farther apart. And it is. We've observed this. It's not testable, of course, because who has a universe sitting around in their lab? Yeah. But it's been observed in the redshift of distant galaxies. We've known about that for a long time.

Also, if the universe had a hot beginning, there would be radiation that we could observe, and it would be (essentially) evenly distributed through the whole sky. And guess what? We discovered it in 1964. (Wikipedia says they "believed in" the B.B. theory because at the time, the other situation was equally reasonable.) With further advances in observational technology, we measured it more accurately, and THE DATA FITS THE PREDICTION. The error bars in this picture are so small, they're obscured by the data points. This is absolutely one of the best examples of observation confirming theory in the history of astronomy, and indeed all of science. This is a Big Deal. These observations (and others) essentially prove the Big Bang. The only reason it's still technically a theory is that we can't exactly observe it directly, and I suppose there could be another explanation that no one has thought of. But for my purposes, the Big Bang is a fact.

Now, the way I see it, something is only a belief if there are other equally-reasonable alternatives. Believing in God is a genuine belief, because it's equally reasonable to believe that there is no God. Neither has much observational confirmation, so it's up to your personal preference. But nobody reasonable "believes" the world is flat. The conquerors in their nice big ships disproved that. Genetics is true. The Big Bang is (most likely) true, until we find something that fits the data better. Which is gonna be tough. For my purposes, that's truth. It may not be beautiful, but facts are facts.

If you really want to argue, I could concede that "believing" in science can be reduced to accepting that the scientific method is valid. And I can see how someone could have reservations, if they've never done science. But once you've even had PHYS 120, or some bio or chem, it's hard to deny. Predict, experiment, verify. But doubting the validity of that is doubting logic itself! Maybe some people can live in a world where 2+2 maybe equals 4, but I can't. I believe that the universe is rational and we can understand it by using logic. But that's really the only place where belief has anything to do with accepting scientific facts.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think that science can explain everything. I know for a fact that there are many interesting things we will probably never explain, but that doesn't stop us from trying. For me, the pursuit of knowledge is its own reward. That's why I'm an astronomer.

And to clarify, I don't think that science can say anything about the existence of God. Those are totally separate. Also, keep in mind that it's entirely possible (I do it every day) to accept things like the Big Bang and evolution as fact and still believe that we are God's children and are here to be His force of good in the world. Just sayin' that it's a lot grayer that a lot of people want you to think.

I'm sorry if I happened to drop a few things along the way in this, it's long and my head has hurtys. Blarg.

Go ahead and drop me an orange if you have anything to say about this.


Noelle said...

Heya. :) I responded to your post, and it's massively incoherent, but word about belief...

Carissa said...

I think I'm one of the people you... uhh... mention here. And I'd like to say a couple things. First, I do know about science. And second, my main point is that no matter how much evidence there is for a scientific theory, there is still always a chance (however small it may be) because of the definition of the scientific method that there will be a more fitting theory later. So, technically, science isn't "fact." That doesn't mean I don't accept most scientific theories as basically fact, but what I'm trying to say is that it still isn't actually "proven."

What Noelle wrote in her response makes a lot of sense--that scientific belief is different from religious belief because it allows for change. It goes along with what I'm saying, that scientific theories can change (though, again, I'm with you in believing that most of them won't... but there it is again, "believing"...).

martyn50 said...

One question I have.. OK, so what about the millions of people who haven't taken much science but accept generally what they see in the newspapers and what they hear from people whose opinions they respect. Lots of people will know science in that kind of general way.. and how can that be distinguished from belief? Sure, some may know its true, but most take in what they are told. I like to think of a culture like ancient Egypt.. which had a rather crazy view of cosmology.. and it made sense to people since it explained what happened around them. The majority probably accepted this from those who thought they knew best. Now I agree fully that there is a world of difference between the level of certainty or "factness" between these systems.. but what can be call the general acceptance of those opinions in both cultures accept "belief"?