Big Science in Big Trouble
The default religion of secularism has fallen from grace.
America is quickly following Europe’s descent from Christian roots to secularism. A National Geographic feature calls the newest religion to be “no religion.” A quarter of the population are religiously unaffiliated, the article reports, answering “none” when asked what religion they espouse. And why? What is the one of the largest reasons for the shift?
If the world is at a religious precipice, then we’ve been moving slowly toward it for decades. Fifty years ago, Time asked in a famous headline, “Is God Dead?” The magazine wondered whether religion was relevant to modern life in the post-atomic age when communism was spreading and science was explaining more about our natural world than ever before….
Scientific advancement isn’t just making people question God, it’s also connecting those who question. It’s easy to find atheist and agnostic discussion groups online, even if you come from a religious family or community. And anyone who wants the companionship that might otherwise come from church can attend a secular Sunday Assembly or one of a plethora of Meetups for humanists, atheists, agnostics, or skeptics.
The presumptive authority of science, and its appearance of being able to explain reality, drives much of the trend toward secularism. But is science a false god?
“Big Science is broken” shouts a headline on April 18 by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in The Week. “That’s the thesis of a must-read article in First Things magazine, in which William A. Wilson accumulates evidence that a lot of published research is false. But that’s not even the worst part.” Both articles present devastating critiques of science that should be required reading before continuing here. Science is not only failing to live up to its ideals; it’s incapable of doing so. It is not self-correcting. It does not have a superior methodology. It’s not reliable, and many of its claims are downright false. In theory and in practice, Gobry and Wilson show, science is a broken reed to lean on.
Even Nature joined in singing the dirge of science, undermining one of its greatest claims to reliability. “Peer review is broken from the start,” the headline reads in a piece recounting the history of peer review starting with William Whewell. Did you know that peer review was never a rock-solid practice, and is of rather recent invention?
‘Peer review’ was a term borrowed from the procedures that government agencies used to decide who would receive financial support for scientific and medical research. When ‘referee systems’ turned into ‘peer review’, the process became a mighty public symbol of the claim that these powerful and expensive investigators of the natural world had procedures for regulating themselves and for producing consensus, even though some observers quietly wondered whether scientific referees were up to this grand calling.
Current attempts to reimagine peer review rightly debate the psychology of bias, the problem of objectivity, and the ability to gauge reliability and importance, but they rarely consider the multilayered history of this institution. Peer review did not develop simply out of scientists’ need to trust one another’s research. It was also a response to political demands for public accountability. To understand that other practices of scientific judgement were once in place ought to be a part of any responsible attempt to chart a future path. The imagined functions of this institution are in flux, but they were never as fixed as many believe.
And that’s one of the milder critiques of peer review that have been written in recent years. Some scientists view it as a kind of good-old-boy’s club that keeps young mavericks out of getting published. Others claim that the only reviewers in some narrow fields are an author’s rivals, who have a vested interest in either stealing ideas or preventing them from getting exposure. And peer review often fails to catch even simple errors.
New Scientist to the rescue! “Science isn’t as solid as it should be – but science can fix it” reads their headline. Is this the fox guarding the henhouse, or the pigs vowing to reform Animal Farm? Visualize the pigs reporting to a worried press:
If there is a sub-prime problem in science, then scientists are doing their best to fix it before it brings the whole edifice down. Unlike those politicians or bankers, they are not turning a blind eye, covering their own backsides or simply hoping to get away with it.
I.e., we promise to do better. This is not comforting, coming from the very people who created the crisis in the first place.
Are scientists different from other people? New Scientist just said that science is like any other walk of life, with its share of bad apples. But another myth is that scientists are qualitatively different from other people, like artists. David Pearson on The Conversation explodes that myth. How long has that false dichotomy led to misconceptions about the scientific mind?
Teaching falsehoods: Indications are growing that neo-Darwinism is on the way out. In “The evolution of teaching evolution,” Melissa McCartney in Science Magazine warns that science education based on natural selection alone is not with the times; “other evolutionary processes” need to be added, but students are not getting those in the curriculum. More importantly, Science Magazine reports that a big new grant from the Templeton Foundation has been awarded for an “evolution rethink,” implying that neo-Darwinism has its own missing links. If so, what has been taught dogmatically since the Scopes Trial 90 years ago is flawed. Elizabeth Pennisi reports on the emotional reaction of Darwinians to threats their pet theory is not the whole shebang. How rational is this response?
For many evolutionary biologists, nothing gets their dander up faster than proposing that evolution is anything other than the process of natural selection, acting on random mutations. Suggestions that something is missing from that picture—for example, that evolution is somehow directed or that genetic changes can’t fully explain it—play into the hands of creationists, who leap on them as evidence against evolution itself.
No wonder some evolutionary biologists are uneasy with an $8.7 million grant to U.K., Swedish, and U.S. researchers for experimental and theoretical work intended to put a revisionist view of evolution, the so-called extended evolutionary synthesis, on a sounder footing. Using a variety of plants, animals, and microbes, the researchers will study the possibility that organisms can influence their own evolution and that inheritance can take place through routes other than the genetic material.
Are scientists closer in touch with reality? Are they more logical than other people? Read about the views of cognitive scientist David Hoffman on Quanta Magazine. In “The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality” Amanda Gefter treats his self-refuting view with soft gloves. The guy “uses evolutionary game theory to show that our perceptions of an independent reality must be illusions.” If we are all evolved, we have no way to connect with reality, he argues. We live in a world of illusion, and “we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.” Did he think that through? How did he escape his own illusion to tell us about ours?
He refutes his own thesis in another way. Here is his magnificent rebuttal of so-called “evolutionary epistemology,” the notion that natural selection drove us to connect with reality for our own survival fitness.
The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions — mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.
Did he think that one through? This means that he has no way of justifying what he just said about what evolution did. According to his own words, there cannot be any “fundamental fact about evolution” whatsoever. It’s all illusion. To pretend he can step outside of his own illusion and speak any fact at all about science, evolution or his own consciousness, he would have to be diagnosed with a severe case of the Yoda complex delusion.
This is the logic of someone who celebrates science. Hoffman, a self-professed son of a minister, left theism for this: nothing is real, except for his own experience. For all he knows, aliens could be operating his brain in a vat. Asked what this means for science, he answers:
The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects. So what’s going on? Here’s how I think about it. I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.
He blames science itself for this conclusion. But if it is so, how can Hoffman even know that quantum mechanics dictates that there are no publicly accessible objects? Worse, how can he claim that science is “the best we can do”? None of these words have any meaning if his view is taken seriously. Everything is nonsense disconnected from reality, a meaningless chain of personal experiences. It reduces to solipsism, the bitter end of secular science.
For you “nones” out there, you atheists and agnostics who have been worshiping Darwin at the altar of science, you need some serious, serious deprogramming. The only thing that makes science possible is realism that can be defended ontologically as the reliable perception of a mind. Mind cannot emerge from particles. It requires a prior cause similar to, but greater than, the human mind, that is reliable and truthful. Theism is, therefore, the necessary foundation for science, as so many great scientists believed. And not just any theism will do: the Creator must be truthful, moral, and unchanging. That leaves you few options. Science without the God who is Real, who created us and our world, who endowed us with rational thought, implodes on itself. Only Bible believers can justify science. Everyone else is in dreamland. Follow the map back to the real world.