Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More on Darwin vs. the Sun - Science & Epistomology

Over at Universe Today, I just posted an article looking at a Catholic magazine and review called the Month from 1889 in which they covered the controversy over the age of the Earth as required by both Darwin and astronomers. History has shown Darwin as the victor in that, but there's something I left out of the article and wish to comment on here. Namely, the closing statement of the article.

Essentially, it concludes that because science, at that present moment could not fully answer the controversy that,
Science then, even by its own showing, is altogether incompetent to furnish us with a guiding line, by which we may regulate and order our lives. And as the nature of man instinctively feels the need of some such guide, and will be content with nothing less than the truth, it follows that a trustworthy basis for faith and deed must be sought elsewhere.
Although this article is now over 120 years old, I still hear this exact same argument used today (as well as the anti-science one I quoted in the UT article). I left this part of the UT article because it doesn't deal with science as much as epistemology and was better suited for here.

This sort of thinking pisses the hell out of me. While it makes a true statement, that humans are curious and want to know how things work, it promotes the cheapest and most superficial form of knowledge available, if one can even call it knowledge. Namely, it suggests that if you cannot have a satisfying and correct answer immediately from science on demand, then we should reject science and go for anything else that provides convenient and easy answers. The article promotes a search for truth, but provides no basis for establishing it and rejects the only reliable means by which to do so.

The ultimate irony in this is that the article spent several pages extolling the knowledge gained by science from Kelvin, Newton and other visionaries. But only because it provided the author with easy answers that confirmed his own biases. I suspect that if the author had lived in those times, he may have rejected the findings he later accepts. It's only from the retrospective vantage that the answers look clear.

This article highlights the confusion often apparent when new territory is being explored, but as with so many things before, the actual answer eventually came though. However, it didn't come by turning away from the search because it wasn't immediately gratifying. It came from working hard and looking for evidence. As Dan Meyer has said before, "no problem worth solving is that simple."

I cannot agree with this statement more. Instead of allowing for these cheap answers, as gussied up as they may be, we need to demand real answers. And we need to be promoting this to students and the public at large. Are things unknown in science? Absolutely. Are some of the things being hashed out today going to be wrong? Absolutely. Does this mean everything in science is wrong? Hell no. Does it mean that we should forsake science and turn to snake-oil salesmen? Absolutely not.

Those like the author of the article who answer yes to the last two of those questions should get no respect. It vexes me greatly that they still do.

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