Mind Games 2.0

Bloggin' 'bout science and life

We Scientists Work On Things We Don’t Completely Understand

This afternoon I’ve been reflecting on the debate last night between Bill Nye and Ken Ham over evolution and creationism (see here), and reading the various critiques and criticisms in the blogosphere.  A few can be found here, here and here.  In this short post, I won’t add to this critique.  Rather, I want to put down a few thoughts on science and religion.

Scientists work on things we don’t completely understand.  This is a given about doing science.  If we knew everything about something, a scientist would have no reason to figure it out.  The debate last night centered on something I’ve thought about for a very long time in interacting with people who question evolution and science in general.  Much of the basis of Ham’s argument to Nye was essentially, “Admit you don’t know.”

However, criticizing science for what we don’t yet understand shows a complete misunderstanding about what science is.  That is the entire point of science – working on things we don’t know.  In fact, if you want to engage a scientist at the most fundamental level, don’t ask them, “what have you found?” but rather ask them “what is your question?”  And what flows from that is “what is your prediction?”

That’s how science works.  You figure out what question you want to ask, you consider various alternative answers for how something might happen, and you work out what you could predict would happen if each of your possible alternative answers were true.  Then you figure out what you could do to test each of these predictions.  These predictions may be about something you would do (i.e., an experiment) or something you could observe. Then you go out and do what you need to do or observe what you need to observe to evaluate your predictions.

We do this in regular life all the time.  How does an automobile mechanic figure out what’s wrong with a car?  They make a prediction and test it.  And what you might observe does not have to happen in front of you, it could be the result of something that happened in the past.

However, the problem in all of this is that scientists seem to think it is a weakness to admit that they don’t know something.  Personally, I embrace it.  In fact, I think this goes to the heart of reconciling science and religion.  Everyone will have to reconcile science and religion for themselves, but the quest to understand what you don’t understand perfectly is at the basis of how I reconcile these issues in my life.

Here’s how I explain it.  As a Christian, I accept the existence of God, and so I accept that God did something.  My problem is that I don’t know what God did.  If I had lived 500 years ago, I would have lived in a society that would ascribe many things to “God did it” that we would not ascribe to “God did it” today.  This is the reason for the “materialism” and ” naturalism” assumption that creationists rail against.  We cannot accept the explanation that “God did it” based solely on faith because we have figured out so many things that were ascribed to God’s action that we now have an explanation based solely on the actions of nature and things in the natural world.

The central problem is “What prediction would you make if that is the cause?” We can make predictions about what would happen or what we would observe based on the actions of what we can see in nature.  The problem is we cannot make a prediction about what we would see or measure about some feature of nature for the hypothesis that “God did it.”

“God did it” is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis.  As I said, I’m a Christian, so this is a completely legitimate hypothesis to me.  However, I have absolutely no idea how to compete this hypothesis against alternative explanations, because I have found no predictions that result from that hypothesis.  That makes the hypothesis “unscientific”.  This statement is not a pejorative – it is simply a statement about the limitation of science.

At any point in time science has a huge collection of observations and phenomena we can’t currently explain.  For example, a few weeks ago a very famous particle physicist told me that we only know what about 20% of the “stuff” (i.e., matter and energy) that the universe is made of – ask them about dark matter and dark energy.  I find that astounding.  Ten years ago we didn’t even know we needed to figure out what dark matter or dark energy are.

Moreover, most of what we think we know will be shown to be only partially true.  Today, the correct scientific answer to the question of “how did life begin?” is “we don’t know.”  We have a number of hypotheses, and some of them are gaining strong supporting evidence every year.  But then, that’s why scientists are working on this question – because we currently don’t know.  Because these hypotheses make predictions, they can be tested, and that’s why science works on them.  It may take centuries for science to figure out where the boundary between what we can and cannot know for answering this question is.  However, we’ll never know where that boundary is if we simply accept the hypothesis that “God did it” without proper testing.

That hypothesis will certainly lay on the table waiting for predictions to be determined so that it can be tested against the others.  However, the fact that we don’t have a complete explanation today is no reason to reject all hypotheses that are still being tested in favor of accepting an untestable hypothesis.

So what I see myself doing as an evolutionary biologist is figuring out what I can about how nature works based on what I can test.  Period.  And I don’t really worry about what I cannot test.  Periodically I try to think about possible predictions for the “God did it” hypothesis, and I probably always will.  But I haven’t been successful at coming up with any yet.

Let’s turn this question around though.  What is the evidence for or against the existence of God?  What prediction could one make to test for the existence of God?  Tell me what I could observe that would allow me to accept or reject the hypothesis?  I have never seen anyone propose a critical prediction either way?  That’s why pondering the existence of God requires faith.  As a scientist, I have no way to prove or refute the existence of God.  So arguing about it makes for great philosophical and intellectual debates, but that’s not in the purview of science either.

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3 Comments

  1. john mayhue

    Excellent analysis. I’m a believer in ‘creation’ and
    was a little frustrated with both Ken and Bill. I
    found your perspective helpful and enlightening.
    Was struggling to put a finger on what was missing
    and I think you hit the nail on the head. I’ll share
    your thoughts with others. thanks

  2. crispybits

    I’ve been a little surprised recently by how many religious people seem to think that science (or scientists) are reluctant to give the “I don’t know” answer. As far as I’ve always been taught by all my science teachers right up to university level, and from all I’ve read in scientific literature, scientists are always admitting they don’t know (as you say, if we did know we wouldn’t be asking the questions)

    I have a hypothesis that I’d quite like you to comment on. As you say there are 2 types of question, the scientific and the unscientific. If we disregard the bits of the bible devoted to the unscientific questions and just look at the bits where it dealt with issues that are within the realms of science to answer, we can see that most, if not all, of these issues have an alternative, scientific explanation. Sometimes I can see that if interpretted in a certain way the bible can still be considered valid, sometimes the bible is simply incorrect (unsurprisingly for a book that was written in an era when science was still in it’s cot compared to modern achievements)

    Could it be that the impression of science “never admitting it doesn’t know” comes from the fact that many more of the questions where religious people most often hear concrete scientific views than in general discourse are those which overlap between the biblical and scientific magesteria, and therefore are fairly infantile for science to answer? Much like a math PHD student answering a 10th grade maths test?

    I don’t ask this to be insulting, I’m just trying to work out why science, whose unofficial motto is “what’s that? lets go poke it and see what it does!” is getting more and more press lately as the arrogant “i know everything you ignorant peasants” philosophy when the basic philosophy of asking the questions we don’t know the answer to still remains, just the questions have changed a lot over time.

    • Crispybits,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful question. Personally, I think the scientists who have the arrogant attitude of “we’re the smart ones, and so everyone should simply listen to us” do science a huge disservice. We’re not smarter than any other set of individuals. However, we do study issues intently with DATA, and so can bring empirical results to bear on questions.

      In fact, I teach a lot of courses on these kinds of subjects to graduate students, and I bring up exactly the issues you raise here. Telling someone that you’re smarter than them and so they should just do what you say is ABSOLUTELY no way to have someone listen to what you have to say. Scientists who take this position (i.e., I’m smarter than you so just shut up and listen) are doing nothing but harming science. The vast majority of scientists are not like this, so just keep questioning them. Also, some of this comes from the press who are translating science to the public, so question the press and push back on it as well.

      Also, I think some fraction of what you are seeing comes from the feeling by a few scientists that “if we give an inch, we’re admitting defeat”. At least, in the USA, many things are so politically polarized that some don’t want to give any quarter to the people who don’t agree with them. I think this is destructive to discourse and to society, and I act on the assumption that most people have enough good will and enough intellectual curiosity that will allow them to think rationally and question their own position as well as that of those who don’t agree with them.

      Also, if we can’t explain what the issues are, or what these data mean, nobody should listen to us. In fact, more of science is trying to strongly engage with the non-scientist to help us (e.g., see the enumerable “citizen science” projects that are getting off the ground). If a scientist cannot explain what their results mean, or what the implications or limitations are in plain language, the general public should question the person. However, I would strongly suggest that when you have a question about some scientific result, go get the original scientific papers on the issue. And if you can’t get a paper, write the scientist directly to ask for their paper – they’ll be more than happy to e-mail you a pdf of the paper. In fact, most scientists post them on their personal websites. If you go to a journal that has a pay-wall, just e-mail the scientist who wrote the paper.

      I also do not think scientists are here to dictate outcomes to other societal entities. Scientists can explain the possible outcomes, but larger bodies in society must make decisions about what to do with that information. The problem that many scientists have (at least in the USA at the moment) is that these larger societal entities (e.g., government entities) are actively ignoring the input of the scientific community, or much worse.

      Best wishes,

      Mark

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