The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
In recent years, both philosophers and science deniers (such as creationists) have repeatedly attacked the objectivity of science and scientists. Creationists claim that scientists are big frauds, deceived by a mass delusion about evolution. They argue that the stratigraphic sequence of fossils in the rock record is faked by evolutionists who shuffle the fossils and the strata in the order they need to prove evolution, then allegedly point to the same sequence as proof of evolution. (Never mind the fact that the objective, empirical sequence of fossils through geologic time was worked out by devoutly religious naturalists like William Smith and Georges Cuvier before 1800, at least 50 years before evolution was published by Charles Darwin). The Creation “Museum” in Kentucky is built upon the basic premise that “evolution scientists” and “creation scientists” start with the same data, but view them with different assumptions about the world–the fossils cannot speak for themselves, nor can the evidence falsify one position or the other.
On the other hand, philosophers and cultural critics have attacked science as well. Some philosophers have argued that outside reality is an illusion, and we can only know what we personally experience. If we do not perceive it, reality does not exist. More recently, the fad for deconstructionism in the non-scientific realms of academia argues that all our ideas are so culturally based and biased by our human prejudices that we cannot decide what is “real” or “objective.” This argumentation has gone in circles within philosophy for centuries. Philosophers of science, in particular, are fond of telling scientists what they should do, often without finding out what scientists actually do.
For the most part, scientists themselves have largely ignored these debates swirling around their activities. Rather than agonize over what method they should be using, or whether they are being truly objective, most scientists just get to work and produce results. Although some working scientists are familiar with the debates among philosophers of science, most are not, and it doesn’t seem to reduce their scientific productivity a bit. This raises a larger question: How do we know what scientists do, and what science tells us, is real or not? Is it all an illusion? Is it just the product of cultural expectations? There are many good arguments against the idealist/solipsist position or the deconstructionist ideas as well, but the simplest ones are these:
- BECAUSE IT WORKS. Science produces tangible results upon which other science and technology can be built–and our entire modern civilization is a product of this. If scientific ideas were merely based on a cultural or philosophical illusions, we would not have the huge advances in technology or medicine or computers or transportation or any of many other modern benefits that science provides us. In particular, we would all still be living short, brutish and nasty lives and dying of diseases or infections that have largely been conquered by modern medicine. As Carl Sagan put it, “If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate.”
- BECAUSE SCIENCE IS SELF-POLICING. Individual scientists can be biased or deluded, or fudge their data, or cherry-pick what they want to believe. As the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” But in a true scientific community, the process of peer-review largely screens out the garbage from the good stuff. Peer-review is not perfect, and there are exceptions to this rule, such as papers which are not as carefully scrutinized as they should be. But unlike almost any other field of human endeavor, good science has a strict procedure of subjecting one’s ideas to the critiques of others with expertise in the topic. This prevents widespread publication of ideas or data until they have passed through this strict gantlet. By and large it works very well. Even if questionable ideas make it through the process of publication, the scientific community will continue to test and re-examine and try to replicate important ideas, often for years afterward, so once an idea has stood the test of time it is very likely to be a real observation about the world.
- BECAUSE SCIENCE TELLS US “INCONVENIENT TRUTHS.” If the process of science were all a delusion based on our biases and preconceptions and wishes, it would not give us answers that we don’t like or agree with. Yet scientists often discover things that go against our belief systems, but they must put aside their favorite ideas and face this reality. When Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that the earth (and us) are not in the center of the universe, the idea wasn’t accepted by the Church or the world in general—but it was true. Everyone except a handful of religious nuts and the uneducated now look at the sun “rising” and “setting” and accept the counterintuitive notion that it is the earth turning instead. When Darwin showed that life had evolved and that we are all closely related to other living things, not specially created, it offended many people (and still does)—but its truth was soon acknowledged by the entire scientific community and nearly all educated Westerners who weren’t religiously biased, even before Darwin died. As the web cartoon puts it: “Science: if you ain’t pissing people off, you ain’t doin’ it right”.