Well, this extended, exclusive passage from the book may get your atheist senses tingling.
It talks about the limits and powers of science.
Pigliucci argues that scientists can’t know everything, contrary to what he claims many scientists believe. While science is a wonderful field, indeed, it has its problems. Pigliucci adds that people like Richard Dawkins are wrong when claiming science can refute religious claims.
But are there really people out there who believe that science will eventually answer everything we want to know?
Can’t religious beliefs like a “virgin birth” be refuted by scientific knowledge?
Does the history of science make the discipline look stronger or weaker?
Check out the entire passage and let the debate begin:
Scientists are not gods, even though one may sometimes have some difficulty making the distinction, judging from the ego that some of them (the scientists, not the gods) display when talking about what they do. It is not uncommon to hear physicists and cosmologists expounding on the possibility of “theories of everything,” although what they mean is actually a mathematical solution to a specific problem concerning the conceptual unification of natural forces. Cosmologists such as Stephen Hawking freely talk about having seen “the mind of God” when they come up with a new theory about the distant future of the universe (never mind that so far we do not have a unified theory of forces or that Hawking’s initial predictions about the fate of the universe have been proven spectacularly wrong by recent empirical research). Or consider biologist Richard Dawkins, who goes so far as to (mistakenly, as it turns out) claim that science can refute what he calls “the God hypothesis.” The examples above are instances of scientism, a term that sounds descriptive but is in fact only used as an insult.
The term “scientism” encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful question we may wish to pose — from a cure for cancer to the elusive equation that will tell us how the laws of nature themselves came about. The fact that scientism is an insult, not a philosophical position that anybody cares officially to defend, is perhaps best shown by the fact that there is no noun associated with it: if one engages in scientism one is “being scientistic,” not being a scientist.
Not only can science never in principle reach the Truth because of the untenability of the correspondence theory of truth, but it has also demonstrably blundered in the distant and recent past, sometimes with precisely the sort of dire social consequences that constructionist critics are so worried about. The only reason scientists are by and large unmoved by such instances is because most of them don’t “waste” their time studying the history of their own discipline. If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong. What makes us think that the story will not continue and that everything we hold true now will not in turn be seen as naïvely wrong by our descendants? Of course, the same history of science can also be read from the diametrically opposite viewpoint, since it equally well illustrates the idea that science is a self-correcting, arguably cumulative enterprise. It may blunder today, but it will likely make up for the mistake a few years or decades down the line.
Either way one looks at it, it is surely instructive to recall the words of Albert Einstein: “There is not the slightest indication that energy will ever be obtainable from the atom.” And how about Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century, confidently claiming that “X-rays will prove to be a hoax”? And finally, one of my favorites: British astronomer royal Richard Woolley, who in 1956 said, “All this talk about space travel is utter bilge, really.” Yuri Gagarin was the first human to orbit the earth just five years later.
The history of evolutionary biology offers another instructive story of blunder and embarrassment, this one complete with a clever hoax and a culprit who has never been found: the story of the so-called Piltdown Man. Whenever one debates creationists (admittedly a questionable, yet hard to kick habit), one is bound to run against the infamous Piltdown forgery. This is the case of an alleged missing link between humans and so-called lower primates, which was found in England (near Piltdown, in fact) and announced to the world on 18 December 1912. The announcement was made by Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, and Charles Dawson, the local amateur paleontologist who had actually discovered the fossils. The problem is — as creationists never tire to point out — that the “Dawn Man of Piltdown” (scientific name Eoanthropus dawsonii, in honor of its discoverer) turned out to be a fake. Moreover, it took scientists four decades to figure this out, an alleged example of what happens when one takes science on faith, in this case the theory of evolution. But is this view accurate?
Many scientists are rather embarrassed by the Piltdown debacle, apparently feeling guilt by association, considering themselves indirectly responsible for whatever goes wrong in their chosen profession. And yet, Piltdown should instead be presented in all introductory biology textbooks as a perfect example of how science actually works, as we shall see in a moment. First off, we need to realize that before Piltdown, very little was known of the human fossil record. When Darwin wrote The Descent of Man he had to rely largely on comparative data with other living species of primates, for then only the clearly almost-human Neanderthals were known to paleontologists. A few years before Piltdown, two important discoveries were made: that of “Java man” in 1891 and that of “Heidelberg man” in 1907, but neither of these was very ancient. When a significantly older set of prehuman remains was allegedly found at Piltdown, the scientific world was simply ready for the discovery. It was what practitioners in the field had expected, something that surely the perpetrator of the hoax knew very well and magisterially exploited.
The Pitldown findings occurred on more than one occasion and at two separate sites, yielding fragments of skulls, of a lower jaw, and even of stone tools associated with the “culture” of the predawn men. While there were skeptics from the beginning, the hoax was simply too elaborate and cunningly put together to raise the suspicions of a significant number of paleontologists — at least initially. National pride probably also played a role in a professional establishment that at the time was dominated by British scientists, with the British Museum being the epicenter of all the activities surrounding the study of the Piltdown fossils. Understandably, the British scientists involved were only too happy to claim their motherland as the place of origin of all humanity. Yet, suspicions about the genuineness of Eoanthropus dawsonii grew until a group of researchers including Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Kenneth Oakley, and Joe Weiner applied stringent chemical tests to the remains, demonstrating that the “fossils” had been planted and chemically altered to make them seem appropriately ancient: the Dawn Man was nothing but a perfectly ordinary human skull paired up with a somewhat unusually small jaw from an orangutan. What Weiner and colleagues couldn’t say for sure was who carried out the hoax, although a strong case was made by Weiner that the perpetrator was none other than Dawson himself.
Be that as it may, what does this story tell us about how science works? On the negative side, it is painfully clear that science depends on an assumption of honesty on the part of its practitioners. Peer review is designed to uncover methodological or reasoning errors, not possible frauds. But since science is, once again, a human activity, egos, financial reward, and the search for glory — however brief — are still to be reckoned with. As Piltdown and other forgeries have shown, scientists are continuously open to the possibility of someone fooling them by not playing the game by the rules.
On the other hand, science is a social activity unlike any other that human beings engage in: it is a game of discovery played against a powerful but neutral opponent — nature itself. And nature cannot be ignored, at least not for long. The reason suspicions kept mounting about the true origin of the Piltdown remains was that the more paleontologists uncovered about human evolution, the less Dawn Man seem to fit with the rest of the puzzle. In a sense, the very factor that made the acceptance of Eoanthropus dawsonii so fast in the beginning — because it seemed to be the much sought after “missing link” in human evolution — was also the reason why, four decades later, scientists kept pursuing the possibility that it was not genuine after all. While forty years of delay may seem an inordinate amount of time, they are but the blink of an eye when compared to the history of the human pursuit of knowledge. Moreover, it is important to note that it was scientists who uncovered the hoax, not creationists, which is both an immense credit to the self-correcting nature of science and yet another indication that creationism is only a religious doctrine with no power of discovery.
This is, then, why Piltdown — far from being an embarrassment to the scientific community — should be prominently featured in biology textbooks: it is an example of how the nature of science is not that of a steady, linear progression toward the Truth, but rather a tortuous road, often characterized by dead ends and U-turns, and yet ultimately inching toward a better, if tentative, understanding of the natural world. The problem is that some of those U-turns can be painful to society when the consequences of scientific blunders don’t stay neatly confined within the rarefied atmosphere of the ivory tower, but spill into the everyday social world with sometimes disastrous consequences for human welfare. The quintessential case study of this dark side of science is the eugenic movement that swept America during the first half of the twentieth century. Eugenics is often referred to as a “movement” (rather than a science) for a good reason: it was weak on science, but strong in the area of public outreach and even political intervention. It was a political ideology cloaked in the shining mantel of science, a disguise that all pseudoscience attempts to don, from the anti-HIV movement to the intelligent design movement.
Reprinted with permission from Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, by Massimo Pigliucci, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2010 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
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