Who or What Makes Science Difficult?

Who or What Makes Science Difficult? May 31, 2016

Non Sequitur Inherent Difficulty of ScienceI often like Non Sequitur comics very much. But this one is simply wrong. There certainly have been individuals who have stood in the way of scientists, motivated by their narrow religious beliefs. But to suggest that that is typical either historically or in the present day flies in the face of the evidence. There are plenty of young-earth creationists around my university’s campus, but my colleagues in the natural sciences and their students do their work unhindered. And looking back to earlier times, the role of the church in astronomical study, and the role of the Islamic world in both preserving Greek learning and making further steps beyond it in math and science, are matters of historical fact. This has led fellow Patheos blogger Connor Wood to suggest that, far from needing a reform, Islam has already had one that has led to fundamentalism much as in Protestantism, and what it needs is rather a “classical revival.” 

And so the cartoon seems to me to be very much off target. And it seems that the promotion of false ideas like this, which exacerbate the sense of conflict between religion and science, do at least as much to hinder science as the religious fundamentalist who might or might not exist in the absence of that bogus warfare model of the relationship. What do you think?

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  • Matthew Funke

    Largely agreed, but there’s more to science than those performing research at the front lines. Science advances best when people ask informed, relevant questions, and I expect that the best way to do that is to have an engaged populace with enough education to understand (and confront) the basics of what’s going on. (The very process of peer review shows how vital different points of view are to a vibrant system of methodical inquiry. Not every citizen needs to have post-graduate levels of expertise in science, but a large number with the ability to critically evaluate information and/or ask the right questions to put new information into context would be much better for the science community than our current circumstances.)

    Movements like young-Earth creationism not only impede the educational process that makes such informed questioning possible; they promote an active distrust of scientists, their findings, and their methods. This, in turn, tends to create an environment where legislation is proposed (and occasionally implemented) to impede the educational process even further. Under circumstances like these, it seems to me that even if religious teachers cannot *directly* impede science, they can make the road somewhat rougher.

    • John MacDonald

      I take issue when religious people conclude from “a gap in scientific knowledge” that there is reason to insert God into that “gap.” For instance, if we trace our universe back to The Big Bang, the question then arises of “How did the material that made up The Big Bang get there in the first place?” Similarly, if we trace the origins of life back to the original instance of when inorganic material first turned into organic matter, inquiring minds want to know how this happened. But just because we don’t have universally agreed upon scientific models of how these things happened, this doesn’t mean there is any reason to invoke “God” as a explanation. The “God Of The Gaps” has plagued scientific inquiry since the time of the ancients.

      • Matthew Funke

        Absolutely agreed, as a religious person. I despise the notion that the action of God depends on the limits of humanity’s understanding.

        Ignorance is simply a lack of knowledge. You don’t get to say, “I have no idea how this happened. Therefore, I know exactly how it happened; it was God doing something miraculous.” That’s the same train of “logic” used by UFO advocates insisting that those inexplicable points of light in the sky are really spacecraft piloted by intelligent extraterrestrials. Creationists (and the religious folk you mention) will immediately recognize how absurd this line of “reasoning” is when applied in many places like this, but completely miss it when they apply it themselves in an effort to justify their beliefs.

        Unfortunately, those who are convinced that they know the answer is God have determined that there is no usefulness in exploring or experimenting to see what discovery might have to say on the subject. They’re already certain that they have the correct understanding, so what could observation possibly have to bring to the table? This attitude, again, might not stand directly in the path of inquiry(*), but they can influence public opinion.

        (*) Not for lack of trying, mind.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Matthew pretty much said what I was going to say.

    I don’t know that religious zealots inhibit the actual enterprise of science, but they can certainly impede education, cultural impact, public perception, etc.

  • Fundamentalists do their best to impede progress–stem cell research, Creationism in schools, and so on. If they could do more, they would.

    To your point, it’s good that that’s not the case (though if they had their way, they’d change the laws to enable turning back the clock).

  • guest

    It made me laugh which is all I can ask from a comic.

  • One small change would make this comic align perfectly with historical reality … make the scientist a woman.

    * I’m editing this comment to say that arcseconds has refuted me quite effectively below. He is right to say that the real barriers to female scientists in the west are male scientists – not religious figures.

    • arcseconds

      Then we may as well put a male scientist up there as an obstacle, too.

      • Only if his science commands the subjugation of women.

        • arcseconds

          If the point is to indicate who actually has impeded (and in some cases continue to impede) the participation of women in science (and thus impede science), who is commanded to and who is not is irrelevant.

          All that matters is who has.

          And there are plenty of cases where male scientists have directly impeded the participation of women.

          (the fact that they’re not commanded to, but just do it anyway, if anything makes it worse.)

          So I’m wondering what’s actually important to you here: women being impeded, or making polemical points about religion?

          • Whether you’re considering the original intent of the comic, or my variation with a woman as the scientist, I think the point is connected to the books and scrolls held by the imam, the rabbi, and the bishop.

            I don’t agree with you that “who has” is all that matters here. I think the illustrator is contrasting ancient religious tomes with scientific research, as much as he is contrasting types of people.

            I don’t think the “difficulty” portrayed in the comic is all religious people – just the ones who choose to stand in the way of scientific learning by brandishing scriptures.

          • arcseconds

            How can what some book or other says possibly be more important than what actually impedes women scientists? If the books don’t result in impediment, it’s a non-issue, and doesn’t deserve a cartoon.

            Implicitly, a cartoon showing religious figures impeding a women scientist is saying “this is what impedes women in science”. What’s the point of drawing such a cartoon if you don’t genuinely think that this is a significant issue for women in science? But even a cursory understanding of the issue would tell you that, in the west at least, attitudes and behaviour of male colleagues is a much more important issue — unsurprisingly, as women scientists have to deal with male scientists far more than they do imans and bishops in their professional careers.

            If the cartoon simply must be about ideas and not people (and must it? it seems that this could be solved perfectly well by removing the books from the illustration, if in fact the books are important and not just part of the religious get-up) we could definitely give the male scientist something to hold that represents this… although an obvious choice would make it NSFW.

          • Hi arcseconds

            Well said. I always appreciate your thoughtful input on James’ blog, so I’d prefer to keep the conversation light, and not have a big debate with you over the value of a cartoon. :^)

            And I’ll concede that you’re right that making a point about barriers to women with this cartoon would misguided, when, in this century at least, it’s male scientists that impede female scientists – not religious figures. That’s a very good point, and it wasn’t a great suggestion on my part. I’ve edited my initial comment.

            I still think that the original cartoon makes a good point about the way that scripture is brandished by some religious figures to stand in the way of scientific progress or teaching. I would also suggest that the cartoon doesn’t portray it as a huge or insurmountable difficulty. The scientist is blithely working around it.

  • arcseconds

    Science is certainly difficult, but the people who make it the most difficult are surely the scientists themselves: they’re constantly coming up with new theories, and it’s not just the quantity, they get more complex over time too!

    If they had just agreed that we had enough science in say 1750 things would be much easier: one person could, I think, with a bit of effort, learn all of it in a lifetime. Newtonian mechanics is pretty tough, to be sure, but it’s conceptually and mathematically easier than relativity! You’ve got some glimmerings of molecular structure by that point, and early systematics, and some speculations about evolutionary theory too, but you don’t have to bother yourself with genes, molecular biology, and Darwin.

  • There’s very little effect that religious barriers have against scientific research in the west, although such research clearly lags in muslim countries. For the west, our remaining problems are in scientific education, with a shrinking but still prevalent number of fundamentalist groups (including many pundits and politicians) driving to cast doubt on evolutionary science for religious reasons.

    Perhaps the cartoon would be more pertinent to western issues, if the locale were clearly a science classroom.

    In either case, though, I find it amusing that the scientist is cheerfully ignoring the fundamentalists, writing his way around them.