Fear of Clowns

"Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."
- H. L. Mencken

Friday, June 17, 2005

Eugene Volokh doesn't understand science 

PZ Meyers takes Eugene Volokh to task for commenting on science without understanding something very simple about science which I explained in a few short paragraphs a couple days ago. Meyer's point boiled down to it's core is that the Theory of Evolution is silent on God,

[H]ow exactly do scientists come to the conclusion that "God had no part in this process"? What's their proof? That's the sort of thing that can't really be proved, it seems to me -- which makes it sound as if scientists, despite their protestations of requiring proof rather than faith, make assertions about God that they can't prove.

Complete drivel. Scientists don't talk about "proof", period. We leave that to the mathematicians. This is something I yell at my freshman biology majors, by the way. I know it's out of the purview of a scholar of constitutional law, but if he's going to make claims about science, shouldn't he know the bare basics of the discipline?

Change the word "proof" to "evidence", and it makes more sense. It's still wrong, but at least he isn't railing against a straw man anymore.

And on top of that, if the standard scientific theory is that "God had no part in this process," then the opponents of evolution are right -- the standard theory of evolution may not be taught in the schools. The Court has repeatedly said that the Establishment Clause bars both government endorsement and disapproval of religion. Teaching that God exists and teaching that God doesn't exist are both unconstitutional in government-run schools. Likewise, if teaching that God created humans is unconstitutional, so is teaching that God had no part in creating humans.

Then we can't teach anything that shows a material cause for any action, because that would show that God was unnecessary. There goes physics, chemistry, geology, biology.... Volokh is asking us to paralyze our critical thinking facilities lest we contradict religious zealots.

Here's a simple example of the nature of the evidence against any god's role in various processes. Take a coin and flip it a hundred times; you'll get somewhere around 50 heads, and somewhere around 50 tails. You won't see predictable patterns; you can do multiple trials; you can do statistics. All we see are the outcomes of some fairly consistent laws of probability.

... I would also add that for a theory to be of any use, details are important. "God did it" does not tell us anything about why we have kidneys instead of salt-secreting lachrymal glands, or what ADH, aldosterone, renin and angiotensin do. So why should anyone settle for such a useless, empty phrase? Why should it be an acceptable substitute for evolution, but not for physiology?

Repeating my formulation of what science does and does not do, science cannot and does not attempt to "prove" anything - a pen may fall up to the ceiling on the 1,000,001st drop. Despite this, science can provide us with understandings of repeated observations and provides us with a basis on which we ought not rationally doubt those understandings.

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did you watch "Revelations" ? My favorite line was when one student asked Johnathan Rhys-Davies' professor (and I think this is pretty close to word-for-word) "You speak of Science as having created the universe. But is there no room for God?" I imagine that it's easier to imagine God creating the universe than Science since science doesn't create things, it's an abstract term about some things people study, but God is a big holy man that can do things just by thinking of them and also gets angry and whatnot. To be fair, I do think God could do that if He wanted to, and the fact that He is cuter than science and that I am gay and attracted to His image might influence my criticism, but I would also probably have to see His penis but more importantly have sex with Him and actually see how things go in the longer term before I would be able to say how much my opinion on this might be compromised. Ok, it's a lame joke, bye
I really like the phrase "ought not reasonably doubt". I'm going to try to remember that one.
Scientists do attempt to prove things all the time! They come up with their hypothesis and then run experiments to prove or disprove their theories. The repeated observations you mention are those attempts to prove or disprove their guesses.
beth -

That is exactly what I'm trying to explain as inaccurate: science never proves anything beyond proving that a particular understanding is false.

A scientific theory is only as strong as attempts to disprove it have failed. Theories can be disproved, strengthened by evidence, accepted ... they can never be 'proven'. If they could, science would immediately halt: imagine if Einstein and Planck had embraced the attitude, "Newton's theories proved the mechanics of matter."

An accurate statement would be,"Scientists come up with hypothesis and then run experiments to test for evidence to support the hypothesis or to disprove it. If convincing evidence is found and nobody can disprove it despite great effort, the hypothesis is raised to the level of a theory."


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