Thursday, November 11, 2004

Science and Faith

No, this isn't about faith versus science, but rather the concept that science requires faith.

We all learned in elementary school that the scientific method requires making observations, coming up with a hypothesis that explains the observations, and then creating an experiment or taking more data that proves the hypothesis. This is what allowed Newton to come up with his formulas, Flemming to figure out that penicillium kills bacteria, and so on.

But what about sciences that can't be tested? In this case the hypothesis never advances and all you have is an article of faith.

Let's take archeology. For decades the theory has been that North America was populated from a migration over the Bering Straight about 13,000 years ago. This theory was based on all available data, but DNA evidence and other data has come out showing that North America was populated much sooner, perhaps with a migration from Europe as well as Asia.

Since the old hypothesis couldn't be tested, the scientific process never advanced, but the hypothesis nevertheless became widely accepted as "fact". The hypothesis was so accepted that most researchers stopped looking for data that contradicted it. It just happened to be wrong.

Lots of areas of science have hypotheses that can't ever be tested. You think the universe is made of superstrings? The math works, but it won't ever be proven. Magnetic monopoles? They also make sense mathematically, but despite years of searching no one has never found one. In each of these cases, although the hypothesis is unprovable one way or the other, there is an accepted "consensus" that is "accepted" by the scientific community, and it is this that gets advertised to the world as "fact" (in these examples superstrings=yes, monopoles=no).

Thomas Kuhn famously wrote about scientific faith, although he called it a "paradigm". Science has an accepted base of paradigms, or received beliefs, and it clings to those beliefs until forced into another set of beliefs, a process called a paradigm shift. This phrase is now part of the vernacular and used by marketing people like myself to explain customer beliefs instead of scientific beliefs, but the meaning and process are about the same.

The bottom line is that many fields of "science" are nothing more than an attempt to package as fact nothing more than speculation and conjecture. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it is presented as such, but it should be remembered that in many areas, the Truth will never really be known - meaning that the science has to be accepted on faith.

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