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When science becomes dogma


Being an amateur astronomer, I've always been a fan of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium and host of FOX's new, re-booted "Cosmos" TV program.  I really admire his breadth of knowledge, his wit, and  his talent for explaining things in terms mathematically-challenged folk like yours truly can understand. More than that, he's always struck me as basically a nice guy, as well as an interesting one. Having a couple of beers with Dr. Tyson would be an experience I'd relish.

He summed up the reasons for Pluto's demotion as a planet about as well as possible when he pointed out that "if Pluto were in Earth's orbit, it would grow a tail- and that's just no way for a planet to behave." His comment on the demise of Comet ISON similarly hit the mark: "Comets are like cats. They have tails, and do whatever they want."

I also admired Dr. Tyson's predecessor as "Cosmos" host, Dr. Carl Sagan- a frank and outspoken atheist, but a civil one who respected those who disagreed with him and took them seriously. I don't think anyone who has read Sagan's book Contact can easily miss the point that Sagan's atheism was underlain by a becoming humility that reflected very well what I understand to be the essence of the scientific approach to reality: a willingness to follow the evidence where it leads, to say, "This seems to be the case," on the basis of currently-available evidence, but always stopping short of "this is," since new evidence may always come available.

Dr. Tyson quite correctly points out in an early episode of the new show  that what most people believe is meant by the word "theory" is actually the meaning of "hypothesis," and that the two are very different. An hypothesis is simply an idea, a proposed solution to a problem or explanation for a phenomenon. A theory (as in "the theory of evolution," for example, or "the theory of gravity") is an hypothesis that has been well enough tested to function as at least provisional truth.

Seems to me, though, that Dr. Tyson drops the ball here, when he fails to leave even theoretical room for the possibility that a deeper explanation for the observed phenomena they describe than simply blind evolution or simple gravity itself might arise- or even, as unlikely as it is, that a new discovery might revolutionize our understanding of the roles they play. The emphasis here is on the word "theoretical;" I'm not suggesting that it's likely that such evidence will be found. But science- at least in my understanding- is always provisional. It intends not so much to hand down dogma as to give what seem, at the moment the best possible explanations of this or that. And at times the new "Cosmos" seems to me, thus far, to blur that distinction.

To suggest, as Dr. Tyson did one night, that Newton's description of the mathematics of gravity do away with the "necessity" of a God as the source of the phenomena he describes strikes me not only as bad logic- akin to saying that the discovery Newton's laws does away with the necessity of a shoemaker wielding a hammer in explaining the existence of footwear- but to cross the line not only between science and metaphysics, but between reasoned explanation and dogma. Crossing that line is an accusation Dr. Tyson often levels against religion, and rightly so. But then, religion doesn't pretend to do otherwise.

Science- or what calls itself by that name these days- often also crosses that line- and the illogical conclusion that the existence of gravity does away with the need for God seems to me to take an uncomfortably clear step in that direction.The difference between science and religion is that science claims not to cross that line. And when it does so, it stops being science- at least in the sense in which I think that Dr. Tyson, like Dr. Sagan before him, means to use the word: the fearless search for the truth, no matter where the truth leads.

In science, as in law and journalism and so many other endeavors, we increasingly have people of essentially the same world-view and presuppositions setting the standards for what is "kosher," and what is not. That is the issue here, it seems to me, on the Left as well as on the Right. As we've seen in the debate over the effects on children of being raised by gay couples, flaws in studies which happen to match the current "groupthink" will be peer-reviewed favorably, whereas unorthodox studies with the same ones or even less serious ones will be dismissed for them. It's human nature- and scientists, too, are human.

Dr. Tyson seems not to take into account something which anybody remotely acquainted with the history of science will have to admit: that scientific orthodoxy has historically been at least as formidable a barrier to the advance of our knowledge of the universe as has religious orthodoxy. It's a point secularists often miss: the critical distinction between religion and other ideologies isn't the existence of God or an afterlife (many world religions lack both), but the providing of a dogmatic basis for giving existence explanation and meaning. Marxism is as much a religion as Presbyterianism. It, too, is an ideologically rigid and intellectually closed explanation for reality, And so can science be- if it ceases to be about the description of the provisional, and lapses into dogma.

Here's a very good account at some of the new Cosmos's historical, factual, and logical failings. By all means watch the series. But bear in mind that it's very, very fallible when it comes to discussing metaphysics rather than science- and that at the moment it stops being provisional, it also stops being science.

ADDENDUM: Dr. Tyson himself says pretty much the same thing here- except that he continues to miss the point that sometimes science itself ossifies into mind-killing dogma, and thereby ceases to be science.

I'd really like to buy him that beer and talk with him about it.

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