Challenges to Science

English: A game of Tug of War during College R...

English: A game of Tug of War during College Royal at the University of Guelph. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote this paper about 30 years ago for the HiC magazine. I welcome comments on it now. Has anything changed over those many years?

Next week I want to consider some of the current problems we face: climate change deniers, beginning and end of life issues, distribution of scarce resources, and others.


Humanist in Canada, Summer 1983; by Bob Lane

   – ©2005, 2007 Bob Lane

Over the past two hundred years science has proved itself to be the most powerful intellectual method yet devised. The “scientific method” has become the paradigm for all disciplines which deal in empirical fact. Observation, generalisation, falsification, repetition of experiments have become orthodox methodology which is rarely questioned and not often understood.

Today there are several challenges to science. In the United States, and to some degree here in Canada, one of the centerpiece theories of contemporary science — evolution — has come under strong attack by a group of fundamentalist Christians who call themselves “creationists”. They are trying to get creationism taught in the school system as a scientific theory on equal footing with evolutionism.

A second challenge comes from those who believe in paranormal phenomena: ESP, out-of-body travel, clairvoyance and the like. The tremendous interest in this area of “psychic” phenomena is witnessed by the procession of movies, books, television shows, and newspaper columns devoted to the mysterious powers of people who can, seemingly, bend spoons with mind power alone, predict events before they occur, and, in general, are tuned in to some dimension of reality that the rest of us, bound by our five senses, can only vicariously experience. Are any of these phenomena real? Or are they merely hoped for evidence of some spirit world that promises us immortality? Or are they, more seriously, hoaxes perpetrated on a gullible audience for very non-scientific reasons, like greed?

Yet another challenge to science comes from a different quarter and is motivated by a more complex human response. Is all research good research, or should we limit research in principle on the grounds that there are forbidden zones in science?

These three external challenges, plus some others which could be called internal (the problems, for example, raised by fabrication in the laboratory, or faulty data, or invalid inferences) were described, debated, and discussed in a conference called Challenges to Science sponsored by Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The conference chairman, Professor Norman Swartz, is a professor of philosophy at SFU. Swartz, assisted by SFU’s Office of Continuing Studies, brought together a group of scholars to present their findings on these challenges to science. The conference committee drew on a large body of distinguished specialists in philosophy, science, psychology and magic to ensure that the areas of discussion were pertinent and that the participants were indeed experts in their fields.

The general format of the conference had one point of view set against another with participants presenting papers which were commented upon and then discussed by conference participants. For example, the creation-evolution controversy was chaired by Professor Resnick, chairman of philosophy at SFU, who introduced the antagonists: Kelly Seagraves, of the Creation-Science Research Center in San Diego, California who talked about his belief in special creation and his desire to force schools to teach creationism, on a par with evolutionism. Taking the position that “creation science is not genuine science” was historian and philosopher Michael Ruse, from the University of Guelph.

Seagraves’ basic argument is that since evolution is merely a theory, not a fact: therefore it should compete with other theories, such as the creation story in Genesis, on an equal footing in science classes in the school system. His position relied heavily on his belief that people hold a certain set of suppositions based entirely on the bias and prejudices present in the person. He argued that scientists are no different from anyone else in bending the facts to fit a preconceived theory. Thus, he attempted to cast doubt on the evolutionary model and to plead for equal time for a creationist model.

I found this a very dangerous argument. We all tend to find the equal time request reasonable and fair. But we must be clear just what is being asked by the creationists. They want evolution taught as a theory and not as fact. Fair enough. But they also want textbooks and course materials which offer special creation as a scientific theory on a par with evolution.

That’s not fair. As Deputy Minister Robert Stewart from the Ministry of Universities, Science and Communication pointed out in the keynote address, a theory is a scientific theory if, and only if, one can imagine an experiment that could falsify the theory. A scientific theory, in short, has to be testable, in principle, through being falsifiable. There is no conceivable data that the creationists would allow as falsifying the Genesis-based special creation story. Therefore, it cannot be a scientific theory. Should special creation be taught? Yes, but not in the science class.

Ruse pointed out that behind the name “Creation Science” was little science and a strong belief in the literal reading of Genesis as actual fact. Also speaking was Reverend George Hermanson who said “creationism is bad theology and bad science”.

Who won this round? The evolutionists showed clearly that they did not hold a priori belief in their theory, could imagine data that would falsify, and were continuing to debate the mechanisms of evolution. Mr. Seagraves failed to convince that creationism is a science, and hence his claim that it should be taught on an equal footing as science makes no sense. However, this debate will go on, not in science laboratories but in the political arena, or perhaps in the courts, as has occurred in California and Arkansas. In short, you can expect the creationists to continue to urge equal footing for their “theory”.

The “paranormal phenomena” section of the recent conference in the SFU-sponsored ‘Public Issues and Philosophy’ series began with a special session at the Images Theatre. There, Professor Ray Hyman, of the University of Oregon, entertained a large audience with a demonstration and explanation of a psychic reading.

Hyman is a clinical psychologist and is also a magician. He began doing magic tricks as a child to entertain his family. Later he discovered that he could make money doing magic, and still later learned that giving psychic readings was even more lucrative. For a while, in fact, he believed he had some special power until during one reading a friend told him to tell the client the opposite of whatever came into his mind. He did and was astonished that it made no difference — the client still believed that what was said was true!

yogicIn this session Hyman predicted accurately what card would be picked at random from a deck of cards (normal chances from a normal deck: 1 in 52) and also predicted what a calculator, fed numbers by several audience members, would read as the answer to an arithmetic calculation. There were gasps of excitement when he opened the envelope and we saw that the “predictions” were correct.

Calling this demonstration “Imposing Meaning on Ambiguous Messages” Hyman went on to call on a volunteer from the audience and give a “reading” by using palmistry. The young lady, unknown to him before that moment, agreed he was 95 per cent accurate in what he said about her. He then explained how to do cold reading by observing the clients’ clothing, the body language cues that are given, staying very general until you receive a cue, etc. The session was not only fun but certainly made the point that we can impose meaning On ambiguous messages and not even be aware that we are doing so.

What followed had Professor Donderi, a clinical psychologist from McGill University, arguing that paranormal phenomena are a part of normal science and that magicians, psychic readers and charlatans had no place in the labs of serious researchers searching for real psychic phenomena. I was convinced that if there is anything to all of this stuff, people like Donderi would be able to find out by using carefully scientific and statistical models in carefully controlled experiments

But then Ray Hyman presented, not a magic show, but an exhaustive review of the very best paranormal research and concluded that there was really nothing there. Granting that it is impossible to prove the truth of the claim “there are no paranormal phenomena” since no scientific claim can be proved beyond doubt (again, falsification is the important concept in scientific theory) he nevertheless made the case that:

(1) Many times, researchers in the paranormal re imposing meaning on ambiguous messages;

(2) The very best of the paranormal research is flawed in design or in result so seriously as to make it suspect.

He rested his case by reminding the audience that William James, after spending 25 years investigating claims of the paranormal, had concluded there was no evidence at all indicating the reality of the phenomena.

 The winner? Ray Hyman by a technical knock-out.

Third challenge: Are there forbidden zones in science?

Three philosophers presented their views on this subject, and the views were complex. Edwin Levy argued, for example, that some scientific knowledge is dangerous and should be forbidden or limited by society. He thought we should resurrect what he calls “the archaic view” that some knowledge is not appropriate for human beings. The example he used was from agricultural science where research has produced a new high-yield rice plant which, when put into production, had the consequence of totally disrupting the life and culture of the countries blessed by this gift of Western science.

Both Levy and Dworkin (University of Illinois) argued that society must assess the consequences of scientific research and judge on the basis of those con sequences whether the research should proceed. Research that attempts, for example, to show that intelligence is either a racially or sexually determined matter has such evil consequences that it should not be allowed.

In some ways this is the most complex of the challenges faced by science today. Many would agree that if we did not know how to build atomic weapons we would be better off as a species. The manipulation of DNA has become another technique where we really have no way of predicting what the consequences of unlimited research will be. And perhaps a more serious threat to science and to life comes from so- called “mandated science” where scientists are hired to represent an institution (for example, B.C. Hydro) with a special interest.

This aspect of science turns out to be the most con fusing, for we are constantly buffeted by claims and counter claims that cannot be true together. One group of scientists tells us that chemical sprays are harmless to humans while another group warns us of impending doom.

It is in the social application of science that most of our lives are touched daily. It is for that reason that we need to be informed and to elect informed politicians. We might also begin to push for a “scientific court” made up of scientists whose livelihood is not dependent upon special interest groups or companies who could rule on questions of a scientific nature in an objective manner, a kind of Supreme Court of science.


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3 thoughts on “Challenges to Science

  1. Looking at the stats for those in the USA who believe in evolution vs creationism; global warming deniers; anti-vaxers – I would have to say things are not better maybe even worse.

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  2. Things today are just as described in your paper. Science is not easy to understand and the scientific enterprise has problems also described in your paper. An example of this is a kid who told me he thought creation was more credible than the amazing story of the big bang because such theory sounded to him as really crazy baloney: how can the universe come from some ultra miniscule nothing? Kids around here (LA) love to talk about ghosts, the paranormal etc, and love to repeat stories like “Hello Kitty is the devil” and some other useless stuff. I try to get them excited about reading science but the environment favors faith.

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