Science education

Faith-Based Gravitational Waves?

Under ordinary circumstances, the monumental discovery of the gravitational waves (GWs) would have been universally received with enlightened enthusiasm. Ordinary citizens — even those cheering on Donald Trump — would have been in awe of the genius that predicted them one hundred years ago and the mammoth technology that went into the construction of LIGO, the Great Pyramid of our time.

But we are not living under ordinary circumstances. The zeitgeist of our era is captured by the anti-science of anti-vaxxers, anti-GMO activists, climate change deniers, Dr. Oz, and Food Babe, as well as the Republican debates and the debacle of filling the seat vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia.

When the ignorance of parents puts the lives of thousands of children at risk by denying them the protection of vaccines and exposing them to other children, when millions of uninformed citizens spend billions of dollars on useless — even dangerous — “miracle” drugs advertised by the likes of Dr. Oz, when the security of food production in a dwindling irrigable land is jeopardized by the irresponsible anti-GMO activists, when the GOP presidential contenders measure their readiness for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth by the size of their manhood, and when a US senator warns that President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court would look like “a piñata” after Senate Republicans are done with them, we know that our collective intellect is in free fall.

The quality of the Republican presidential debates is on a par with the quality of the reaction to the discovery of GWs in some media! A recent article in Huffington Post labels GWs “red herring,” and a Wall Street Journal op ed attributes a religion-like faith to them and to all science.

Deepak Chopra, who according to Time Magazine is one of the top 100 icons and heroes of the century, has coauthored an article on Huffington Post, in which he asserts that GWs are just red herrings that “serve as a distraction from the unsolved mysteries,” implying that over a thousand scientists spent close to a billion dollars and more than twenty years of their lives to distract the public from these unsolved mysteries, which could actually shift the paradigm regarding how we see reality! Although he does not explicitly say it, what he really means is that the paradigm shift will show us that “consciousness conceives, governs, constructs and manifests the world.” (see here, minute marks 1:15:33-1:15:39)

Matt Emerson’s op ed in WSJ is actually about faith. After all, as the author of a forthcoming book entitled “Why Faith?,” Mr. Emerson ought to be keenly interested in that word, especially if faith could be shown to have a connection with science. So, when writing in Slate, the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli referred to the gravitational-wave discovery as the pursuit of a “dream based on faith in reason,” Mr. Emerson took notice.

There are two meanings attached to the word “faith” when scientists apply it to their theoretical framework, and each meaning characterizes the attitude of scientists toward science and religion. The first meaning has a religious connotation of the type advanced by the op ed. And there is a $1.6 million incentive for scientists to advertise the “unity” of science and religion. Paul Davies, the physicist mentioned in the op ed, won the Templeton Prize — which some people believe was set deliberately larger than the Nobel Prize — in 1995. The prize, according to its website, aims to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit,” whose work has relevance to “Spiritual Progress.”

Scientists, even the greatest among them, share many of the same strengths and weaknesses that the rest of us have. Outside their areas of expertise they are quite ordinary characters who can be poor judges of politics, religion, philosophical beliefs, and social affairs. Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist and the father of modern chemistry, sided with the anti-revolutionary groups, for which he lost his life at the guillotine; Marie Curie supported the Italian medium Eusapia Palladino; J. J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron believed in dowsing and the paranormal (see here for a comprehensive list of scientists who believed in the paranormal); Einstein encouraged President Roosevelt to initiate the development of atomic weapons, an act which he regretted immensely later; Heisenberg is believed to have been a Nazi sympathizer.

But these social mistakes are not made right because of the science of their makers, just as the science is not made wrong because of the social mistakes of its discoverers: It is the message that counts not the messenger. There may be similarities between scientists and theologians, but science and religion are on the opposite sides of the human intellect. There is absolutely no connection between Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” and LIGO, despite Mr. Emerson’s attempt to connect them.

As for the second meaning of faith, let me point out that there are three categories of scientists: Those who belong to the mainstream; those mainstreamers who bend the mainstream; and those who leave the mainstream and turn into crackpots. The overwhelming majority of scientists belong to the first category. Scientists like Galileo, Newton, Dalton, Crick & Watson, Planck, Einstein, … belong to the second category. People in the third category may once have been accomplished scientists in the first category, however, for various reasons, they left the mainstream science, and with it, science itself.

The scientists in the third category portray themselves as victims of an elite who are against any revolutionary idea. There is a huge difference between introducing revolutionary ideas within the confines of the mainstream science and irresponsibly throwing in nonsense and call it “revolutionary” simply because the mainstream scientists don’t accept it. The mainstreamers’ opposition to both types of ideas is a healthy reaction to the subversion of cherished and experimentally tested prevailing theories. The same mainstreamers who oppose a new idea eventually become its supporters once evidence verifies its validity. That is how the mainstream bends! On the contrary, a crackpot’s gibberish gets thrown out of the mainstream — along with its proposer, if the latter insists on the unproven, untested, and unsubstantiated idea.

Mr. Emerson may call this initial resistance to new ideas “faith,” as do many scientists. However, the resistance is essential for keeping science from becoming a salmagundi of ad hoc, unrelated, arbitrary, even contradictory ideas as is common in philosophy, politics, social theories … and, well, religion!

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