What is special about science?

January 28, 2009 | By | 35 Replies More

Science isn’t about a particular batch of results.  Science is special because of the way in which it gets those results.  The following is from a well-written essay in the NYT entitled, “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy“:

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter.


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Category: Education, ignorance, Religion, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (35)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Karl: I've never pretended that I founded DI with the belief that all viewpoints were equally credible. My problem with your comments is not an issue of free speech; I'm not trying to muzzle you because your viewpoint is different than mine. Rather the problem is one of responsible speech.

    My frustration with your numerous comments (you must admit, we have given you a staggering amount of airtime) is not that you disagree with many of us, much of the time (though you do disagree with many of us much of the time). The various authors at this site have pointed out our problems with your comments numerous times in the past. They include your disingenuous cherry-picking, the way you manipulate your degree of skepticism like it was a cheap thermostat (depending on the topic), the fact that we've caught you playing fast and loose with facts more times than we can count, your evasiveness, your unwillingness to submit real-life applications of the "principles" you espouse, and your unwillingness to own-up when we've caught you being dishonest or intentionally evasive.

    These are the problems. These issues are the reasons you've been placed on such a short leash. And yes, I do think you would be much happier chatting with like-minded folks over at the fundamentalist sites. Certainly, you don't show the ability to honestly respond to the careful points being made by these authors. As Vicki Baker suggested a couple days ago, your comments, though they are occasionally thoughtful, are largely a drain on our time. I'm speaking for myself and for the many authors who have articulated similar thoughts over the past few months. I'm not claiming that I speak for all of the authors here at DI (though I might be speaking for all of them).

  2. Karl says:

    If I've made anyone think about the ability of one's values to influence how they do their version of hypothetical unproven science then that's all I can ask for here. I do still intend to send you personally my list of ten contrasts between Biblical and the naturalist's perspectives when dealing with scientific matters. Do with it as you wish.

    I apologize for leaving your blog with traces of my thoughts and values. Apparently this human has much to learn about being just an animal. The facts seem to be that humor can't be displayed nor understood by those with opposiing points of view. The perspectives that seem ironic are labelled as moronic.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Thomas H. Huxley on Science:

    Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only as far as the guardsman's cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club.

    Thomas H. Huxley (1825 – 1895)

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    What is special about science is that science questions everything.

    There has never been a philosophy that allowed its very foundation to be questioned and challenged as a matter of course. Even those paragons of intellectual curiosity, the Jesuits, cannot question the central dogma of their religion: that there is a god, and god created everything.

    There is nothing that is not open to scientific inquiry. The only caveat is that the object is indeed observable in some sense – either by direct effect (inertia, for instance), or by indirect effect (electrons, quarks and gluons, binding to atoms, all of which we can observe indirectly).


    There are those, like Karl, who grab at metaphysical straws and demand that beyond this line 'Science cannot go' – they are simply bereft of imagination. Their god of the gaps becomes immeasurably smaller with every advance in real, emprically, and theoretically derived knowledge.

    Their god, who presumably moved mountains in the past, and allegedly levelled cities at the behest of his followers, no longer effects visible miracles. Why the change? Is it that we are no longer so gullible that we believe such snake-charmers without evidence? That our personal world is large enough that we no longer find such tales to be credulous?

    Science is special, because it provides us a mechanism for truth – directly accessible to all. Not provisioned by the grace of a spiteful god's sycophantic priest.


  5. Mindy Carney says:

    OK, here's a story for your dissemination – a lovely young cancer patient here in St. Louis who just celebrated 5 years of being cancer-free. She is a medical anomaly, according to her doctor, and he admits that sometimes things happen outside the understanding of medicine. A tumor died, shrunk and was thus able to be removed – a tumor that over a dozen doctors agreed would kill her in a matter of weeks.

    Her remission is being considered as the miracle necessary to canonize a new saint, a Marianist, Chaminade, who has already been credited with one medical miracle.

    In reading the article, I was struck by this young woman and her positive attitude. I understand that it may have come from her faith. But as the Vatican prepares to thoroughly investigate her case on behalf of Chaminade's potential sainthood, I would love to see someone else investigate the healing effects of a positive and peaceful attitude.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Religion is all about belief. Science is about understanding how things work.

    There is an overlap, on occasion, between religion and science. This is usually when the the religious "Common sense" explanation is contradicted by scientific study.

    And there is a commonality between religion and science. Both can be manipulated for political or pecuniary interests.

  7. Mindy Carney says:

    Niklaus, one of the things that struck me in the article about the cancer patient was the statement about the first investigation by the Vatican into his life taking a full 60 years. That's almost as long as it took the man to LIVE his life, and since he lived most of it within the confines of the church, one would think they'd have had a lot of the needed background information already in place. I just had to wonder what they were looking for, or if they let it go on for so long to make sure that anyone he might have slighted or hurt would be dead and unable to speak up. I know, I obviously have a mistrust of all things Vatican, but I found it a glaring possibility that this was about preserving the Catholic interests as much as it was about anyone's sainthood.

    I'd also add that this article in our local paper, which is a generally vacuous journalistic effort, was in the "news" section. We're nothing in St. Louis if not kowtowing to our archdiocese . . .

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It hsa been known for decades that many cancers can be and often are held in check by the immune system. It is also well established that one's emotional state influence the effectiveness of the immune system. Basically, stress causes certain hormone imbalances, that include suppression of the immune system, which lowers inflammatory tissue response.

    So in effect, a person who is convinced they have no hope will experience more emotional stress which will weaken their ability to heal, while a person who is hopeful, for whatever reason, will be less stressed and will not impede their ability to heal.

    Many doctors are not trained in the interactions between the mind, emotion and the body. Many physicians refuse to knowledge any connection at all.

    But, on occasion, a change in outlook can cure.

  9. Mindy Carney says:

    So you're saying it might not be a miracle brought about by the divine intervention of a dead Catholic dude after all?! Heavens!

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Yep. That's pretty much what I'm saying.

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