Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Problem With Using Scientists' Words To Support Religious Beliefs

This is a rather interesting article in Slate.com. It discusses the propensity of some people of quoting scientists, especially Einstein in particular, to support a particular religious point of view, or to say that even those great scientists believed in a deity.

I suppose when one deals with history or the nature of human interactions and beliefs, these quotes are the "data" one goes by to draw up a conclusion about that person. Of course, one only needs to examine a lot more than just a few quotes to get a more complete picture. Quotations need a frame of reference, a context, to give a fuller picture.

However, physics, on the other hand, are not done via a series of quotations, no matter how much one can cite such a thing. Most people not in this field of study seem to not be aware of that. If you look at the "debate" in the comments section on the issue of the LHC safety, you'll encounter a lot of "quotes" from various documents or from various people. This is done while the person extracting the quotes have no clue of the physics in question. One cannot engage in a physics discussion with people like that!

There is also another angle to all this. As a physicist, I highly respect the accomplishment of all the giants in this field. How can one not when one is benefiting from all the work and discoveries done by them. When I wrote my glowing comments about John Bardeen, while I admire his down-to-earth and unassuming demeanor, what I admire the most are his accomplishments, more than anything else. In other words, I look up to him as a physicist.

However, I also know that while I am in awe of these great scientists, I do not worship them. Their words are not the gospel, and they are or were still ordinary human beings. From what I have seen, many physicists also share the same level of acceptance. It is only those who somehow need need to put these people on such high pedestal that are examining each and every word that these prominent scientists say as if a favorable statement somehow justify their beliefs. "See? Einstein thinks the same way as I do!" Big Deal! Do you also understand General Relativity?

Zz.

2 comments:

Professor R said...

A very good post...
this issue is also a very big difference between science and philosophy. We scientists are constantly amazed by the reverence philosophers give to the utterances of such and such a philosopher way back when - according them a papal infallibilty.
In science, what a particular scientists said (as opposed to did, or predicted) really doesn't matter all that much, a concept social scientists often miss when discussing scientists...Cormac

ZapperZ said...

Yes, I definitely agree that this is one of the major differences (and something that isn't understood) between science and philosophy/social science. I attribute it to the nature of the field of studies themselves. Whereas science, and physics in particular, must not just say that everything that goes up must come down, but also say when and where it comes down, the other fields are only concerned with the former. The requirement of the latter impose a severe restriction of what can be passed as physics, and this involves a very clear and unambiguous description via mathematics. That is why physicists tend to pay attention to the content (i.e. the mathematical description of an idea or concept) rather than simply what so-and-so said.

Zz.