Tuesday, May 24 , 2016, 1:45 am | A Few Clouds 55º

Victor Dominocielo: Believe What You Want; Just Don’t Call It Science

By Victor Dominocielo |

Science has no quarrel with anyone or anything. Science just tries to explain the natural world, and in doing so, it attempts to be like mathematics: non-controversial, impartial and a gathering of numbers about evidence. Unfortunately, as science explains natural processes and gathers evidence, it causes a logical and rational turning away from magical, supernatural and philosophical explanations that previously existed. This can cause some animosity and some anti-science attitudes to persist among certain groups.

Science may not seem as neutral as mathematics because of the many controversies that catch the headlines. In point of fact, science has no controversy with creationism, intelligent design, alternative medicine, alien abduction stories, Bigfoot believers, psychics, ghosts, séances and drinkable sunscreen, etc.

For example, creationism is a religion and, as such, deserves the respect and honor accorded to all religious beliefs. The fact that this belief system contradicts scientific theory is merely interesting and puts creationism in line with most other religious beliefs all over the world. Religious beliefs are not scientific and don’t have to be to enjoy an honored place in our society.

However, creationism is rare (unique?) in that it claims to be scientific. Followers call it “creation science,” claim to have “scientific” evidence about their beliefs, attempt to have their religion taught in science classrooms and have even tried to get the legal definition of science changed to accommodate their particular set of religious beliefs. Catholics, on the other hand, don’t want the virgin birth taught in science class, and Judaism does not insist that the Old Testament version of history be taught in an evidence-based history class.

When any group makes a scientific claim, then scientists begin to examine the quality of their evidence and challenge their assertions. Over the years, creationists have made many claims and philosophical arguments but have produced no measurable scientific evidence to contradict Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Creationism as a religion should be respected — but just don’t call it science.

Many outdoorsmen and women go into the woods for hunting and fishing and may not actually bag some game or even catch a single fish, but they have enjoyed the great outdoors and the company of their friends. Bigfoot hunting, considered in this manner, is also a great way to get out into nature and enjoy the camaraderie of friends. As a sport, a hobby or even as a belief system, Bigfoot hunting is wonderful. However, if you make a claim that Bigfoot is real and that there is evidence, then the rules of science apply. The mythology of many Indian tribes, thousands of emotional stories, fuzzy photographs and noises in the woods, personal beliefs and wishful thinking do not constitute scientific evidence.

Ghost stories, alien visitation/abduction and crop circles fall into this now familiar process: Make a scientific or reality claim and the methodology of science is triggered and repeatable, measurable evidence must be produced.

The easiest way around this pesky scientific scrutiny is to just be happy with saying that your emotional, belief-based ideas are, well … emotional, belief-based ideas. For example, creationists could just say, “Creationism is my religion” and leave out the scientific claims just like all the other religions. Bigfoot believers could announce that, “Bigfoot hunting is my hobby and a great reason to get into the outdoors with my friends.” Alternative medicine practitioners could get comfortable with the idea that, “We know it’s all the patient-generated placebo effect, but patients love these intriguing, exotic folk medicines from other countries.”

Science does not have a problem with any of these belief-based claims — until they insist that their claim is scientific. When these belief/emotion-based processes attempt to take on the legitimacy, impartiality and authority that science has earned in our society over thousands of years, then it is only fair to examine these processes under the microscope of scientific methodology.

The scientific process, as it exists today, has developed into a civilization-wide, multicultural decision-making tool. Science answers the question, “How does one figure out how the world works without the personal bias, emotion, exaggeration, misperception and belief associated with any explanation of events?”

Science, developed by all cultures over the last 10,000 years, is the arbiter of cause and effect in our world. If one postulates that a certain cause has a certain effect (e.g. willow tree bark relieves pain), civilization has realized that we need a process for questioning and determining the accuracy of the claim. That process is scientific experimentation and the gathering of repeatable, measurable evidence.

As a species, we have found that the best way to get an accurate picture of the evidence surrounding an observation or process is to question the proposal and try to prove it wrong (i.e. the Null hypothesis). This is the best design for exposing both sides of any assertion. This works in the application of law in our society (the prosecutor and the public defender), in a Ph.D. dissertation defense and in news stories presenting both sides of a story.

A great example of getting both sides of the story is the voter pamphlets distributed by the League of Women Voters, which present: Argument For, Argument Against, Rebuttal to the Argument For and Rebuttal to the Argument Against. By reading these four adversarial views on any issue, one gets a multifaceted view of the issue and can make a better, informed decision.

Likewise, when you make a scientific claim, the correct and proper response is to attempt to prove you wrong. It’s nothing personal; it’s just the best process for looking at all sides of an issue and gathering evidence.

Your beliefs are your own, and no one can tell you what to believe. An excellent strategy when presented with new information or an unexplained event is to learn the science surrounding the issue and then believe what you want. You’re going to do that anyway.

Beliefs and emotions have an important place in our society and in our world — but just don’t call them science.

— Victor Dominocielo, M.A., a California-credentialed teacher for 37 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. He earned his master of arts degree in education from UCSB. The opinions expressed are his own.

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