Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The harried ones, those Nobel seekers of truth

A specter is haunting America, the specter of anti-science.  In the recurrent ritual of disclosing what fools people can be, a recent article in The Atlantic discusses one of those periodic polls that discloses some purportedly disturbing example about Americans' scientific ignorance.  In this case, the poll in question reveals that
[a] majority of Americans don't believe in even the most fundamental discovery of 20th century physics, which 99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences do: that our universe began with an enormous explosion, the Big Bang.
The article goes on to discuss the possible reasons for these results and suggests that such attitudes don't present much that is new, and because it's not necessarily new, we shouldn't worry as much.  After all, science has been going along despite such appalling ignorance and/or anti-science.  In fact, the "good news" is that Americans compare favorably to respondents in other countries, which means that the situation in the U.S. is "[n]ot so bad, though probably not too heartening to our Nobel Prize winners."

This article is better than most.  It tries to historicize this ignorance, which I appreciate.   And it interrogates the way the questions were asked:
It is worth noting, however, that the way the question was framed gathers at least two possible different groups into the "not confident" bin: A) people who hold a different belief about the beginning of the universe and B) people who just don't know, and might have been scared off from saying they were "confident" in an answer.
To be fair, going further may have been beyond the scope of the article's point, and perhaps there was a word-limit the author had to observe, but I still wish the article had gone further.  Another reason--perhaps it's a subset of reason A)--someone might say they are "not confident" that the universe began with the big bang might be a different conception of what we mean by "universe" or even what we mean by "the big bang."

Is the universe all that is in existence?  What does it mean to exist?  Was the pinpoint of energy/matter/whatever from which the Big Bang came enclosed in anything?  Can we speak of a "universe," the sum of all things, as being enclosed in something without suggesting that the something doing the enclosing is also part of the sum of all things and also the--or "a"--universe?  What about cycles?  Maybe the "universe" expands and contracts, and what we call the Big Bang was what happened right after the last contraction, and soon the universe will roll again into a tiny ball and then expand outward into the overwhelming question of our last end and first beginning.

Maybe there is an answer to those questions that doesn't disturb the universe as "99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences" know it.  I have my doubts that science, as science, is capable of answering some of those questions.  I suspect there's not a scientific way to define the universe that is falsifiable.  One might conjure a definition, and then use that definition as a metric to prove or disprove the universe's origins or oscillations.  But I have a hard time believing the actual definition can be scientifically known.

Yeah, but....are all these respondents thinking along those lines, are they really positing a philosophical challenge to what they might see as pat answers to our existence?  Maybe not.  Or at least I'll stipulate that most are not doing so explicitly.  Maybe the non-confidence really does relate to "faith-based" and religious-based conflicts to which the article alludes (and thankfully doesn't dwell on) in passing.

But to paraphrase (and perhaps benignly misinterpret) William James, can't the cash-value of religious beliefs about the nature of the universe act as a shorthand for these questions, for the mystery of what are the contours of our being and of the world in general?  To ask the question is to make the argument, and yes, I believe religiosity can and often does do this.  How often?  I don't know, but I suspect that it's more frequent than a poll can capture.

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