Only the Surface of Things

So my mother and I have this off-and-on discussion–it’s been going for years, and usually it works out to my main criticisms of New Age conceptions of the world being, well, arbitrarily descriptive without any rigorous demands for evidence, and my mom’s criticism of science is that it “only looks at the surface of things, and not the deeper levels”.

Much as I love my Mom, this really frustrates me.

This idea that science looks “only” at the surface of things, it’s often advanced by people who want to minimize the claim that science has in defining how we see the world. They advance it as if this is a blindness suffered by science, a kind of incapacitating factor.

But the thing is, it’s not. It’s a design feature, not a design flaw. Science is “only” about the physical, only about the universally observable universe, for a reason. Looking at the observable universe, first of all, is no small task. We’ve been doing it a long time, and we’ve being doing it rigorously for a few thousand years, and still there remains so much yet to examine, to explore and see.

Science, whatever its practitioners have mistakenly done in the past, is a hell of a lot more efficient problem-solving mechanism for demonstrably solvable problems than any other method people have developed. Science may be a little bit biased against supernatural explanations of things, but that’s partly due to the track record of theories involving the apparent supernatural. Everything supernatural that has been brought to the scientific table has been discarded as either untestable, or, if tested, as hokum. Not because it’s supernatural, mind, but because that explanation failed to repeatably describe the behaviour of the universe. People said, “A” is a property of this element within the universe, and science looked carefully and finally said, “Uh, no it’s not.”

Science demands one thing: that if something is true, you and I should be able to demonstrate to others, repeatably, that fact. That means that if, indeed, faith healing is true, science will not only prove it, and improve it. This, obviously, has not happened, and some people are unhappy that science has failed to support their unfounded, personally-chosen beliefs about the world.

And science is a transparent system. It says, “Anything I can see, you can see too.” You may need equipment, maybe even expensive equipment. You may need years of training to understand what you’re seeing. But at no point are you required to take on an article of faith, except that looking at the world itself is a worthwhile thing to do, an act that can, fundamentally, tell you about the world. There’s none of this, “You’ll see someday,” or “You have to believe.” Answers aren’t just cooked up based on pet models and served hot: they are tested, explored mathematically, confirmed painstakingly. People spend their whole lives doing this, and the vast majority of it is not sexy or glamourous, nothing as exciting as laying the hands or bending spoons on TV.

And scientists are then accused of being myopic and closed-minded. It’s like saying, “No fair, science says women are attracted to men who have more resources, and I’m broke, therefore science is all bullshit!”This is not a reasonable response to the facts. Studies show that, on average, women do tend to find apparent access to resources attractive, and taller men, and men who aren’t ridiculously obese. All these things are facts.

Scientists are, in large part, no more myopic than anyone else… though not always less so. Scientists are people, after all. So why trust them better?

Because of science. Science is trustworthy. Science works. Without science, you wouldn’t be reading my words right now, in (almost) any country in the world, even minutes after I’ve written it. Without science, you wouldn’t have a proper heated home in which to read this. Without science, you’d probably not be living as long as you will, and your children would be much likelier to die in childhood. That is what science does for you. Because of science, if you develop cancer, you may not have to die. Because of science, if you get a heart attack, you may not have to die. So let’s not pretend science isn’t effective.

And science, you see, is unlike religious and New Age belief in another interesting way: it’s tentative.

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine that someone demonstrated Faith Healing to work. Some mutant was born with the power, or some preacher (who, after all, might still be a mutant–there’s no reason to take his explanation for granted). And he can consistently heal people of all kinds of illnesses. Let’s say–although no such person has ever agreed to such an experiment and been vindicated in his claims–that he is brought to the Mayo Clinic and starts healing people of mysterious illnesses. Bang, bang, bang. One by one, they’re okay. Long-term studies are performed, and they’re okay long term. And the only thing in common is this guy having lain his hands on them.

What do you think scientists would do, with someone like this who was cooperating with them?

They’d study the living hell out of him. They’d wire him up, scan him while he was healing, and try to find some way to explain the phenomenon. Sure, some would be scared off by the reputation issues, but you know, most of them would be more than happy to find a way to stimulate medical cures for unknown diseases. There are, after all, scientists who are religious, too. And honestly, if faith healing worked, it’d probably already be entrenched in a major industry by now.

Maybe the scientists wouldn’t be able to find an explanation by looking at the surface of things… maybe they’d end up with a great big, “I don’t know!”, but if you think they’d ignore the phenomenon, after even one scientist claimed proof (and had creditable findings to back the claim up), you’re not giving science enough credit.

After all, compared to the religious leaders who always have an answer to any question–to the point of concocting elaborately-detailed afterlife-environments mentioned nowhere in their religious scripture–scientists are the only ones who are, very often, willing either explicitly, or implicitly, to say, “Actually, nobody knows.” Science is an endeavour that begins with that as a starting point: that things are knowable, that we don’t know perfectly, but that we can know more. Religion starts with assumptions of a more specific nature: that there are this many gods, or that the universe started this way, or that humans have this and that untapped power. Once you claim such things, you cannot look at the universe to falsify them: if you do, what will you believe then?

The reason science looks “only” at the surface of things is that, in the thousands of years we’ve been working on seeing things in that way, we’ve discovered that there is a lot more surface–a lot more complexity and interestingness–bound up in the physical properties of everything around us, and we’ve consistently found nothing else, and no need for anything else, to explain how the universe appears very consistently to work. Science doesn’t “only” look at the surface, it looks at the only thing we can see without bullshitting ourselves. Anyone who claims to be looking beyond the surface simply cannot make testable or verifiable claims, and could very easily be deluded, lying, or confused.

“But scientists could be lying or confused, too, right?”

Yes, of course. But while it’s impossible to prove a preacher is lying about the nature of God, though one can claim it. Conversely, it’s very hard for a scientist who is lying about the nature of the universe to escape being disproven… the odds are getting narrower by the day, in science, for cheats and frauds. (Would that politics could be refined in this way.) That’s why, while Korea’s much-reviled Dr. Hwang, who famously faked human cloning, was, of course, finally caught out whilst people carrying out equivalent shams in religious circles are lauded, applauded, and free from the danger of being shown up for what they are: bullshitters. There are no objective standards of evaluation for beliefs, you see. Only popularity ratifies a religious notion. The existence of urban legend debunkery websites testifies to how untrustworthy the public is when it comes to sniffing out bullshit, but what’s frustrating is that this ability is weakened even more by the pressures of the religion-mongering parasites who demand faith and repudiate science publicly.

The resultant cost is immense. But I’m going to have to save that rant for another day.

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