Once More: Superstition is Not Science


Last week Bill Nye and Ken Ham had a debate over science vs. creationism. This week a poll revealed that nearly half of Americans and more than half of 18-25 year olds think that astrology is science.

So, perhaps it's best to start at the beginning and take a look at what science is.

Science dates back to prehistoric man. For as long as we have records, people have tried to understand the world around them, who they are and why they are here. To do this people gathered the best information around them and made educated guesses.

That is still the way that science is practiced, but the amount of information we've gathered, our ability to gather information and the accuracy of that information have all improved substantially. That means that the current "guesses" are much more educated than they've ever been before.

Because people have a strong desire to understand the world around them, science and religion were once sort of the same thing. People took their best guess about the way the universe works, they filled in the blanks with things that seemed to make sense at the time and they called it 'truth'.

A couple of things happened to damage that relationship though. First smart people noticed that religion meant power. If you had the 'answers' or could claim a special relationship with the gods, people would treat you with reverence and willingly, grant you a place of authority and turn additional power over to you.

Despite the ideal of the 'separation of church and state' which came out of the age of enlightenment, religion and politics have always been linked. This was true in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. It was true among the Aztecs and the Mayans. It has been true since the birth of the Catholic Church, it is true in Israel and in Islamic countries.

Real science does not give way to religion or politics. Saying that the Earth is not the center of the universe may not be religiously popular. Saying that climate change is happening may not be politically popular. But science goes ahead and says those things anyway. Science also sometimes says things that aren't true.

This is a confusing statement and may cause people with both political and religious orientations to gloat, but it is not as simple as saying 'science lies' or 'science is wrong'. Scientists gather the best information available to them and make educated guesses about the meaning of the data.

Sometimes, new data presents itself that causes theories to change. Sometimes technology provides data we didn't have before or makes things possible that weren't possible before. When this happens scientists are able to make more educated guesses and create new and better theories. This doesn't mean that science is wrong or that science lies, it just means we're getting smarter.

Science is progressive and is almost never regressive. By this I mean that science never says 'we were wrong, the Earth is the center of the universe', or 'we were wrong, there is no such thing as gravity'. Science will never say 'we were wrong, the Earth and all its creatures were created in six days by an omnipotent creator'.

Can you find scientists who will say that 'climate change isn't happening' or that 'God controls evolution'? Sure you can. Each and every scientist is not a spokesperson for science on the whole. Scientific 'truth' tends to come from consensus. When we say that something is true it means that the vast majority of scientists believe it to be true because the vast majority of data supports it. To that we can usually add that no evidence or data contradicts it. However, individual scientists can believe or not believe something regardless of what the available evidence says.

Because science, including medical science, cannot be controlled or talked into supporting things without evidence it frequently finds itself on the wrong side of political, religious and economic powers. They will certainly use science where it's useful to them. But they will be dismissive or even hostile to it where they do not.

Partially as a result of this hostility many individuals are hostile toward and misunderstand science. Science is not, after all, the favorite topic of people who like simple answers or people who are uneducated and animosity naturally flows from telling people that there most cherished 'truths' are not true after all.

Believing that you know how the universe works is comforting. Believing that an even better, and eternal, life follows this one is comforting, especially in times of turmoil or at times of loss. Science can threaten that comfort.

Religion and superstition are usually handed down from one generation to the next. When things are handed down for enough generations they become, not only belief but also tradition. Science definitely threatens those beliefs and traditions.

It is not hard to see how science could be suspect to begin with. When political, religious and economic leaders dismiss science it is easy for uneducated, undereducated or mis-educated people to go along because on many levels they want to.

The thing is, going back to the beginning, religion and superstition used to be science. The theological answers to questions, used to be the scientific answers. Astrology and other forms of divination used to be science. They were, at the time, the best answers people had about how the universe worked. They are, however, no longer part of science.

We have more data now, we have better information, we understand things that we didn't before and the religious and superstitious beliefs of hundreds, or even thousands of years ago are no longer considered true. They are no longer considered true because there isn't sufficient evidence to support them.

There is no real evidence that, beyond a small amount of gravitational pull, the location of the planets has any bearing on life on Earth. There is very little evidence that the Bible is historically, much less scientifically, accurate. These things are beliefs, they are not science.

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