Science claims to have an evidence based way of knowing, but it claims to know things with equal certainty whether they are based on evidence or on scientifically orthodox beliefs that are not supported by evidence. Asserting that beliefs for which there is no evidence have been proven by science has undermined the credibility of science with large segments of the population. This lack of credibility for the parts of science that are based on evidence is causing our society not to deal with climate change. It may lead to the end of civilization and the death of billions. It doesn’t have to happen if science wakes up.
Science accuses others of having their heads in the sand, but in this case it may be scientists who are not taking responsibility for the shoddiness of their thinking. Let me give a relevant example.
When I encounter someone who says the Earth was created 6,000 years ago and that the fossils were put there by God to test our faith, I roll my eyes. Perhaps I am being narrow minded. Oops, according to a Gallup Poll I am writing off the 40% of the American public who believe humans were created in their current form roughly 10,000 years ago. Oh wel, I don’t think we can get Science to treat this belief seriously.
Now suppose I encounter someone who accepts the fossil record, accepts that life on Earth began about 3 ½ billion years ago, that the Cambrian explosion was around 542 million years ago, etc. Suppose they accept our descent from monkeys and the history of evolution as having happened. But suppose they don’t buy the scientifically orthodox explanation of that it happened by random variation and natural selection alone. They have a different theory, namely that in addition to natural selection, God had a hand in pushing things in the direction that God wanted them to go. 38 percent of Americans hold some variation of this belief.
I can hear the scientific response to such a view. "Balderdash! The evidence overwhelmingly supports the theory of natural selection and rejects any involvement by God." But does it?
Looked at objectively, both the dominant theory of natural selection, sometimes called the neo-Darwinian synthesis, and this theory, the theory of natural selection as guided by pushes from God, are equally consistent with all the evidence we have. When Science asserts that one of these theories is correct and the other just plain wrong, that assertion is based on belief, not evidence.
As far as we know, the difference between the two theories is not scientifically testable. If so, according to the scientific method they are equally valid. I invite comments that propose a experiment to show which theory is correct, pure random natural selection vs. some sort of guidance of evolution by God through an unknown mechanism.
Why does this matter? Because most people in the US believe in God and believe that God is active in the world. According to a 2011 Gallup poll found that over 90% of US citizens believe in God. A Baylor University survey on types of belief in God, found that about 24% of the public are Deists, that is they believe that God created the universe and established the physical laws, has not fiddled with it since. 90-24=66. This suggests that about 66% of the public believe that God is actively involved in influencing what happens on Earth today and that God has been active since the beginning of time. Should we be surprised that, with a little help from corporate disinformation campaigns, so many people reject evolution, science and climate change?
All that is needed to fix this situation enough to get us moving on saving civilization is a bit of humility in Science. Stand up for what you know from the evidence as scientific fact. Explain the rest as your personal belief and make room for those who have other beliefs, especially when they are consistent with the evidence.
Just as God’s existence cannot be proven by science, neither can God’s non-existence. This matter is resolved by a choice in what to believe. We all find ways to give meaning to our lives. As Victor Frankl showed us, the search for meaning is at the core of what it is to be human. To lose meaning is to fall into despair. Let us be tolerant of differing worldviews, particularly when they are consistent with the available evidence. Let's let the people who believe in God back into a stronger relationship with science without asking them to give up their beliefs. Everyone assembles their worldview with one or more leaps of faith. Even atheistic scientists.
If, as Rupert Sheldrake says in Science Set Free, (published as in England), science stood by what there is strong evidence for, and treated theoretical beliefs as different from fact, science would be freed to explore phenomenon outside the current scientific paradigm and more people would trust science.
Scientists: Lighten up. It might just save civilization!