24 February 2012

What if science were run like a religion?

Religion and science are fundamentally and philosophically at odds with one another.  Please note that I'm not talking about scientists versus religious people here.  I'm not talking about people at all.  I'm talking about the world views, the conceptual frameworks that science and that religion propose.  These frameworks are utterly exclusive of one another, and will never, never be compatible.  Science is based on evidence; religion is not.  In science, one pleads ignorance where evidence is lacking; in religion, one claims some kind of reflective, ineffable, "inner experience" (which I reckon is just unconscious cognitive processing).  In science, facts external to those discussing them are the primary concern; in religion, sentiment, opinion, and personal prestige (aka power) rule.  In science, the only thing that matters is understanding real phenomena; in religion, everything is based on a non-falsifiable assumption for which no evidence exists and against which significant evidence exists.  Science in itself doesn't, hasn't ever, and will never move people to harm others; religion does that all the time.

Ask yourself what would happen if science were run by religion.

Think of something specific, to keep things grounded.  Like, say, the question of faster-than-light neutrinos.

(Quick backgrounder; skip this paragraph if you already know the story. In 2011, some scientists found some experimental evidence that some elementary particles called neutrinos had exceeded the speed of light, which Einstein and many after him argue is not possible, and which has never been observed in nature.  This caused real excitement in the science community.  Most were of the opinion that there was probably an error somewhere.  This was largely because the experiment had been done only once, and scientific consensus only emerges on the basis of many repeated instances of an experiment done exactly to eliminate sources of error and bias.  In the press, the evidence was seen as everything from a catastrophic failure of science to the dawn of a golden age for humanity. By early 2012, however, it had been pretty much worked out that it was only equipment error that resulted in the FTL data.  This means that Relativity, and pretty much all of modern physics, was once again safe.)

Nuns are excommunicated for trying to save lives, holy men stood silent in the face of genocidesoldiers are killed for burning the Quranholy men remain silent in the face of genocide, and even just making fun of a deity is enough to invoke violence.  It seems reasonable to think that if the FTL barrier were dogma as important to religion as it is a principle central to modern physics, then the scientists who recorded the original data would have been excommunicated at least, if not ritually murdered.  It is also likely that any further investigations into the matter would be treated as heresy.  All scientists would be told that such research was forbidden.  Research grants would be denied or withdrawn from researchers who even appeared to be heading in the same general direction as the original heretics.

And, if absolutely necessary, the truth of the FTL claim would be settled not by experiment but by a bunch of old farts who probably wouldn't have done any real science in decades, and who sit around pontificating on whether FTL violations contravene the physics of Ptolemy.

None of this happened, of course.  Sure, some of the scientists got a little… excited at the prospect of FTL particles, but there was no violence, not even harsh language.  And I'm pretty sure that, now, they're all having a pint together and having a good laugh at the scare they gave themselves.  This is because they understand that even if they disagree on specifics, they know they are all working toward the common goal of understanding the universe.

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