Here at National Public Radio, Msrcelo Gleiser asks, Can scientific belief go too far?:
Last week, our own Tania Lombrozo ignited an intense discussion of the differences between factual and religious belief. I want to take off from there and examine a no less controversial issue, one that has been in the limelight of cutting-edge physics for the past few years: Do some scientists hold on to a belief longer than they should? Or, more provocatively phrased, when does a scientific belief become an article of faith?
To talk about faith in the context of science seems quite blasphemous. Isn’t science the antithesis of faith, given that it is supposedly based on certainties, on the explicit verification of hypotheses? This vision of science as being perfectly logical and rational is an idealization. Of course, the product of scientific research must be something concrete: Hypotheses must be either confirmed or refuted, and data from experiments should be repeatable by others. Penicillin does cure diseases, airplanes fly and Halley’s comet does come back every 76 years.
Things become more tentative at the cutting edge, where there are no certainties. What makes science so fascinating is that it aims at perfection even if it is the invention of fallible beings. It is this tension that moves our creativity forward.
In the age of the untestable multiverse (all the rage nonetheless!), the question and subsequent observations seem quaint. “Science” just means believing what the cool people believe, and evidence doesn’t actually matter nearly as much as high school science teachers proclaim (to kids who are legally required to sit there and listen anyway).
There is, however, an essential difference between religious faith and scientific faith: dogma. In science, dogma is untenable. Sooner or later, even the deepest ingrained ideas — if proven wrong — must collapse under the weight of evidence. A scientist who holds on to an incorrect theory or hypothesis makes for a sad figure. In religion, given that evidence is either elusive or irrelevant, faith is always viable.
Gleiser obviously hasn’t run into people defending Haeckel’s 19th century fake embryos in textbooks also: here.
It isn’t that belief goes too far, but that it is not on the road to reality.
The multiverse: Where everything turns out to be true, except philosophy and religion
Multiverse cosmology: Assuming that evidence still matters, what does it say?
In search of a road to reality
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