Saturday, September 23, 2006

Distortion

This morning, I received a forwarded email which expounded on the importance of faith in God. As I am having my holidays, I proceeded to finish the article with full enthusiasm. It was when I finished reading that I decided to write something about it. I really do not want to get into habit of writing about religion frequently in my blog, but once in a while I would really like to dispel some myths commonly perpetuated in our society.


*** Before you continue ***

If you are interested in what I have to say, do read the email first here. (Thanks to Writely, the free online document writing / sharing / collaborating service)

*** Continue ***


As always, I respect and thank people who spread good religions throughout the world; however, if it involves the distortion and misinterpretation of science, I can't help but to rebut it.

In the dialogue, there was a part of the dialogue where the Professor apparently "disproved" the existence of God:
Prof: Have you ever felt your God, tasted your God, smelt your God? Have you ever had any sensory perception of God for that matter?

Student: No, sir. I'm afraid I haven't.

Prof: Yet you still believe in Him?

Student: Yes.

Prof: According to empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your GOD doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son?
If the Professor in question seriously thought that he has successfully "proved that your God doesn't exist", I doubt his credibility in teaching any science-related subject. Just because you can't feel, taste, hear, smell or see something, doesn't mean that you have disproved the thing. For example, let's say there IS a friend of mine by the name of Rifly in Melbourne. Do you believe in the existence of such a person? For sure you haven't seen him, heard of him, felt him, smelt him or tasted him, but does that mean that the existence of Rifly is disproved? No, of course! The best you can say is, "Erm, I haven't heard of Rifly, so I can't be sure whether you are bluffing me." You can't just say, "Hey, I haven't heard of, seen, blah blah blah this guy called Rifly, so science says Rifly doesn't exist!"

The author of this dialogue tried to convey the message that "science is always trying to deny the existence of God" by giving a false analogy. The fact is, no, science does not try to deny the existence of God . While it's very true that science rely on observable evidence, theories and models, it would be an error to say that science denied God because God is not observable. If there is an official science's stand on God, it would be "God is not observable by any scientific means, so we can't establish the existence or non-existence of God", instead of "God is not observable by any scientific means, so God is disproved". Just like Rifly.

(By the way, Rifly does exist. )


Next, the author tried to demonize the scientific theory of evolution, as many evangelists usually do:
Student: Now tell me, Professor. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?

Prof: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.

Student: Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir? (The Professor shakes his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument is going.)

Student: Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher? (The class is in uproar.)

Student: Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor's brain? (The class breaks out into laughter.)

Student: Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor's brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

(The room is silent. The professor stares at the student, his face unfathomable.)

Prof: I guess you'll have to take them on faith, son.
This, is the continuation of the fallacy established by the previous dialogue (the part where the professor "disproved" God).

In that short dialogue, there are a few favourite clichés of creationist (people who hold to the believe that human is created by God in accordance to His image six thousand years ago). Among them are "Evolution is just a theory, not a fact" and "Have you seen evolution with your very eyes? If not, how do you know it's true?".

The thing is, those people either haven't learnt science, or have selectively forgotten the basis of science in favour of their belief.

In science, a theory being a theory doesn't mean that it's just a wild guess, a hypothesis or a preliminary model. The word "theory" in science comes with a great weight. It is very different from the meaning when I say "I have a theory that explains Eric's behaviour". In this example, the word "theory" simply means "an educated guess".

However, in biology, I can't simply guess why dragonflies have four wings, and name it "the theory of dragonfly wings" and put it up in Wikipedia. Without substantiation (agreement of other people), evidence (empirical proof), rationale (the "logic"), successful application (being able to predict future events with the theory) and so on, a guess is not a theory in science.

It is true that evolution cannot be fully proved. However, many people don't know that it is never meant to be fully proved. You can't prove any scientific theory. Nobody can name a scientific theory that has been "proved". A theory, is an explanation of how things work, is based on thousands, if not millions of validation, and is always falsifiable. While a theory is the current best human explanation of an event, it is always open to falsification, if you can find a counter-proof. However, just because a theory cannot be proved, doesn't mean that everyone should take it with a pinch of salt. The cell theory, theory of gravitation, kinetic theory of gas etc are all theories, but nobody has ever said "hey, don't lar take them seriously, they are only theories".

All theories have been used in practice, have been shown to work, have yet to fail, and have predicted events perfectly. But we can never say "the theory of gravitation" has been proved. How do we know whether it's true that every mass always comes with a gravitation force which attracts every other mass in this universe with a force according to the product of the mass and the inverse square of their distance? It can also be due to other reasons one marr... For example, it can also be some invisible super-power who's pulling every single particle towards each other in the universe. So we can never prove "the theory of gravitation" perfectly, because how do we rule out the existence of such a super power?

I guess I have to come back to the topic... It is very inaccurate for someone to say "scientists have never seen evolution at work, they are only believing it with faith". No, that's wrong. As I have mentioned earlier, evolution is not an "opinion" or a "hypothesis", it is an overwhelmingly supported theory of "how biodiversity works". Its importance in biology is as much as how important Newton's Laws are to physics. Yes, they can be falsified (as much as Newton's Laws have been shown to be inaccurate in cosmological scale), but they are still the core of science which is far from being an "opinion".

Erm, time to call an end to my writing... My last point is, the last example by the student is inappropriate, or may I say, lame. The professor's brain can be shown with MRI, CT scan, PET scan, amongst dozens of other medical procedures. You don't have to take its existence with faith. There is a empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol to demonstrate it.

I am not trying to disprove God - in fact I can never disprove God. I am only writing this to rebuke some evangelist's endeavour to distort science in order to establish God's existence. Seriously, they don't have to. Science is not in war with religion. Science's official stand on religion or God is that of agnosticism's - "We can never prove or disprove God". Science doesn't hate God.


p/s: Also, the theory of evolution does not say human evolved from a monkey. It only says that monkey, chimpanzee, apes shared common ancestors.


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Updated 06/03/07: Follow-up here.

11 comments:

renjie said...

Haha, I never thought that one can write and respond so much after reading a relatively short forwarded email. :p

youngyew said...

Hi renjie! Haha, I am a bit over-sensitive one when it comes to this topic lar... :P Because if nobody cares to respond, those straw man arguments against science will prevail and be taken as truth by many people.

ShouFarn said...

good job man, respect respect.

The strawman in this argument, is, of course, the assumption that all science works on the way the professor in the email says it does "can't see, can't smell, can't feel, means its not there."

I doubt a professor of physics would fall for that heat and cold thing either. Thats a pitfall for first year undergraduates. (i know, i have been there).

The person who first wrote this email just set up a strawman version of science he wants to disprove, then goes on to disprove it. Silliness in digital form.

youngyew said...

Haha... you mean that author did a good job or I did? (perasan-ness memuncak... :P)

By the way, what do you mean by the pitfall in the heat and cold thing? I didn't really notice any trap or logical flaws in there. Do you mind telling me more about that?

Casper said...

well said...it is a common consept among the people that theories are 'just a guess' and carries no actual weight. I guess we should start educating the public about the real meaning of the word theory and not mix it up with the meaning of hypothesis...

ShouFarn said...

The cold and heat thing. A physics professor would, i think, immediately know where the conversation is going.

In physics we don't really use "heat", we use energy, and for concepts like temperature we use "internal energy", which is the sum of all energies, be it chemical, potential, electrical or kinetic. The word "heat" is frowned upon, and is not used, because the word sets up a false dichotomy due to the common usage of hot and cold.

Instead, what we ask is "what is the internal energy of an object?" An iceberg, for example, even though it is a solid piece of ice, would have much more internal energy than a piping hot cup of coffee.

So a student catching a physics professor with that hot and cold thing is something that won't really happen in modern day lecture halls. Competent lecturers will just not fall for that.

Like i said, a strawman version of science and their lecturers are set up. It does not reflect reality at all.

jasmine said...

i got that email too..well said chang yang!
anyway,what's that turn right from left pic doing up there?=P

youngyew said...

Casper: Eerm, that's right... Actually a while ago that was a thread called "logical fallacy" in ReCom, but nobody maintained it so it wasn't continued... I guess we could make use of that thread for a similar purpose.

Shoufarn: Thanks for clarifying!

Jasmine: Thanks a lot for your comment... Seldom see you here, thought you forgot me already... :P Coming from a Christian, I especially value your comment. I have been quite worried that I may come across as an anti-religious or anti-Christianity person. I am not one, instead I am only anti-distortion.

Oh ya, the "turn right from left" sign is a commonly seen sign in Melbourne city, it's kinda a weird traffic rule where a car in a junction have to turn right from the left lane, in order to prevent any delay to the tram which travels on the middle lane of the road. I just put it there so that there is an illustration to accompany my boring long post. :P I actually took it as an illustration of "distortion".

jasmine said...

walau, so hurt la, say i forget you.i still visit your site very often okay! i just never comment ma.sometimes it's the computer's fault that i cannot comment, sometimes i just don't have anything to say.=D

and i seriously think this is a good post, i agree with most parts of it, although i don't believe in evolution.you'll make a good debater.=P

must not forget me also!

youngyew said...

Haha, thanks for your compliment. I didn't forget you, don't worry. :)

Lee Young, 李阳 said...

hey there ;)
I'd also seen this dialogue elsewhere and yo really clarify it very well!