Science is the accumulation of knowledge from testable hypotheses, empirical research, and repeatable experiments and observations. The majority of scientific research is to be found within the natural, physical and social sciences. Science, albeit in short, refers to the study of the physical, natural world.
We can all be immensely grateful for the many strides science has made through the efforts of the scientist. Their efforts have often been well reward through the discoveries of the laws of nature and the many worldly mysteries that are invisible to our human eyes. It has provided many answers to the questions that we have had about the universe. The vast majority of scientists will routinely point out Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and Georges Lemaître’s Big Bang theory to be clear examples of how science has made progress. And for these many great thinkers it has been a process of trial and error as the famous William Ramsay (1852-1916) would point out that “Progress is made by trial and failure; the failures are generally a hundred times more numerous than the successes” (1). But Ramsay makes a good point for it shows that science is not infallible, as many people assume. Scientists routinely make mistakes, redo experiments and procedures, and chop and change data upon new discoveries. Furthermore, science is not only constrained to studying the natural world due to a large and growing body of scientific literature seeking to verify or falsify paranormal claims. There have been some notable studies involving the efficacy of prayer (2) (3) (4), miracle healings (5), demon exorcism (6) (7), and near death experiences (8).
Science also, through the gaining of new knowledge, further allows humanity to know whether or not certain things are true or false. It is likewise humble and acknowledges what it does not know. But the important point here is that this constitutes science and not always the scientist.
The scientist, on the other hand, is a person who employs the methods of science in order to gain new information with the goal of expanding humanity’s knowledge. It is important to note that scientists also have presuppositions about how the world works that they take to work with them. Essentially, the scientist is not supposed to allow her personal views to interfere with her experiments, observations, and research. Thus, I am sure we’d all agree that the scientist, as any good scientist should do, ought to follow the evidence where it leads. And in this way should data conflict with a scientist’s personal views & beliefs he should then have the courage, and obligation, to revise them. Of course as to how many scientists actually obey this rule is quite debatable.
There is also, unfortunately, a great bias in much of science. The vast majority of scientists wholly accept scientific explanations that provide evidence for natural claims and phenomena, but much less so for the supernatural. Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, for example, is well known for his allegiance to materialism when he penned that “materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door” (9). Though Lewontin was an atheist the sad fact is this line of thinking is much accepted by many scientists atheist or not. Sadly, one could argue, that this goes against the very basic tenets of what makes good science, something the famous Carl Sagan captured when he remarked that “There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths” (10).
However, beyond just the supernatural, such open mindedness is oftentimes impugned when scientific evidence is more often than not held to be truth, and to question or go against consensus can well end up in an ended career, or a tarnishing of one’s reputation. Consider the words of one such scientist who is sharply indignant towards those who do not believe in Darwinian evolution: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)” (11). Of course consensus outright favours Darwinian evolution and the evidence has routinely been claimed to be overwhelming (note that this voice should not be considered a representative of many scientists for the scientist who uttered it is a known fundamentalist, but it will suffice to show that such sentiments really do exist within academia to lesser or greater degrees) but for some it becomes more than a theory and transforms into a dogma. Evolution is the case in point here, but it would extend beyond solely that. However, it is not a person’s belief that should be scrutinised, or even ridiculed, rather the methods, data and interpretations she offers should be under the microscope.
Additionally, for the interested reader, one can interact with a previous article reviewing the relationship between science and the supernatural.
1. William Ramsay quoted by The Doc in 30 Brilliant Scientist Quotes. Available.
2. Astin, J. et al. 2000. “The Efficacy of “Distant Healing” A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials” Annals of Internal Medicine. vol. 132 no. 11 903-910. June.
3. Benson, D. et al. 2006. “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer.” American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934–42. April.
4. Krucoff, M. et al. 2005. “Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study”. Lancet 366 (9481): 211–7.
5. Keener, C. 2011. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.
6. Peck, M. 2005. Glimpses of the Devil.
7. Geleta, A. 2000. Case Study: Demonization and the Practice of Exorcism in Ethiopian Churches. Available.
8. Near Death Experiences – A look at the profound evidence of NDEs and the supernatural afterlife. Available.
9. Lewontin, R. 1997. Billions and Billions of Demons. Available.
10. Carl Sagan quoted by Carl Gaither in Gaither’s Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (2012). p. 1924.
11. Richard Dawkins quoted in Positive Atheism’s Big List of Richard Dawkins Quotations. Available.