Misconception #5: Scientists Are Arrogant; They Can't Know Everything.

Misconception #5: Scientists Are Arrogant; They Can't Know Everything.

Author: Jim Etchison
Published: May 7, 2010 at 7:29pm UTC
Imagine you baked two dozen cookies and your secret ingredient was cashew nut oil. You know you put cashew nut oil into the batter. You bought it, you tasted it, and you poured it in.
Science for the De-Converted – Part V

Imagine you baked two dozen cookies and your secret ingredient was cashew nut oil. You know you put cashew nut oil into the batter. You bought it, you tasted it, and you poured it in. If someone else comes along and says, "oh no ... there's no cashew nut oil in these cookies," how would you respond? Laughter perhaps? Wouldn’t that seem arrogant?

That is how a geologist feels when someone tries to explain why the earth is six thousand years old. Her knowledge about the real age of the earth has been measured by her personally—many different ways. She confirmed it through many findings, corroborated it with many published papers, and has never been confronted with any reasonable evidence to the contrary. She feels certain about the age of the earth. So when someone concocts a very unscientific theory about the age of the earth, a scientist may appear smug or arrogant.

Of course it’s fallacious to say that if a scientist is arrogant she is therefore incorrect. But this misconception is used by religious people in that manner. They use it to vilify the group they perceive as their enemy. After all, science consistently disproves truths that they hold dear. They’ve been doing it for centuries, and will probably continue to do so.

If scientists are arrogant, it does not mean they are wrong. But the second part of the misconception is a much trickier one. Religious leaders try to discredit science by saying “it can’t explain everything.” In so doing, they are implying that religion transcends science.

The people who use this argument are muddying the waters by incorrectly defining the word “knowledge.” A leading purveyor of this notion is Dr. William Lane Craig, who said in an interview on his “Reasonable Faith” website:

“I think the major obstacle today is religious pluralism or relativism. Students don’t think that religious beliefs are knowledge. They don’t think that they are expressions of facts, and they don’t think that they are things that can be known. And so they think that religious beliefs are mere expressions of personal taste or opinion. As a result, when Christians claim that they know the truth about these matters, people are deeply offended and think of Christians as bigoted, dogmatic, and even immoral people.”

By dallying with definitions, Craig goes on to seemingly confound non-theists in debates when proclaiming that science cannot explain why we “know” certain moral things--like why Nazi experimenters were bad, but Western medicine is good.

The Truth: Belief is not knowledge.

The fact is, we don’t know that Nazi experimentation was wrong. We believe it. Beliefs are based on emotions, not facts. Let’s refer to the dictionary definition for “know”:

1. To perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty.
2. To be cognizant or aware of.

When using the word under definition 1, nothing can be known outside of science. There is still much to be believed under definition 2. Beliefs, however, are not the purview of science.

By saying that science can’t explain why we know certain atrocious actions are wrong, Craig implies that science is inadequate in some way. Craig is conveniently using the second definition for “know,” then applying this conclusion to science, which only uses the first definition. That his opponents are dumbfounded by this appears a victory only to people who are also caught in Craig’s tomfoolery. Should math also be discounted because it cannot explain ethics? No, because math has nothing to do with ethics. Neither does science.

Craig’s ideas are even more dangerous than that. He reveals in the lengthy quote above that he thinks belief equals knowledge, that ideas believed on faith are facts. His credibility as a scientist plummets with that statement, and he justifies the same level of cognition that leads faithful followers to stockpile guns and secretly plan terrorist uprisings. (http://hutaree.com/)

The Truth: Science has no problem saying “we don’t know.”

They say it all the time, in fact. Science begins with a question, not a conclusion. A scientist will form a hypothesis, which is really an admission of ignorance regarding a given potentiality, and an attempt to determine the answer to a question. If scientists thought they knew all the answers, there would be no scientists employed.

Saying “I don’t know” is also the morally responsible position when there is no certainty. Convincing others to taking a “leap of faith” (whether or not you pretend it is a rational leap) is arguably immoral because you presume certainty where there is none. Craig clearly commits this immoral act by presenting himself as a scientist, then using sophistry to present faith as fact.

Consider this: A religious position is an arrogant one.

According to dictionary.com, there’s only one definition for arrogance: offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride. Now let’s compare the scientific and religious positions on a few issues:

On Certainty

Scientists say “we don’t know” when there is no certainty.
Religious leaders have certainty when there is no certainty.

On Humanity

Scientific evidence indicates that we are an accidental product of the universe.
Religious leaders believe they are created by and chosen by God for a purpose.

On Learning

Scientific viewpoints and theories are constantly being refined and improved,
Religions rarely abandon or change their doctrine even when confronted with compelling, contradictory evidence. They also presume to know all the answers, and are often willing to kill other people to enforce and defend those answers.

On Our Relationship to Earth

Science indicates that we are consuming resources that are finite, and that we should be mindful to manage those resources in order to preserve our well-being.
Religious people believe they are “not of this world,” and are more willing to squander resources because they believe earth is temporary and that the next life is more important.

So which of the two take a more arrogant position?

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