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November 21, 2012 12:02 PM No Such Thing as A La Carte Science

By Ryan Cooper

While it is true that the metaphysical foundations of science, just like those of external reality, tend to crumble to bits when you look at them too hard, I would like to second this from Alex Knapp:

Here’s an even more disturbing thought - scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates. Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact.

Radical conservative theocrats would like to deny the bits of science they don’t like (evolution, geology, climate change), while keeping the bits they do (whatever makes iPhones go, aerodynamics). But the truth is the whole project hangs together as one. Mike Manzi once tried to steer conservatives away from this kind of denialism:

Frequently, conservatives are confronted with the assertion that scientific finding X implies political or moral conclusion Y with which they vehemently disagree. Obvious examples include (X = the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary biology, Y = atheism) and (X = increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 will lead to some increase in global temperatures, Y = we must implement a global regulatory and tax system to radically reduce carbon emissions). Those conservatives with access to the biggest megaphones have recently developed the habit of responding to this by challenging the scientific finding X. The same sorry spectacle of cranks, gibberish and the resulting alienation of scientists and those who respect the practical benefits of science (i.e., pretty much the whole population of the modern world) then ensues.

I don’t think this quite grapples with the implications of empirical results on religious teachings. The Bible and other religious texts do make scientific and historical assertions which can be checked. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see folks like Ross Douthat agreeing that when it comes to facts about the world, science has the last word.

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

Comments

  • Leopold von Ranke on November 21, 2012 12:21 PM:

    Read your two links. Stupid. A fact is a fact is a fact. If it fits the hypothesis, it helps. If it fits the theory, the theory is provisionally correct, unitl a fact disproves it (see, e.g. Netonian descriptions of gravity v. relativity). The R party's theocrats and plutocrats have every reason to deny this. The former because it denies a metaphysical belief system, the latter because it threatens profit.

  • stefan on November 21, 2012 12:30 PM:


    Science is the how, religion is the why (for those who believe). Works for me.

  • c u n d gulag on November 21, 2012 12:30 PM:

    If we tamed dinosaurs, and were able to ride them, and, presumably fly them, then why did we eliminate them, and have wait around and think up science and technology to create cars, and airplanes, and every other useful thing that we've developed in the last 5,000 years?

    So, basically, you Creationists are saying that Adam and Eve, and all the people they begat by incest, were stupid, and didn't conserve the unseful animals like donosaurs, but went out and domesticated dogs, cats, and cows?

    Well, that explains Conservatives, who want to conserve nothing but wealth, but what about the rest of us sentient humans.
    Where did we come from?
    Space?
    ZOMG! The Mormons and Scientologists are right!!!

  • jjm on November 21, 2012 12:36 PM:

    Love it! Shows how unable reactionaries are to put two and two together, to think comparatively, or perhaps, even to think at all.

  • John on November 21, 2012 1:26 PM:

    "science has the last word"

    That sounds a bit authoritarian. Science has the last best theory, because we are always open to new information.

  • Jim Treacher on November 21, 2012 1:44 PM:

    "It's different when OBAMA says it!"

  • SecularAnimist on November 21, 2012 1:52 PM:

    Ryan Cooper quoted Mark Manzi: "... conservatives are confronted with the assertion that scientific finding X implies political or moral conclusion Y with which they vehemently disagree. Obvious examples include (X = the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary biology, Y = atheism) ..."

    Sorry, but that "obvious example" is a complete non sequitur.

    The modern synthesis of evolutionary biology does not in any way "imply atheism".

    It simply "implies" that creation myths which describe human beings and other species being created just as they exist today, or which describe human beings as "specially" created separate from other species, are not literally true.

  • SecularAnimist on November 21, 2012 2:00 PM:

    Ryan Cooper wrote: "... itís nice to see folks like Ross Douthat agreeing that when it comes to facts about the world, science has the last word."

    That's true by definition.

    Science has "the last word" regarding "facts about the world" because science defines "the last word" as "facts about the world", which is to say as the results of empirical observation.

    In short, science defines "truth" as "what is observed".

    That fundamental, definitive commitment to radical empiricism is what distinguishes science from other ways of thinking about the world.

  • TCinLA on November 21, 2012 2:20 PM:

    Sorry, they don't believe in aerodynamics. Particularly in the upper generalissimic levels of the Hair Farce, they believe airplanes fly because angels hold up the wings.

  • Mark Duigon on November 22, 2012 8:50 AM:

    It gets back to extreme scientific illiteracy of many, many Republicans--they fail to note that the age of the Earth, like evolution and climate change, is supported by multiple, independent lines of evidence. For example, dendochronology (tree rings) provides a record going back about 11,000 years or so. It can't ALL be wrong.