Science and Proof

On a plane earlier this week, I was seated next to a very nice woman and we struck up a conversation that quickly turned to religion. She was a Biblical literalist who belonged to an evangelical Christian church. In the course of comparing the scientific and religious approaches to describing the world, she made the claim that the theories of evolution and the big bang had not been “proven” and that thus they were articles of faith, just like any religious dogma.

This is a familiar argument to anyone (like me) who has been involved in the whole brou-ha-ha about whether “intelligent design” should be taught alongside Darwinian natural selection in science classes, and it reveals a common misperception about the nature of science.

This view is not held just by religious people, it is widespread. In the first class in my course on the history and philosophy of science, I ask students how they would distinguish science from non-science and invariably they begin by saying that science consists of things that have been proven true.

But nothing, even the most robust of theories, is “proven to be true” in science. But does that mean they are pure articles of faith, on a par with religious beliefs? Surely not. Newton’s laws and the laws of hydrodynamics have not been proven true either, but the woman and I both boarded the airplane confident that the those laws would hold and that we had a very high chance of arriving safely at our destination. Are there any religious beliefs to which we would trust our lives as confidently?

Clearly, the fact that the laws of science are not proven true does not diminish their worth and validity. Thus their credibility must be based on something other than simple proof. But most teaching of science, at any level, pays little attention to this important feature of scientific knowledge. And so the public policy discussions on issues like intelligent design rarely get beyond a fairly simplistic level.

Too bad.

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