I begin my Ode to Science with a profession of faith…
I, Frank J. Peter, put my trust in SCIENCE—not just as a provisional body of knowledge, but as a curious, rigorous, honest, and self-correcting PROCESS dedicated to discovering how the universe works—with an honorable and admirable goal in mind: the well-being of all humankind.
There is no such thing as Christian geology, Muslim astronomy, Jewish biology, Buddhist chemistry, or atheist genetics. No such thing as Nigerian laws of motion or Chinese theory of relativity. No such thing as heterosexual electromagnetism or homosexual carbon dating. There’s just science.
Pretty cool, huh?
I put my trust in science because it has a rich and enduring history of explaining the inexplicable, of demystifying the mysterious, and of replacing “supernatural” explanations with perfectly natural explanations. It is noteworthy that the reverse has never happened—not even once.
So many things we take for granted today—like global communications, powered flight, and healing medicines—would seem to anyone from the not-too-distant past to be quite magical—miraculous even—science fiction—like something “supernatural”.
We know, of course, that such life-enhancing technologies are quite explicable. And that they are the very kinds of things that happen when science triumphs over ignorance and superstition.
Unlike the many cults of religion and politics…
- Science is eminently humble–freely admitting that it always has more to learn—and never claiming to know what it does not know–or cannot know.
- Science abhors censorship, welcomes fresh ideas, and has no fear of challenging questions.
- Science is wide open to revision as new theories, arguments, and evidence present themselves.
- Science is forever dedicated to the truth, no matter how inconvenient or humbling that truth might be.
- Science delights in correcting its mistakes.
- Science has the power to rescue us from believing something is true just because we want it to be true.
Science teaches us again and again that meekness is not a virtue—that all material and moral progress is achieved only by challenging, not by tolerating, the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of others.
In the history of human affairs, science is just a baby—but Oh, what an influence she has had! (Yes, science is female–receptive and nurturing)
In just a tiny sliver of time in our recent evolution, the discoveries of science have alleviated an incredible amount of suffering in the world— and will continue to do so at an accelerated pace.
In fact, at this very moment, in laboratories all around the world, millions of scientists and engineers are diligently and passionately figuring out how things work—curing diseases, inventing life-enhancing technologies, exploring the outer reaches of space—most without fanfare or recognition—unsung heroes everyone.
The existence (or not) of the “supernatural” is a legitimate and eminently scientific question. And so, it seems to me that “supernatural” is just a silly and bemusing word. Maybe someday, we will discover something “supernatural”. But, of course, that would make it perfectly natural, wouldn’t it?
We have a sure-fire way to expose and eliminate all the divisive myths, superstitions, and prejudices that condemn us to perpetual ignorance, arrogance, and contention: the methods, discipline, and ethics of science.
For this reason, a mind trained in the methods, discipline, and ethics of science will forever remain a threat to those who profit from such ignorance, arrogance, and contention–namely, the religious, political, and economic powers that be.
Unlike so many religious and political battles, scientific theories are accepted or rejected not by indoctrination, not by popularity, not by appeals to tradition, not “on authority”, not by revelation, not by majority opinion, not by spreading propaganda, not by fiat, not by mob rule, not by censorship, not by crusades, not by inquisitions, not by coercion, not by party loyalty, and not by demonizing opposing theories–but by allowing the quantity and quality of the evidence to speak for itself.
Isn’t the universe already mysterious enough, wondrous enough, awesome enough, miraculous enough, humbling enough, and dangerous enough without inventing so many ridiculous and divisive superstitions that pretend to explain it all?
Unlike so many competing and incompatible religious and political systems, the discoveries of science work perfectly, and without controversy, everywhere you go.
Who is the humble one– somebody who admits that they were wrong in the face of new evidence, or the “true believer” who will not relinquish their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
I don’t believe the earth is round.
I know the earth is round… and that it rotates about its own axis, creating the cycles we know as days… that its rotational axis is tilted 23.5 degrees with respect to its orbital axis… that it has a tidally locked moon that orbits earth every 27.3 days… and that the earth and moon revolve around the sun in about 365.25 days.
And I have absolute confidence in these facts not because some “holy” book or “prophet” says so, but because all these facts fit the evidence—evidence I can plainly see with my own eyes.
I see such evidence in every sunrise and sunset, in the change of seasons, in the lengths of shadows over time. I see it in the tides, in the phases of the moon, in every lunar and solar eclipse. I see it as an ocean-going ship disappears over the horizon. I’ve seen all these things from many a latitude and longitude. And I’ve enjoyed, and been deeply moved by, quite a few photographs of mother earth from space.
Most important, I have so much confidence in these facts about planet earth that I live every day as if they all are true.
The typical religious and political battle is almost never about what is right, but about who is right. Science, on the other hand, is always dedicated to what is true, no matter the messenger and no matter what.
My reverence for science was never coerced in the least. I have never been compelled to prostrate myself before sacred images of Copernicus, Galileo, Tesla, and Einstein. I have never been compelled to swear an oath of obedience to Newton’s laws of motion. And I have never been compelled, under threat of eternal hellfire, to pledge allegiance to the theory of relativity.
I deeply admire science for its determination, integrity, perseverance, courage, and resilience over the centuries… because it’s a survivor—of countless attempts by the powers that be to ridicule, censor, and demonize its discoveries, intentions, methods, and practitioners… even to this very day.
It’s bad enough that the preachers and politicians—and their constituents and congregations—are patently un-scientific. The real problem is that the powers that be and their flocks are shamelessly, and sometimes even gleefully, anti-scientific.
Which begs the question: What are they all so afraid of?
The eye-opening discoveries and rigorous methods of science are not the only threats to the powers that be. The unassailable virtues of science—things like curiosity, honesty, transparency, humility, and courage–are an even graver threat because they shine a light on the dishonorable, and sometimes even sinister, intentions of the preachers, politicians, and oligarchs.
It seems to me that, if a supreme being (let’s call it “God”) really does exist and really did create the cosmos then the works of God provide all the clues we need to understand the mind of God. In other words, everything we need to know about “the creation” is right before our eyes—embedded in every beauty and terror that engulfs us—from double rainbows to cobra venom and everything between and beyond.
I don’t believe in the theory of evolution by natural selection because some sacred science book or some ordained science minister commands me to. I put my trust in the theory of evolution by natural selection because I understand how it works–because it simply and elegantly explains so many otherwise puzzling facts that are readily observable in nature—because its footprints are literally and figuratively preserved in an enormous and ancient fossil record–and because it all fits together with, and is supported by, multiple independent fields of study: cosmology, geology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, geography, climatology and more.
If you have your doubts, spend a few hours at a natural history museum and prepare yourself to be amazed and humbled.
The cosmological, geological, fossil, and genetic record screams loud and clear:
- The universe is about 13.8 billion years old.
- The solar system and planet earth are about 4.5 billion years old.
- All life on earth evolved from a common ancestor starting about 4 billion years ago.
- Modern humans are very recent arrivals (about 100,000 years ago), descended from a common ancestor with the great apes.
In other words, we are kin to the monkey. In other, other words, we are not above the animals. We are animals.
Furthermore, if it’s “all about us”, then why did it take so long for “us” to be created? And so, one of the most important lessons that science teaches us—if we’re honest enough, and brave enough, to listen—is that a wee bit of humility is in order.
The science of human behavior is not as soft as its detractors would have you believe. Because the experiments of the behavioral sciences repeatably demonstrate that human beings respond quite predictably to all manner of environments, imposed or otherwise. In other words, we are all trained animals to a larger degree than we care to admit—easily led this way or that by our primitive impulses and the rewards and punishments that engulf us.
And so, a basic understanding of how your own brain works– especially how easily it can be manipulated—is the bedrock of an educated mind— with profound moral implications for our conceptions of human nature—and profound practical implications in the fields of education, economics, medicine, government, and justice.
Science is so much more than a collection of facts. Science is so much more than mathematical laws of nature. Science is not just something that teenagers grudgingly survive in high school or that nerdy scientists do in the laboratory.
Science should be a general attitude, a way of life, a state of mind that we all should carry with us everywhere we go. Because a mind trained in the methods and disciplines of science is a mind inoculated from accepting so many myths, superstitions, and outright lies that divide us from each other—such as racism, sexism, partisanship, nationalism, and religiosity.
And so, it’s time that scientific literacy becomes a moral imperative for everyone, not just for scientists. No one should be considered an educated person unless they know, at the very least, what a theory is, what a hypothesis is, what a designed experiment is, what independent and dependent variables are, what a population is, what a sample is, what a normal distribution is, what a standard deviation means, what a regression analysis does, what correlation means, and that correlation does not necessarily mean cause.
If you do not understand these concepts, then you are scientifically illiterate and need to educate yourself. Do it for your own sake. And do it for the sake of all living creatures—not just for today, but for all time to come. Global health, safety, peace, and justice depend upon it.
To those who argue that science and morality are separate spheres, I say: “So what!” Even if science and morality are separate spheres, they are not so separate that they cannot keep each other honest.
But no matter, for I declare that science and morality are not separate spheres—because an authentically scientific mind knows that the truth matters… that facts matter, but so do values… that empathy and reason are not at odds with each other… that compassion, generosity, and justice are not unreasonable in the absence of evidence… and that it is not unscientific to care about the well-being of others.
Furthermore, every advancement in knowledge expands human freedom and dignity—in the sense that anything that increases our capacity demands at least an equal measure of RESPONSIBLITY for making the world a better place—a responsible freedom impassioned by empathy and informed by science.
Every advance in human welfare has come from the discovery, dissemination, and application of new knowledge–not the belief in, worship of, and supplication to supernatural creatures.
My hope (dare I say prayer) is that we humans are slowly waking up—slowly getting to know each other– slowly getting to know ourselves— slowly abandoning the comforting myths of our moral infancy—slowly breaking down every religious and political wall that divides us– and slowly remaking the world—into a place no longer defined by who is winning, but by what is winning.
Slowly but surely building a kinder, gentler world—a promised land where freethinking, free association, knowledge-sharing, skepticism, diversity, inclusion, collaboration, and informed consent are winning the day.
Transforming our ignorance and anxieties into the realization that we are all sisters and brothers—and that we have the power to decide what we want to be when we grow up—in other words, to do real intelligent design—dedicated to health, safety, peace, and justice for all.
And LOVE and SCIENCE are all we need to get there.