Thursday, November 9, 2023

Even Science!

Even science is subject to superstition on occasion.  But it eventually and continually corrects itself.

In my most recent posting about belief, I noted that in science and Engineering (and the Law) you have to rely on facts, not belief or superstition, otherwise the end result is calamity.  Over the centuries, bridges have collapsed and buildings fallen down when it turned out that assumptions made in the design process were wrong, or the design was changed without permission of the designer. Safety regulations and standards, it is said, are written in blood.

The difference between, say, religion and science is that with religion (or any belief system) it is rare - if not impossible - for the believer to find fault in their belief system. Usually instead, a scapegoat is found (conveniently, a non-believer) and they are sacrificed, murdered, or otherwise disposed of to appease the Gods.  Since this doesn't fix the underlying problem with the belief system, the end result is more sacrifices and abuses to happen down the road, as religion and belief stubbornly refuse to modify their systems to fit the facts.  In fact, they do the opposite.

In fact, we are seeing this today, in real-time in the United States.  Fundamentalist Christians are seeing a disconnect between their "Good guy with a gun" philosophy and the reality of daily mass-killings.  Since they can't change their beliefs about firearms, some have posited the problem is "liberal" values.  If we didn't teach volition in schools, there would be no school shootings!  Or maybe something, something, better gun control so that psychos don't get guns.

Nah! Has to be evolution!  That's the real cause of society's problems.  If only we had prayer in school!

Science and other fact-based pursuits, on the other hand, have no such strongly held beliefs, or if they do, they often die with their believers.  Eventually, people come around to the idea that the Earth is an oblate spheroid and is not the center of the universe.  Eventually, people come around to the idea that the "plum pudding" model of the atom is, well, largely based on belief and not science.  And even Einstein, who once opined that "God does not play dice with the universe" (supposedly, anyway) eventually embraced Quantum theory.

And these theories are not set in stone - and are continually subject to review, update, and repudiation. Sure, there are still today, some people in Academia who resist new ideas and change.  But eventually they change their minds as evidence mounts, or they pass on and a new generation - who has less invested in the status quo - takes over.

Religion and belief systems do not have this option of morphing and improving over time.  Our current Pope is seeing how this works.  He is trying to "reform" the church and open it up to more parishioners, as people flee the pews in droves.  Hard-liners are not receptive to his modernization efforts and indeed, they claim the problem with the church is that it isn't backward enough and that what people really crave - what will get 'em back in the pews and tithing - is a return to the medieval church. These are folks who are still pissed-off about Vatican II - which was more than a half-century ago. Religious types really carry a grudge!

Of course, new religions form, often because the previous religion seems outmoded, irrelevant, or corrupt.  Christianity was developed initially as a sect of Judaism, but then became an alternative to it, replacing the "eye for an eye" of the Old Testament with the "Turn the other cheek" of the new.  And even then, Christianity has devolved into a number of sects, based on differences of theological opinion, or, in many cases, disputes over who controls and has power over parishioners.

Such is the nature of belief systems - they are hard to amend, and the only real solution for the believer is to wipe the slate clean and start over.

But speaking of Amendment, that is exactly why our Constitution has an Amendment feature. Some on the right like to make a religion or belief system out of the "Founding Fathers" (a term of only relatively recent vintage) who are viewed as prophets or martyrs to a cause that must be honored in perpetuity. Every aspect of our lives and our legal system must be viewed through the prism of "the intent of the founding fathers" - some of whom were never even elected to office (I'm looking at you, Ben Franklin!).

What the founding fathers intended was that we figure things out on our own, for our own era and our own time. They intended we would change our Constitution and form of government to suit our era, and not be held back by beliefs that were outmoded. Indeed, they knew at the time our Republic was founded that change would have to occur, to correct the errors of slavery in a county founded on "freedom."   And that was a major correction - a bloody one at that.  Yet, today, there are still believers who want to "go back" to those dark old days.

And today, while no real scientist believes that the Earth is flat, the moon landing was faked, or that aliens are being held captive in Area 51, the general public seems more inclined than ever to retreat into belief rather than trust facts and science.  The very nature of science eludes them, and the fact it cannot be nailed down and is always subject to revision, scares them.  Like fundamentalists of every sort, they want a rock to rest upon, a lodestar to guide them - no questions asked.  Science, it seems, is always changing its mind, and that scares them.  They don't want to live in a world of endless possibilities, but one of certainty - even if that certainty is to believe in fantasy.

You hear this all the time from the less informed.  "Them Scientists never make up their minds!  One day they say eating one thing is bad for you, the next day they say it is good!  Next thing you know, they'll say smoking is actually good!"  Or some such nonsense.  And part of the problem is the media, who distorts what science is, and mis-reports developments and exaggerates claims.

This SMBC comic illustrates the point.

Of course, science isn't based on popular beliefs, and what people understand today about science and technology is probably less than in the more recent past.  In part - a large part - this is due to trolls from various foreign countries trying to stir up dissent by getting people to not believe in our country's greatest accomplishments, and instead, rely on superstition. But in part, I think it is due to the complexity of technology today - and our corresponding decline in educational standards - which makes modern science and technology seem more like Magick than anything else.  An anti-vaxxer Soccer Mom may not understand how her smart phone works, but she is "smarter" than you (or all those egg-head "scientists") because she knows the world is flat and 5G will set off the microchips in your body (or whatever the fuck stupid shit they got from Facebook this week).

I noted before that conspiracy theories - which are just belief systems like religion - allow the believer to believe they are smarter and superior to the non-believer.  No doubt you've tried to have a conversation with a conspiracy theorist and realized how pointless the conversation was, and how smug the believer is, that they are better than you, because they've "done the research" online.  It is no different from the smugness of "born again" Christians, who cry "I've been saved" while implying (or outright stating) that they are God's chosen special people and you're going straight to hell.

And maybe that's the motivation behind belief systems.  People want to feel part of something greater than themselves, elevate one of their own above them, and look down on those who do not believe - or better yet, stuff them in an oven.

Science doesn't have all the answers - in fact, all it is, is an endless series of unanswered questions.  Belief is a set of pat answers made up out of whole cloth.

But, it never pays to tell a believer that!