Sunday, January 31, 2010
Who Do You Trust?
By Eric Von Salzen
My first exposure to the philosophy of science was in the 6th grade, when we learned about Galileo dropping two balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The lesson was that for centuries everyone had thought that a heavier weight fell faster than a lighter weight, because that’s what the Greek philosophers said. But no one had actually tested that proposition through an experiment, until Galileo. He did the experiment and proved that the two balls of different weights fell at the same speed.
Thus, we were told, it is unscientific (and hence incorrect) to base a conclusion on what some authority figure tells us. Rather, we should base our conclusions on what we learn from actual observations and experiments.
From then on, I and (so far as I know) everyone else in the class have believed that two balls of different weights fall at the same speed. But none of us ever did an experiment to find out if that was true. We believed it because that’s what our teacher and the science book told us. We believed it because the authority figures in our lives told us it was so.
And the fact is that, as a practical matter, we have to rely on authority figures – on experts – for a huge amount of our knowledge. We simply lack the time or ability to find out everything for ourselves through experiments and observations. I believe that the world is round, but I’ve never been around it; I believe the people who say it’s round; I believe the photographs that people tell me are pictures of the Earth taken from space. I believe (sticking with the globe example) that when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the American and French forces at Yorktown, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”, but I wasn’t there to hear it, and so far as I know I’ve never heard that song.
I believe that light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, but I’ve never measured the speed of light, and I don’t believe that I would be capable of doing so if I tried. (I remember reading that in the 19th century they tried to measure the speed of light by having guys flash lanterns at each other between distant hill tops and seeing how much time passed between the flash and the response; it didn’t work, because light moves too fast for that kind of experiment. I couldn’t do better.)
We believe a lot of things because we believe what we’ve been told, not because we’ve done experiments. But there’s more to it than simple credulity. Although I can’t replicate the Michaelson-Morley experiment, I have read innumerable books and articles that say that light travels at around 186,000 mps: books about astronomy and quantum physics, articles about communications satellites, histories of science, and so forth. According to these sources, the speed of light is interwoven into the fabric of the world I see around me. These books and articles were written by professors at renowned universities. It’s hard to believe that Oxford University would hire a professor who asserted that light traveled at that speed if that assertion were not widely regarded as correct. How do I know that Oxford University is widely respected? Because I’ve read that it is respected in books, magazines, and newspaper articles too numerous to count.
In other words, although my belief that light travels at 186,000 mps is not supported by any experiment that I have performed, it isn’t supported merely by the assertion of one or a few authoritative voices either. It is supported by a web of cross-authenticating authorities, a vast structure of authority.
Almost everything that almost everyone believes, outside of his or her own immediate personal experience, is supported by such a web of authentication. If someone asserts something that’s contrary to that web of authentication, we tend to reject it. If someone tells me that the Apollo astronauts never landed on the moon, that the whole thing was faked in a movie studio, I can’t prove that the assertion is wrong – I saw the lunar landing on television, in the Day Room of an Army barracks (Charlie Company, 3d Battalion, 2d Brigade) at Fort Bliss, TX. It could have been faked; it was nowhere near as realistic as the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But to believe that the lunar landing was faked would require that I tear apart a whole web of authorities that authenticate it, and it would take more than a plausible assertion to persuade me to do that.
Of course, the web does get torn apart from time to time. That was what Galileo did when he dropped the balls off the Leaning Tower. It’s what Michaelson and Morley did, inadvertently, when they found that the speed of light is constant in every direction regardless of the movement of the light source through the "luminiferous aether". Whole new webs were woven as a result of the work of these scientists. In the last couple of months, the web authenticating the theory of human-caused global warming has been frayed by revelations of scientific misconduct by several global warming scientists and scientific institutions. I’m not a climate scientist. I don’t know whether the Earth is warming or not – I’m looking out my window at snow and ice as I write – and I certainly don’t know what’s causing the warming if it is happening. But there was a web of authentication supporting that theory, in the form of books and articles by respected and credentialed scientists and by popularizers of science, even an academy-award winning documentary based on the work of climate scientists. Now we’ve learned that some of the scientists making up that web have been hiding their data so independent scientists couldn’t check it, have been using their influence to prevent the publication of differing conclusions in scientific journals, have presented data in misleading ways, have used unreliable, non-peer-reviewed, and apparently incorrect sources for some of their conclusions. As a result, it’s become much harder for a layman to say, "I believe in anthropogenic global warming because the scientists say it’s true, and they should know." The community of climate scientists now has to reweave the web of authentication before we non-experts can again accept their conclusions with the same confidence we used to have.
The web of authentication is important. Whatever the scientific truth may be, it was reckless and irresponsible for those scientists to risk damaging it.
Which brings us to religion (I discuss only the Christian religion, as I am unqualified to discuss any other). Religious belief, too, is supported by a web of authentication. We Anglicans are familiar with Hooker’s three-legged stool, of scripture, reason, and tradition; that’s just a different metaphor for what I’ve been calling a web. None of us was “there when they crucified my Lord”. If we believe that the event happened, we believe because “the Bible tells me so”, we believe because historical evidence and inference support it, and we believe because thoughtful Christians have believed it for two thousand years and given us good reasons for their beliefs. We can say that our belief is supported by Hooker’s three-legged stool, or by the Godfather’s web of authentication; the point is the same.
(In addition to the stool or the web, some Christians have had an experience of Christ in their own lives that compels belief in the Christian message, in a way that a hot day in August doesn’t compel belief in global warming. But even so, the web of authentication is likely to be an important part of why we believe what we believe.)
The web of authentication of Christian belief is vital, and it would be as reckless and irresponsible of us to tear its fabric, as it was of the East Anglia climate scientists to tear the fabric of the web authenticating global warming.
There are undoubtedly many challenges to the web of Christian belief, but there’s one that I want to mention here: Biblical literalism. Literalism is perhaps most frequently seen in the form of Creationism or its more sophisticated progeny, Intelligent Design, so I’ll start there, but not end there.
I hesitate the call Creationism a threat to the web of authentication of Christian belief, because I know that for many Christians it seems to be part of the web supporting their belief. If the reason that you believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again is that it says so in the Bible, and the Bible is the literal and inerrant truth, then you should also believe that God created the world and all its creatures in seven days, because it says that in the Bible, too. The problem is that the latter is not true. No matter how much you wish it to be so, it isn’t. The web authenticating the billions-of-years history of the Earth and the billion-year development of its present and former life forms is overwhelming. If you insist that the truth of the Gospels is the same as the truth of Genesis 1 and 2, you’ve built your house on sand. Worse, to the extent that you convince others that to believe in the message of Christ they must disbelieve in science you’ve set up a stumbling block in their path to Christian faith.
Now my guess is that on this blog I’m pretty much preaching to the choir in disagreeing with Creationism. If there are Creationists in the Episcopal Church, I’ve missed them. But there are still literalists among us. Quite a few. They are the ones who say that our church must exclude gays and lesbians from our clergy and limit their participation in our community, because of what it says in a few passages in Leviticus and a couple of Paul’s Epistles. These are the ones who will not listen to what modern psychiatrists and psychologists have to tell us about human sexuality, just as the Creationists will not listen to what modern geologists and biologists have to tell us about the Earth and its creatures. Like the Creationists, they create a stumbling block to Christian faith in the way of many.
Think about the web of authentication that supports Christian belief in Twenty-First Century America. And think about where that web is weakest and most vulnerable. If your version of Christianity excludes gays and lesbians you will of course limit your membership to some extent, but that’s not really the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the reason you would exclude gays and lesbians is that you refuse to think about the meaning and application of passages from scriptures written 2,500 or 2,000 years ago. Much of our scriptures are that old, and it is not self-evident that we should govern our lives by them today. We have to be able to explain intelligently why these particular authorities still remain valid and compelling. If we are unable to distinguish Leviticus 18:22 from Luke 10:37, if we insist that to be a Christian one must follow both teachings because they're both in the Bible, we should not be surprised if many decide to follow neither.
And thus the web unravels.