AAAS DoSER Event Explores the Power—and Possible Limits—of the Scientific Method

Does science have all the answers? It certainly has methods that have proved highly effective in understanding the natural world, nuclear scientist Ian Hutchinson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said at a recent AAAS discussion on whether science can explain everything.

But despite its successes, he said, there are “many vital areas of human knowledge that are intrinsically inaccessible to science,” including history, literature, philosophy, law, and religion. Hutchinson said “scientism,” or the belief that science provides the only path to real knowledge, has provoked intellectual tensions that serve neither science nor the humanities very well.

If one accepts the premises of scientism, he said, “everything else is just opinion, emotion, superstition, irrationality or nonsense.”

In the 6 December lecture and discussion organized by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, Hutchinson argued for a clearer understanding of science and its limits. And, he said, there must be room for those who that believe that the laws of nature “are what they are because God designed them that way and maintains them by his will.”

“The advancement of science is not well-served by the scientistic attitude that scientific knowledge is all the worthwhile knowledge there is,” said Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering. “On the contrary, society’s respect for science is actually undermined.”

But Lisa Randall, the Frank Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, took issue with Hutchinson’s emphasis on scientism, which she said is essentially an excuse for name-calling and accusations against scientists as having big egos. “It’s not going to solve anything,” Randall said. “We’re just going to keep fighting.”

Randall, author of the best-selling Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, affirmed the value of science as a tool for understanding the deepest mysteries of nature and decried the level of public discourse about science and scientists.

“It is horrible the way it is portrayed as embarrassing or quaint to be earnest about facts or logic,” Randall said. “If science gets shortchanged, so does America’s future.” She said it is regrettable that politicians “feel comfortable talking about God and religion and not science and numbers.”

As he welcomed the speakers at the outset of the program, Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, said questions about the domain of science and how it impinges on other knowledge domains “gets to the heart of the intersection between science and the rest of society.” He noted that science “can only comment on the nature of the natural world.” Conflict comes about, he said, “not only when scientists think they have all the answers, but when people in the rest of society think they have all the answers.”

Much of the evening’s discussion was on the value and power of science, on which Hutchinson and Randall found much common ground. Hutchinson, the author of Monopolizing Science: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism, praised science for what he described as its two key elements: reproducibility (repeatable experiments or observations) and clarity (unambiguous descriptions, measurements and classifications, with and without the use of mathematics).

“Science has a well-earned prestige precisely because of its success,” Hutchinson said. He noted that researchers in many disciplines, including sociologists and political scientists, want to share the “branding” of science. But he said they should remain secure in their own approaches to knowledge. “They should not bristle when I say their disciplines are not science,” Hutchinson said.

He cited history as an example of real knowledge that is not scientific knowledge. It is not reproducible, he said. Similarly, he said there are important topics that lack scientific clarity but are vital aspects of knowledge nonetheless. He cited the beauty of a sunset, the compassion of a nurse, the terror of war, the excitement of a symphony.

Randall, presented some of the ideas from Knocking on Heaven’s Door, where she explained that art, science and religion use distinctly different approaches to the sublime. Science provides a systematic, logical framework aimed at discovering measurable, repeatable results that are the same for all, she said. At any given time, she added, science is limited and its limitations are known.

“When we present a scientific result, it’s about what we know,” Randall said. “But it is also about stating precisely what we don’t know. Uncertainty is very much a part of science.”

Science probes nature at different scales and levels of understanding, Randall said. “Even if you know the fundamental ingredients, it doesn’t mean you’ve explained all phenomena that can occur in the world,” she said. A soufflé is different than just a compilation of all of the ingredients that go into it, she said.

She said religious faith is not a scientific way of thinking and never will be. When it is understood as a human phenomenon that plays a sociological and psychological role, it can potentially be useful for believers, she said. “If you say it makes me happy or helps me live my life, I’m not going to stop you,” Randall said. But religious knowledge runs into conflict with science when it claims to be about the external world, she said.

Hutchinson argued that one of the central tenets of science—that all properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws that are true at all times and places in the universe—is actually a philosophical question that cannot be answered definitively by science. “A unique event consisting of an act of God” would not be describable by universal laws and would not be reproducible, he said. He maintained that scientists’ belief in immutable, inviolable laws might be “reasonably called an article of faith.”

Randall agreed there is an element of faith in science. “We believe it until it doesn’t work,” she said. A particular finding or theory “might not always turn out to be true,” she said. “But it’s worked so far… So in some sense, it’s an article of faith. But it is always being tested. And we would abandon it if it ever failed to work.”

However, if one attempts to bring an external deity into the mix, Randall said, there’s a problem. Religious faith is not a scientific way of thinking, she said. “You can say that ultimately it’s God that underlies everything that happens, but I don’t see that you are adding anything in terms of advancing scientific knowledge.”

Why do people care so much about the debate over science and religion? “Science is hard, and so are the problems in the world that we face today,” Randall said.

Some think science offers more control over the way things will be in the future, she said, while others think control comes through belief in a deity, a sense of community, or some other external force.

Scientific authority provokes a sense of fear and unease for many, Randall said. Such fears perhaps reflect a fundamental failure of the education system, she said, making it more difficult for non-specialists to understand what science does and does not do. With greater understanding, Randall hopes, there will be greater acceptance and acknowledgement of the utility of a scientific way of thinking.

And while the debate is often framed as religion versus science, Randall said, it’s really rational thinking that is under attack. “We need to push reason as far as we can,” she said. “A rational, scientific way of thinking can be more unifying than we give it credit. We don’t know all the answers. But scientifically inclined people, with or without faith, will try to pry open the universe and find answers.”

So can science explain everything? An audience member put the question directly to Hutchinson and Randall and asked for a “yes” or “no” response.

“No,” Hutchinson said.

Said Randall: “We don’t know.”

Learn more about the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion