Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred TruthsMass Belief: Everyone Believes It So It Must Be True!Why Question Beliefs?The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own BeliefsScience: Its Character and History
Subjective opinions and feelings obscure our reason and our ability to describe the world accurately. When we attempt to deduce objective facts backed up by evidence; testing our theories, using logical rationality, and adapting the results to fit new evidence; it is called the scientific method. It is the best way of determining what is true because it eliminates personal opinion. Daniel C. Dennett wrote that "good intentions and inspiration are simply not enough" (2007)1 - the scientific method is hard and demanding, with high standards of ethical conduct expected, too.
One key feature typifies the specialist: the scientific method that is used to objectify theories about the world. Theories, evidence and statistics combine to produce "objective" knowledge. Scientific "theories" are devices used to understand the world and predict outcomes. Theories and studies are submitted to journals for peer review and verified by other independent specialists. An important aspect of scientific theories is that they must give way in the future to more accurate theories. The nature of the scientific method lends itself to an acceptance of a continual change in knowledge. Richard Dawkins points out that scientists frequently admit when their theories have been superseded or corrected by their peers, science is "defined as the set of practices which submit themselves to the ordeal of being tested"2. The scientific method is therefore inherently revolutionary.
Richard Gross opens his prominent book "Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour" (1996), with some chapters on science, and offers the following as two major steps in scientific theory:
Theories must be capable of making testable predictions. Two competing theories will often explain the behaviour of something after observations, but this is easy. The hard part is seeing which theory most accurately predicts what will happen in future observations.
One of my favourite definitions of science is that of E. O. Wilson:
“Science, to puts its warrant as concisely as possible, is the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles. The diagnostic features of science that distinguish it from pseudoscience are first, repeatability: The same phenomenon is sought again, preferable by independent investigation, and the interpretation given to it is confirmed or discarded by means of novel analysis and experimentation. Second, economy: Scientists attempt to abstract the information into the form that is both simplest and aesthetically most pleasing - the combination called elegance - while yielding the largest amount of information with the least amount of effort. Third mensuration: If something can be properly measured, using universally accepted scales, generalizations about it are rendered unambiguous. Fourth, heuristics: The best science stimulates further discovery. Fifth and finally, consilience: The explanations of different phenomena most likely to survive are those that can be connected and proved consistent with one another.”
The building-block of science is the theory. New data results in new theories, and theories create experiments that are designed to test them, resulting in new data. This cyclic process propels science forwards. Any new theory must displace an old one, and therefore needs abundant evidence in its favour; no-one will abandon the standing theory without good reason.
“Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun.”
A common criticism of theories of evolution and of the big bang is that "they are only theories". However, they misunderstand what the word "theory" means. A scientific theory that explains the facts well is accepted; whereas one that doesn't is rejected. That something "is only a theory" does not affect whether it is accurate or not. Some example theories include the theory of gravity, and the theory that the Earth orbits the Sun. Clearly, the evidence is more important than the theory.
The best thing about theories is that when new evidence comes to light, new theories arise to replace or modify the old ones. Bertrand Russell states, "theories, if they are important, can generally be revived in a new form after being refuted as originally stated. Refutations [...] in most cases [are] only a prelude to further refinements"5. Some theories however, are unsalvageable and are completely abandoned. This way, science continues to explain reality as accurately as we can. Theories that deny that new theories could replace them - such as those that religious conservatives propound, are deluded. In the search for truth, it is essential to dogmatically stick to the assumption that whatever you think you know could actually be wrong. In that sense, the only correct way to search for truth is to know that everything is a theory, and nothing is absolute fact. In this way, human error is most readily corrected.
Russell (1935) explains how science begins from initial observations and continually builds until major theories are brought to general acceptance through long periods of practical trial and error.
“Science starts, not from large assumptions but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment. From a number of such facts a general rule is arrived at, of which, if it is true, the facts in questions are instances. This rule is not positively asserted, but is accepted, to begin with, as a working hypothesis. If it is correct, certain hitherto unobserved phenomenon will take place in certain circumstances. If it is found that they do take place, that so far confirms the hypothesis; if they do not, the hypothesis must be discarded and a new one must be invented. However many facts are found to fit the hypothesis, that does not make it certain, although in the end it may come to be thought of in a high degree probable; in that case, it is called a theory rather than a hypothesis.”
A hypothesis has assumptions which must then be backed up by evidence if the idea is to take ground. Clearly, the fewer such assumptions are, the better. In general this has led to a principal in science that the theory with fewest assumption and fewest complicated side-effects is probably a better theory than others. This is commonly called 'Occam's Razor':
“Occam is best known for a maxim which is not to be found in his works, but has acquired the name of 'Occam's razor'. This maxim says: 'Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.' Although he did not say this, he said something which has much the same effect, namely: 'It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer'. That is to say, if everything in some science can be interpreted without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it. I have myself found this a most fruitful principal in logical analysis.”
In philosophical arguments, it is frequently used to mean that if a particular belief or idea leads to the requirement for a massive amount of special explanation, other odd conclusions, and outstanding complexity, then such a belief is probably wrong.
For example, in the theological debate between atheists and theists, both attempt to account for the existence of the universe using similar ideas. Atheists believe that the universe is self-contained and had no preceding 'cause'. Theists believe that the universe was created by God, and that God is self-contained and has no 'cause'. Both theories contain a similar uncaused element, but, the theistic theory contains an additional assumption that the uncaused cause is a god. By employing Occam's razor, many would guess that the simpler, atheistic, theory is more likely to be correct because it contains less unanswered questions (assumptions) than the theist one.
Reproducibility is an integral part of the scientific method.
“Science requires that a phenomenon be reliably produced in different laboratories for it to be accepted as genuine. Whoever claims to have discovered a phenomenon must describe in sufficient detail how it was produced so that other investigators, following similar steps, can reproduce it themselves. This requirement of replicability applies to all fields of science. [...]
Although the history of science contains numerous examples of an investigator's expectations clouding his or her vision and judgement, the most serious of these abuses are overcome by the discipline's insistence on replicability and the public presentation of results. Findings that rest on a shaky foundation tend not to survive in the intellectual marketplace. [...] The biggest difference between the world of science and everyday life in protecting against erroneous beliefs is that scientists utilize a set of formal procedures to guard against [...] sources of bias and error.”
"How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991)10
Whether it is research in physics, chemistry or psychology, the results of any experiment must be reproduced independently in another location. This checks that the results were not the result of unintentional but consistent human bias in the original experiments. There have been plenty of cases where a scientist declares results and describes his experiment in a scientific journal but other experiments fail to reproduce in their own experiments. If results cannot be duplicated then the data is not accepted as valid. This is why newspaper reports on single experiments should be heeded with care: any experimenter can claim results but if others around the world cannot verify the procedure then the chances are the experiment was flawed. Results should only be acclaimed once they have been verified and this is why sometimes public announcements are not made for some time, especially with highly technical or long-term experiments. Always think to check who done the original experiments, and who verified the methods.
Theories must be disprovable. A theory must make it clear exactly what future criteria would falsify itself.
“Falsification was the demarcation criterion proposed in the 1930s by philosophers Karl Popper and Rudolf Carnap as a means for distinguishable legitimate scientific models from nonscientific conjectures. [...] While failure to pass a required test is sufficient to falsify a model, the passing of the test is not sufficient to verify the model. This is because we have no way of knowing a priori that other, competing models might be found someday that lead to the same empirical consequences as the one tested.
Often in science, models that fail some empirical test are modified in ways that enable them to pass the test on a second or third try. While some philosophers claimed this shows that falsification does not happen in practice, the modified model can be regarded as a new model and the old version was still falsified. I saw many proposed models falsified during my forty-year research career in elementary particle physics and astrophysics; it does happen in practice.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)11
Imagine a game of hangman, where a person must guess what word is being revealed but can only see so many of the word's letters. With the evidence available, the person can guess a word - this is his theory. The criteria by which he can be affirmed or proven wrong is through the revealing of new evidence. If a letter is revealed that does not fit his theory then the theory must instantly be discarded. So in science, theories are much easier to deny than to ultimately confirm. To say that a theory is true you must wait until the very end of the game, until every letter is revealed. The only problem is, as new facts are continually discovered, it is hard to be sure that any future evidence won't suddenly falsify the theory; this is why some hold that all scientific models will always remain theories. To abandon this concept is to try to stop the flow of new discoveries!
We human beings, even while forming theories and conducting experiments, only have a limited capacity to think clearly and accurately. Our neural brains have evolved many methods of discerning what is true that are like shortcuts rather than logical analysis. As such, sometimes even trains of thought that seem clear turn out to result from mild self-delusion. It is not just apophenia (recognizing patterns that aren't really there) that can lead theorists astray, but many traits of human nature can belie the search for truth. Apart from cognitive errors in general thought, all humans are also subject to subjective desires, such as the desire to find supporting evidence for ones' own ideas.
“Science is a human endeavor and, as such, is prone to bias, error, emotion, greed, hubris, and manipulation. All of these are human traits, and thus each researcher may be guilty of any of these failings. To be sure, these failings are present in every human activity [...]. Because science is largely self-correcting, these failings are usually rectified [...], science weeds out human errors over time in a way that no other major self-regulating institution does.”
“Pattern recognition is the basis of all aesthetic enjoyment, whether it is music, poetry or physics. As we become more sophisticated in what we do, we learn to recognize ever more subtle patterns. Unfortunately, the brain that makes the link between the tides and the phases of the moon may also connect a comet to victory in battle. [...] There's a thin line between recognizing subtle patterns and apophenia, the experience of seeing patterns where non exist. [...] The scientific process, in short, takes account of cracks, shortcomings and changes.”
I have written at length on the psychological causes of mistaken beliefs and conclusions.
Thankfully, the scientific method is all about eliminating human errors. The procedures of peer review and independent verification both ensure that mistakes in theory, application or analysis of data are spotted when other scientists examine and repeat the experiment. Competing theories will have proponents that actively do not want new information threatening their own theory, so will actively seek out weakspots in new experiments. Many scientific publications report on the failures of data and experiments, and in the face of this, science self-regulates in a very efficient and detailed manner. "The essence of science is that it is self-correcting" says the eminent scientist Carl Sagan, "new experimental results and novel ideas are continually resolving old mysteries" (1995)14.
Sometimes, then, individual experiments are found to be faulty. Sometimes, the conclusions of the scientist are questioned even if the data is good. And sometimes, rarest of all, entire scientific paradigms are questioned such as when Newtonian physics gave way to Einstein. New evidence can cause entire theoretical frameworks to be undermined, resulting in a scientific revolution in understanding.
“As any lover of science will tell you, it's precisely this dynamism that keeps science exciting.”
"New York Public Library Science Desk Reference"
Patricia Barnes-Svarney (1995)15
“Still perhaps it may appear better, nay to be our duty where the safety of the truth is concerned, to upset if need be even our own theories, specially as we are lovers of wisdom: for since both are dear to us, we are bound to prefer the truth.”
Prof. Clive Bloom notes that intellectual activity is revolutionary because knowledge can impact an entire society and change it. "Whilst the intellectual may work in a specific field, it is in the nature of his or her work to have implications for the whole field of knowledge. It is this implication which is revolutionary"18.
Science is inherently revolutionary because theories remain theories forever. Theories are always open to doubt, to further testing and to refinement. Some theories are completely abandoned after new evidence comes to light or after new theories prove themselves to be better. As such, science is continually fresh and exciting. It is a continual intellectual search for truth, inspiration and occasional revelation. Theories tend to emerge together and tie-in with each other; so that often after a certain amount of progression a group of theories will become outdated, and a new group will replace them. "Science involves an endless succession of long, peaceful periods [... and then periods of] scientific revolution" (Kuln 1962).
Knowledge is fickle, frequently temporary and unstable: New facts can threaten so much of our worldview that it is not surprising that the general populace often struggle to accept new scientific theories. Non scientific minds often expect science to offer definite answers and absolute truth. However whenever a truth is declared absolute and beyond question, the search for truth becomes stagnant and eventually ludicrous as new data continues to come to light and cannot be explained or understood. The revolutionary nature of science ensures that we do not become complacent with what we think we know. The scientific method is the best way to search for truth; anything else becomes illusion and subjective: personal opinion rather than studied fact.
“One must be prepared to overthrow an entire theoretical framework - and this has happened often in the history of science - but there has to be strong contravailing evidence that requires it. It is clear that skeptical doubt is an integral part of the method of science, and scientists should be prepared to question received scientific doctrines and reject them in the light of new evidence.”
The revolutionary nature of science and the theoretical way in which new ideas replace old ones does not always work. Scientists are still people and theories can become dear projects that scientists are reluctant to give up on. This results in a lot of heated debate. There are famous instances of scientists arguing tooth-and-nail for a beloved theory and giving it up after a long and protracted defense of it. But sometimes scientists cling to a theory well beyond its sell-by date.
Given that scientists are human, can science really be objective?
John Gribbin bemoans this last problem . He, like many other scientists, is aware that our Human brains cannot deal with abstraction beyond a certain point and that we have to use metaphors and symbols to understand the complex maths behind quantum physics. It is this that led the groundbreaking physicist P. Feynman to state that "no one understands quantum mechanics". Likewise, Stephen Hawking detailed in his book "A Brief History of Time" that the scientific search for a quantum theory of gravity will come to "revolutionize our understanding of space and time". These two prominent scientists are acknowledging that our understanding is culture-limited and paradigm-limited, but that sometimes mental barriers are shattered by new theories.
But to even out the balances we must first admit that all thought is subject to personal analysis. It must be remembered that the whole scientific method serves, more than any other way of searching for truth, of removing personal bias and subjectivity. In that sense, science has proved itself to be by far the superior method of gathering facts about the world. No other system of thought has produced technology, accurate communications, accurate measurements and accurate predictions. By all these criteria, the scientific method has shown itself to be the best way to counteract the shortcomings of Human delusions.
An over-abundance of studies and data across the board can sometimes result in information overload. The plethora of scientific investigative techniques can also lead to the results of scientific endeavours being lost in the flood of data. Contradictory information can nearly always be found, even for simple experiments. The answer is to return to basics: checking sources, thinking critically and being methodical.
“Reviewing the situation regarding the derivation of dates for the Dead Sea Scrolls from both carbon-14 tests and palaeography, my overall impression is that scholars tend to play up or down the various difficulties arising from the dating methods in order to confirm their own hypotheses about the scrolls and who wrote or copied them. As one scholar has said, those dates which confirm one's theories are emphasized, those that diverge a little are relegated to footnotes, and those which are totally contradicted are discarded!”
As above, the over-abundance of testing methods can result in a kind of accidental research-selection blindness, in which a researcher stumbles across various articles, and respects (and therefore uses) the ones that he agrees with, subconsciously because they back up his present theory or predictions. Studies that diverge or disagree are left by the wayside, not because the scientist is consciously cheating, but because from the masses of data, he considers those that agree to be more worthwhile. Luckily, the study of such Human failings are within the bounds of sociology and are taught to scientists, but at Stephen Hodge points out above, problems still occur.
Scientists are often caught passionately defending a pet theory well beyond the point at which most observers have concluded that the evidence is against it. This psychological attachment to the produce of one's work is hardly surprising - it was noted by the world famous thinker Aristotle nearly 2500 years ago, for example:
“Once more: all people value most what has cost them much labour in the production; for instance, people who have themselves made their money are fonder of it than those who have inherited it: and receiving kindness is, it seems, unlaborious, but doing it is laborious. And this is the reason why the female parents are most fond of their offspring; for their part in producing them is attended with most labour, and they know more certainly that they are theirs. This feeling would seem also to belong to benefactors.”
Luckily this fierce resistance often works in science's favour. The best science and the most rigorous research is done between competing theorists, and the result is often an area of science that is richly investigated, with no stone left unturned. For example, fundamentalists religionists debated fiercely against the idea of the evolution of the eye, and in the ensuing arguments, scientists amassed what is now one of the greatest and most well-documented features of evolution, as the eye gradually evolved from mere light-sensitive cells, to the highly complex organ we know of today.
Although science eventually moves on, driven by evidence, individual believers are often left behind. This is any initial research, initial experimental results or new theories are best left "to settle" and to face the trial of peer review before they are trusted. Each new theory steps on the toes of believers in previous theories, and in the ensuing battle the best critical minds will reveal which side of the argument is the most logical and best evidenced.
“2,500 years ago, there was a glorious awakening in Ionia: on Samos and the other nearby Greek colonies that grew up among the islands and inlets of the busy eastern Aegean Sea. Suddenly there were people who believed that everything was made of atoms; that human beings and other animals had sprung from simpler forms; that diseases were not caused by demons or the gods; that the Earth was only a planet going around the Sun. And that the stars were very far away. [...]
In the 6th century B.C., in Ionia, a new concept developed, one of the great ideas of the human species. The universe is knowable, the ancient Ionians argued, because it exhibits an internal order: there are regularities in Nature that permit its secrets to be uncovered. [...] This ordered and admirable character of the universe was called Cosmos. [...]
Between 600 and 400 B.C., this great revolution in human thought began. [...] The leading figures in this revolution were men with Greek names, largely unfamiliar to us today, the truest pioneers in the development of our civilization and our humanity.”
The city of Alexandria was the greatest in the ancient world. Its famous Library of Alexandria was constructed in the third century BCE by the Greek Kings, the Ptolemys. It became a scientific research centre and publishing capital of the world. Ionians forged ahead in many arenas of knowledge. "Eratosthenes accurately calculated the size of the Earth [...], Hipparchus anticipated that the stars come into being, slowly move during the course of centuries, and eventually perish, it was he who first catalogued the positions and magnitudes of the stars to detect such changes. Euclid produced a textbook on geometry from which humans learned for twenty-three centuries"25. Such astounding wisdom backed up by studious thinking and experimentation could have launched the world into the modern era. But it didn't.
Rising superstition, the taking of slaves and the growth of monotheistic religion led to the demise of scientific enterprise. The culture changed. The last great scientist of Alexandria, Hypatia, was born in 370CE at a time when the "growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture". Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, considered Hypatia to be a symbol of the learning and science which he considered to be pagan. "In the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint"25.
The last remains of the Alexandrian Library were destroyed not long after Hypatia's death. Nearly all the books and documents were completely destroyed. The Western Dark Ages had begun, and all knowledge and science was forgotten in the West for over a thousand years.
During the Middle Ages, the West had again begun to contribute to the science and learning of the world. In the interim the Arabic lands to the East had thankfully translated Greek works and carried the torch of knowledge. Philosopher-scientists emerged from the West and East, and debated the finer points of epistemology. As the centuries went on, thought became freer, and as the material life improved, the seventeenth century saw the dawning of a new age of human thought: modern scientific methods were back on the menu after nearly 2000 years in hiatus.
“Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science, which achieved its most spectacular triumphs in the seventeenth century. The Italian Renaissance, though not medieval, is not modern; it is more akin to the best age of Greece. [...] The modern world, so far as mental outlook is concerned, begins in the seventeenth century. No Italian of the Renaissance would have been unintelligible to Plato or Aristotle; Luther would have horrified Thomas Aquinas, but would not have been difficult for him to understand. With the seventeenth century it is different: Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Occam, could not have made head nor tail of Newton. [...]
Four great men - Copernicus [1473-1543], Kepler, Galileo, and Newton - are pre-eminent in the creation of science. Of these, Copernicus belongs to the sixteenth century, but in his own time he had little influence.”
“No religion holds its members to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does!”
Daniel C. Dennett (2007)1
“The historical battles between religious institutions and science, such as those in physics, astronomy and biology, indicate there is something wrong with the religious approach to the study of reality. The underlying problem extends to negative effects on the individual intelligence of believers, and a related negative effect on educational achievements. Hardly any of the several-hundred Nobel Prize winning scientists have been Christians. Only 3.3% of the Members of the Royal Society in the UK and 7% the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, believe in a personal God. The more senior and learnéd the scientist, the less likely they are to believe in God. The children of highly religious parents suffer diminished IQs - averaging 7 to 10 points lower compared to their non-religious counterparts in similar socio-economic groups. As you would expect from these results, multiple studies have also shown that IQ is opposed to the strength of religious belief. 39 studies since 1927 (out of 43) have found that the more educated a person is, and the higher one's intelligence, the less likely someone is to hold religious beliefs. Countries with a higher rate of belief in God have lower average intelligence; all countries with high average intelligence have low national levels of belief in God. For countries where belief in God is over 80%, the average national IQ is 83 points. For those countries where stated disbelief in God is greater than 20%, the national average IQ is 98 points. Instead of belief in God, countries with the highest IQs adhere to Far-Eastern belief systems such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism.”
I report on one such battle on my page "Christianity v. Astronomy: The Earth Orbits the Sun!" by Vexen Crabtree (2006). The conclusion reads:
“Scientists had to suffer torture, silencing, imprisonment and death at the hands of Christians who didn't agree with newly discovered facts about the world. Christianity lost the first battle with astronomers who realized that, contrary to what Christians asserted, the Sun did not orbit the Earth, and that the Universe doesn't seem to be designed specifically for humankind. Copernicus (1473-1543), Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), Newton (1643-1727) and Laplace (1749-1827) all fought battles against the Church when they published scientific papers challenging religious orthodoxy. Bible verses were all the theories Christians needed; and Joshua 10:12-13, 2 Kings 20:11, Psalms 93:1, 104:5, Isaiah 38:8, Isaiah 30:26 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 all contradicted astronomers. But through intelligence and clever politics, truth gradually won out over dogma, and the Church retreated... only to go on to fight similar ignorant battles, and violently impose dogmatic errors, in the arenas of physics, biology and philosophy.
Without such interference from theists, science would have been more than a thousand years more advanced! Kepler in the 17th century only revived Greek astronomical knowledge that was condemned and hidden by Christians (Ptolemy et al) in the second century.”
One movement in the history of religion, in the 16th century, allowed science to begin flourishing and re-emerging after the dark ages of faith. The Protestant Reformation led to the founding of breakaway churches (such as the Anglican and Lutheran) from the monolithic Catholic Church.
“The development of science was retarded by the Church's imposition of orthodoxy on all fields of thought. The Church claimed to speak in an unchanging and authoritative fashion not only on matters of behavior but also on the behavior of matter. The Reformation, by breaking the power of the Church [...] made way for a variety of thought and for the questioning of tradition which is so vital to natural science.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996) [Book Review]28
Thankfully for the study of truth, the process of secularisation has diminished the strength of religion across the West, and since the Enlightenment, when religious institutions started to lose control of public life, education continues to act as an anti-religion force in the world: the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be religious. Education is the key to leading successful, happy and above all, a meaningful life devoid of nonsense. The future looks bright. Although Europe excels (in a patchy way) in all-faiths education where religions cannot stamp their particular dogmas over science education, this is not the case in much of the rest of the world.
As the Roman Empire progressed, scientific knowledge and academia flourished as best as was possible in the ancient world. Europe was largely the beneficiary of this knowledge "but during the Dark Ages in Western Europe the ability to read and write had become largely confined to the clergy, as too had a knowledge of the Latin tongue"27. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the only major European power that remained was that of the Catholic Church, which had largely become synonymous with all forms of rulership. Under its influence, science was all but destroyed as Church dogma and doctrine was violently enforced. Philosophical works were burned and lost, medicine and psychology set back hundreds of years. Neurologists Davison & Neale note during the "Dark Ages for all medicine [...] Christian monasteries, through their missionary and educational work, replaced physicians as healers and authorities on mental disorder. [...] When monks cared for the mentally disordered, they prayed over them and touched them with relics or they concocted fantastic potions for them to drink in the waning phase of the moon"29. The Age of Faith was an era of Christian fundamentalism and superstition, of theocracy (rule by religion). During this time, the Arab world carried the torch of knowledge and surpassed Europe in its understanding of philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences in general.
But then the Arab world itself fell under increasingly conservative Islam. Some Universities in Europe (three existed by 1200CE), independent from most constraints, had survived. They obtained Greek knowledge about the world via Arab translations30. The spark of the Enlightenment set fires under the authority of the Church in the West, and the West emerged from its dark ages as the Arab world plunged into its own, from which it has not yet emerged.
The Arab world is not synonymous with the Muslim world, but, in the overlap between the two we see a lack of knowledge of science that is unimaginable to those brought up in developed Western countries. Those who do at least know of scientific theories are very likely to reject them as untrue. The Arab world is still in the depths of a Muslim Dark Ages, and although authors from time to time hail signs of an Islamic enlightenment, one has not yet come to pass, and for every step forward in one area of public engagement with science, there seems to be equal steps backwards elsewhere. As an example, read the following excerpt from The Economist (2009):
“A recent issue of Science, the weekly Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was devoted to research into "Ardi" or Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4m-year-old hominid species whose discovery deepens the understanding of human evolution [showing that] the hominid branch parted earlier than previously thought from the common ancestral tree.
In much of the Arab world, coverage of the research took a different spin. "American Scientists Debunk Darwin", exclaimed the headline in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt's leading independent daily. "Ardi Refutes Darwin's Theory", chimed the website of al-Jazeera, the region's most-watched television channel. Scores of comments from readers celebrated this news as a blow to Western materialism and a triumph for Islam. Two or three lonely readers wrote in to complain that the report had inaccurately presented the findings of the research.”
How on Earth is there such a widespread misunderstanding of not only evolution, but the principles of science and scientific theories? It seems that not only are the basics missing, but that the vast majority do not have means to check, or read up independently on science. The article explains that this strange reaction stems from a culture that suffers, despite some wealth, from a very poor education that is hindered in particular by an overbearing religion, Islam:
“A third of Egyptian adults have ever heard of Charles Darwin and just 8% think there is any evidence to back his famous theory. [...] In a survey of nine Egyptian state schools, where Darwin's ideas do form part of the curriculum for 15-year-olds, not one of more than 30 science teachers interviewed believed them to be true. [...]
The strength of religious belief among Arabs partly explains their reluctance to accept the facts of evolution. [...]
The gap in the quality of education between Arabs and other people at a similar level of development is still frightening. It is one reason why Arab countries suffer unusually high rates of youth unemployment. [...] The most rigorous comparative study of education systems, a survey called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that comes out every four years, revealed in its latest report, in 2007, that out of 48 countries tested, all 12 participating Arab countries fell below the average. [...] Other comparative measures are equally alarming. A listing of the world's top 500 universities, compiled annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, includes three South African and six Israeli universities, but not a single Arab one. [...] The Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks Egypt [124th of 133] in terms of the quality of its primary education system and its mathematics-and-science teachings. [...]
Arab governments have been scrambling to improve. [...] Many have taken the route of encouraging private schools. [...] Oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf have spent lavishly to lure Western academies to their shores, but these branch universities are struggling to find qualified students to fill their splendidly equipped classrooms. [...]
Saudi Arabia has launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a city-sized institution with an endowment of $20 billion. Intended as an oasis of academic excellence [...] but one fancy new university will do little to lift the overall standard of Saudi education. And it has been attacked by religious conservatives.”
Prof. A. Scott (2007)32
Open Access speeds up the worldwide application of scientific research and allows theories and results to be tested, checked and analysed to scientists across the world, leading to more reliable science, data, technology for everyone. As much science is funded by government, the general populace should therefore have free access to its results.
The top ten countries ranked by free open access to research archives:
A mass of valued research comes from university researchers that are funded by national government, costing hundreds of millions of dollars each year to support. Their results are published in peer-reviewed journals that have to be paid for; the publications are then bought by the Universities where the research is done. This is highly inefficient, and the public end up paying twice in order to read the results (when they pay the taxes that supports the research, and when they pay for the publications).
Prof. Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, and says “The model certainly proved lucrative for large publishers [but] the emergence of the internet dramatically changes the equation. Researchers are increasingly choosing to publish in freely available, open access journals posted on the internet, rather than in conventional, subscription-based publications”33.
Sweden leads the world in open access to research archives (see the chart). A Swedish project call the "Directory of Open Access Journals" links to scientific open access journals. It now lists more than 2500 worldwide, including over 127000 articles.33
“Aided by the Open Journal System, a Canadian open source software project based at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, more than 800 journals, many in the developing world, currently use the freely available OJS to bring their publications to the internet.
For those researchers committed to traditional publication, open access principles mandate that they self-archive their work by depositing an electronic copy in freely available institutional repositories shortly after publication. This approach grants the public full access to the work, while retaining the current peer-reviewed conventional publication model.
While today this self-archiving approach is typically optional, a growing number of funding agencies are moving toward a mandatory requirement. These include the National Institutes of Health in the US, the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom, and the Australian Research Council. Moreover, some countries are considering legislatively mandating open access.”
Prof. Michael Geist (2007)33
“Last month five leading European research institutions launched a petition that called on the European Commission to establish a new policy that would require all government-funded research to be made available to the public shortly after publication. That requirement - called an open access principle - would leverage widespread internet connectivity with low-cost electronic publication to create a freely available virtual scientific library available to the entire globe.
Despite scant media attention, word of the petition spread quickly throughout the scientific and research communities.
Within weeks, it garnered more than 20,000 signatures, including several Nobel Prize winners and 750 education, research, and cultural organisations from around the world.
In response, the European Commission committed more than $100m (£51m) towards facilitating greater open access through support for open access journals and for the building of the infrastructure needed to house institutional repositories that can store the millions of academic articles written each year.”
Prof. Michael Geist (2007)33
It seems right that such a depository of publicly-funded research should be made available for free to the public that paid for it.
All Human thought is subjective and fallible. Cultural norms and assumptions disrupt serious attempts to search for truth. The scientific method minimizes Human error. Any system of thought that proclaims itself to be "ultimate" or beyond correction is dogmatic and wrong: The best theories are the ones that happily give way to better theories. The worst are the ones that do not budge and refuse to admit new evidence that disputes them. They become stagnant and outdated. Science is revolutionary because it accepts new facts, new evidence and new thought. New knowledge acquired from the scientific method frequently changes society with technology and ideas. It is refreshing, challenging and above all the scientific method continues to dynamically improve its description of the world.
Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
New York Public Library Science Desk Reference (1995, Ed.). Published by The Stonesong Press Inc. and The New York Public Library, New York, USA.
Literature, Politics and Intellectual Crises in Britain Today (2001). Published by Palgrave.
Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (1996). Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK [Book Review]
"Christianity v. Astronomy: The Earth Orbits the Sun!" (2006). Accessed 2013 Jul 17.
"Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths" (2008). Accessed 2013 Jul 17.
"Which Countries Set the Best Examples? Open Access to Scientific Research" (2013). Accessed 2013 Jul 17.
Davison & Neale
Abnormal Psychology (1997). Hardback 7th edition. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Amazon link points to a newer edition than the one I've used here.
Dawkins, Prof. Richard
The God Delusion (2006). Hardback. Published by Bantam Press, Transworld Publishers, Uxbridge Road, London, UK.
The Selfish Gene (1976). 30th Anniversary 2006 edition, published by the Oxford University Press, UK.
A Devil's Chaplain (2004). Paperback edition published by Phoenix of Orion Books Ltd, London UK. Originally published 2003 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Einstein, Albert. (1879-1955)
Ideas and Opinions (1954). Published in 1954 by Crown Publishers, New York, USA and in 1982 by Three Rivers Press. A collection of Einstein's writings and texts.
Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009). Hardback. Fara has a PhD in History of Science from London University. Published by Oxford University Press.
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (1991). 1993 paperback edition published by The Free Press, NY, USA.
Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour (1996). 3rd edition. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London UK.
A Brief History of Time.
Political Ideologies (2003). 3rd edition. First edition 1992. Published by Palgrave MacMillan.
"The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA. Via Gross (1996).
The Medieval Underworld (1979). Quotes from 2004 Sutton Publishing softback edition.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
History of Western Philosophy (1946). Quotes from 2000 edition published by Routledge, London, UK.
Religion and Science (1935). 1997 edition with introduction by Michael Ruse. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Cosmos (1995). Originally published 1981 by McDonald & Co. This edition published by Abacus.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007). Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
Wilson, E. O.
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.