Sunday, December 25, 2011

Is It Science or Pseudoscience?

Alchemy Air Symbol
In two recent posts, here and here, I discussed a book and a couple of articles that challenged some basic principles of physics.  Little did I know that the posts would ruffle the feathers of physics professor Brian Blais of Bryant University.  In a scathing response titled “Faster than light . . . why the lawyer is wrong,” he employs a series of mathematical formulas so precise that the Bowl Championship Series would be jealous.  But aside from that, his response to my posts should serve as a cautionary tale for scientists everywhere. 

First, as for much of his criticism, he’ll have to take up the specific issues with the authors that I cited, including physicist Lee Smolin, philosopher Peter Lynds, and science writer Brian Vastag.  (As much as I’d like to, I can’t, and didn’t, claim their ideas as my own.)  And as for the rest of his criticism, there’s no point in rehashing my posts.  Anyone interested in such topics can read my posts here and here, and the professor’s response here, and then decide for themselves whether his criticism is justified.       

But second, and more important, the professor’s response to my posts highlights a bigger problem: His condescending statements that I “should stick to law,” and that “lawyers should not speak about physics,” are just plain bad for science.  Why?  Because many laypeople already view science (especially physics) as being indistinguishable from pseudoscience.  In other words, science appears to many among us to be nothing more than a set of unchallengeable dogmatic beliefs.  (A popular sit-com captures this view when one of the characters states that she doesn’t believe in “crop circles, the Bermuda triangle, or evolution.”) 

And shutting laypeople out of science, or urging them “not to speak about physics”—which, conveniently, precludes any external challenges—causes science to take on an even greater dogmatic quality, which science cannot afford.  An excellent example of how easily the line between science and pseudoscience could be blurred can be found in our classrooms and courtrooms, where we have come dangerously close to teaching creationism alongside evolution.  As Christopher Hitchens (a mere nonscientist) warned, this would “set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy.”  (See the pretty alchemy symbol, above.)  No doubt, the professor would disapprove of such a state of affairs. 

The point of all of this, of course, is that the professor shouldn’t be trying to silence lawyers, or any other laypeople, that challenge science or take an interest in the scientific method or the philosophy of science; instead, he should be applauding them.  (And if he doesn’t know how to interact with laypeople, he can see how I did it—albeit in the legal context and with a dose of humility—by reading the brief comments to this post.)  When the public is discouraged from talking about science, then science becomes the sole property of a handful of authority figures and is suddenly unchallengeable.  It must then be accepted on faith.  It is then pseudoscience.    

Now, then, who among you believes in “crop circles, the Bermuda triangle, or evolution”?

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