Long said that I don’t ‘believe’ in science, that believe is exactly the wrong word to describe what we owe to science. So, if the language of faith – believe – isn’t the right one to describe our relationship to science, what is?
What I believe in is Truth: that we do live in a real, knowable world. Unfortunately, this faith in truth is not as obvious or ubiquitous as it ought to be. These days, you’ll run across any number of people – often, people in academia, politics and entertainment (insofar as those things are different) who will hold with varying degrees of conviction that there is no truth, truth is relative, that you have your truth and I have mine.
These attitudes are, fundamentally, treacherous. They reflect a rebellion, an act of treason, against everyone else and everything else in existence. To deny truth is the ultimate act of egomaniacal defiance. It spits in the face of all friendship, all love, all wonder. Insofar as you are making any attempt to live as a decent human being, you cannot hold relativist or worse beliefs about truth.
So, in this sense, science is based on the dogmatic assertion of truth, and my acceptance of science is therefore contingent: I defend and honor and accept the conclusion of science insofar as science defends and honors truth.
The price of science is eternal vigilance. The dogmatic assertions that 1) there is a real world whose existence is independent of my perceptions of it, and 2) that we are somehow (it gets more than a bit metaphysical at this point) able to learn the truth about the world does not mean we will automatically get it right, or that we are in any way preserved from error in our judgement. We can be wrong about the truth in many different ways, giving rise to the possibility of untruth. Of error. Of lies. Further, in so far as science can be used in the service of power and wealth, we are sore tempted to misuse, misstate or ignore the truth to achieve baser goals.
When you are a lover of science for any other reason than that you are a lover of truth, you are in a very morally precarious position.
Therefore, in my own humble way, I try to keep an eye on the most egregious acts of treason against truth made in the name of Science!. This requires an understanding of the limitations of science in general, and of the particular limitations of various methods. I link to the TOF Spot and William Briggs because they frequently address both these species of limitations, and because of their knowledge of statistics, a subject about which I am largely ignorant and which figures enormously in many of the most egregious lies told in the name of science.
So: those like Sagan, who demanded our acquiescence to his claims in the name of science – ultimately, in the name of truth – while actively and knowingly overstepped the limitations of scientific knowledge for personal and political ends – they are the enemy, specifically the enemies of truth. As mentioned above, enemies of truth end up as enemies of all that is good and beautiful, all that is worth living for. This is a fight worth fighting.
But there are relatively few of those true traitors to truth. Much more numerous, it seems to me, are the legions of courtesans of science, who want to be counted among the cool kids, and therefore demand that we ‘believe’ in science and do whatever it is our betters tell us to do in the name of truth. And perhaps the greatest threat of all are the non-scientists who understand the game well enough to see what a powerful tool science is, with its claims of truth and its buckets of gadgets, but don’t even care about limits of knowledge or truth at all, but only see a means to the end of power. This is probably the smallest yet most dangerous group of all.