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Is science really real?

Science is beautiful and mysterious and often confounding, in the sense that we are always learning new things and having to modify many things we thought we understood.

(Image: Vlad Tchompalov/Unsplash.com)

I see a lot of posts and lawn signs and hear a lot of public voices proclaiming “Science is Real”. But what is science telling us versus what we’d prefer to believe, or have been convinced to believe by the popular culture? Religious leaders, too, often weigh in on the environment, free markets, and the authority of science.

Having practiced engineering for over 30 years and taught engineering and environmental science at Lawrence Technological University and the University of Detroit-Mercy, my own knowledge is paltry in relation to what science has revealed about the world and the universe. But there are those who think that proclaiming “Science is Real” or railing against “Science deniers” is enough to suppress anyone with perspectives contrary to those who are convinced of their enlightenment.

Science is beautiful and mysterious and often confounding, in the sense that we are always learning new things and having to modify many things we thought we understood. In the real world, zero is quite a low number, as my college advisor was wont to say, tongue-in-cheek. Is America’s environment really getting dirtier, as many of our enlightened believe? Early in my career, we could detect pollutants as low as about one part per million. If you imagine an ordinary kid’s marble, in those days we could find 1 “polluting” marble in a box of marbles 10-feet long by 10-feet wide by about one-foot high. Today, we can detect many pollutants at one part per trillion, the same as finding one “polluting” marble in a box of marbles 10-feet long by 10-feet wide by about 200-miles (yes, miles!) high. The size of the marbles could change these numbers a little, but not materially. The one marble that was found in the small one-foot high box would be the same as finding one million marbles in the 200-mile high box.

This is more than just a dramatic example because it helps us to frame degree of risk. When it’s reported today that a “toxic” chemical has been detected in our water, the amount is critically important—one or a few “marbles” in that 200-mile high box may mean nothing from a personal risk or environmental impact standpoint.

Honest science is about the quest for knowledge, reproducible experiments, evidence, and data, whether we like the conclusions or not. The history of science reveals that contrarian ideas and challenging theories often fuel and advance science: Galileo’s views on the solar system, Pasteur’s theories about microorganisms and human illness, Boltzmann’s and Planck’s theories about entropy, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Lemaitre’s Big Bang Theory. Those ideas were far out of the mainstream in their times, so we should be careful today about shouting down or “cancelling” contrary ideas about current topics of scientific interest and concern. Yes, there are scoffers with no scientific training, but also those with scientific training and contrarian views that may prove to be correct, and these should receive a respectful hearing and vetting.

Many are convinced that science has validated atheism, but space physics has never pointed to a Creator more strongly than it does now. Fr. Robert Spitzer’s book, New Proofs for the Existence of God, Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, is dense and difficult, but also illuminating. If, as most scientists believe, the universe came into being with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the age of the universe doesn’t matter. What matters is that the universe had a beginning rather than having always existed. But from whence and why did this beginning come into being when before the Big Bang there was no “time” and everything in today’s universe was then contained in a point far far smaller than a period at the end of a sentence?

Moreover, exceedingly low-probability universal constants that govern everything in this universe were necessary to produce a stable enough universe for the formation of suns, planets, and life. Without such finely-tuned constants, this universe would have been far too unstable and chaotic to produce galaxies, stars, and planets. Many of those who cannot admit the possibility of a Creator are forced to conceive multiple universes (the multiverse) or even stranger origins to explain our own universe, theories for which there is no measurable evidence thus far—mathematical physics rather than evidence-based physics.

If the Big Bang and our universe’s unlikely universal constants don’t conclusively prove the existence of a Creator, what science knows today certainly doesn’t disprove the existence of a Creator, as many have been led to believe.

As with space science, never in history has there been more evidence that a fetus in the womb is fully human. Ultrasound, genetic evidence, and the viability (survive-ability) of fetuses outside the womb at younger and younger ages, prove these are human beings in every sense, and to destroy them is to destroy a human being. This is not “mere” religious belief, but science that may not correspond to the beliefs of many who proclaim, “Science is real”.

The environment—meaning habitats, water, air, land—is cleaner today in most of the free-market democracies than it has been in over 150 years. Even those democracies with bigger environmental problems, like India, are improving in response to public pressure. If we’re convinced it’s worse, consider those boxes of marbles as an explanation for why the negative narrative is popular, or the self-interest of organizations that are promoting a grim assessment of the environment, or the fact that perfection in any human endeavor is unattainable. And contrary to what many believe, countries with command and control governments (some of whom pretend to be democracies)—China, Russia, Turkey, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Vietnam, North Korea—have dirtier environments than the democracies.

This isn’t a coincidence but stands to reason. When millions of people are reasonably free and affluent, they feel empowered to demand a cleaner environment and can be entrepreneurial to their own benefit and that of the environment. Religious leaders too should consider this ground-level reality.

Yes, science is real, but sometimes contrary perspectives are consistent with real science.


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About Thomas M. Doran 66 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.

7 Comments

  1. When I see signs that say, “science is real”, it makes me think that what’s actually meant is “bad science is real.”

  2. On June 20, 1966, Belgian priest, astronomer and professor of physics Georges Lemaître passed away. He was the first person to propose the theory of the expansion of the Universe, widely misattributed to Edwin Hubble, and is best known for his proposal of what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe.

    (our PP uses this to support the Creator is possible with science theory)

  3. Fr Lemaitre proposed his theory to Einstein who at first rejected it, praising his mathematics but not his physics. And as he later admitted, Einstein fiddled his equations to support his own view that the universe was a static object.
    But to give the great man his due, he later saw that Lemaitre was right and praised his expanding universe theory as the most important theory proposed in the history of science. Recently, almost one hundred years later, the science community has come to officially recognise the work of Lemaitre, but they took their time about it.

  4. The translation of language of scientific “data” (parts per million, etc. etc.) into “information” (i.e., the language of public policy) is an imperfect art form.

    Before the atomic bombs were dropped, one peripheral concern was whether the intense heat would ignite the oxygen in the atmosphere into a global firestorm. The math folks of the day calculated the risk to be acceptable at only three chances in one million. On the other hand, the danger of radiation poisoning on the ground was totally unanticipated, and initially dismissed as “good propaganda” (telephone comment to General Groves from Oak Ridge Hospital, August 25, 1945).

    One “detection limit” that is not quantifiable is intuitive human foresight into the workings of complex systems, like ocean food chains from bottom-level plankton on up to vulnerable (?) human food supplies and even whales.

    • Good insight. Still, measurable (reproducible) data is relevant and important, if not the complete picture. And “seeing” many pollutants at parts per trillion versus parts per million is relevant when assessing risk.

  5. Shh… don’t tell the Catholic trads that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and that the Big Bang and biological evolution are true.

    • Your understanding of “Catholic trads” is extremely primitive. Perhaps you mean some version of sola scriptura Protestant Fundamentalists?

      Galileo and LeMaitre would have qualified as Catholic trads in the sense that they actually understood and consented to orthodox Catholic teaching (not equated with Ptolemaic cosmology) based on the Incarnation as an historic event. Note that the Incarnation is also a singular event within human history and, therefore, not accessible to the scientific method of replication under identical laboratory conditions. The only earthly evidence is the Church itself, founded by Christ.

      Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI had something to say about different kinds of proofs serving the human openness/quest for truth (which we trust underlies your comment): “Christianity’s claim to be true cannot correspond to the standard of certainty posed by modern science, because the form of verification here is of a quite different kind from the realm of testing by experiment—pledging one’s life for this—is of a quite different kind. The saints, who have undergone the experiment, can stand as guarantors of its truth, but the possibility of disregarding this strong evidence remains.”

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