Science vs. Religion – The Physics Angle

Last week the director of education for the UK Royal Society, Professor Michael Reiss, resigned after he was criticized for being ambiguous about the correct response to creationism, and to religion in general, if brought up by a pupil in a high-school science lesson. Perhaps his words touched upon a raw nerve in the scientific community or perhaps the point he wanted to make was just too subtle to be understood by the media in these troubled times.

Professor Reiss, who is also a Church of England minister, apparently suggested that in his experience it was more effective in such a situation to discuss creationism in the science class if only to show that evolution fits the facts better. Critics said that he should have had the teacher simply refer the pupil to religious education classes as creationism is not a scientific theory at all. Professor Reiss himself has stated that creationism is a `world view’ and that you have to discuss it to get through to pupils with such beliefs.

Was it over-reaction? A defender of Professor Reiss’ position on the BBC radio I heard argued that the creation myth was a metaphor, not to be taken literally. Hence scientists should not be so touchy. A critic could argue, however that if that were the case then that is exactly why the teacher should indeed to refer the pupil to poetry, drama or religious studies where parables as metaphor are appropriate. The problem is that as soon as you bring it into a science lesson you risk confusing science and parable. This is not helped by creationists who insist that the creation myth is not a parable but true and should at the very least be taught as a valid theory alongside evolution. This then makes a mockery of science.

Science, after all, is supposed to be searching for absolute truths verifiable (in principle) by anybody who cares to. It is supposed to uncover Nature using mathematical or logical tools, of course to formulate theories and hypotheses but to treat these with deep skepticism. Faith is anathema to science. Please understand me. Faith, a moral compass, spiritual values, all have a vital role to play even in the life of a scientist. When you are stuck on a problem you have to put forth a hypothesis. You have to have some faith in it to take it seriously enough to explore. You may even have a ‘vision’ which is a kind of faith that guides your life’s work. But that’s all about the human process of research. The actual science is supposed to be based on fact and logic independently of how you got there, to the maximum extent possible. So faith is also the bit you are spending your life trying to squeeze out of the end product. It’s a complex dynamic which obviously can’t be grasped by pupils who have not yet understood what science itself is. They have to first learn what science is pure and simple and this is what confusing the issue so early on would deny them. This, in my opinion, is why many scientists are so angry about the no doubt well-meaning but highly dangerous position of the professor and other science educators with similar views.

Let’s see how these issues play out at the modern cutting edge of the most hard-core of sciences, fundamental physics. This is a vast and enormously successful edifice of knowledge which nevertheless has through the hard work of generations of physicists been boiled down to a mere handful of fundamental equations and beautifully simple ideas through which, in principle, we understand the physical world. There is still a certain amount of work to be done in particle physics. There is still a big problem which stumped Einstein but which physicists are now very optimistic about, namely the unification of quantum theory and gravity. But the consensus is that everything is going well and these are truly the best of times …

… but lets look carefully.

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