Sunday, May 08, 2011

Science: What Good Is It?

A friend recently brought up the idea that she didn't find science like physics and chemistry much help in everyday life after she left high school and wasn't recommending them unless someone was planning to further their education in those particular fields. I understand this idea, because I encountered when I was studying history in college. Whenever people would find out that was my major, they would follow up with the question: "What are you going to do with it... teach?" At the time, I had no intention whatsoever to be a teacher, so this bothered me to no end. The purpose of studying history is not to simply teach it to others. There is some benefit to the student other than to pass on the story of our lives to others.

Through the years, I've encountered this same argument for other subjects as well. Another example is theology. Most people don't bother studying theology. Most people think that the study of theology is only for those going into ministry as a career. I've found that a study of theology is helpful to identify what the student really believes (philosophy does this as well for those non-religious folk). I remember an instance when an individual called up our library to find out from someone if the children's curriculum they were about to use at their church could be trusted to have sound doctrine. I realized that if this person couldn't read a children's bible lesson and determine the adequacy of the doctrine presented, they didn't have a good grasp of their own beliefs and had a bigger problem than what are we going to teach this Sunday. They were at risk of following anyone they trust blindly and so be misled.

So, I find that there are a lot of subjects that I think that all of us could benefit from having a good grounding in. This is true whether we intend to follow that as a career or not. So let me address this issue with science. Is science useful in everyday life? What is it good for?

I agree that if you are going into some science based career, then yes a challenging, high level science curriculum is what you need. But what about most of us that do not go that route. Are we right to give science a cursory glance then discount it from there on out? I would say no. I think many of us use science every day but don't realize it because we aren't using the periodical table or doing experiments. We might agree that biology has importance because it helps us understand our bodies and what will keep them healthy. We might find Meteorology important because it helps us predict the weather and understand the change in climate where we live. But how many people realize that they are doing chemistry when they cook? Nutrition is biochemistry. Any mechanic worth his pay not only knows how to fix the machine in front of him, but understands how it works (that is physics). If you are moving furniture in your house but are concerned that you not strain a bad back, you use what you know of physic to minimize the stress to your back by using methods helpful in doing this work (dollies, wheels, sliding sheets, etc.) so your back doesn't take the brunt of the weight or strain while the forces are in action. If you garden or farm, you are engaging in biology, botany, and chemistry.

Even if we eliminate these methods of using science in everyday life, don't many of our other endeavors incorporate science. If you build something, you may actually be doing engineering work, but it helps to understand the properties of the materials you use. That is science. If you are doing artwork, it is similarly helpful to know your materials and what they are capable of. That is science. If you are teaching your children as you take a walk, that involves science (naming animals, explaining clouds and rain, why the leaves fall, new flowers in spring).

Perhaps you say this is too casual a use of science to justify much more than a very simple study in the younger ages. I would still disagree. Whenever we follow a course of study in a particular subject area, there are facts we learn, their are methods of thinking we learn, and their are exercises for the brain that we participate in that all have value.

With science, we learn many, many facts that will show up all throughout our lives. If we have some understanding of them, we won't be lost in a conversation when the facts are brought up. We will have some idea if the facts used are being used in proper context or not. We will not have to rely on another person to be our authority for what we know about it. This comes into play a lot in the political realm these days. We have all sorts of scientific claims being made about climate change and political solutions presented to deal with it. With some understanding of the facts behind the topic, we are better informed when it is time for a vote to determine public policy.

Science also has a way of thinking associated with it. It is called "scientific method." With scientific method, you have a question before you about how something works in our world. A theory is formed. Then the scientific method tests the theory for weaknesses. Does it hold up when we try to prove or disprove it? This type of thinking develops good logic and critical thinking skills. I would suggest that this type of thinking, like anything else that is a discipline, requires practice. Participating in scientific study helps us get the practice we need to think through things clearly.

I suspect this is the part that bothers people the most. First, because none of us really like to practice things that aren't our favorite topic. Secondly, because they are afraid that if they follow this method of thinking too much they might ask unthinkable questions that would undermine their cherished beliefs. Maybe, but sometimes when we ask such questions, we actually free ourselves from our own man-made presumptions. Once upon a time, theologians taught that the earth was the center of the universe. That wasn't in the Bible, but it was considered so true that the scientists who reported discoveries that suggested otherwise were persecuted. Now we see the theologians of that time as wrong, holding us back from understanding the world better. Can a person fall away from their faith by asking some of these science questions, unfortunately yes. But, I have found that many times, the faith lost is one with a faulty foundation where any challenging question is considered heretical doubt. The problem is not with the science so much as the faith foundations. And when the faulty foundation is discovered the choice before us is to either correct the foundation or reject it. As we grow from child to adult, all of us pick up ideas along the way that we are convinced of, but we discover ourselves wrong later. It wasn't anyone's fault. It was just a mis-communication or misunderstanding that didn't get fixed at the time. A silly example I can think of is an old friend confessed at one point that she thought that penguins were 6 feet tall until she was an adult. Now some get pretty good sized (emperor penguins can grow to about 4 feet I understand), but this was a mistaken idea she picked up as a kid. Sometimes these ideas get corrected earlier, sometimes they linger until we are grown. At some point when faced with a disagreement between what we think we know and what evidence we are given, we have to make a choice which way to go on it. Do we flip a coin, follow the crowd, follow someone we consider wise, or do we think it through carefully using a method like the scientific method. Sometimes we simply need to mend our foundational beliefs to more accurately reflect reality instead of rejecting them completely.

I do not believe science is the enemy of religion and religion is not the enemy of science. Too often we put them on opposite sides and make them face off. However, science is simply observing what is around us and trying to make sense of it by using our senses and our ability to use reason. Religion and philosophy is the search for truth, whether by human discovery or divine revelation. Since divine revelation is outside the realm of scientific inquiry, science really can't touch it. I will also say that I have not yet found a question that put my understanding of science or my faith into conflict.

Why do I feel the need to go into a digression about religion? Simply because our culture has been pitting the two off on each other for quite a while now. I would also say that in my own faith tradition there has been a pronounced distrust of "too much" learning and especially of science learning. That is because a lot of young people went off to college unprepared, and lost their faith along the way. Those who loved and lost them blamed the education they received. I suspect there was more of a problem with their faith foundations or a problem with their critical thinking skills.

So I consider a good foundation in science as essential as a good foundation in theology or English grammar. When a person has a "good" foundation that which you build upon it will be stable and more likely to hold together when trouble and tests come. And none of us has control over what those life tests might be.

What else is science useful for if you aren't going into the science field as a career? Should a someone going into missions or religious ministry need science for their life's chosen career? Absolutely. I don't even hesitate on that answer. It is useful. Let me explain my thinking.

Say a person wishes to do mission work or otherwise be in religious ministry (and for many of us we consider this a necessary avocation of all believers and not just a vocation for some). They will be encountering many people whom they wish to persuade that this faith is worthwhile for them to adopt for themselves. We may be successful in persuading some, because they see the benefits of following a higher moral standard than they had before. Some may be attracted by the purposeful service that can be a very fulfilling life. Some are attracted by the good, healthy and helpful relationships they find there. But, there will always be a sizable number of people in our society that reject religion because they see the believers they encounter as ignorant fools. That doesn't mean that religious people are ignorant fools, but they don't often encounter religious people who can discuss some of the issues that are important to them that are based on scientific facts (though sometimes they mistake facts and theories and don't have very good critical thinking skills themselves). If they encounter one of these well-meaning, but scientifically illiterate, religious folk and challenge them about what they believe about X, Y, or Z scientific ideas of the day, and the person responds "I don't know about that, but I know Jesus loves you", they won't take them seriously. Even if they agree that you are a good person, or a loving and philanthropic person, even if they like your friendship and appreciate any help and care you give them in a time of need, they will still discount your faith if it cannot address what they think is important. For many people in our society, science is their god-less belief system. Until you can talk to them where they are, they don't respect you. I know this because I have talked to many such persons. A conversation might start up about some discovery or some pet theory that they are following and somewhere near the end of the conversation religion comes up and they let slip that they are surprised that an intelligent person believes in God. You see in their circles of acquaintance, this doesn't happen. They usually discount the religious people they meet as well-meaning perhaps, but deluded. They have stopped listening to you. The ability to understand a conversation involving scientific principles or the latest theories, provides you a chance to keep a door open with someone (metaphorically speaking), instead of having it slammed in your face.

The ability to understand scientific method and to use good critical thinking skills allows you to be aware of sound or unsound theories, good or faulty logic, which is both useful to you personally and useful when discussing these things with others. The study of science exercises your brain to wrestle with difficult questions, examine evidence, evaluate trustworthiness of theories, and be prepared to use what you know and understand when called upon to act on this information.

So yes, I wholeheartedly recommend science as an essential area of study, even if it is not your chosen career. Just as I recommend a good grounding in language arts, or math, or religion. The facts you learn in them are useful. The ability to understand and ask good questions in them is useful. The ability to apply these areas of study in your life is useful.