Today, I attended a special lecture, Science and the world’s future, presented by Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science. Since Science is one of the most respected scientific publications out there I expected a good talk about science. For the most part I got what I expected. However, when it came to the questions things went downhill quickly.
The body of the talk was about science education, more specifically how it can be improved, and how to make science more relevant in the world. There were many examples of ways to better science teaching, generally aimed at moving away from rote memorisation and towards fostering thinking and creativity. In addition he talked about the National Academies and how they played a role in using science to guide politics. He spoke about international co-operation between scientists and how the climate of needing lots of publications stifled creative science. Overall it was a good talk that wanted an increased interest in science and the hope that that would lead to a generation of rational, problem solvers.
Then it came to the questions. The first question was about the relationship between science and religion and whether they were in conflict. According to conversation afterwards the question was asked by George Ellis, though I wasn’t familiar enough with the people attending to recognise anyone. I knew the name as he had collaborated with Stephen Hawking. It turns out he also was involved with the International Society of Science and Religion and was a recipient of the Templeton prize.
I wasn’t sure how Alberts would answer as I knew nothing about him before the talk. I’ve heard the AAAS takes an accommodationist position and his talk was advertised as emphasising “science as a way of knowing”. The “a” suggests there would be other ways of knowing. On the positive side, he hadn’t said anything accommodationist in his talk and had focused on instilling rationality through science. Unfortunately he took the accommodationist position, saying that religion and science were separate, not in conflict and that religious questions couldn’t be answered by science.
It’s quite astounding seeing someone so qualified say something so obviously wrong. This especially to his claim that religious questions couldn’t be answered by science. They can and have been, in the negative, multiple times. The religious claims that prayers are capable of healing has been scientifically tested, and found to be untrue. The religious claims of the age of Earth have been scientifically tested and found to be untrue. The same thing can be said for many other religious claims and I’m sure they’re all archived somewhere on the internet.
But, even ignoring those cases that directly contradict him, we can see the difference in methodology. Religion does not work on empirical observation and experimentation. It’s not even a source of knowledge and has provided no advancements or new technologies. Jerry Coyne has addressed the topic of “ways of knowing” far better than I can.
As a scientist, Alberts should know to only accept claims which are supported by evidence. You don’t accept religion because you can’t disprove it but only if it provides evidence to support itself. It doesn’t. He would not take someone seriously that claimed to have a revelation about how cells work so why does he take it seriously if someone claims it for a spiritual phenomenon?
In the end I guess I should have expected it but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the ending to what was otherwise an enjoyable talk. I know it was recorded so it will probably be posted with the other Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lectures before too long.