ancora imparo

Today’s subject line is courtesy of Michelangelo. Translation: "I am still learning." This morning I had my very first live radio interview with KQED-FM, an NPR affiliate in San Francisco. It proved to be a lively, thought-provoking discussion, conducted by a polished, knowledgeable interviewer who had obviously read my book very closely — always gratifying — and was skilled at keeping the dialogue going without letting it get stuck on any one particular issue.

Not surprisingly, the issue of science vs. faith proved to be especially volatile, especially given the current prominence in the news of efforts to bring Intelligent Design/Creationism into the classroom. My careful demarcation between personal faith and organized religion/dogma — illustrated via Isaac Newton (one of the greatest physicists of all time), who never let his faith in god interfere with scientific evidence to the contrary — was clearly lost on one apoplectic caller, a self-described physicist who professed his own antagonism toward all organized religion, and angrily accused me of trying to "speak for all physicists" when I said the profession had been unfairly portrayed by Creationists as anti-faith. [There’s probably a fascinating personal story there for my innocuous comments to elicit such a vehement response. :)]

Let me say outright that I am adamantly opposed to the Intelligent Design movement, indeed, to all attempts to bring creationism (in whatever form) into the science classroom. I am also an agnostic  — albeit one raised by fundamentalist Christians — who finds organized religion and dogma as overly restrictive and personally distasteful as the apoplectic physicist. But I respect the faith of others who don’t share my particular views. And I am able to do so because I don’t confuse religious dogma with personal expressions of faith. I stand by my position in the interview: science and faith can co-exist; there is no inherent conflict; and it is a deepy personal choice that can only be decided by individuals on a case-by-case basis.

Science doesn’t mix well with dogma, however. To my mind, the conflicts between science and religion arise not from faith, but from the innate inflexibility of dogma, specifically from an overly literal or faulty interpretation of the Bible or other religious texts. The "early adopters" of Copernican theory in the 1600s ran afoul of the Church because the Church, faced with scientific evidence to the contrary, refused to admit that perhaps their interpretation of Scripture might be wrong. One of the aspects I most appreciate about the scientific method — indeed, science as a whole — is that it is predicated on the necessity of admitting when one has been wrong, and altering one’s theories accordingly with the preponderance of evidence. That’s how science progresses. It’s how we learn. Failure is always an option in science, even if it’s not the most desirable one.

But it’s not just organized religion that is at fault here. The apoplectic physicist reinforced every negative stereotype of scientists being anti-faith (he seemed to be anti-religion, but many people fail to make that distinction). Science has become his "dogma," his own private organized religion. Clearly he hasn’t learned that attacking someone’s deepest personal beliefs isn’t the best way to win them over to your way of thinking, and perceives himself as a victim of religious fanaticism. That may, or may not, be the case. But it calls to mind the example of Bruno, an early 16th century mystic who embraced Copernican theory and was summarily burned at the stake by the Church. He’s often held up as the first Copernican martyr, but in fact, Bruno wasn’t executed specifically because he was a Copernican. He embraced all kinds of notions  that semed fantastically heretical at the time. He also had an abrasive personality and disdain for all forms of compromise, constantly finding himself embroiled in disputes wherever he went. Don’t get me wrong, the Church was indisputably oppressive towards Copernican theory, and Bruno did not deserve to die for his beliefs. But the severity of Bruno’s punishment might have stemmed in part from the fact that, well, he was kind of a jerk.

We have a fondness for uncompromising personalities, but when it comes to living together in a peaceful society, strict adherance to doctrine and an inability to respect differences is counter-productive. Attitudes such as those expressed by the apoplectic physicist — as well as the inflexibility of the more fanatical elements of the Christian right — do nothing to advance the debate, or the overall cause of improving science education among the general populace. It merely serves to polarize the issue further by adding more tension and rancor. The result is an ever-widening gulf between scientists and non-scientists. [Don’t even get me started on the caller’s insistence that because I wasn’t a physicist, I had no right to talk about this issue from the perspective of physics. That’s a whole other problem.]

Surely there’s room for everyone at the physics table, provided everyone adheres to the rules of engagement (the scientific method) and, like Newton, doesn’t let their personal faith (or adherence to dogma) interfere with the data/evidence. I was always impressed with Richard Feynman’s take on the quantum revolution. Many early physicists, including Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Schroedinger himself, were deeply troubled by the implications of quantum physics. It seemed to defy not just common sense, but everything known thus far about how Nature worked at the macroscale. And yet the evidence kept mounting until they were forced to accept that Nature does indeed seem to work in such an irrational way at the subatomic level. Feynman said we didn’t have to like it, but as scientists (or, in my case, as a science writer), we must accept what the evidence tells us. Dogma — whether it comes in the form of organized religion, political correctness, or overly-zealous apoplectic physicists — has no place at the table, because by its very nature, it interferes with the process of scientific advancement. Ancora imparo: we are still learning. That’s part of the excitement of physics.

Other insights I gleaned over the course of the interview:

1. It is impossible to condense the mind-boggling intricacies of quantum mechanics into a two-minute summative sound bite. But I shall keep trying until I find something that works without giving the interviewer a headache.

2. I talk too fast.

3. Radio is strange because you must wear headphones, and can hear your own voice as you speak. It can be quite distracting until you figure out how to ignore it.

I am still learning, too…

5 thoughts on “ancora imparo”

  1. Congrats on the radio interview and thanks for speaking out for rationality.
    As you point out, dogma is dogma, regardless of content, and equally destructive of intelligent discussion, whether it’s scientific narrow-mindedness, or religious fanaticism. As a fundamentalist of some stripe, I’ve always thought that the actual “how” of creation wasn’t really relevant to believing in the act of creation. It’s nice to know about the mechanisms, but not essential to believing they were set in motion, or however one wishes to phrase it. The Big Bang seems like as handy a method to produce a universe as any other, and evolution as handy a way to populate it as the modeling clay method, and somehow more logical.
    One way the two approaches can coexist is to first acknowledge that a creator might be infinitely smarter than its creation, as well as have a much longer view. We tend to anthropomorphize so much that it’s hard to imagine any intelligence so radically far ahead of our own. But it’s a big universe out there, and most of what we’re looking at is so old that it might not even exist any more, so we’re seeing a lot of old news, so to speak. There’s always something new cropping up. We’ve got some very small puzzle pieces here, and a really big picture. There’s room for a lot of ideas in it. Let’s just all play nice about it and don’t try to cram the pieces in where they don’t fit.

  2. Hey Grrl! I heard the show and thought you sounded brilliant! My only suggestion is to refrain from saying ‘obviously’ too often, especially when what follows isn’t. Other than that – brava!!! Congratulations on your success! I even have a student doing an extra credit report on you!
    lovon, lynda

  3. I still learning too. Specially these last two years. I’ve been reading a lot about history. Because some friends of mine I was been going from Church to Church. “Do you wanna go to my Church 😀 ” asked my friend, and I answered: “why not?”. And because of that(reading a lot of history and going from church to church), for 11 months I was obsessed against the religion. I still thinking religion isn’t for our society but actually I came back to tolerate almost all ways of thinking and faith like I did before. I believe that creationism shouldn’t be teach at schools but people should tolerate every(almost) way of thinking. It’s difficult to talk about this issue. My comment finish here.

  4. In the comment above I made a mistake: I still thinking religion isn’t good for our society. I forgot to write “good”.

  5. Jennifer,
    I stumbled across this blog, and I have a question for you. Do you believe that if God reveals Himself to us, that Faith and Reason can work together without contradiction?

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