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…