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View Full Version : "More things in heaven and earth": Science and Superstition



Ruv Draba
04-15-2008, 05:48 AM
Recently I read this snippet in the "Believe in Ghosts" thread on the Horror forum, and it prompted me into a separate line of thought.

I think science sometimes has to catch up with belief, and, of course, the other way around, too. A couple of hundred years ago, someone "believing" that they could "make light without candles", just by flipping a switch, would have been someone sort of out there.
There are different kinds of belief. I'd like to separate belief, faith and superstition for starters. Here are my descriptions:

Belief: an opinion I hold about the truth of a statement that may or may not be supported by evidence or proof
Faith: my trust in some belief when it's not yet supported by proof
Superstition: my faith in some belief when I'm both ignorant and afraid

Science in its present form has been with us for around 400 years. In that time it's shaped our beliefs, challenged our faiths and helped demolish an uncountable number of superstitions (do many people still believe that the bite of the shrew is venomous for instance, that pelicans feed their offspring blood from their chests, or that frogs appear spontaneously in swamps?) On the other hand, our beliefs and faiths have had only modest impact on our scientific activities and very little on the results themselves, while our superstitions have hardly had an impact on science at all.

But on the other hand, almost all our myths about science are about how belief and faith (and sometimes even superstition) have somehow shaped scientific results. A typical example begins with a presentation to the scientific community, of this sort: "I have a dream! That man can fly!" There's plenty of hooting and mockery from the eminent peers. Then the scientist goes about turning the dream into reality through some sort of introverted arcane theorising. Eventually, after much toil and many false starts there's success and the scientists proves all the skeptics wrong (or in a horror story, the scientist succeeds, but at a terrible cost).

But that's not really how it works. Or not usually anyway.

Science is much like US or British law: the burden of proof is on the scientist. In this respect it differs markedly from superstition, in which the burden of disproof is on anyone who disagrees with us. Professionally, scientists are allowed to speculate, and suspect. They're allowed to disbelieve whatever they like in public, and believe whatever they like in private, but their beliefs (no matter how popular) are only professionally credible when they come with some weight of proof.

Mostly, science does not happen the way the myths tell us it does. The lightbulb was not invented in response to a dream of cold light, but rather opportunistically, by some experiments in what happens when you pass electricity through various substances.

The myth is also very biased. For every pair of Wright brothers celebrated by myth, history is littered with a thousand dead Icaruses, laying splattered at the bottom of cliffs with fairy-wings strapped to their backs. Dream- or belief-led innovation has a huge history of catastrophic failure. Most of our successful innovations are artefacts of dogged plodding. And superstition-driven invention has been proven over time to be almost entirely fraudulent.

While there may be 'more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt in your philosophy', that's not to say that everything we dream (or indeed anything we dream) is as legitimate or viable as that which we've demonstrated conclusively and contestably.

But here's the rub: lack of proof is not evidence of disproof. We can perform a thousand experiments about people walking under ladders and find no proof of harm coming to them, but there may still be an experiment we haven't performed that could show evidence the other way.

In the final analysis, I think that science alone doesn't demolish superstition. Rather, superstition melts when there is reliable information and sufficient control over our environments that people no longer fear.

mscelina
04-15-2008, 06:04 AM
Wow. okay, I'll play.

Why don't we start out with a set of accepted definitions to work with as opposed to just yours:


be·lief Audio Help /bɪˈlif/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[bi-leef] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
–noun 1. something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
2. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.
3. confidence; faith; trust: a child's belief in his parents.
4. a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith: the Christian belief.
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[Origin: 1125–75; earlier bile(e)ve (n. use of v.); r. ME bileave, equiv. to bi- be- + leave; cf. OE geléafa (c. D geloof, G Glaube; akin to Goth galaubeins)]


faith Audio Help /feɪθ/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[feyth] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
–noun 1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.
5. a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.
6. the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.: Failure to appear would be breaking faith.
7. the observance of this obligation; fidelity to one's promise, oath, allegiance, etc.: He was the only one who proved his faith during our recent troubles.
8. Christian Theology. the trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ and the Scriptures by which humans are justified or saved.
—Idiom9. in faith, in truth; indeed: In faith, he is a fine lad.

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[Origin: 1200–50; ME feith < AF fed, OF feid, feit < L fidem, acc. of fidés trust, akin to fīdere to trust. See confide]


su·per·sti·tion Audio Help /ˌsupərˈstɪʃən/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[soo-per-stish-uhn] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
–noun 1. a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.
2. a system or collection of such beliefs.
3. a custom or act based on such a belief.
4. irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, esp. in connection with religion.
5. any blindly accepted belief or notion.


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[Origin: 1375–1425; late ME < L superstitiōn- (s. of superstitiō), equiv. to superstit- (s. of superstes) standing beyond, outliving (super- super- + -stit-, comb. form of stat-, adj. deriv. of stāre to stand) + -iōn- -ion]

Okay, now try again going from there. This way we know that the definitions which set the original perameters of this discussion are not slanted or biased in any way by the OP's point of view. The definitions listed in your original post, Ruv, automatically slant the thread so that any response to your post can be dismissed as not following the personal rules you established at the get go. I don't play that way, so...

Under THESE definitions, I would counter your entire post by stating that no matter what happens, before a scientist can suspect or speculate, they have to dream. They have to be willing to suspend their level of natural, analytical disbelief for just long enough to dream of something beyond the levels of what is proven and theoretically can be proven.

In other words, science is nothing without the dream that originally fuels it.

Mac H.
04-15-2008, 07:12 AM
I'm not sure I see the OP's point in giving that definition to 'superstition'.

eg: Superstition is faith you have when you are ignorant and afraid.

It is useless, because you have to figure out someone's motivation before you can decide whether someone's faith counts as superstition or not.

To make it worse, that means that it is NOT a description of the belief .. it is a description of a single individual's motivation for having that belief!

Hence, it is useless phrase to describe a belief.

Worse still, I'm not even sure the motivation of some of my own beliefs.

For example, when I feel a cold coming on, I take some Vitamin tablets. I figure it helps.

In your system, is that a belief, a faith or a superstition? To be honest, I've never read a scientific study that indicates a good idea - so perhaps it is motivated by 'fear' of a cold?

Since even I know what my true motivation is, a definition that relies on on me knowing before we can discuss it seems wrong.

Mac

benbradley
04-15-2008, 07:50 AM
Wow. okay, I'll play.
Oh, what fun!

MSCELINA! COME ON DOWN!

(okay, I'll try to be nice from now on...)

Under THESE definitions, I would counter your entire post by stating that no matter what happens, before a scientist can suspect or speculate, they have to dream. They have to be willing to suspend their level of natural, analytical disbelief for just long enough to dream of something beyond the levels of what is proven and theoretically can be proven.

In other words, science is nothing without the dream that originally fuels it.
You're absolutely right. In science, this "dream" is called a hypothesis. The remaining steps of the scientific method are done in an effort to determine whether this dream hypothesis is true, whether it describes some part of the real world as it claimes it does.

Ruv Draba
04-15-2008, 08:18 AM
Why don't we start out with a set of accepted definitions to work with as opposed to just yoursI dug around for definitions from many sources, but finally picked from Merriam-Webster's definitions. I summarised them for ease of reading, but didn't alter them to support my argument. The definitions you cited look similar to me but as with the M-W defs, are broader than this discussion needs.

Under THESE definitions, I would counter your entire post by stating that no matter what happens, before a scientist can suspect or speculate, they have to dream.
Dreams and creativity have been very important to science; especially for the revolutionary sorts of science (i.e. the rare but celebrated stuff), rather than the evolutionary sorts (i.e. the common and generally overlooked stuff).

The most famous example of a dream affecting science is arguably Kekulé's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_August_Kekulb%C3%A9_von_Stradonitz)dream that led to the model for benzene (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benzene). Benzene had been isolated; its chemical properties had been well-understood, but nobody could model its shape (it's actually an hexagonal ring with a swinging attitude to sharing its electrons). Kekulé was pondering this problem and reported having a dream of snakes eating their tails. Other 'dreamlike' events could include Archimedes' Eureka-moment in the bath, or Newton's apple. Einstein was certainly a great dreamer as I think is evident in both his gedanken experiments, and his tendency to see the world aesthetically, as in his quote: "God does not play dice with man".

This is certainly the way that our popular myths present science too: start off with a crackpot idea and make it work!

Hey, that's just like creative writing, right?

Wrong!

I've worked as a scientist, and so have my wife and many of my friends. Most of the science I've seen isn't of this sort. It doesn't require grand visions and crackpot zealotry. To kick off a scientific enquiry just requires a question, or noticing a hole or a mistake. For instance: This habitat is similar to another one where tree-frogs abound, but none are here. Why not? You don't need to believe in the good of tree-frogs to do this science. You don't need blind faith to conduct it. You just need to ask the question, explore possible answers using existing models and methods to see what turns up. Often, existing models and methods will guide you to the answer. Sometimes you'll invent new models and methods to get there - but mostly, they're not revolutionary new models and methods - and to address a different post, even hypotheses often aren't exactly ground-breaking (e.g. The tree-frogs are missing because a recently introduced species ate 'em all.)

Most science is not what we see in myths, just as most police-work is not what we see on TV. It's specialised knowledge-intensive plod work, bound by established methods, approved procedures and no vision at all.

Scientists can be very intelligent and quite imaginative, but here's something that some writers may not realise: it's possible to be imaginative without being terribly original (Actually, to judge by sitcom scripts, maybe we do realise this! :D) I know chemists who can imagine complex reactions in their heads, mathematicians who can imagine complex geometries, and software engineers who can imagine complex computer systems. But just as a car-mechanic can sometimes diagnose an engine problem from the sound of the engine yet be unable to design a rocket-ship, so many scientists find it hard to do much original 'crackpot' thinking, as it were. In fact, most I've met disdain such thinking in favour of sedate incrementalism.

Our myths often present our scientists as genius artists with test-tubes, but in reality many are actually dogged accountants with lab-coats. :tongue And that's (part of) my original point:

If you're not being terribly original, you don't need that much faith and belief -- and most science isn't terribly original.

Lhun
06-02-2008, 02:18 PM
Most of the science I've seen isn't of this sort. It doesn't require grand visions and crackpot zealotry. To kick off a scientific enquiry just requires a question, or noticing a hole or a mistake.
Word!
The most important requirement for science isn't creativity, it's curiosity. It can be quite infuriating how often that gets distorted by a certain type of people who are only too willing to believe in very creative ... theories, but not too willing (or curious) to try and scientifically examine the truth of those.


As an aside, even though the Einstein quote above seems to imply it, it is wrong to think that he was a theist. He was at best a pantheist.
It is also Einstein who supposedly said that scientific breakthroughs come from 1% inspiration and 99% transpiration.
(not totally sure it was Einstein since i can't source this one, unlike the theism issue)

Dommo
06-03-2008, 11:00 PM
I got your back Ruv!

It's the same thing with engineering. For us it's the challenge. Make a car that can do X while still getting 30 miles per gallon.

Everything we do is evolutionary. While the occasional revolution happens, typically it happens when a system is more understood. For example, I'd say Finite Element Analysis has revolutionized engineering because it allows us to finally make accurate predictions based on a mathematical model, as opposed to experimental data. This means that the cost of designing something drops a ton, and it also means that more radical designs can be tested for viability.

Creativity is there, but for engineers it's all about the challenge and curiosity. The challenge is a motivator, and curiosity the reason.