Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Doggerel #175: "But Woos and Wooism Have Contributed to Science!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

One popular rhetorical question many of my fellow skeptics are fond of is "How has Creationism contributed to our knowledge of the universe?" Invariably, someone comes along, utterly misses the point, and rattles off a list of scientists who happen to be Creationists.

Imagine this: An computer scientist/engineer designs a revolutionary new type of computer circuit. Within a few decades, the technology grows to the point that it allows the creation of truly intelligent androids, blindingly fast computers, etcetera. Somewhere, a skeptic rhetorically asks, "How has Holocaust denial contributed to our understanding of the world?" and someone pipes up by saying it contributed to great technological advances because that inventor just happened to be a Holocaust denier.

That sounds absurd on its face, doesn't it?

To go back to the Creationism example: Just because some Creationists have contributed to science doesn't mean that Creationism has had any contribution. Scientific theories contribute because they explain how the world works, and allow us to make accurate predictions we can use. Creationism hasn't done that. "It's that way because a random deity felt like making it that way" doesn't help us understand the world. It doesn't make predictions. It doesn't explain why things are this way, but not another.

Let's use an example of a Creationist scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. He also dabbled in alchemy. How has alchemy contributed to our understanding of the world? Now imagine someone who believes everything is made of four elements comes along and says Newton was a scientist. That doesn't make turning lead into gold by chemical reaction any more plausible. The four elements theory doesn't contribute to our understanding of the world. The argument's crap.

When Newton worked out the math for gravitation, studied optics, and contributed to mathematics, he was doing science. He didn't arrive at those things by cloistering himself in a monastery and extract them from the first chunk of a bronze age book. He did it by gathering data and applying math and logic to it.


MWchase said...

Of course, he filtered some of his work on optics through a numerological lens, which is why we have 'seven colors'.

Before some kind of shift happened, the existence of seven colors almost made sense, in that 'blue' used to be blue-green, and 'indigo' used to be blue. Now that blue is blue, indigo is relegated to 'other-blue' and the use of seven colors instead of six bothers me endlessly.</petpeeve>

I'll go out on a limb and say that one non-creationist "theory" didn't contribute anything, either... I saw this on Amazon, maybe linked from here... A book that asserts that all possible genomes formed at once in the primordial ooze, spontaneously giving rise to everything that 'could' live, as all non-viable genomes died off. Off the top of my head, there are at least five things wrong with that idea. (Oxygen atmosphere, different environments, childrearing, fossil record, and the lack of cell membranes in that model.)

Tom Foss said...

Similar to what MWchase said, I seem to recall some situations where people's particular religious beliefs had them devising models based around perfect circles and so forth.

If there's a contribution from religions and woo, it's similar to the contributions from any mistaken model of reality: they were useful because they suggested testable hypotheses which were tested and shown to be incorrect. People's particular Plato-influenced Christianities told them that the worlds had to orbit in perfect spheres, and they tested and modified that model until it fell apart under the strain of anomalies. Woo has contributed avenues of research that might otherwise have gone unexamined, but so far none have really panned out, and the useful knowledge we've gleaned is "this model's wrong."

MWchase said...

Right, Kepler. And more starkly, Euclidean geometry. It's mostly used as an easy-to-understand framework for teaching logical rigor, and we keep up that because it's good at that, unlike the associated mysticism.