Friday, October 3, 2008
It was almost a year ago that we discussed different meanings of the
word "faith" (WN 30 Nov 07) .
Dictionaries list at least two meanings of "faith": total confidence based
on scientific evidence, and spiritual conviction regardless of the
evidence. In science, refuting an accepted belief is celebrated as an
advance in knowledge; in religion it is condemned as heresy.
Operationally, the scientific and religious uses of faith are thus exactly
opposite. We used the Templeton Prize to illustrate the problem
(WN 11 Jul 08) . Three months ago,
however, John Templeton died, prompting an editorial in Nature on
the "Templeton Legacy." Noting that Templeton had poured more than $1.5
billion into "research at the interface of science and spirituality,"
Nature concluded that concerns of scientists over conflating science and
religion are "unwarranted." Translation: money is money. To quote John
Templeton, "So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods
of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to
discover spiritual realities." An atom smasher maybe? I have no
doubt "spiritual realities" will be discovered, as long as the Templeton
Prize remains larger than the Nobel.
It often seems that creationism is a peculiarly American affliction, but
in the UK last month it infected, of all places, the Royal Society.
Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's director of education, appeared to
endorse the teaching of creationism - worse, Reiss, a biologist, is also
an ordained priest in the Church of England. This outraged Richard
Roberts, 1993 Nobel prize for gene splicing; he was joined by Harry Kroto,
1996 Nobel prize in Chemistry, and John Sulston, 2002 Nobel prize in
Medicine, in demanding that Reiss step down or be fired. Reiss resigned,
and there is now discussion of a rules change to make sure clergy cannot
fill such positions. That won't rule me out. For those who of us who are
neither Nobelists nor billionaires, however, what are our options?
The circulation of Nature is larger than that of What's New by Bob Park –
by a few orders of magnitude. Moreover, I am highly unlikely to be chosen
for the Templeton Prize. In desperation, I wrote a book, Superstition:
Belief in the Age of Science. Published by Princeton University Press,
the book explains why superstitious convictions persist long after they
are shown to be ill-founded. Like everything else on our planet, the
explanation involves evolution, and the book discusses the continuing
evolution of Homo sapiens. The book is reviewed in the October issue of
Nature Physics by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and
author of Why People Believe Weird Things.
A federal judge in Honolulu dismissed the lawsuit seeking to stop
operation of the giant collider, not because the science fiction writer
who filed the suit was a few neurons short of a full compliment, but
because CERN is not in Honolulu. Meanwhile, the LHC will be officially
inaugurated on 21 Oct 08.