Funerals, Thought Leaders, and the Need to Question Authority
German physicist, Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, is credited with observing that “science advances one funeral at a time.” What did he mean?
What we call “modern science” is in fact a set of theories advanced by the day’s leading scientists, teachers, authors, and textbook writers. (Included among this group would be Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krause, Stephen Weinberg, Leon Lederman, John Gribben, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet). These individuals “control the airwaves” by defining the body of scientific knowledge that they hand down to their students, television commentators, readers, and the public at large. Boosted by their association with Science, the most authoritative intellectual discipline, these thought leaders direct the course of our worldview and determine the theories and ideas we are supposed to believe in. These ideas and theories include the Big Bang (the world was created in a gigantic explosion of matter, space, and time), cosmic inflation (the matter present at the Big Bang expanded by 50 orders of magnitude in the space of a millisecond), dark matter (most of the matter holding the universe together is actually invisible), dark energy (some mysterious invisible cosmic repulsive force is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate), the multiverse (our universe is actually one of trillions of other universes that sprang from the void), and the big one, Darwinian evolution (life arose from a swamp and evolves according to the mindless, directionless process known as natural selection.) So these theories filter down to us over the years and we wind up accepting them without so much as a raised eyebrow. Who are we to question these authoritative figures and who can ever hope to alter these inviolable ideas?
Well, it’s a bit crude, but if the chief proponent of any leading theory dies, the “head is cut off” and there may be room for a new theory. That is what I think Max Planck meant.
But it does not have to be this way. Another way to change a theory, according to the methods of science, is to come up with a better theory, rather than wait for the proponent of the old theory to die. What makes such a theory “better” would be that it explains more, is more logically consistent, operates with fewer assumptions, and is testable. The late Harvard professor and evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, once wrote that what separates science from religion is science’s “openness to challenge.” What distinguishes these two fields of thought, Mayr wrote, is science’s “willingness to abandon current accepted belief when a new, better one is proposed.” (E. Mayr, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World). But science today is far removed from practicing any such openness. Rather, the bookstore shelves are filled with volumes denigrating any belief or thought that departs from the current scientific worldview. Is every sentence written by a member of the intelligent design movement hogwash? Does the new age (or new spirituality) movement have absolutely no useful contribution to make in the development of an improved worldview? Are all religions outright false and all their followers, delusional? Is today’s scientific worldview the only possible way to view the world rationally?
In logic, the “appeal to authority” is considered a fallacy to the extent the argument is accepted as true simply because someone — even an authority figure — said it. Put differently, people become authorities because what they say is shown to be more plausible than competing theories, if not true; their beliefs are not accepted as true simply because they said it. Although the opinion of a prestigious scientific figure is entitled to a degree of deference, it is contrary to the spirit of science to give undue weight even to the opinions of experts. As one philosophy professor put it, “It is in the spirit of science to reject views of the old masters when new evidence sheds doubt on established views. A prominent example in [the past] century is the rejection by the majority of physicists of Albert Einstein’s interpretation of certain aspects of quantum physics. Einstein never accepted the now prevalent interpretation of the intrinsic indeterminancy of certain characteristics of elementatry particles between measurements.” (H. Byerly, A Primer of Logic).
Science is supposed to be the open-source search for truth, not a fortress of untouchable theories to be protected at all costs.
What does this mean? It means that to change our worldview on a faster timetable than the one Planck envisioned, we need to dispense with any inhibitions preventing us from questioning the thought leaders of science. Where did all that matter come from in the Big Bang? What evidence is there that the very early universe inflated trillions of times in the blink of an eye? Must we really accept these notions of dark matter and dark energy or is there a better way to explain the positioning of galactic bodies? If quantum theory actually tells us that there is no “real world” independent of consciousness (as many physicists believe), then why does science base its theories about such an illusory independent world? Doesn’t science’s inability to reconcile gravity with quantum theory tell us something is wrong with the standard scientific model? Do we have to imagine trillions of other universes to account for the strange fit between the conditions of the cosmos and life? Did God hand Darwin’s The Origin of Species down from the heavens or is there a small chance Richard Dawkins is in some way wrong?
Perhaps all of these theories will withstand questioning. Perhaps some will fall by the wayside and be replaced by something better. But we will not be carrying out science if we simply accept them as Truth without even raising our hands and asking a question or two. And, of course, there is always the alternative for those who are extremely patient: we can wait for the funeral processions, and then try again.
Comments, questions, great thoughts?