Is environmental science just another religion?

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Peter Bowler's book The Fontana History of the Environmental Sciences describes the often tense relationship between science and religion. Many of the early explanations of environmental phenomena may seem funny when looked at through the binoculars of hindsight. For example, many attempts to force science to the Biblical story of the Great Flood and Noah's ark have been later ridiculed by historians.

However, one should be very careful and humble, before ridiculing past science, because all scientific explanations depend on the contemporary level of information and understanding. Remarkable as the achievements of some scientists such as Isaac Newton, Carl von Linné, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin are, these famous men were not always right and their fiercest opponents were not invariably wrong. Furthermore, these great scientists were very human, sometimes childish. Linné for example named a foul-smelling plant after one of his most vocal opponents, de Buffon.

Science builds on previous science

Science is based on developing a hypothesis, which one then attempts to disprove (falsify, in terms of the science philosopher Carl Popper; this means showing it as a wrong explanation of the true world). Any hypothesis is valid only as long as nobody is able to falsify it. When a hypothesis develops to be an accepted theory, proving that it is false usually becomes more and more difficult, when it is refined and is shown useful in explaining the true world. So science is a cumulative pool of information, and every scientist is dependent on his or her contemporary fellow scientists both as a source of information and as partners in a discourse for modifying their own ideas. In science, a belief can only serve as a starting point, as a working hypothesis. Sometimes even scientists tend to forget this and start believing that their own hypothesis is the truth.[1]

De Lamarck was wrong in assuming that acquired properties are somehow inherited by subsequent generations, e.g. the neck of giraffe would gradually grow longer generation by generation, when the animal tries to feed on the upper leaves of trees. Charles Darwin argued very elegantly and forcefully that there is spontaneous variation in every population, and natural selection will favour those individuals that are the fittest for a given environment. Thus they are more likely than others to reproduce. Neither de Lamarck nor Darwin understood the Mendelian mechanisms of inheritance, and genes were discovered only during the following century. Even though de Lamarck was wrong about this particular issue, he was a good and respected scientist of his time, and made important contributions to understanding biology.

Thus science is cumulative. It is based on a body of evidence accumulating over centuries. Sometimes the findings are not understood at first, or they may be misinterpreted, but as more data accumulate, new interpretations become possible. This is sometimes due to new instruments such as the microscope, sometimes due to the accumulation of a diversity of data such as fossil findings from all continents that force the original hypotheses to be modified to accommodate new data. Sometimes it takes time (and even new generations who may not be burdened by obsolete theories) to accept new possibilities.

Religion may fight science

Religion is often seen as one of the obstacles that science must overcome. One example is the age of the Earth. As long as the Earth was considered to be less than 10,000 years old, the origin of species could not be explained in terms of gradual development, since this requires a much longer time span. As soon as geology developed, and it was appreciated that our Earth is much older than a few thousand years, it became possible to think in completely different terms in biology.

This was of course fiercely opposed by creationists for religious reasons. It is interesting that the religious arguments against evolution were quite different in the mostly catholic France and southern Europe, and in the protestant, Anglo-Saxon countries.

The greatest mistake of creationists is not believing in the Bible as an accurate description of the world which should be taken literally. Their biggest mistake is trying to force science to follow the rules of religion. This leads to distorted science, in fact science that should not be called science, as well as to dishonest religion.

Science can only be based on facts as we see and understand them. If religion says that the world was created in 4004 B.C. as calculated by Archbishop James Ussher, science cannot disprove it. Science cannot even exclude the possibility that the world was created yesterday at noon. If God is Almighty, of course he could have created the world yesterday at noon in the shape it was then, with my thoughts and memories and yours as they were yesterday at noon. This might not be very likely, but to challenge this claim you would need someone from outside the system to observe what happened.

To illustrate this, we can imagine a room with a DVD-player showing the film From Here to Eternity when you enter the room. Without outside information, you have no way of knowing if the film had been running for a full hour from the beginning, or if somebody turned on the DVD player one minute before you entered the room. The video player or the diskette would look exactly the same, if you investigate them after the end of the film. You would find the whole film on the diskette, but you do not know if it was really played out or if it was only available as bytes in the memory.

The Gospel of St. John starts: “In the beginning was the word.” In our DVD example, in the beginning there was a record with bytes, and then the bytes became a show. And the show can start at any particular time point of the recording.

Science and religion should respect each other as different ways of viewing the world, and realise that neither one can prove the other wrong. Creationism must not be introduced into science lessons. However, some biologists have also assumed the task of ridiculing religious beliefs. Richard Dawkins therefore sounds more like an evangelist rather than a scientist in some of his books.

NGOs may behave like religions

It is not only proponents of religions who are trying to influence science. Many idealistic non-governmental organisations and movements choose to disregard those features of science they do not like and the environmental movement is certainly not free of this fault.

Some environmental groups seem to consider science and technology as the main reason for environmental deterioration, and tend to oppose on principle almost any new developments on the basis of unknown risks. These may include "chemicals" in general, genetically modified crops, cell phones, nuclear power, waste incineration, etc.

Most technologies carry risks as well as bringing benefits. A very good example is motorised traffic. The problem is that totally refusing to recognize its existence or other new developments would be riskiest of all. There is no way back to the poorly defined romantic homestead times with sheep grazing and children playing in the meadows. That is simply not sustainable for the population on our globe today. The Stone Age population was below 10 million, not 6,000 million. It is cultural development, first agriculture, then industrial culture, that has allowed the world to feed an almost thousand-fold higher human population.

Some extremists say that human race is harmful to this planet as a whole. But, as Kipling used to say, that is another story.

Science has one great advantage over the other explanations of the world. If honestly done, it will continuously correct itself, save the lasting truths and developing alternatives to theories that do not hold truth. This is not invariably the case with either religious or ideological movements.

Science is like democracy as defined by Winston Churchill: it is a miserable way to govern, but all the others that have been tried are even worse. Science should still respect other explanations for viewing the world, because it cannot explain everything.

Notes and references

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