A few months ago, I was reading about the Royal Society – the scientific society of Great Britain. Established in 1660 for the pursuit of scientific endeavors, the society included research, technology and engineering. Its founders chose as its motto “nullius in verba,” a phrase from Latin poet Horace meaning, “on the word of no one.” Sadly, there are many people, including people in the scientific community, who seem to have abandoned this saying. They take the word of others based merely on authority. The truth is we could do with a whole lot more skepticism in almost every field.
When you talk about taking the word of authority over evidence or proof, most think of religious people. Several faiths rely on written authority – the Torah, the Gospels, or the Qur’an. Other religions rely on tradition or the authority of priests. Conservative believers in those faiths tend to accept those authorities over what they may visually see – “walk by faith, not by sight.” Yet this need not mean that people of faith are unscientific. People seem to forget that almost all early European scientists were clergymen or supported financially by the church, and that the church encouraged research and discovery in unique ways that led to the development of science in the West. There have been periods in which the church opposed some scientists (such as Galileo), but these were relatively brief and limited in geography or subject. Today, many people of faith are practicing scientists or they believe in questioning all worldviews, even those of faith. It is sometimes frustrating the number of believers who accept all manner of unproven or unproveable legends, theologies, theories, and opinions without looking deeper into their reliability. We are told to be wise as serpents but innocent as doves, but most people seem to reverse this. Skepticism is the obvious defense against charlatanism. It also helps us to become stronger believers. Asking questions helps us to know and be able to defend the truth.
At the same time, there are many scientists who seem to have abandoned skepticism. Some may be shocked by my saying this. Like most people, I was raised to believe that science operates using the scientific method as explained by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. Scientists make a hypothesis based on observation, conduct experiments, measure results, compare with a control group, and then either confirm or deny the hypothesis or develop a new experiment. When I was in college, I learned that many scientists no longer keep to such a model, which some view as antiquated. Inspired by modern relativistic views and post-relativity physics, some even argue that there are no objective facts, only our personal views controlled by time.
Despite this lack of assurance, it has not kept some scholars from telling us that we must trust them because they represent “science.” I always doubt anyone claiming to represent the views of millions of individual people, each with their own opinions. Claiming “science says” is like claiming “the people have spoken” or “they say.” What they really mean is that, rather than taking the time to address opposing views, they want us to merely take their word for it. In fact, there are numerous areas where science has moved beyond explaining the results of experiments to theorizing based on a worldview. Some make the distinction between “science” and “scientism” – one is a practice involving observation and experimentation, the other is a point of view that hides its authority in science or scientific-sounding terminology. The true scientist, as Bertrand Russell argued late in his career, should be “tentative and full of doubt” because “what passes for scientific knowledge at the moment is sure to require correction with the progress of discovery.” Meanwhile, the primary result of scientism is disbelief in legitimate science as more and more so-called facts turn out over time to have been nothing more than opinion.
From a personal standpoint, skepticism would help people avoid becoming ideologues. Social media in particular tends to encourage “fake news.” Some may flinch at this term, yet it is true that much that passes as news these days is little more than biased commentary and manipulation of sources or statistics. The problem is that few people on either end of the political spectrum check their sources or try to look deeper into issues than a few hundred words on a post or a thirty-second video. I see people constantly re-posting old Amber Alerts or celebrity death notices without noticing they are four or five years old. One meme I saw on Facebook stated that Mars would appear as big in the sky as the moon, which of course is impossible. Even I have passed along information that I later found to be erroneous, mainly because I did not take the time to check. Sadly, fact-checkers such as Snopes have become politicized and are no longer reliable. The rule should be if you have not looked into a topic and can confirm the truth of a story, don’t repost or pass it along.
British poet, novelist, and theologian Charles Williams famously said that every band of apostles should include a doubting Thomas. We should ask questions about everything we encounter and demand proof. If we accept an authority, we should be sure to verify it by considering opposing views and looking into all the facts. Any authority worth believing will stand up to examination and will, in fact, encourage such scrutiny. Whether you are considering religion, politics, science, or news, a healthy dose of skepticism would help all of us to find the truth.
© 2019 J.D. Manders
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