Jul 1, 2010

Dr. Rustum Roy on Real Science

The great religion/science debate on The Huffington Post continues with Dr. Rustum Roy doing his best impression of Émile Zola.

"J'accuse!" I accuse the sloppy media who have written on "science and religion" topics for generations with grossly imprecise and inaccurate statements amounting to crimes. As a practicing scientists for 60 years known worldwide for my science, I produce data, hard facts (not my opinions) to make my contributions to science, industry, and posterity. In the mass-press treatment of "science-religion" topics, I am insulted by the absurd confrontations engineered by black-and-white print and video media, and the ridiculous, self-anointed representations of the position of "science" we are exposed to, from the most esoteric brand of science.

Who can be said to speak for "science"? First emblazon on your mind that science must have experimentally verifiable facts as its data.

Surely not the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Sam Harris? Not one of whom qualifies as any kind of (hard) scientist. Stephen Weinberg or Stephen Hawkins, whom I respect enormously as brilliant experts in their fields, are distinguished enough in "science," but astronomy and cosmology are not classical science. (Search Google for the list of criteria by the Nobel laureate in Physics, P. Anderson.)


As I noted quite recently, evolutionary biology is largely considered to be a soft science, sure to cause Richard Dawkins substantial physics envy. Roy seems out to embarrass him in the locker room, but if you can get past the ego posturing in this piece, he makes some good points.

His criticism of the media's role is apt but doesn't go far enough. The way science is reported is appalling. Not only are the journalism standards for examining the credentials of scientists inadequate, as Roy notes, science stories are often transparently taken straight from press releases and copied down by writers who don't remotely understand the data they're reporting on. Someone in a lab coat said it so it must be breathlessly reported as a breaking development. But real science doesn't make for good headlines. It's a slow, rigorous process years in the making. It must be replicated and challenged and even if it's accepted as proven, further research may change or completely invalidate what has been long accepted. But where there is money to be made, like in medical and pharmaceutical research, media stenographers can always be found to reprint press releases as breaking news.

Roy also points out that there is some empirical data which supports spiritual beliefs and actual science types who have religious and spiritual beliefs. He mentions medical experiments in prayer with promising results and Jeanne Achterberg's research into the results of shamanic healing practices. As I wrote here, Yale trained psychiatrist Brian Weiss once rocked Carl Sagan back on his heels by pointing out that he had a solid body of research validating the past life memories of his patients.

As I've said, I think science v. religion is an artificial construct -- or as Roy put's it,  a "strawman debate" -- concocted by extremists from both camps. Some of history's greatest scientists, such Einstein, expressed deep spiritual as well as scientific wonder. Dr. Roy puts it thusly:

Real science and real religion (not theology) have done well together in describing overlapping views of reality. That is the biggest opportunity for 21st-century science.

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