Jon Stewart Doesn't Understand How Science Works Even a Little Bit

By Sean Carroll | April 17, 2012 9:40 am

I love Jon Stewart’s work on The Daily Show, which manages to be consistently fresh and intelligent. Their segment on the Large Hadron Collider was sheer brilliance, and I’ve often said that between Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central is the best place to go to hear insights from real working scientists on TV these days.

Which is why it was so crushing to listen to this interview he did with Marilynne Robinson, a leader among the movement to reconcile science and religion. I didn’t agree with much of what Robinson said, but then again I didn’t really expect to. Nor did I expect Stewart to challenge her in any way; a “why just can’t we all get along” perspective is very consistent with his way of thinking. But I admit I was hoping he would not misrepresent modern science as thoroughly and lazily as he managed to do here. (It’s a 2010 interview, brought to my attention by Scott Derrickson’s Twitter feed; apologies if these complaints were hashed out elsewhere two years ago.)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Marilynne Robinson
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If you skip ahead to 2:50, here’s what Stewart has to say:

I’ve always been fascinated that, the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith. You know, when they start to speak about the universe they say, well, actually, most of the universe is antimatter. Oh, really, where’s that? Well, you can’t see it. [Robinson: “Yes, exactly.”] Well, where is it? It’s there. Can you measure it? We’re working on it. And it’s a very similar argument to someone who would say God created everything. Well where is he? He’s there. And I’m always struck by the similarity of the arguments at their core.

Obviously he means something like “dark matter,” not “antimatter,” but that’s a minor mixup of jargon. Much worse is that he clearly has absolutely no idea why we believe in dark matter — what the actual evidence for it is in real data. He betrays no understanding that we know how much dark matter there is, have ongoing strategies for detecting it, and spend a lot of time coming up with alternatives and testing them against the data. What kind of misguided “faith” would lead people to believe in dark matter, of all things? (The underlying problem with appeals to faith is that they cannot explain why we should have faith in one set of beliefs rather than some other set … but that’s an argument for a different day.)

In reality, the more you delve into science, the less it appears to rely on faith. When it comes to modern biology there are large parts I accept because of the testimony of experts; but when it comes to physics I actually understand the evidence behind it. There are certainly some good philosophical issues about what assumptions science must make to get off the ground: does it presume naturalism, can it address miracles, does it admit nomological facts, are there a priori truths about the physical world, can it deal with unobservable things? But Stewart isn’t engaging any of these issues; he’s just taking lazy swipes at parts of science he doesn’t understand, which he therefore feels justified in equating with faith. If believers in God spent a tiny fraction of the time that modern cosmologists spend trying to invent alternatives to their favorite ideas and testing them against evidence … well let’s just say the world would be a very different place.

For which I blame us, at least as much as I blame him. Stewart is obviously a smart guy who likes science and is interested in it, and frequently has scientists on his show. And yet, we have clearly completely failed to communicate the reasons why we scientists believe in apparently spooky-sounding things like dark matter.

“Science communication” is a many-faceted thing, and all of its facets are important. We need to do better getting K-12 students excited by science and grounded in the basics. We need to do better educating college students about how the world works, since they’re going to be running it soon. We need to do better in helping policymakers understand the science behind their decisions. We need to do better at encouraging and enabling a lifelong interest in science among the general public. And we clearly need to do a much better job at clearly conveying the foundations of our practice to interested non-specialists. There’s a strong temptation to emphasize the weird and bizarre things that we discover, because after all the natural world is full of surprises. But if we don’t at the same time do a good job at explaining why we believe the bizarre things, it will come back and bite us eventually.

  • Matt

    Ive alsways been disappointed with Stewart’s stance on science, physics in particular. If you read Wikipedia apparently he had a strained relationship with his father, who was a physics professor. Perhaps not unrelated?

  • Gyen Ming Angel

    People who think that science requires faith misunderstand science. Great blog.

  • Yeh

    People who think that science is directly opposite of faith, that one cannot exist without another misunderstand science. Even more so when staunch atheist scientists conveniently ignore the scientific contributions by religious people.

    Cheers,

    Yeh.

  • http://facebook.com/keith.r.lau Keith R. Lau

    This was like pulling an old band aid off. Completely necessary but still unpleasant. Glad to know this about Jon Stewart. I still love the guy and politics is his strong point. I need to keep that in mind.

  • Uygar

    He and Morgan Freeman expressed similar uninformed opinions about scientists’ attitudes towards god when Freeman was on the show (starting at 3.45):

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-june-2-2010/morgan-freeman

  • TychaBrahe

    Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I submit that the same is true of science. There is a point, and that point has LONG passed, where the frontiers of science are so far beyond what we are required to learn in grade school that the two positions can no longer communicate. It is like two sufficiently distant points in the Universe, the distance between which is expanding at such a rate that in order to communicate, the transmissions would have to move faster than the speed of light.

    To a certain extent, then, we have to introduce faith, but a different sort of faith from the one referenced by clergymembers regarding religion. In religion, we are told that God has a reason, even if we do not understand it. This is true for everyone; the priest is as in the dark about why God wants young children to get cancer and die painfully, or why a tsunami kills thousands of people, as everyone else, and must simply take it on faith that God has a plan.

    Scientific faith is the belief that 1) there is an understandable path from the basic science that we learn in school to the latest theories, and 2) that a person of adequate intelligence can follow this path to an understanding of these theories and any new hypotheses being examined and tested in any particular field. We also have to accept that unless we are willing to undertake the study required to develop the intellectual tools to follow that path, that we won’t be able to do so. Writers of popular science can give us a glimpse, but in the end, most of us will get hung up on the math.

    We have that faith for many other things. I cannot do a spin kick, but I have faith that if I studied martial arts for a long time, that I could learn, as can anyone without physical disabilities, and some who have them. I cannot read Arabic, but I have faith that if I applied myself for the requisite amount of time that I could. I may not have the innate talent to earn a black belt or to translate at a speed that would permit me to be a professional translator, but the understanding is available for those who would apply themselves. Most physicists aren’t Dirac, either.

    And perhaps then we need to teach that in school as part of the science curriculum. What you have here is Gerber’s. The meat is very far out of reach, but you can get there. And if you aren’t willing to devote your life to getting there, then you do need to take on faith the pronouncements of those who have done so.

  • Josef K.

    @Yeh, your comment makes no sense.

    Why should atheists change their mind if they observe a scientific contribution from a religious person.

    Josef Mengele arguably ‘contributed’ to science but does that mean it is therefore logical to follow the tenets of Nazism?

    You can understand science and make contributions while living under the delusion of religion. There’s nothing to say science will cure you of your lifelong dogmatic beliefs.

  • http://trenchesofdiscovery.blogspot.com Shaun

    A solution to these problems is teaching not just science at school, but science methods. And I don’t mean doing this as a part of science classes, but as its own topic (and making it *more* compulsory that actual science classes). Science methods are more important for a student to know than the science itself. I can reconcile myself with people leaving high-school not knowing a lot of science (mostly just because it is impossible to teach the totality of what science has found out about the world), but because facts gained through science will impact their lives they need to know how those facts were obtained, so that they can know what to trust and what not to.

    By science methods I should clarify that I’m not just meaning the ideas of null hypotheses, falsification, Bayesian reasoning, confidence intervals etc, but (most importantly) exactly what you write about in this post. That is, the “try absolutely everything else that could possibly work and see if it does work better than the current paradigm” method of science. Nobody stresses this enough about how scientists work and if the public understood it then many issues science faces would be smaller problems.

    Jon Stewart wouldn’t say science is based on faith and that we believe in dark matter through faith because he would understand that we believe it because absolutely nothing else we try works to fit the data and dark matter does.

    Climate change would be less of an issue because people would understand that climate scientists would love to find out that global warming wasn’t occurring. The scientist who discovered why global warming wasn’t occurring would become a legend in the field. The problem is, every climate scientist is looking for possible new ideas and none of the “global warming isn’t occurring” ideas work.

    The same is true with evolution. If the public understood how hard scientists try to find alternatives before a model becomes universally accepted, they would understand why universally accepted models are so overwhelmingly likely to be reality.

    *Edit*

    This would also help with the people outside science who believe they’ve proven Einstein wrong, etc. If they knew how many different ways in which scientists try to extend general relativity and how many of these methods just don’t work they would be less inclined to disbelieve the scientist who tells them they’re own method doesn’t work. Every single physicist would kill to be the one who proved general relativity wrong… it just hasn’t stopped working yet, nor has a better working model been formed.

  • fraac

    Scientists need to recognise their own religious tendencies. They may not believe in traditional gods but to believe they have no gods at all would be supreme delusion.

  • Gravee

    It does seem funny that belief in God requires nothing but faith, but when you say that Dark Matter exists, theists won’t believe you unless you present a mountain of evidence for it.

  • Gregory G.

    No wonder that the globe at the beginning of every of Jon Stewart’s shows spins clockwise, which is the wrong way.

  • http://sergiouri.be suribe

    I understand your point, but also give some benefit to Stewart. If you read anything about string theory, explaining everything with thing that we still don’t discover, that interact in ways that we are not able to detect and that we can’t measure…well, I have to realize that is something more closer to “believe” than to “well, let’s measure…”….

  • Andrew

    Yeh: You fail to see that they are scientific comtributions and not religious contributions to science. Science is not faith. For most it is trust in an authority who relies on evidence.

  • Bumboclot

    What a bizarre thing for Stewart to say. That is exactly the opposite of how science works. Like somehow the scientists pulled dark matter out of a hat as an explanation to everything they can’t explain? Ridiculous.

  • http://www.theeternaluniverse.com Joseph Smidt

    Let’s be honest, what Stewart should have said is:

    “If you explore the current scientific literature coming out, some of it claims that the best explanations for various issues in physics is ‘Hey there must be extra dimensions’ or ‘Hey there must be supersymmetric particles’ but you will also note a fraction of these same papers are devoted to explaining why we don’t see these things now by making the dimensions too small or the masses of superpartners too large… but these same physicists talk like they believe they are really there… I mean ‘how could you not believe in something so mathematically elegant?’ they will ask.”

    Let’s not pretend there aren’t papers being written and peer reviewed every day by scientists that explain phenomena using stuff that has never been observed with modern experiments despite nobel attempts to do so where these same scientists *believe* at least on some level their unobserved explanations are really right still either because of mathematical aesthetics or whatever…

    And I know you will say “but in principle these are testable” which is true but given the absence of evidence let’s not kid ourselves into suggesting the scientists maintaining they believe these theories are true aren’t in fact operating on *some* level of faith. They are.

  • Frank

    suribe: String theory is a bad example, as there are lots of physicists who write it off as unscientific nonsense for that very reason. There’s no evidence for it, no means of observing or measuring the “strings,” no nothing. The most that can be said for it is that it looks good on paper.

  • Jim B

    Wonder why you haven’t been invited on the show? (Or maybe you have and it didn’t work out.) I’ve seen NDT and Randall on there – you would be a excellent subject IMHO.

  • Jim

    Let’s be completely fair to Stewart. He’s not a scientist. He doesn’t even play one on TV. He’s a comedian, a clown playing to the gallery. If he fails to express a lack of knowledge regarding the difference between science and faith it’s because he hasn’t been taught the difference. Those of us who are science educators have only ourselves to blame.

    Stewart doesn’t come across as a man of faith or as an unreasonable man. So maybe he needs a Phil Plait, Neil deGrasse Tyson or even some obscure nobody like me to come on his show and present the other side of this.

    The main thing I would say to him is that science isn’t a mindset that says, “This is the way things are!” I would tell him that it’s a method of investigating the universe and saying, “This is the way things seem to be. This is what we observe and how we interpret those observations… but we might be wrong. Let’s find out.”

    The major difference between faith and science is that when presented with evidence that indicates our position has been wrong is that in science, we use it as a stepping off point to further investigation. With faith, it only causes us to further entrench ourselves into what we already believe to be true. One only needs to look at biological evolution and modern cosmology to see this in action.

  • John

    I think part of the problem is simply using imprecise language whose meaning may be very different in a different context. If you say “we have a theory that explains matter in terms of quarks, leptons, etc… and it does a very good job based on our tests so far”, you’re purely within the realm of science. If you say “protons are made of quarks”, you ARE taking a lot on faith. It’s just that the “faith” is in a very complete, detailed, and well tested explanation. But you can’t claim to actually know how the world works without going beyond the pure scientific method which really can’t do better than “this is the best explanation we have at the moment”

    So I’ve often told people that we “take things on faith”, but that’s not the same as saying that we have no particular reason to believe it and we simply believe it because we like it or someone says it’s true. But we often don’t have direct evidence, or we believe that something exists based on equations that explain some phenomenon (perhaps amazingly well), but which we can’t “prove” are real. So I think it’s a perfectly fair thing to say, but it has the unfortunate drawback that in the context of “religion v. science”, it can be easily misinterpreted.

  • Lachwen

    fraac: some scientists believe in one or various gods. Others don’t. To assume that all scientists MUST have some sort of god is the true delusion here.

  • Adan Rodriguez

    Did it ever occure to “scientists” on this little blog that Jon Stewart is just a comedian? A very good one, but still a comedian rather than a scientist. Critical thinking is dead. Even among the scientific community.

  • http://www.ellipsix.net David

    It’s kind of cool to see you posting this, Sean, because I said pretty much the exact same thing on my own blog (http://www.ellipsix.net/blog/2010/07/bad-science-on-the-daily-show.html) back when the interview originally aired. I definitely agree that we don’t do a good enough job of educating people as to why scientists stand by certain conclusions, but it doesn’t help that in some cases scientists tend to get carried away and start assuming a level of truth that isn’t justifiable. It’s a lot like what Joseph Smidt said a few comments up. (Incidentally, it amazes me that you manage to get so many insightful comments here)

    Of course, The Daily Show kind of redeemed themselves in my eyes by doing an entire physics-themed episode with Lisa Randall the following year (Oct 26 2011). Perhaps they’re a little more scientifically savvy now than they were in 2010.

  • D

    Apart from anything else, I really think the distinction that Stewart is failing to make here is that, whatever assumptions are made, Science as a practice makes an earnest attempt to correct itself. The concept of peer review is certainly not perfect (viz. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/17/science/rise-in-scientific-journal-retractions-prompts-calls-for-reform.html?pagewanted=1) but it seems to be the best we have now. Religious belief only changes, if at all, as a result of shifts in cultural trends and other historical and/or political factors. A church will not change doctrine because another church reads their holy book and points out all the errors, inconsistencies and potential biases.

    So, I think Stewart’s point is partially well-taken, insofar as a lot of us non-experts will trust a scientist’s assertions superficially; but I don’t think we take this “Because I said so” argument to the same extent that most people of faith seem to. Plus, I was under the impression that most working scientists *liked* being questioned and proven wrong. Remember that whole “FTL Neutrino” thing? How many religions have claimed to have witnessed a miracle and asked sincerely for investigation and refutation?

  • Igor

    I remember watching that interview in 2010, and it was painful.

    To give Stewart the benefit of the doubt, I thought that he may have been trying to make the interviewee’s point for her because the interview was going so poorly. Robinson seemed unable to even state a coherent position let alone defend one, so Stewart switched to helping her instead of challenging her.

    That said, his short monologue on science did come out really dumb.

  • ajollynerd

    This is one of the reasons why I think the word “believe” should be stricken from every non-believer’s vocabulary (or, at least, used as little as possible).

    I don’t “believe” in evolution. I don’t “believe” in dark matter or dark energy. I don’t “believe” in quantum mechanics. I accept that these are the best descriptions that we have in the appropriate fields of scientific inquiry. I accept it based on my minuscule understanding of the science (I’m not a scientist) coupled with the testimony (based on observed phenomena) of a consensus of people who understand it far better than I do.

    Maybe if we stopped saying we believe in these things, and use words like “accept” or “think”, we could distance ourselves from the “why can’t we all just get along?” crowd.

    Not that I don’t want to get along with people, but there are certain times the line needs to be drawn in the intellectual sand.

  • ian

    Sounds like you should be invited on his show to talk about dark matter and how we understand science!

  • http://www.flisser.com Bob F.

    Great blog post, and I second the thoughts from Keith Lau and Ian, above.

  • Jim

    Double edged sword… The same benefit by “popularizing” science to a tantalizing degree (i.e. “God Particle”) which interests many people, gets funding … is also a strong factor in misrepresenting science. (Live by, die by).

    However, I appreciate Jon at least bringing up what MOST people actually believe so that scientists and researchers can properly set the record straight. This is clearly where any publicity is better than none at all.

  • Joel

    That’s a common and somewhat forgivable position to have. What was her answer though? That seems to be a rather importnat aspect missing from this article.

    Often interviewers will ask questions they know the answer to in order to give the guest an opportunity to speak on it. This could very well have been one of those times.

  • AI

    Just replace “antimatter” with “multiverse” and his argument is pretty solid.

  • Val

    actually I find Jon’s interview and his witty remarks as being correct and grounded. And probably his “antimatter” “mistake” was simply an irony. There were many science faiths in the past. In cosmology, for instance, luminiferous aether. The majority of scientists believed in that at those times. Current faith examples are Big Bang and Inflation. No one can explain casuality and developments of these events. Majority just have such a belief, so it is considered as solid science. Like inflation much faster than a speed of light. Well, many facts point into those directions. But science is not about the words “majority”, “voting”, and these postulations still are at best hypotheses and in some end may happen to be incorrect interpretations of the facts. Like it happened with Earth the center of the cosmos or a solar system.

  • littlejohn

    I’m PRO-matter. It’s energy I hate.

  • avattoir

    Keith R. Lau: “politics is his strong point”

    … despite that he suffers from chronic Friedman Syndrome. His schtick depends mostly on locating the absolute center of wherever that social conservatives have managed to drag the Overton Window, then leading his audience to mock anyone outside it’s edges.

    This, by the way, from a fan. At his best, he can grab hold of someone with a seriously loony worldview, e.g. Jim DeMint, & display an impressive capacity for surgical evisceration. But when he slips into generalization, where the value of whatever he’s saying requires not just his having reviewed the evidence but also having applied some depth in thinking it thru beforehand. he emerges as a standard establishment clown, e.g. everything George Carlin worked hard to avoid.

  • Jonathan

    Religion and Science are all stories; on different topics. What do we really know about anything? We have approximate knowledge in many subjects, however underlying everything is ignorance. An honest scientist will admit doubt, however if you read popular media, everything is fact, when it in reality is is only true for a given value of true.

  • Chris

    I think what Stewart was getting at is exactly what the author admitted when he said, “When it comes to modern biology there are large parts I accept because of the testimony of experts.”

    Often there are experimental findings that lie so deep within a scientific specialty that only those with doctorate level education and years of technical experience within that specialty can truly evaluate the validity of any conclusion drawn from those findings.

    Any non-experts must have faith in the expert interpretations of scientific experimentation and faith in the process of peer-reviewed publication of those expert interpretations.

    We scientists need to come down off our horses. We’re all humans and any human activity is inherently fallible. Non-scientists are right to recognize that there is a significant element of faith behind their belief in our discoveries and to question that faith. These are the origins of skepticism, a highly-valued practice in science.

  • justin petitt

    I always find it troubling that this is always such a heated discussion. Why are theists demonized for belief in a higher power? There are certain questions in science that I believe mankind can never answer. Why does an electron have a certain weight? What is the nature of the universe at Planck energies? How in the heck did an extremely rare set of coincidences culminate in what we call intelligent life on Earth? I’m not sure these questions can be satisfied by any theory or experiment man can provide. The odds of an amoeba forming in a universe comprised of 3 elements + whatever dark matter and whatever else seems almost infinitely small. Some form of the anthropic principle must come into play. Cosmologists always make some kind of leap of “faith” though they may call it something else. Ask what happened before the big bang. They respond with “that’s like asking what’s north of the north pole”. Sounds like faith to me.

  • Gabe Eisenstein

    Sean Carroll is right to contrast the reasons for believing in antimatter with reasons for believing in God. They are very different kinds of reasons. But the “beliefs” in question are also very different kinds of things, and Carroll (like Stewart and many others, atheist and fundamentalist alike) is oblivious to this fact. Religious “beliefs” are ultimately expressive of values and feelings. They aren’t meant to be confirmed or disconfirmed, except insofar as one is able to persist in the values or states of mind that they connote.

    Stewart’s point is misguided, but I’d like to point out that scientists tend to misunderstand the actual uses of words like “faith”. If you define “faith” simply as “belief without evidence”, then everything is very simple. But if you look at real situations like “I have faith in my child’s ability to…”, you will quickly get answers to questions like “why should we have faith in one thing rather than another?” I need to have faith in my child rather than faith in something else, because the amount of support I show and confidence I can instill in him will have a material effect on his outcomes (whereas other objects of faith involve no such practical utility). Yes, I need to also have a realistic view of his chances; but within the range of probabilities I can realistically determine, there are good reasons for thinking and acting as if the things I hope for are actually going to occur.

    I do think we have faith in science, not as per Stewart’s example, but in the general sense that we believe in the eventual convergence of different theories, and in the ability of a critical mass of humanity to continue acting in good faith on the communal enterprise of science. (It’s easy to imagine, for example, that corporations end up strangling unbiased investigations and manage to pollute the educational sphere to a massive extent.)

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  • Quarkgluonsoup

    And just like any believer, you are sure that your belief is correct and based on solid foundations.

    Stewart is right about Dark Matter: all that is known is that the universe seems to behave as though there is more gravity than their should be. No one knows any more than this, and certainly know one knows that this thing called ‘dark matter’ is the cause.

    I am sure you know a lot about the technical issues in science, but you need to learn more about the philosophy of science. All science can do is produce a mental model of reality, not tell us how reality actually works. Your mistaking of these two is positivism.

  • Ijon Tichy

    I disagree that scientists are to blame. There are plenty of fine books and TV shows that explain modern science. And the amount of informative stuff on the internet is mind-boggling. People have no excuse for not understanding the basics apart from laziness or lack of interest. Scientists do more than enough “public outreach” these days, but if the public don’t want to learn, it’s not the fault of scientists. Well, after all, science is a small blip in human history, and does not come naturally to us.

  • Brian Too

    I’ll throw in the huge imprecision in language as an issue.

    What the religious call their faith, is in truth quite different from the things scientists call their (non-religious) faith. The word faith does not have the same meaning to those respective groups.

    To clarify, a scientist has faith in peer review. A scientist has faith in the scientific method. And scientists generally believe (have faith) that all knowledge is connected even if we do not currently understand the connection.

    What the public calls theory is what a scientist calls a hypothesis. However hypothesis has never quite made it into popular culture, and the average person believes that theory and hypothesis are synonyms.

    While the malleability of language is a gift and playground for poets, it can undermine non-artists attempting to reach out to very different sorts of people.

  • JimV

    @36 (“Ask what happened before the big bang. They respond with “that’s like asking what’s north of the north pole”. Sounds like faith to me.”)

    My layman’s answer would be, “There is no way to get any observational data from prior to the Big Bang. Try not to let it keep you awake nights.”

    Both answers are stating that the question can’t be answered, at least currently. How is that in any way similar to faith, which claims to provide answers in the absence of evidence? We must use different dictionaries.

  • jim Birch

    Isn’t dark matter another hypothesis like, say, the proton? It isn’t observed directly – if anything is – but is responsible for observed effects. In the case of the proton, the hypothetical particle ties a lot of things together so we would treat this as pretty solid science. Dark matter is hard to detect locally but it’s impact at astronomical scales is clear: galaxies don’t spin apart. We don’t know what dark matter “IS” but either it’s there or a lot of fundamental physics goes out the window.

    As of now, there is no theory of everything that pops out the proton or the dark matter particle or the topology of space-time so we rely on working theories that fit the observed facts.

  • paul kramarchyk

    Sean, you’re right. Stewart blew it, big time. Let’s face it, there are people who understand science (few) and those that don’t (many). Stewart doesn’t. He’s a comedian.

  • http://www.tevong.com/adlib.php Tevong

    “we have clearly completely failed to communicate the reasons why we scientists believe in apparently spooky-sounding things like dark matter.”

    That’s my main gripe with popular science, they spend all their time telling people about all the things we know, how fascinating it all is, the people behind the discoveries, how it changed the world, why we should fund it and so on, yet for some reason it is very rarely explained *how* we know these things and *why* it’s true. There’s just so much fluff around science talk in the popular literature yet so little actual science!

    Blogs are slightly better in that respect than pop sci magazines, like starts with a bang or of particular significance which seem to be especially focused around explaining things. But still most bloggers seem to take their accumulated knowledge for granted and prefer to post about the things surrounding science than science itself, like how successful science is or how difficult it is to get tenure or whether coffee should come before or after a talk..

    I’m not criticising CV for not catering to my particular taste, everyone is free to blog about what they want and it’s generally great to follow, but i think this does reflect in general a missing part of the popular science dialogue where an interested layperson can miss the point of science completely because we’re always talking *about* science rather than communicating the science itself.

    e.g. How often do you see “light is an electromagnetic wave” in a popular account, with no more explanation than that maxwell said so? How is the person supposed to differentiate that from “god created the earth in 7 days”? They’re both just handed down explanations, is it any surprise the layperson thinks it’s a matter of faith when that’s how it’s always presented to him? Would it be so difficult to explain faraday’s experiments and how the relationship between electric and magnetic field qualitatively leads to light being identified as an electromagnetic wave? Some do, yet most popular articles and books would just gloss over such things and say “it’s a solution of the maxwell equations” which might as well be “god did it”. If some make the effort to explain some concepts, like relativity, they just go on to things like “there are quarks inside a proton”. Why? Because. They could be “flargs” inside a proton for all it matters to the reader. It just feels all so arbitrary! Even to an undergraduate learning physics this can be the case when things aren’t properly introduced and learnt in the right way.

    So again, i’m not surprised a lot of people mistakenly consider physics and science to be a matter of faith.

  • amphiox

    And I know you will say “but in principle these are testable” which is true but given the absence of evidence let’s not kid ourselves into suggesting the scientists maintaining they believe these theories are true aren’t in fact operating on *some* level of faith. They are.

    A distinction needs to be made. It is the human scientists that are operating on some level of faith, not science itself. And this is probably inevitable, as faith is a big part of the human psychology.

    Most human scientists probably do need at least some faith to motivate them in their work. They have the believe that their hypotheses are true before they have evidence in order motivate themselves to make the effort of finding that evidence, or at least believe that the process of the search is worthwhile.

    But one of the main points of the whole scientific method, with all its self-correction mechanisms, is to prevent human scientists from leading themselves astray as a result of their individual faith.

    These theories you mention are proposed by human scientists as part of the scientific method, but they are not accepted by science, and will not be until evidence becomes available. This is where theoretical testability comes in. If something is theoretically testable, it means that finding evidence for it is possible, and hence it is a hypothesis worth thinking about. If it is not even theoretically testable, then that means evidence cannot ever be found for it, and pursuing it is a waste of limited time and resources.

    A lot of the debates on the edges of science are about theoretical testability. Indeed, a lot of the debates are about practical testability. Early pioneers may propose an idea, but generally, the majority of the scientific community will not come on board until practical testability becomes feasible.

  • Thomas

    Just disappointing.

  • jerry

    Poor Jon – unprepared at the least, tho probably dumber than s___ when it comes to science.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/111223179899826372488/posts Peter Edmonds

    Excellent post Sean. I read the first part of it earlier today and saw that Phil Plait also had a strong reaction. But I hadn’t watched the video clip and read the rest of the post until a few minutes ago. So, it was a bit like reading a critical review of a movie before you’ve actually seen the movie. It’s natural to think “it can’t be as bad as they said”. Well, in this case it was. And, I say that as a big fan of the show.

  • Chris

    In a way we do take science on faith. Faith that the universe isn’t screwing with us. Faith that there isn’t some higher being manipulating the data and laughing at what he could make these puny humans believe. Scientists are a bit like Pavlov dogs, we hear the bell and start salivating because we know the food is coming. We are basing our conclusions on evidence and reproducibility. As long as the food keeps coming, our view of the universe is secure. Now if some higher being decides to ring the bell and not bring the food, our entire view of the nature of the universe would be in chaos.

  • julay

    i do know that jon stewart attempted to major in chemistry before he switched over to psychology.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    He has a point in that the closer you edge to the front of research, the less evidence you have. I wouldn’t say that scientists who work at the frontier of the known rely on faith, but they rely on other motivations that are not science-based. Some might have religious reasons, others call upon things like elegance and beauty. Dark matter is arguably not a good example because we do have a lot of evidence for that. But many people put forward hypotheses that are supposed to be tested in the future, and before the test is done, what is it that they are based on?

  • http://about.me/andrewrwilson Andrew Wilson

    Isaac Asimov wrote a great letter on what science is: http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm

  • http://www.ast.cam.ac.uk/~wball/ Warrick

    “For which I blame us, at least as much as I blame him.”

    I think this is the most important sentence in this blog post. Many of the comments above are quite insightful and raise many pertinent issues about how science is misinterpreted by laypeople. But, as scientists, it’s up to use to communicate our principles better.

  • http://sax-appeal.blogspot.com Alien Life Form

    @TychaBrahe: “And perhaps then we need to teach that in school as part of the science curriculum. What you have here is Gerber’s. The meat is very far out of reach, but you can get there. And if you aren’t willing to devote your life to getting there, then you do need to take on faith the pronouncements of those who have done so.”

    Oh my. This is, plain and simple, how one would define a priest chaste: “True understanding is very far out of reach, but you can get there. And if you aren’t willing to devote your life to getting there, then you do need to take on faith the pronouncements of those who have done so.”

    The crux of the problem appears to be that a fairly large portion of scientists are – at heart – positivists, meaning that they think science makes assertions about what is true. (Even if most of them do publicly tell that they are Popper’s followers, meaning they believe science makes assertions about what is false, a very different kettle of fish).

    When – inevitably – some of the previous “truths” is falsified, that turns out not to be good science PR.

    A number of people claiming to speak in name of science also goes around making statements about the very small probability of something happening. (This is, by the way, bad methodology: a book called “The Black Swan” explains why.)

    When that something happens, (say, Fukushima blows up, the Challenger disintegrates) that also turns out not to be good science PR.

    Scientific eschatology can also be called to task as not being a source for good PR, seeing as, these days, it touts as sound a version of the anthropic principle depending on the existence of 10^500 universes created by the vagaries of an inflaton field whose existence is “theoretically testable”.

    Last, but not least, the attitude of many subscribers to the so called “new atheism” movement (aggressively ridiculing anybody not adhering to their point of view), isn’t helping any.

    Ideas for better PR, anyone?

    Cheers,
    alf

  • Quinn O’Neill

    Not even relying on the testimony of experts requires faith, so long as one understands how science works. The trust is in the process, not the person. And it is *trust* rather than faith; science has useful applications and there is ample evidence that it works.

  • Val

    46. amphiox

    That.

    And please, leave alone comedian Jon, mocking hundreds of `scientists` telling us everyday on Discovery ‘Science’ channel tons of fairytales about wormholes, interstellar human expansion, dinosaurs ruling universe etc. This is not the comedians fault, dont shoot him, he’s only the piano player.

  • http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~sgralla/ Sam Gralla

    That is terrifying (to see Jon Stewart say those things). Somebody famous should contact him or otherwise confront him about it. If Jon Stewart thinks science is like religion, what hope do we have for resisting the right’s onslaught…

  • Chris

    All he is saying is that scientists are so bad at explaining their findings to non-scientists that when they do they often sound very similar to theists explaining how they know that God exists. Something like, “Believe me, I used science.”

    He has a point. Scientists are bad at explaining the connections between results and conclusions to anyone but experts in their own field. It’s all they are expected to do.

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    Jon Stewart is right about dark matter, it doesn’t exist and yet it put up by many as dogma, despite a complete lack of evidence.

  • Chris
  • Quarkgluonsoup

    @61 Chris,
    I have, and the author makes the same mistake that he does here: confuses an observation (more gravity appears to exist in the universe than should) with evidence of something unrelated (a theory that, if true, could explain this)

  • Satan Claws

    Sean, the solution is simple: write a book to get invited into Jon’s show and then you can speak your mind.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Perhaps it’s just semantic pedantry to some, but I tend to think there’s a big distinction between religious faith and concepts like “trust” or “confidence”. The latter two need never be absolute, in my mind (i.e. “trust, but verify”). Conflating confidence in experts’ ability to achieve accuracy through honest investigation with “faith” sets up a gigantic straw man. I tend to think it’s a willful misrepresentation trotted out by the more sophisticated ideologues, and I’m pretty sick of it.

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    Low Math,
    Look no further than the authors belief in dark matter for faith without evidence.

  • byby

    Scientists water down science which is the reason laid back folks don’t understand it. They don’t understand the basic principles of science let alone its intricate implications. Scientists water down science so much that anybody on the street can imagine an alternative theory of anything and claim to be the new Einstein. This borderlines faith where you are not expected to test, but just to imagine and believe wholeheartedly. Science also uses confusing terms. If you meet someone for the first time chances are you will catch just the first name. So if you are introduced to two different notions in the same context, dark energy and dark matter, a regular person on the street would remember the dark, because neither matter nor energy are regular in his vocabulary. Therefore both notions will melt into one.
    Don’t forget how long it takes a trained scientist to understand the underlying principles and what ideas can be challenged in science. So don’t be upset when regular folks fail at times. After all, they don’t receive the same day-in and day-out drilling as scientists do.

    I think that instead of being frustrated, scientists should continue to communicate to the wider audience what science is-both in general and in particular term. The more the audience is bombarded with a message, the more clear the message will get, and the more audience will be intellectually involved with it….

    Don’t forget that your frustrating comes because you are living in the back-end realm of science. There is more to science than its fundamentals(set-up=back-end). The applications that folks use and are familiar with are the front-end of science, and as long as scientists succeed in relating the intricate back-end to the familiar front-end, folks would relate and appreciate what science does and is. There is a disconnect between the ‘real’ world as we experience it and the ‘abstract’ world which allowed us to experience/develop the ‘real’ world as we did/do.

    The questions of faith involve exclusively the fundamentals of science-has anybody questioned their i-PAD yet? Just as per faith one believes in a given deity, one per faith believes in the fundamental laws of physics.
    The difference between the two is that the laws of religious faith are not challenged because they are deemed self-evident truths (just like your human rights), but the fundamental laws of physics are unknown and their working forms are allowed to change. The working forms of the fundamental laws of science are assumed to evolve towards one true ultimate fundamental law of science. This fact is a form of faith because it is predicated on a self-evident truth that the terms used to formulate this fundamental law are self-evident.

    I believe that religion and science are inconclusive in their fundamental formulation. There will never be a winner at that level. It will always require some form of faith in accepting the correct interpretation of the fundamental laws.

    The large scale different between the two is in their front-end. Science is evolving and progressing, irrespective of changes in its working laws. On the other hand, religion, lives in the past. Religion looks at a bunch of books and interprets them but makes no progress. They send the same message over and over, and sadly it does not sink in. There is no peace on half the planet. Science does make progress, people in general are content with the new tools in their hands. It is a completely different question of what the price of this progress is-if all tools from the last 100 years are removed, people will not know how to survive in the world, they would have lost the fundamental survival skills which have been replaced by conveniences through gadgets.
    There was a nice line in the early 1900s when faith in science improved the survival among humans, but with the on-look of a nuclear war, this seems like a short-lived improvement over the imminent wipe-out of the human race(may take a few thousand years).

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    byby,
    You have a very limited definition of “religion” that represents no actual religion. Your claim about science is teleological, not historical. Science (like all human endeavors) has a history of stagnation and retrogression (eugenics for example).

  • beer case

    #62 Quarkgluonsoup:

    Clearly you didn’t read the article, because you didn’t mention this:

    Even with MOND, you still need dark matter.

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    #68 Beer,
    MOND is just as fictional as Dark Matter. Neither exist, and both are modern-day versions of epicycles.

  • Bob

    I also remember Jon Stewart having Lisa Randall on the program to discuss her latest book. She clearly wanted to discuss exciting stuff about the LHC and dark matter, and beautiful theoretical ideas surrounding supersymmetry, extra dimensions, etc. But I remember Jon really didn’t give her the chance to discuss any of this whatsoever. He just wanted some generic discussion about global warming, or something, and I had no clue why he was only discussing this with her. But I think I have a better sense now. Jon Stewart, like many people, just have no clue about modern physics. Which is okay. But instead of him saying “that is tough stuff that I would have to work hard to properly grasp”, he takes the lazy-man approach “it must be speculative garbage, since I can’t immediately understand it”. Very disappointing.

  • beer case

    Quarkgluonsoup:

    Dark matter don’t exist? That’s nonsense, but I understand you will not accept that it exist, no matter what you read. You find evidence in the microwave background radiation, the way galaxies rotate, gravitational lensing, and more.

    I your earlier post, you said:”All science can do is produce a mental model of reality, not tell us how reality actually works”

    Well that settles it then? We can clearly give up putting satelites in orbit around the earth or other planets, since “science do not tell us how reality actually works”..

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    #70 Bob,
    And most who know the specifics of physics theories don’t know that science is not metaphysics and much of reality can’t be described with science. They also think that the fact that their theories are the most internally coherent explanation of observation, that this is by design (they are typically, as with Big Bang cosmology, designed to fit observation) and as such the theories are almost certainly not true.

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    #71 Beer,
    It is nonsense? You sure? What we know is that the universe seems to behave as if there is a lot more gravity than there should be. That is all we know. No one knows what the cause is. Dark Matter is a common explanation, but not a shred of evidence exists that Dark Matter actually exists or is the cause of this.

    All of those observations you mention (such as lensing) are observations that validate the claim that there appears to be more gravity in the universe than there should be, not observations that validate Dark Matter.

    And science doesn’t tell us how reality works, but provides possible explanations for how parts of it (the material natural world) might work. That you think otherwise is logical positivism and nothing more.

  • KWK

    @BOB (#70),
    I agree that most in the media are “lazy” in the way you describe, but one who is most definitely not is Rachel Maddow. Her coverage of Fukushima, for example, was phenomenal–she actually took the time to learn and to ask the right questions of the scientists she had on her show. It strikes me that it may be more worthwhile to praise those who do things right than complain about those who don’t.

    @QGS (et al.),
    First: yes, it is possible that many of our theories could be wrong–or better, incomplete–but one of the ways science works in the real world is to (provisionally) support the best extant theory as we continue to “trust, but verify”. On the other hand, you seem to be advocating for the position that “There may exist (though I have no evidence for it) some other thing that could correspond better to reality, therefore the current best idea is not worth holding.” I don’t see such radical skepticism as particularly more virtuous (or more likely to arrive at a useful picture of the universe) than the position you are opposing.
    Second, Dark Matter has come across as some sort of mystical notion in popular culture, but it really is just particular classes of particles that (for the most part) we haven’t directly detected yet. Particle physicists detect other new particles all the time (I think there was one just last week, in fact…), so it is eminently reasonable (almost required, I would say) to think that there are a few more out there waiting for us.
    For that matter, we *have* detected “dark matter”, i.e. non-baryonic particles with nonzero mass: we know that (at least two types of) neutrinos have mass, and we can determine what fraction of the overall mass budget of the universe neutrinos comprise. We have rigorously detected them in certain settings even if we haven’t seen them directly in astronomical situations (which is where the dark matter that everyone is looking for lives). But we know they are out there with roughly the same level of confidence that we know electrons are there.
    So I have to ask: since we have positively ID’ed some fraction of dark matter, why are you so hung up on the rest of it?

  • Neil5150

    Sean Carroll Doesn’t Understand How Science Works Even a Little Bit.

    On the Colbert Nation show in 2010 Sean says “If science had all the answers we would stop”.

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/267142/march-10-2010/sean-carroll

    Just shows you how ignorant Sean is of science, we will never know ALL the answers. No wonder he was denied tenure at the University of Chicago.

    Then he states in a alternate universe the Colbert Nation show might be on more often, this guy just has no clue whatsoever with anything to do with the scientific method.

    The above is as fair to Sean as he was to Jon.

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    @KWK,
    No, we have detected particles that are only influenced by gravity and the Weak Interaction. This is a trait of Dark Matter, not the definition of it. The term “Dark Matter” usually refers to WIMPs or some other particle that could provide the missing gravity, not to any particle that is only affected by gravity and the Weak Interaction.

    My argument isn’t that we are less than 100% certain that Dark Matter exists, but that we have no evidence that it exists at all. We can’t be 100% certain that the four fundamental forces are the only fundamental forces, but we have direct evidence that each exists. With Dark Matter, there is no evidence at all.

    All we have are observations that there seems to be a lot more gravity out there than there should be. No one knows what the cause is, and no one has a shred of evidence that Dark Matter even exists, let alone that it is the cause.

  • KWK

    Sean,

    Yeah, it sure looks like John Stewart missed the boat on this one with his “f*ing magnets, how do they work?”-type argument. We need more people like you pushing for scientists (and everyone, really) to better understand and more carefully express the nature of science and how people attain knowledge by means of it.

    That said…for all the hand-wringing over Stewart’s view of science expressed here, the vast majority of the (non-theistic) chorus that has weighed in on your post seems to have an equally inadequate (and unquestioned) view of the nature of religious faith. “Something I want to cling to, evidence be damned” seems to be a common (and dare I say, utterly tendentious) working definition for your commentariat. As with scientists, religious believers must do a better job of explaining their method for evaluating evidence (logical, philosophical, experiential, documentary, circumstantial, and yes, observational) that provides the reasons for why they hold the views that they do. But despite religious believers’ failures in this regard, such fatuous definitions of “faith” as those expressed here are no less wrong for being so common.

    To take just one example: many early Christians were willing to (and did) die for their confession that their Messiah returned from the dead. And in light of historically verifiable events like this, Evangelicals’ favorite saint, C.S. Lewis, was eventually dragged kicking and screaming into assenting to the basic truth-claims of Christianity. He didn’t “want” it to be true, but based on his evaluation of the evidence before him, he altered his previously-held stance. Religion does not employ the same process of “peer review” that occurs with science, obviously; nevertheless, responsible and thoughtful people among both the religious and the irreligious re-evaluate their mental and moral commitments regularly, notwithstanding the naive and unjustified beliefs about the rigidity of faith expressed here.

  • KWK

    @QGS,

    I have to say I don’t follow your (semantic?) argument. We haven’t detected WIMPS, say, but we have detected at least one class of (non-baryonic) particles that contributes to the observed mass of galaxies. Why do you not consider these as one of a class of Dark Matter particles?
    In the absence of current observational evidence as to their specific properties, may have faith (i.e. very good mathematical, logical, and historical reasons to believe) that other such particles exist, but I fail to see why this is a problem. In much the same way that special relativity reduces to Newton’s laws in the limit of low velocities, “whatever is really out there” reduces to “something that behaves like Dark Matter” in the limit of our current observations. So we may eventually find that there is *more* than dark matter, but it seems to me to be implausible to think that there will be *less* than dark matter.

  • albiegf13

    Jon was just being a nice and polite young man to this nice and well spoken middle aged lady who got to plug her book on his show…. Nothing to see here folks….. He was probably returning a favor to a friend by doing this interview…. Sometimes you just have to be nice and agreeable….. If it would have been me making those assertions, he would have probably bitten my mofo head off…. I go to Catholic service on Sunday for only one reason, to make my mother happy, she knows that I’m a “7” and I know that she loves me even more because I make the effort…. You can trust me when I tell you that it’s an “effort”…

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    @KWK,
    You seem to be talking about a broad kind of matter (non-baryonic) and not what the author is referring to: the matter that many believe fills the universe (neutrinos and other observed non-baryonic matter are a tiny percent of the total mass in the universe). So lets talk about the same thing (the kind of Dark Matter the author refers to).

    Your (logically fallacious) claim is this: non-baryonic matter exists, Dark Matter is theorized to be non-baryonic matter, therefore Dark matter exists. No one doubts that non-baryonic matter exists. “Dark Matter” doesn’t refer to non-baryonic matter but a type of (possibly non-baryonic) matter that gives the universe the extra gravity that seems to exist.

    This relies on several dubious assumptions, the first being that General Relativity is the final and complete theory of gravity. If it is, then we should be able to predict how cosmic bodies are behaving under the influence of gravity, and yet what we predict is not what we observe. Rather than questioning whether our assumption is wrong, we assume it isn’t and that something else must cause this discrepancy. Even if General Relativity were the final and complete theory of gravity (it certainly isn’t, due to the issues of reconciling it with QM), then Dark Matter would be the simplest explanation. But even then, that it is the simplest explanation is not proof that it actually exists.

  • Aeronin

    ** YAWN **

    Yet another “Scientific Method & Religious Faith are Mutually Exclusive” false-dichotomy rant on CV …

    The usual cast of Non-Theist suspects lecturing, declaring, with varying degrees of profound, sonorous, self-congratulatory stridency, that all who ‘by faith’ believe in something not empirically observable are undeniably uneducated, deluded ignoramuses who fail to understand SCIENCE!

    Apparently, the utter irony escapes them that such a dogmatic, non-repeatable hypothesis, reliant as it is upon non-universally-observational-fact/opinion, represents just as much an obstinate, arrogant statement of Faith as that of any offered by the most pig-headed Young-Earther Creationist.

    The Truth is that we don’t even know what we don’t know, either way.

  • goldy

    @TychaBrahe:

    Well said, can I steal it? To respond to Alien Life Form, I do think that some of the better popular science books do a good job of taking you through enough steps to be able to understand the evidence behind many scientific assertions (the set of assertions covered in a book on cosmology will be different from those covered in a book on oceanography). As a scientist and a former high school teacher, I think we need to spend more time exposing students to the scientific method. Let them see how evidence helps create theories which result in new experiments which end up verifying or falsifying the theories leading to new and/or better theories etc.. A successful example of this is the Modeling curriculum for physics from ASU (http://modeling.asu.edu/).

  • http://sax-appeal.blogspot.com Alien Life Form

    @82. Goldy
    The latest cosmological developments (post microwave background, say), do not really appear to offer much in the way of showing “how evidence helps create theories which result in new experiments…”. As I understands it even a result considered standard as black hole entropy is beyond experimental verification. But national television teems with “elegant universes” that even large numbers of practitioners find hard to swallow and which have been investigated without a shred of experimental evidence for what? 40 years now?

    This does not even begin to address the damage that positivistic stances do (IMHO) to science’s reputation. And thank (someone) that platonic beliefs (seemingly widely held, among scientist) are not more widely aired, or understood. “We do not believe in Thee, but we do believe in Three” would be embarassing to defend in a theological discussion.

    Cheers.

  • byby

    @ Aeronin @ Neil5150

    Amen…it’s frustrating that time is being wasted on an insignificant open ended question, especially when the value of the answer is so vague. I would rather have scientist work on tangible questions rather that be involved in philosophical dilemmas with dubious outcomes.
    And indeed, if someone is dedicating so much time to something with such low utility, the overall pay-off of that person would be low. This has been demonstrated.
    That Sean knows something about science can be deduced from where he is working. Folks at that place don’t keep dummies in their hallways. But that Sean has been stuck banging his head against the wall for too long, this is unquestionable. Even kids know when a tantrum has gone too far and is time to move on to something more productive. That’s all, move on, folks from CV.

  • Gizelle Janine

    This kind of conversation only resolves one problem: someone needs to meet God before we exclude anyone here. *starts laughing hysterically*

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  • Quarkgluonsoup

    Well it looks like Dark Matter really doesn’t exist after all
    http://www.nature.com/news/survey-finds-no-hint-of-dark-matter-near-solar-system-1.10494

    Though I am sure the true believers will stick with their dogma.

  • Kevin

    We have several examples of galaxy cluster collisions which have different distributions of gravity than of visible mass. If you simulate a collision of galaxy clusters which contain a lot of WIMP dark matter, the result looks just like observation. http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2009/09/dark_matter_part_35_when_clust.php

  • Guido

    I am more surprised by the peevish response of Shaun to Ms. Robinson…..Jon Stewart has been making fun of religion forever… why can’t he make fun of science (is science the new religion perhaps?)

  • MKS

    Sean,

    those who take it seriously, deserve it; don’t blow an o-ring :3

  • http://juanrga.com Juan Ramón González Álvarez

    @87 Check also the invisible substance is just an illusion

    This is a new observation that confirming all the direct and indirect tests (the famous Bullet cluster proof was posteriorly disproved when details were taken into account) disproving the existence of the hypothetical dark matter: Dark matter is the Vulcan planet of the 21st century

  • http://www.catholiclab.net Ian

    You say “If believers in God spent a tiny fraction of the time that modern cosmologists spend trying to invent alternatives to their favorite ideas and testing them against evidence … well let’s just say the world would be a very different place.”

    That’s quite a swipe at all believers in God and the miriad of religious traditions and their acts of charity. Yes the world would be a different place, but you don’t say whether it would be better.

    It also implies all or some of those traditions do not have any evidence for God (uncaused cause, unconditional reality, absolute simple reality, unique unrestricted reality, a priori and a posteri cosmological, etc). Perhaps you have evidence for the absence of God?

    Also, it ignores the contributions of proto-scientific thinking centred in theology from the medieval universities (and other places) to cosmology. But heh, perehaps you don’t get the history or philosophy of science

  • Dirk

    I strongly agree with Quarkgluonsoup, and the arguments against him and against Stewart are inadvertently strengthening Stewart’s arguments.

    Personally, I hate the not-uncommon narrative in science that so-and-so revolutionized our understanding of such-and-such. The only way this can happen is if our understanding was wrong in the first place. The way that a wrong idea can become entrenched is if scientists argue for it with insufficient evidence. Sometimes I think that arguments meant for the popular press end up influencing graduate students in slightly different fields, who then end up with a belief system without the true qualifications. The comments on dark matter here are a good example.

  • Cathy

    Back in my botany classes we got to play with a very cool piece of equipment that measured the amount of C02 being absorbed and also measured the relative output of oxygen, when pressed against a leaf. The $10,000 gadget did so on live plants without destroying the leaf, and allowed us to quantitatively measure the difference between P680 and P700 photosynthesis. The data matched the theory which matched the math.

    The biggest difference between theory and faith is that the theory will either hold up to testing or not. Faith cannot be tested, nor should it be.

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  • Guido

    to 94: there are many things in science that just now we can test and many we can’t test yet (haven’t figured out how to) – what makes you think that faith cannot be tested at some point?

  • Scott Derrickson

    “Much worse is that he clearly has absolutely no idea why we believe in dark matter… In reality, the more you delve into science, the less it appears to rely on faith.”

    True, but if you believe in something unverified and unproven, your belief is, in some significant sense, still a matter of faith. Reasonable faith is faith nonetheless.

    “We know how much dark matter there is, have ongoing strategies for detecting it, and spend a lot of time coming up with alternatives and testing them against the data.”

    And yet, there is also scientific evidence that challenges belief in dark matter:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2012/04/21/151114725/dark-matter-study-a-disturbance-in-the-force?device=iphone

    I agree that Stewart mischaracterizes scientific belief in dark matter theory, reducing it to what sounds like faith w/o reason, or baseless faith. It seems to me that the great failure of science for laymen like myself and Jon Stewart, is first the failure to make clear exactly what the difference is between science fact/data and theory, and secondly (and more significantly) the failure to make clear the reasonability or probability of accuracy between various theories – those that are highly probable (relativity), those that are perhaps less probable (dark matter), and those that have no hard evidence supporting them (multiverse).

  • Scott Derrickson

    Dang it, sorry for the double post – didn’t mean to do that. Second post is edited.

  • AG

    It is all about math. Without math, we still think the sun circling around the earth.

  • Met

    No, I think Robinson is not right, even though she says so. Science, the scientific knowledge should be based on facts. Scientific knowledge is produced by approaching those facts as much as possible. We call these approaches as theories. Theories are models. Models should be verifiable and falsifiable. We test models by empirical studies. Good models survive bad models die. What important is the way we produce scientific knowledge, not whether science refutes or vice versa or whatever the combination is. We need to prove things. Things that are not proven are a priori, dogmatic, and they are nothing with to create scientific knowledge. Religion is a priori, religion has nothing with to do science. Last thing that I wanna say. Scientific knowledge should be objective knowledge. Religion may or may not be in human-mind. Religion may or may not be mind-dependent or dependent. We should focus on how to improve our scientific knowledge, or explore the ways leading a scientific progress. Nothing else.

  • Nolan

    It never ceases to bother me that those involved in academic science bemoan the lack of the general population’s knowledge of science when academic science specifically tries to avoid interacting with the general public in the first place. You’ve said it yourself, one of the worst things you can do it write in a general audience format because it shows a lack of commitment to research. There are certainly exceptions here but unless we break this trend how will we ever get to a point where we can expect anything more from the general public?

  • Bill Brett

    If people believe in anything, it’s their television.
    Television is the religion. Television rots the brain.
    http://www.sustainabilityinstitute.org/dhm_archive/index.php?display_article=vn547cultureed

  • MP

    I would just point out that Stewart’s is a comedy show; it is not about exchanging careful thoughts about science or anything else, I think. It may be true that, as time went by, for reasons that are too long to describe here, his parody of the political absurdities which are common place in tv shows became part of the folklore of political commentary in the public arena. Still, you should realize that a lot of the thoughtful points made in this thread of comments are way too long to be conveyed to a general audience during the five minutes allowed to his guests. It seems to me that he throws provocative jokes, including no-sense ones, just about everything — including science and scientists –, and it does not seem plausible enough to me to take him literally at his words. But, of course, I could be wrong.

  • Pingback: Science: taxonomies, grasping it and the insufficiency of “common sense” « blueollie()

  • http://bongotronics.com Corky Swanson

    For the layperson or even a scientist in another field, a “belief” in science is exactly that. Yet what we take on faith is backed up by the ferocious self-correction in which science, and scientists, engage. We take it for granted that if there is an error in the current theory, it will be rooted out, sooner or later, by a determined scientific community. Scientists are rewarded for finding the errors of their peers and predecessors. This is not the case for other purveyors of belief. But Stewart makes an excellent point: the basis of our belief in science is not our own analysis of evidence, but a trust in a group of other people who perpetually prove themselves wrong. :)

  • Pingback: The Nature of Science « The Seventh Colour()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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