Scientists: Humble or Arrogant?

Peter Hodgson FAITH Magazine November-December 2005

Scientists often give the impression that they are arrogant. They are certain that what they say is true, and brush aside any objections. To some extent this is justified when they are talking about their own speciality, but not when they are talking about other aspects of science and even more when they talk about politics and other matters of general concern.

When they are researching in their chosen field, scientist take great care to make their experiments as accurate as possible, and they check and double check their own and other scientists’ results. They can make mistakes, but in the end the result is reliable knowledge. They have established a feature of the way the world is, whether we like it or not.

The results scientists obtain may not be what they expected, and may even go against their previous beliefs. Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, came from a very conservative family of scholars. He realised that the frequency distribution of the radiation emitted from a hot body is a very fundamental feature of nature. It had been measured very accurately, and he wanted to understand it.

The existing theories gave a good account of the measurements for high and low frequencies, but not for the region in between.. Planck succeeded in finding a mathematical formula that fitted the whole spectrum very accurately. He then tried to derive it theoretically by assuming that the radiation comes out in small bundles, and he planned to obtain the final result by letting the size of the small bundles go to zero. To his astonishment he found that this gave the wrong result, whereas assuming that the bundles are finite gave the correct one.

This result went against all his instincts as a physicist, and he tried for years to get round it, but without success. He was thus forced to admit that radiation is emitted in bundles that are now called quanta. In this he acted as a true scientist, humbly accepting the facts. Scientists do not impose their ideas on nature; they accept what they find and publish their conclusions. They are understandably angry if someone who knows nothing about the subject contradicts them, and this can give the impression of arrogance.

It is quite a different matter if a scientist speaks in a dogmatic way on matters outside his speciality. He is, like anyone else, entitled to his opinions, but has no monopoly of the truth. Unfortunately there are many scientists who use their scientific authority to lend weight to their views on political or moral questions. Even within their speciality, it is prudent to speak with caution, and to be always willing to give reasons for their conclusions. This is far more necessary in other matters.

Other examples are provided by scientists who deny the need for a Creator on the basis of some very speculative theories, and by others who say that evolution just happened by chance, without ever defining chance.

Quite often a declaration on some matter of public concern is issued with the signature of a thousand scientists or a hundred Nobel Prize Winners. It is then important to ask whether all those scientists really have specialist knowledge of the subject of the declaration. If not, they are acting arrogantly.

Scientists do their best to find out about the laws of nature, and they cannot alter what they find. It is no use asking them to alter the law of gravity. If you ignore the law of gravity and jump off a cliff, then you get hurt. That is the way the world is, whether we like it or not. Similarly it is no use asking the Church to alter the moral laws. In both cases we just have to try to live our lives in a way that respects both the laws of nature and the moral laws.

Faith Magazine