Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Relying on Human Knowledge and the Scientific Method (Alone): Recipe for Disaster

In some of my latest posts here and at the Nauvoo Times, I tried to explain that what we humans can perceive and understand is incredibly limited. In pointing out the limitations of science, I was not suggesting that this in any way proves the superiority of the Mormon concept of testimony and revelation from God. What I was seeking to do, as most of us apologists generally try to do, was not proving our position is true, but trying to address a common objection against it. We address objections to help people get past them so they can take the Gospel seriously enough to read, think, ponder, and ultimately pray, seeking guidance from God.

Some readers may have been left in the dark by my discussion of strange new and unseen forms of matter and energy that modern scientists now believe must dominate this universe of ours. Some eyes might have glazed over when I raised the issue the tiny range of electromagnetic wavelengths that we can perceive visually when I chided those who only want to believe that their two imperfect eyes tell them (eyes which, on a clear day, see approximately 0% of the earth’s surface and thus can grasp approximately 0% of what’s really going on in this miniscule corner of the universe, even if they could see all wavelengths and all that dark matter and dark energy, too). So, to address this issue of knowledge and the things of the Spirit more generally, let me raise the question, how do we limited humans really know things with a certainty?

Simple Example: The Bible and Basic Book Knowledge

Since we often discuss the Bible and other books on this blog, let’s begin with an important example of common knowledge in this realm. Here is a serious question: How did you come to know that the Gutenberg Bible was the world’s first mass-produced book printed with movable type? OK, I’ve given one reasonable answer away: it’s common knowledge. Movable type, printed books, the Bible and Gutenberg—we all know that. We hear this over and over, and it’s just an Internet rumor. We learn it in school. And there’s another reasonable answer: We know it because the experts tell us so. Not just hobbyists and hacks, but pedigreed, multi-degreed, world-class scholars in the nation’s most trusted institutions. For example, on this topic, one of the nation’s premier centers of knowledge on books and literature, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin, actually has one of those rare Gutenberg Bibles and call tell us with all the confidence of modern scholarship this basic piece of knowledge:

The Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center
The Gutenberg Bible, the first substantial book printed with movable type, is one of the greatest treasures in the Ransom Center's collections. It was printed at Johann Gutenberg's shop in Mainz, Germany and completed in 1454 or 1455. The Center's Bible was acquired in 1978 and is one of only five complete examples in the United States.

They must know this, of course. They’ve even got the book, one of only five in the country. Cool! Maybe some of you have even better reasons for knowing this little factoid, but for most of us, common knowledge, the consensus of teachers, plus the authority of  world-class experts like the Gutenberg Bible pros at the University of Texas should be more than enough. This is how human knowledge can become firm, authoritative, and highly trusted.

You should all feel perfectly safe in raising your hand and saying “The Gutenberg Bible!” when asked who produced the world’s first mass-produced printed book, and that’s the answer most educated people give. I know, because I’ve asked that question in public presentations I’ve given, both in the US and in Asia, and nearly everyone who dared to answer knew that answer. Likewise, when asked who the inventor or producer was, they knew it was Gutenberg.

But that’s the wrong answer. Seriously. It’s wrong.
Gutenberg’s accomplishment was monumental, and all lovers of books and bibles should be grateful for it. But he printed his Bible in 1455,  which was just 142 years after the world’s first mass produced book was printed in China by Wang Zhen in 1313. The book was the Nong Shu, the Book of Farming, a complex and “substantial” book (I’m wondering if “substantial” in the Ransom Center’s statement was meant as a weasel word to excise Chinese competition?).  It was printed with over 100,000 characters (the copy I own comes in three hefty volumes—sure feels “substantial,” though standards for substantial might be bigger in Texas). It also has dozens of drawings with DaVinci-like mechanisms including, for example, water wheels that crank a piston pumping a bellows attached to a blast furnace producing molten metal (see figure below), drawn and described over a hundred years before Europeans invented the blast furnace. Go read about it at Wikipedia in the article on the inventor, Wang Zhen, or read about it over at the Nauvoo Times. It was an amazing accomplishment. One controversial writer, Gavin Menzies, even argues that copies of the Nong Shu that made it to Europe may have triggered the Italian Renaissance and been the source for some of DaVinci’s inventions (or rather, his well-drawn adaptations and possible improvements of Chinese inventions). See Gavin Menzies, 1434:The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). Interesting theory, but I’m not so sure about it, though I also can’t rule it out. Not with my limited knowledge.

Drawing from the 1313 Nong Shu showing an early blast furnace, and one of several examples of possible inspiration for Da Vinci.

A century from now, the descendants of my Western readers might grow up learning about Wang Zhen and the Nong Shu before they learn about Gutenberg. They might also be speaking Chinese (no need to wait—you and your family can get started now!), hopefully as a second language. But for now, the standards of common knowledge and reliance on leading authorities has left much of the world ignorant about the most basic aspects of the history of the printed word.

If common knowledge and expert authority can miss something so basic, can we consistently trust those sources on more complex issues that touch upon our lives? Man is often wrong, regardless of status, degrees, and the clamor of popular opinion. This is true in both science and religion. Part of the answer is to recognize our inadequacy and recognize that there might be—must be—something more.

Establishment Science and Fatal Maternity Wards

Let’s take some examples more directly from modern science. In a business book my coauthors and I published through John Wiley & Sons, Conquering Innovation Fatigue, we included some case studies about the massive barriers that important inventors faced over the centuries. The dogma of established science has often led the charge in resisting progress.

Consider Ignacz Semmelweis, a Hungarian immigrant who in 1847 discovered that contact with cadavers by medical students at an Austrian maternity clinic made the women in childbirth they treated much more likely to die from infection (see Wikiepedia, “Ignacz Semmelweis,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignaz_Semmelweis). Decades before germ theory would be developed and accepted, he introduced hand washing practices with hypochlorite solutions to eliminate “cadaverous particles,” and patient mortality dropped from 10% to about 1%. However, this innovation was at odds with the established disease theory of his day. It wasn’t “scientific.” As an immigrant and in his role as merely an assistant to a medical professor, he lacked the clout and connections to change the thinking of the establishment. In spite of his demonstrated success in solving one of the most severe problems in medicine, he was ignored, dismissed from the clinic, and even harassed. Outraged, he returned to Hungary and continued his battles, angrily denouncing the medical establishment and calling them murderers (tip: this tactic rarely wins people over). Those close to him thought he was going crazy (a variety of inappropriate personal behaviors compounded the problem, and possibly syphilis). They had him committed to a mental institution where he died two weeks later in 1865, possibly after being beaten by guards. It would take years and many unnecessary deaths before the growing weight of evidence would convince establishment science that they had been wrong.

Wait, you may say, doesn’t that actually demonstrate the success of science? With data, the truth was eventually found and now we understand germ theory. Yes, indeed, and hurray for progress, hooray for science. It’s wonderful that we can learn and eventually realize that washing prevents disease. Of course, it’s also tragic that science stood in the way so long for the discovery that could have save many more lives. One can also argue, as medical doctor and LDS Apostle Russel M. Nelson once did, that it’s tragic that the disease management and washing principles in Leviticus 15 in the Old Testament were not considered and practiced by the world. Those principles could have prevented centuries of plague and disease.

Science, Ye Scurvy Dog

The story of scurvy is another one that can make one distrustful of establishment science. One of my favorite ancestors and early LDS convert was George Jarvis, a sailor in Her Majesty’s Navy, which makes the story of sailors and scurvy a little more relevant to me. On long voyages, sometimes as many as 30% of the crew on British ships would die from scurvy. It was a serious issue, one of the greatest importance to the success of the Navy and the Empire, and you would think they would turn every stone to find a cure. Sadly, thousands of soldiers in the British Navy died unnecessarily from scurvy after its cure was discovered—and resisted by the Navy. It took roughly 200 years from the discovery of the cause and cure until the establishment science of the British Empire finally accepted reality and added limes to sailors’ diets. The problem was that the proposed cure didn’t fit the scientific models used to understand disease. The “unscientific” work was easy to ignore. Tragedy. See Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, Viking 2003, and Kenneth J. Carpenter, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 44-45.

Credible medical information in the early 1600s pointed to citrus fruits as a helpful aid in preventing and curing the disease. Physicians on land and at sea would later provide strong evidence in the mid-1700s that citrus or other fresh fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of scurvy, but this knowledge was not only resisted by the elite of the Navy, it was resisted by the mainstream European medical community. The scientific establishment of the day was focused on developing a general understanding of the nature of disease and had no interest in “merely empirical” work aimed at specific cures. Thus, in the 1730s when physician John Bachstrom of Holland provided evidence that fresh fruits and vegetables was the decisive cure for scurvy, his work was dismissed by the medical establishment, for he was “a mere empirick” in their eyes.

The ridiculously simple solution to the scurvy problem required more than compelling scientific evidence. It took someone with powerful connections to champion the innovation. This man was the prominent Scottish physician, Sir Gilbert Blane, who was only 4 years old when a detailed study on the cure for scurvy was published by James Lind in 1753– only to be ignored for decades. Blane was the private physician to Lord Rodney and would be able to use Lord Rodney’s influence to spread what Blane had learned from past work and some of his own. In 1795, in time to reduce the risk to one my ancestors in the Navy, Britain began using lime juice in its global naval operations, and scurvy almost became a thing of the past. I say “almost” because the connection between Vitamin C and scurvy would not be discovered until 1932, and with the reasons for lime’s benefits not being understood, that practical, live-saving knowledge would occasionally be forgotten with unfortunate results. Scurvy cropped up in the 19th century in artic expeditions conducted by the British Navy, and again when Robert Scott trekked through Antarctica. Scott’s team believed that scurvy came from tainted canned foods and did not realize that they should have brought limes or some other source of Vitamin C with them. Yes, science will eventually catch up, but it can be a painfully slow process, and the elite halls of science can often be the biggest barrier to progress. Can this happen again? Sure, it’s a consequence of human pride and prejudice, problems common to most of mankind, scientists or not.

Pride and Prejudice: Science and the Messy Areas

A problem with science is that it is no more immune from the whims and pressures of human pride, prejudice, and politics than any other field. Scientists, like journalists and most professions, actually, like to claim that they are objective seekers of truth, unfettered by prejudice and personal agendas, but as Thomas Kuhn documents in his famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962), history shows quite the opposite. The basic paradigm of scientific advance is resistance to change and new ideas that don’t fit established models. The resistance can take decades or longer of data and evidence to finally drive a revolution in which the old model falls apart and new paradigms are established. Scientists are every bit as dogmatic and stubborn as anyone else, in spite of the slogans and marketing. It’s something I’ve seen plenty of times in my career.
One commenter in a recent post of mine praised science over religion by pointing out that science had been able to detect an unseen planet orbiting a distant star. I agree that this is a remarkable achievement. Detecting the presence of an unseen planet with astronomical tools (Doppler spectroscopy in this case), or a buried pipe with a metal detector, or a wooden stud hidden behind a wall using a stud detector, all rank among the many successes of modern technology, though my stud detector is right only about half the time. Operator error, perhaps. However, these acts of merely detecting the presence of some fairly big object may ultimately be more straightforward, less complex, and often less influenced by politics and hidden agenda than scientific work on some of the more important issues involving science and humanity. In the messier areas, such as areas involved with public policy, corporate fortunes, or ideologies, we are more likely to see confusion and dissent, even when one camp become powerful enough to proclaim consensus.

It is easy to criticize religion in light of its troubled history. Religion-gone-bad can be blamed for the bloodshed of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and many other dark moments in history. I think it is not theology and belief in God that is the problem, but the ability of religion to organize and influence others that has allowed those thirsting for power to use religion as a tool for their own gain, and tragic loss for many others.

Less commonly do I hear of the grim failures of science and of human reason without the restraints of religion. In the past century or two, we have seen men wrapped in the robes of reason and science who have wrought far greater sorrow than any crazed Crusader. Hitler’s carnage was fueled by science. Germany in his day had became deeply and passionately scientific. Medical science was especially important and influential in guiding the thinking, the horrific, brutal, inhuman but very scientific thinking of German society. By 1939, half of all students in German universities were studying medicine. 50%! Engineers and chemists were also a big part of German society. It was a nation inflamed with scientific passion. Sadly, science-gone-bad soon informed that enlightened society that Germans were racially superior and had a right to rule. Not just to rule, but to plunder, slaughter, and even torture those science deemed less than fully human in the Satanic quest for scientific progress and a better society founded on scientific knowledge. See “How Hitler Perverted the Course of Science” by Richard Evans (The Telegraph, Dec. 1, 2008). So many of the horrors of Nazism can be traced to the “scientific” belief that some humans weren’t fully human and did not deserve basic rights such as the right to life.

In our nation, the findings of medical science were used as crucial evidence in the ruling of Roe vs. Wade to also determine that some humans are not fully human and thus can be terminated at will. The science in 1973 was, like most science over the ages, terribly immature and would soon be reversed. Today we know that the fetus is not just the clump of pink cells in the common myth still told to many prospective customers of abortuaries, but is a human being that can sense and feel at stages far earlier than callous doctors and judges supposed  in 1973. But the new, inconvenient findings of science are brushed aside because science is not the real quest of those who rule. Science, like religion, was just a tool for corrupt men seeking an excuse for their agenda, giving us a ruling that troubles even many leading voices on the left who recognize it was not really based on law, logic, and sound science.

Bad science in the hands of well-meaning naves, or even good science in the hands of villains, can bring disaster. A scientific society is not necessarily a free, healthy, or peaceful society. Now add the bogus but still reigning science of Keynesian economics, and it can soon become a very broke society as well as escalating debt becomes a virtue and the only tool an insatiable government knows in treating the economy problems it creates. Larger and larger leaches of debt are placed on the sick patient to revive it, but only the crony capitalists sucking up the blood are the ones who benefit. This kind of science will impoverish us all.

The Variety of Human Experiences: An Indictment of Religion?

Several critics have pointed to the diversity of human religion as evidence that the religious approach to life does not give consistent answers and thus is not reliable. This diversity of human response to religious yearnings is no more an indictment of religion and faith in God than is the diversity of responses humans have to science, including the diversity of theories and schools found within science itself. While science has converged upon some core concepts that are widely accepted, for every tough issue, there are diverse views. Just explore the medical responses to basic issues like what diet and what foods are healthiest for humans. High grains? Low grains? High fat, low fat?  Vegan? Atkins? Or consider the issue of climate change. What does it mean when serious scientists are able to examine the data and conclude that the earth is actually getting cooler instead of heating up? An interesting and troubling read for both the inquisitive and Inquisitors alike is Peter Ferraras 2012 article at Forbes.com. Before the reflexive “climate deniers” chant and the piling of wood for a little carbon-neutral auto-da-fé, recognize that their not-quite-silenced voices at least mean that for some scientists, the evidence is not as black and white as you may think. So where is the uniformity and surety of science in the messier areas, in complex albeit seemingly simple questions like, “Has the earth really been warming for this past decade?” Or, “Is carbon dioxide really the main driver for climate change?” No, I don’t know the answers. 

Establishment science will point to the dissenters and explain that they don’t count because they are doing it wrong. They might even be excommunicated from the ranks of faithful, orthodox science. And in many cases, I’m with them. Some of the bizarre things out there dressed as science really disturb me, like quacks pretending to manipulate energy fields to heal patients, or the silly anti-radiation clothing being sold to expectant mothers in parts of Asia, or people who claim to detect allergies by having patients hold glass vials of allergens and then seeing if their muscle response drops. Bogus science, quackery. Yes, they are doing it wrong. But there are real scientists finding new things that don’t fit old models or political agendas, and they are discounted with ease as well. In any case, science has not established sure-fire consensus in many areas and never will because humans vary. Questions that require human interpretation and expertise will rarely become completely uniform, and controversies where science is applied to matters of policy, law, ethics, or even religion are going to be among those especially messy areas with inherent diversity.

Mormonism: Surprisingly Comfortable with Science

Science and religion have their failings. Fortunately, Mormons aren’t in the awkward position of having to choose one or the other. We believe in taking the best of both, in taking knowledge and light from both spheres, from all spheres, and integrating them in the quest for truth. We are told that all truth can be integrated into one grand whole, and we are not just encouraged but actually commanded to seek knowledge beyond just the scope of our religion, but from the sciences and other fields. Mormonism is a wonderful place for healthy science.

Large numbers of Mormons are scientists and engineers. As science grows and expands our knowledge, we find our religion is able to grow and adapt as well. It is not backpedaling and retreat, but embracing of new insight as we move forward in a world with both religious truth and scientific truth seeking to become one. Our ignorance, though, leaves us with many conflicts, and part of being a religious person in the material world is learning to cope with these conflicts and uncertainties, looking forward to further light and knowledge in the future.

Patience, persistence, and a humble recognition that we don’t know it all are among the greatest of virtues in the history of scientific progress, and they are among the virtues we seek as Latter-day Saints. 

For many things, science is the best approach we have to understanding the world around us and finding answers that will make the world better. But it's not the only thing.

In one of my next posts, I'll describe the ongoing process of discovery and experimentation that many Mormons apply in their pursuit of religious knowledge and their own personal "testimony." It's not just a one-time random feeling, but a process involving the mind and the heart as we seek deeper knowledge and experience that can be obtained from traditional book learning or even from Wikipedia. 


Anonymous said...

What's the point of this massive cloud of verbiage? The fact remains that, when it comes to ascertaining truth, science works far better than prayer. Of course, scientists make mistakes, and science cannot answer every question we can ask, especially ethical questions about what we should do with our scientific knowledge and power. Duh. But it's still better than prayer, testimony, and the like, for the simple reason that these spiritual "methods" don't establish any truth at all. They never have, and none of Jeff's prodigious posting has demonstrated that they have.

Jeff's title does kinda sorta convey an important idea, namely that relying on science alone can be disastrous. Again, duh. Science can tell us what is, but not, by itself, what we should do (naturalistic fallacy and all that). Science must be supplemented by some kind of ethical thinking that is itself not science. But ethics is still a kind of human knowledge, so Jeff's title is inaccurate in its suggestion that science must be supplemented by some kind of knowledge that is more-than-human, that is, by religion. And anyway, religion is also merely human; it just just arrogantly and falsely presents itself as something more.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

I'm going to risk derailing the thread to point out a huge flaw in taking scientific articles from Forbes. Especially when it's from a writer paid by the Heritage Foundation.

Have you ever researched these people? You should've become skeptical when the article literally said the following: "Those Climate Change Reconsidered volumes are an equivalently thorough scientific rebuttal to the irregular Assessment Reports of the UN’s IPCC. You can ask any advocate of human caused catastrophic global warming what their response is to Climate Change Reconsidered. If they have none, they are not qualified to discuss the issue intelligently."

Imagine me saying to you, "if you haven't read Mormonism Recomsidered, a report funded by MRM (and even a more reputable firm, though they dropped funding because "theyre worried about bad publicity") that thoroughly rebuts every claim Mormonism ever found in its favor, then you are not qualified to discuss the issue of Mormon's truthfulness intelligently."

That's completely analogous to what this article is saying. Research the Heritage Foundation's donors, its history, etc. These people are for show, not science. This is an example of the media playing its cards--just like when research was funded to "prove" that smoking cigarettes isn't as unhealthy as "those scientists" say it is.

I don't want to derail a Mormon subject into talking about climate change science, but you keep posting this Forbes article as though its worthy of consideration. Climate change is a highly solidified position, one that has reached the coveted level of certainty in the scientific field.

Maybe you want to pass my comment off as "see? All Openminded is saying is that others are doing it wrong!" But I can assure you that, if requested, I could come up with actual reasoning as to why climate change/global warming is real--unlike a spiritually-derived answer, whose best argument is, I'm assuming, "no, you aren't correctly interpreting the spirit."

Anyone can play such a childish game, which is why the method is light years behind science in coming to an understanding about anything other than how humans experience emotion.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to quickly add to my analogy from my previous post.

Reading that Forbes article written by a member of the Heritage Foundation about a conference hosted by the Heritage Foundation is exactly like MRM coming up with its own conference that "totally disproves" Mormonism with "some really level-headed, calmly-presented" facts. And then, MRM releases this article to some apologetics publication instead of a religious-history one, and the article is written by someone who spoke at this anti-Mormon conference who says: "see? I was just at this conference that totally disproved all of Mormonism! It showed all of MRM's research on the Journal of Discourse and how Mormons still believe Adam is God and etc, just as our other MRM-researchers predicted. Mormonism is really hanging by the threads now, there's basically no support for it anymore. And yet, the Church-funded Jeff Lindsay's out there just keep taking in that tithe-given cash from its own people to keep defending its own lies."

I don't think it's possible to come up with a more accurate and relatable analogy than that.


Jeff Lindsay said...

Yes, good questions to be asked on the Forbes article, but the point is the diversity of results obtained in the scientific community. The question on what is the temperature trend over the past decade is important and interesting, but the answer is besides the point. The point is that confusion and disagreement can exist in realms of science as well as religion.

Quantumleap42 said...


Perhaps one thing that could help to make things a little more clear is to make a slightly bigger distinction between the content and the method of science. While the content of science may or may not be correct at any given point in history, and you examples are ample proof of that, the method itself is quite good and can be quite useful, even for those who are investigating spiritual things. The problem is that the method and the content of science are usually so interconnected that a critical critique on the current (or past) content is misunderstood as a general attack on the method (hence the first response).

You do offer the olive branch to the method of science at the end of your post but since the distinction between the current content and the method of science was not clear there is bound to be some confusion and misunderstanding about what it is exactly that you are saying is a "recipe for disaster". If we take the current content of science as a given we are doing ourselves a disservice (but I should also caution that if we reject the current content of science in the same way we are committing a worse error since those ideas were not arrived at haphazardly or by people who were irrational or incompetent).

Because I spend a good portion of my time studying out a particular area of science I have learned that there are nuances and peculiarities to scientific understanding that makes it very impossible to blindly accept a particular theory or idea. For example I recently read a paper published originally published in 1988. It was remarkable to read since I could see how far our understanding has progressed in 25 years. Some of the computer models used in the paper took months to plan out and a week or more to run on a supercomputer at the time. Today I could hash out the same models in an afternoon on my laptop. In the paper there were four major conclusions that the authors offered. Twenty five years later of the four conclusions, one was irrelevant, one was wrong, one was extremely interesting and I may try to replicate it in my own models, and the last conclusion was exceptionally insightful (more than the authors realized) and has since become the crux of a whole area of astrophysics. So were the authors wrong in their conclusions? No. At the time they represented the best understanding of the subject. Seeing that has made me appreciate the progress of understanding and the method that was used to achieve it.

Because the methodical and inquisitive methods of science are such productive methods is why I personally apply them to my gospel study and spiritual inquiries. I have found that the same methods that I use in my own scientific research can easily be applied to my study of spiritual matters to great effect. I have found that the best method of discovering new and interesting insights into the gospel come from following the simple things, such as daily scripture study, daily prayer, attending church, serving others and keeping a healthy dose of humility and faith. I have also found that to maintain an eternal skepticism is perhaps one of the most damaging things to one's soul. A simple faith is always needed before more can be known (see 3 Nephi 11:37-38). When we are in tune with the spirit there is much that can be learned.

Quantumleap42 said...

One more comment, slightly off topic. As someone who deals a lot with computer models, models that are very similar to the ones used in climate modeling, I can say that there are nuances and unstated considerations that may greatly affect particular climate models, but by and large the models are accurate. The earth really will have an increase in global temperatures do to the additional CO2 in the atmosphere that we are putting there. But having said that, beware the crazy predictions of some of the more alarmist global warming people. It is a running joke in the climate modeling community that journalists never get anything right about science and journalists are only interested in talking to you if you are willing to say that someone will die because of global warming. If you base your opinions of what will happen because of global warming on what you read in news papers and on news sites, then you are getting a very biased view of it (both for and against).

So as someone who has to deal with this stuff. Is there global warming? Yes. No debate about that. Will we all die because of it? No. Will a lot of people die? More people will die from alcohol induced car accidents than will die from global warming, yet no one is talking about prohibition. Will people die from deforestation and desertification (caused by poor farming practices, over grazing and illegal logging, but not by global warming)? Yes, but more people will die because of government corruption, immorality, greed and basic dishonesty (you know, the things expressly forbidden in the 10 commandments and the sermon on the mount. If only someone was smart enough to warn us sooner about the dangers of those things...). Will climates change around the world? Yes, and won't that be so interesting! Isn't changing climates a bad thing? Only if you are Al Gore.

Also a word about the Heritage Foundation and climate change. I would suggest taking a backhoe out to Bonneville to get enough salt grains to take with the stuff that they dish out. I used to have a neutral opinion on them, until I did a little more research into positions that they take, things that they do and advocate for, and why they do it. I would say that some of the people in charge, no all but a non-insignificant influential group people that are associated with them are a regular bunch of, for lack of a better term, proto-gadiantons (proto-gadiations because they don't actually go out and murder people, but they operate in much the same way). They are only interested in getting and keeping political power and influence. They have no concern for people's lives and the environment that we all live in. So I tend to get out a hefty jar of salt whenever I hear them mentioned.

Anonymous said...

I was struck this morning by the story of the identification of the remains of King Richard III, a great example of the scientific method in action. I couldn't help but think of one of the more colorful examples of Jeff's spiritual method in action, the (purported) establishment of the identity of the identity of Zelph the White Lamanite.

I think a comparison of these two cases would be most instructive.

-- Eveningsun

Jim Cobabe said...

I have been a target of the "only science" advocates in other discussions, only to be informed that world peace has suffered through the ages at the hands of the religious. My observation is that the horrors of warfare were insignificant and primitive in comparison to the efficiency of mass killing afforded by the application of true science to the art of war. Religion is not responsible for inventing and loosing the mayhem of oft-denounced weapons of mass destruction. With regard to killing without restraint, it takes science to really the job done.

Anonymous said...

Well, Jim, yes and no. The threat of nuclear war is obvious, but recent history provides us with reminders that low-tech approaches to killing can also rack up some pretty impressive body counts. I'm thinking here of examples like King Leopold's agents in the Congo (as many as 10 million deaths) and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. (If you're an LDS believer, you might also cite the impressive scale of low-tech killing related in the Book of Mormon.)

You're right about the inability of science to provide moral guidance in our use of the powers that science confers upon us. But as I keep saying: so what? We all agree upon this point. The question under discussion is whether the shortcomings of science lend any support to the idea that Jeff's spiritual methodology can establish truth. It can't. At least, Jeff hasn't given us any reason to believe it can.

-- Eveningsun

Martin said...


As other commenters have well articulated, the reliability of the religious approach stands or falls on its own merits, independently of the reliability of science. Juxtaposing the two is a misleading rhetorical device.

You believe that science and religion can ultimately be harmonized. Consider that this harmonization when it occurs usually takes the form of religion modifying its previous teachings. In other words, science sometimes informs religion. The converse isn't true. Germ theory of disease, dark matter and dark energy, and the benefits of vitamin C were not accepted by the scientific community because of religious teachings. The code of Leviticus in its totality isn't backed up by science. There are parts of it that make sense from a health standpoint, given what we know about transmission of bacteria, and these were likely adopted from sensible practices discovered by trial and error. There is considerably more to the code that has no basis in science.

Does Mormonism embrace science? I hope so because I'm a member of the Church and want to remain one. Unfortunately, the best answer to this question is that it does except when it doesn't. As an example, where does Mormonism stand on the consumption of red wine? Medical evidence that light to moderate drinking has more health benefits than abstinence is accumulating. Since Mormonism embraces science, will we be updating the Word of Wisdom to allow members of the Church to experience some of the benefits of light drinking? You might say that if we wait long enough, science will eventually discover that abstinence is best, but this answer, that "someday we'll know," works for any apparent conflict between science and religion, enabling perpetual disharmony. Being in harmony with science means continually updating previous beliefs and having a willingness to acknowledge previous error and a willingness to commit new error. This doesn't come easy to leaders of the Church. The premise that revelation comes from God and that God never makes mistakes fosters a profound, basic division between science and religion.

An alternative response to my question about red wine might be that the Word of Wisdom is purely spiritual and has nothing to do with health benefits. Most members of the Church would probably disagree with that, but if it were true, it would only illustrate the merits of Stephen J. Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" interpretation of science and religion, something I think we would do well to incorporate to some degree.

Jeff Lindsay said...

It's not just a bone I throw to science - I really do love and respect the field and am proud to work with scientists in my career. But is it true that science works better than prayer? For figuring out material things like how to remove rust from metal or how to make LEDs glow, science is the way, of course. But how about how to treat other people, how to organize a society, how to deal with social issues, or how to overcome tyranny? Prayer coupled with thought and courage helped a handful of inspired men lay the foundations of liberty in this country in a risky revolution. Prayer from people of faith seeking help in resisting tyranny and saving lives resulted in brave, inspired people finding ways to rescue some of the victims of Germany's science in WWII. Science without prayer is more than just sterile, it can become brutal, tyrannical, and diabolical. You call that working?

There are things of God that require sensitivity to eternal truths and the things of the Spirit and to the conscience that do not come from materialistic science alone. Many of the most important things require the spiritual perspective, rooted in an knowledge of the importance of love, the sanctity of life, and individual accountability before God for how we live and treat others. That foundation (one consistent with many views other than the particular views of Mormonism) coupled with the illumination of science can take us forward and make life better. But without that foundation, science can be a bully with deadly toys.

Anonymous said...

A couple of comments on this post's titular suggestion that "Relying on Human Knowledge and the Scientific Method (Alone) [is a] Recipe for Disaster"....

Relying on science alone is indeed a recipe for disaster. But the same cannot be said of relying on human knowledge alone, for the simple reason that all of our knowledge is human knowledge. For better or for worse, human knowledge is the only knowledge we've got. What believers call spiritual knowledge, revelation, testimony, and the like are themselves forms of human knowledge, mistakenly (and in a way arrogantly) dressed up as something different and better.

The only question is which forms of human knowledge we should rely on. Science is a better method for producing knowledge, because, unlike religion, it does not remove its fundamental premises to the private, subjective realm of the "spirit."

Do we need more than science? Of course we do, for the simple reason that what is (the subject of science) can never by itself tell us what we ought to do (the subject of morality and ethics). But the fact that science requires a supplement does not mean that said supplement should be religious. It can (and in my opinion should) be secular ethical philosophy instead.

Consider Jeff's contention that One can also argue, as medical doctor and LDS Apostle Russel M. Nelson once did, that it's tragic that the disease management and washing principles in Leviticus 15 in the Old Testament were not considered and practiced by the world. Those principles could have prevented centuries of plague and disease.

Leviticus 15 says the exact same things about menstruation and nocturnal emissions that it says about (what appear to be) suppurating infections. (In this sense they're not "disease management principles" at all, but rather principles of religious observance.) To lump these three things together in this biblical way is wrong, but that's what you get when you rely on that inferior form of human knowledge called "revelation." What allows us to see the differences between them is the superior form of human knowing called science.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

Prayer coupled with thought and courage helped a handful of inspired men lay the foundations of liberty in this country....

That's certainly not true of Thomas Paine! Jeff, you should read what Paine has to say in The Age of Reason about revelation in general and Christianity in particular.

And anyway, things like courage and inspiration are not knowledge. No one here has been suggesting that religion cannot inspire people, only whether it produces true knowledge.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

If there is no God, then science trumps revelation. If there is a God, then revelation trumps science.

Anonymous said...

*Or multiple Gods. Or not so much a God, but an entity that interacts with us spiritually but perhaps knows of the "ultimate" God. Or maybe there's no "ultimate", all-knowing God who created the universe, but a highly advanced entity created us and connects to us via revelation.

Clearly, my point is that you're attributing things to a narrative that you've been given, sold on, and buy into, but that doesn't mean the narrative is what you think it is.

My belief is that it's just human emotion. Lots of people believe in revelation.

A lot of those revelations completely contradict each other.


Anonymous said...

If there is no God, then science trumps revelation. If there is a God, then revelation trumps science.

Well, not necessarily. If there is a God, and She chooses to reveal Herself through Her creation (that is, through nature itself), then science is the means by which we "read" and understand the revelation.

This argment is developed at some length by that great American founder, Thomas Paine.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

Well, OK then, let's talk science (or, rather, what I call "scientism", the belief in irrational scientific theories).

The theory of evolution is a good place to start. What is the mathematical probability that human life evolved from random collisions of inorganic molecules? It's a difficult calculation, but how about a ballpark figure? Perhaps 1 in 10 raised to the power of 100? How old is planet earth? 4 x 10 raised to the power of 9 years or so? And you're going to cling to evolution? Even though we haven't seen any of it in recorded history? Even though it violates a fundamental law of thermodynamics that we've never observed being violated without intelligent action? Even though the earth is far to young for it to have occurred? Even though the statistical probability of it happening is indistinguishable from zero? Even though it requires a finite series of discrete events, most of which are improbable and all of which are impossible? Clearly, you're attributing things to a narrative that you've been given, sold on, and buy into, to quote a sage.

How about Big Bang? Yes, let's squash all of the matter in the universe into a point tinier than a pinprick and then explode it, creating a wonderful universe full of structure and order. Hmmm...last time I blew something up in didn't exactly create order. Nor was I ever able to pack everything into nothing. It sounds to me like you're attributing things to a narrative that you've been given, sold on, and buy into.

Maybe we should have started with a simpler idea. Grab a handful of moon dust and release it in the vacuum of deep space. Notice how it clumps together due to gravitational attraction, creating a beautiful tiny little planet? Well, not so much; it doesn't clump, it disperses. Sounds like you're attributing things to a narrative that you've been given, sold on, and buy into.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wait, I wasn't finished yet.

My belief is that it's just human emotion. Lots of people believe in scientism.

A lot of those theories completely contradict each other.

Anonymous said...

A wiser man than I once said, ...all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

The deeper we delve into the science of things we might otherwise attempt to explain away with cute little theories about an unintelligent and inanimate universe self-creating vast order and beauty, the more it becomes obvious that it cannot be so, as it contains too many contradictions.

Anonymous said...

Well, not necessarily. If there is a God, and She chooses to reveal Herself through Her creation (that is, through nature itself), then science is the means by which we "read" and understand the revelation.

Good luck with that. It doesn't appear that humans are capable of distinguishing between the rational and the irrational when it comes to scientific theory.

Of course, when God - turns out it isn't a female, but a committee of three male beings - makes a personal visit to a 14-year-old farm boy in New York state for the precise purpose of dispelling the confusion about what God is and what might be the purpose of things, that kind of settles it.

Anonymous said...

The world was created by a committee? That explains a lot....

Seriously, though. For whom did this farmboy-visiting God settle things? Even among the various believers in the prophetic and revelatory powers of Joseph Smith there's a tremendous amount of disagreement over the nature and commandments of God. Who's right -- the LDS, the FLDS, the RLDS, the Strangites? More to the point, what method can reliably tell us who's right? There isn't one.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

I find delicious irony in the ad hominem attacks on the Heritage Foundation, most particularly because the intended target was the Heartland Institute - irony because it demonstrates a near-complete lack of correlation between knowledge of the institution being attacked and the vehemence with which it is attacked.

Anonymous said...

More to the point, what method can reliably tell us who's right? There isn't one.

That, of course, could not be more wrong. I expect you know what the method is. Claiming there is no method is a poor excuse for refusing to try it. Perhaps you're afraid of what you'll learn. Perhaps you once knew, but what you knew was inconvenient so you embarked on the path you're now on.

Part of the method involves "real intent". That's something difficult to achieve. It means you will alter your behavior, if necessary, in order to align it with what you learn, whatever it turns out to be. If you don't get beyond curiosity to the real intent stage, it won't work. It's an all-or-nothing club. You can't sit on the sidelines and expect to know how things stack up. And that's the sieve. Consider yourself sifted.

Anonymous said...

Oh, there's a method, all right, just not a method that can reliably establish the competing truths of the people who use it. The LDS and the FLDS both pray; they both have testimonies. Yet the beliefs thus produced are different.

Also, I would ask that you please stop making smug insinuations like this one:

Perhaps you once knew, but what you knew was inconvenient so you embarked on the path you're now on.

I would never suggest that you believe as you do because you're stupid, or gullible, or too cowardly to do without the emotional comforts of simplistic, self-affirming truths. In return I would ask you not to suggest I believe as I do out of some selfish hedonism.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

For whom did this farmboy-visiting God settle things?

Duh. For the farm boy. What did you expect? For his next-door neighbor?

Because it was settled for Joseph Smith, he became a witness. He was, at the point in time, standing on the other side of a "knowledge curtain". He could tell us what he saw and invite us to cross over. But we can only cross over through our own efforts to see what he saw. Nobody can do it for us.

So, was Joseph Smith for real or was he an impostor? Here's where a bit of common sense is required. Did the movement he started founder or flourish? Are there corroborating witnesses to the things he claimed? Was he considered honest? Does living the doctrines he taught produce light or darkness? These questions are not intended to prove anything, but rather to establish some degree of credibility or lack thereof. The waters have been muddied a lot by slander and libel, which is to be expected when it comes to the topic at hand. But there were sufficient numbers of candid observers of Joseph Smith to get to the heart of his character, as Bushman in his biography of Joseph Smith. It is difficult to dismiss the Book of Mormon (though I know you're doing your best) and its many witnesses, some of whom saw Moroni with the plates, others saw the plates. Gosh, even his contemporaries who claimed he was a phony did their best to get the plates from him - there's a bit of contradiction in that, wouldn't you say?

Having established a sufficient degree of credibility for his story, many have followed the counsel of God, to seek their own personal witness of the truth of the matter. Millions have, in fact. But again, that proves nothing. It's just another piece of evidence. Each person must individually cross the line between spiritual ignorance and knowledge. It requires commitment, a willingness to go all in - no toe-dipping allowed here. If God senses that you're merely curious, or not really willing to take what he tells you very seriously, then you're pretty much on your own.

I've crossed over that line, or am in the process of crossing (not all the way to where Joseph Smith got, not by a long stretch). I hesitate to make an example of myself because I'm a somewhat rebellious person at heart and don't always behave in ways that are appropriate for someone in my position. But I'll never stop trying, so maybe that's why God has allowed me in. (Something about grace and an Atonement...) I've seen and felt marvelous things. But guess what? I can't show them to you. I can't make you feel them. You have to do that for yourself.

Anonymous said...

OK, so, maybe I'm not a Mormon because I haven't had the necessary "commitment" and "willingness to go all in" needed to subjectively experience the truth of Mormonism. Then again, maybe I'm not a Pentecostal because I haven't had the necessary commitment and willingness to go all in needed to subjectively experience the truth of Pentecostalism. (And maybe this is the only reason you're not a Pentecostal.) Maybe I'm not a Muslim because I haven't had the necessary commitment and willingness to go all in needed to subjectively experience the truth of Islam. (And maybe this is the only reason you're not a Muslim.) Maybe I'm not a Hindu because I haven't had the necessary commitment and a willingness to go all in needed to subjectively experience the truth of Hinduism. (And maybe this is the only reason you're not a Hindu.)

So many truths out there, and so many people defending them with the same passion, and often with exactly the same method, as you defend yours!

Maybe it's not the case that all of them are wrong except you and yours (how lucky that makes you!). Maybe, just maybe, they're all wrong?

Tell me, did you ever make a serious effort to open yourself to the possibility of the truth of Jainism? Because if you had, I'm sure you'd have seen the light....

-- Eveningsun

CF said...

Jeff, I gotta hand it to you. You've certainly got a lot of patience to let these trolls blabber on and on over the years on your blog. I suppose they're good for sport - someone to spar with when nobody's around to comment.

But seriously, isn't it blatantly obvious they are simply bitter and want to argue for the sake of arguing? They just use circular logic with nothing meaningful to say over and over and over again. They are just so wise, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth..

It's become a painfully obvious gauge for detecting when someone speaks truth; all of the trolls come out of the woodwork to gnash and grind their teeth over it. Ban Openminded and Morningsun and do us all a favor. They have no interest in truth, just ignoramus arguments.

Anonymous said...

Lol, hi CF. missed you ;) still eating anti-Mormons for breakfast?


Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm not a (fill in the blank) because I haven't had the necessary commitment and willingness to go all in needed to subjectively experience the truth of (fill in the blank).

Well, that would be putting the cart before the horse, now, wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

On climate change, science has established the basic concept that CO2 is increasing and contributes to warming. What science has not proven is whether the small impact of CO2 by itself can be magnified many times with feedback mechanisms as the ruling computer models show. Those mechanisms are not confirmed and fit recent observations very poorly.

A great explanation of the basic scientific issues here is at http://youtu.be/TjHLWwbN0SM.

Anonymous said...

The video linked above is propaganda, not science. Sheesh.

-- Eveningsun

Jeff Lindsay said...

Wait, that video does address a basic issue in the science of climate change: that there may be multiplier effects that amplify the impact of carbon dioxide. These are quite complex and can be wrong for a number of reasons, and have had to be adjusted significantly. Might still be way off. Knowing that CO2 is a greenhouse gas does not tell us specifically how global temperatures will change in the future - it's one of many inputs. Maybe you disagree with the decision to not panic, but can you explain what about the information presented is not rooted in science, and why it is propaganda unlike the pronouncements of panic-mongers?

Anonymous said...

Follow the money. The video comes to us via the Science and Public Policy Institute, directed by the former chief of staff for a bunch of Republican Congressmen with ties to the energy industry. You know, just your usual disinterested, objective scientists at work to discover the truth. I don't have time to dig up info on where the SPPI gets its funding, but the very fact that the money trail is so hard to follow is itself a telling sign.

If you critically watch enough propaganda you can develop a good eye for it. If you're interested in propaganda as a cultural form, I'd recommend you watch the classics of the genre: Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and Frank Capra's Why We Fight.

-- Eveningsun

Arti Sharma said...