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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Is Faith Science's Enemy—Or Is It Ignorance?

It looks like Lawrence Krauss and Richard MacKenzie are continuing the science and religion debate they started at a 2007 physics meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Back then, Krauss, a theoretical physicist now at Arizona State University, gave a lecture called "Selling Science to Unwilling Buyers," about ways of teaching science to the public at large. His conclusion: Faith is not the enemy. Ignorance is the enemy.
Now, MacKenzie, a particle physicist at the University of Montreal, has written a paper explaining why he strongly disagrees, "to the point where I would be inclined to go so far as to interchange the words 'faith' and 'ignorance,'" he says. According to MacKenzie, it is "much easier to write on the clean slate of an ignorant but open-minded person than to have to first erase preconceived notions that run counter to the criticality needed to develop a scientific understanding of the world around us." While he admits that "direct observation shows that faith does not obstruct scientists from doing science," he argues that faith—which is based on "blind acceptance"—does obstruct nonscientists from learning science, "both indirectly (in terms of the choice of school curricula) and directly (since faith by its very nature runs counter to a scientific way of thinking)."
To this paper, Krauss has written his own response, in which he disagrees very little with MacKenzie's overall view. He does assert, however, that, for him, teaching science—and thus "vanquishing ignorance"—is a higher priority than destroying faith. Humans, he says, "are not completely logical beings," and religious scientists are "merely a clear example of the fact that humans can hold fast to two inconsistent ideas at the same time." According to Krauss, "as long as someone's religious faith does not get in the way of them learning about nature, their ability to access empirical data, or to predict the results of future experiments, then I view it as no more obstructionist than the faith they may have that money can't buy happiness, or that marriage produces happiness ever after, or that the Canadiens will win the Stanley Cup. Naive, perhaps. Maybe even based on ignorance. But not necessarily counterproductive."
Both papers are scheduled to appear in the journal Physics in Canada. —Heather Wax