Friday, June 22, 2012

Science , should we trust?

A significant amount of science is not understood by most people inducing the skeptics. It is true that we cannot always remain skeptical under all circumstances. Sometime we have to make a judgement to trust something (like my decision to vaccinate my son for MMR when there was a huge controversy over the MMR vaccine).  But does that mean, I have to trust a Swamiji when he/she ask me to sit in crossed legged position and eat yogurt for a month?

At what point, can we place faith (or I would like to call it "reasonable trust") on something that we don't fully understand or have compelling evidence? Why do I trust my doctor?
Why you can place a reasonable degree of trust in a university professor’s teachings or advice from your doctor (even though you may not comprehend their ideas), but not your local priest or spiritual guru?

Let us examine.

Science is Open, self-correcting and subject to scrutiny

First of all, scientific ideas were not born out of divine exposures but mostly from lab experiments and logical analysis. If a Professor is teaching Ohms law to his students, the fact that Ohms law was discovered, debated to death, verified by experiments is an important consideration. On the other hand religious ideas are not subject to debate. If you are a clever person who finds Ohms law to be wrong, there is nothing stopping you from persuading the scientist to accept your view. If you really use the scientific methodology and prove that Ohms law is wrong, those scientists will grudgingly agree and re-write the text book (I can’t see that happening!). Examples of such radial changes exist in Science. 

The beauty of science is that it goes through an iterative process -scientist debate, examine everything with a tooth pick, and then establish facts, theories, laws etc. Sometimes they get it wrong. But some else can and will eventually correct this. Everything is open for debate at any time by anyone.
When was the last time we updated the Bible, Quran or Vedas? They are set in Stone (literally!)

Of course, a large number of scientific theories have already been through this process that it would be futile to debate them. So it is worthwhile to consider them as "Reasonably true" and carry on. If you want to call this as Faith, that is a matter of verbiage. It is not quite the same as trusting your Priest when he says you are likely to go to hell and get roasted in the oven at 1000 deg C because you missed your morning prayers!

Scientific ideas are universal.

There may be a difference between the way science is taught depending on the abilities and skill of the teacher. But Ohms law is Ohms law no matter who teaches this or in which language you are taught. On the other hand, the interpretation of spiritual ideas is not universal. The Bhagavat Gita version of ISCON is completely different to the version of Swami Vivekananda (and miles away from the commentry  of  some of the self-claimed godmen).

Science has a system in place to establish competency

I trust my doctor because I have reasonable evidence to believe that he is qualified to practice medicine in Canada. It would be pointless trying to argue with my doctor and demand that he provide proof that a particular medicine works. It is not quite the same when his holiness “Sri Sri Holy Infinity” says breathing slowly will cure Alzhaimers disease! There are billions of spiritual gurus, teachers etc. who declare themselves to be competent. There is no way of verifying this.  You have to take their word for it. (And how do you measure one’s level of divinity?).

Science provides consistant, verifiable evidence (well, for the most part)

I trust electrical engineering, or science related to electricity and magnetism, even though I may not fully understand the concept of electricity. The fact that tiny electrons move along a copper wire and do incredible things sounds like a fairy tale. But there is enough evidence to trust these electrical engineering folks. They make light out of tungsten filament, move large machines, rotate giant fans, etc. (even the high decibel speakers used by religious folks to broadcast sermons are as a result of electrical engineering). The most important  thing is that it is consistant. The application of science is univerisal.  For example, if you switch a table fan, anyone will feel the wind blowing. Assuming it is in working condition, the fan should  work for any one.  

Animation  by Naren  Raj
Spritual experiences  however are mostly anectodal and  are  not universal.  While  certain Babas/Swamis  seem to work magic on some people, for  others, their tricks don't  work. Astrologers say, you have to be destined to receive good predictions! i-phone  will work whether you have good karma or bad karma (subject to the will of your service provider!)

There is compelling verifiable evidence for vast majority of scientific work. On the other hand, when a swamji says I am going to be born as a four legged Platypus because I haven't clocked enough positive Karma, it  is hard is believe. The only way that I would know for sure is if I die- an experiment that I am not prepared to conduct at this age!

Here is my final sermon!

No matter how good Science is, you still need to use your head

 A few months back my doctor prescribed me an antibiotic for an infection. When I went to the pharmacy to get this medicine, I found out that this drug was very  expensive (over $100). After a few minutes chit chat with my pharmacist,   I learned that my doctor seem to have prescribed a specific brand of drug that is expensive. There are other generic verities of the same antibiotic family that are less expensive (costs around $30), and would do the same job. So I went back to my doctor and politely discussed my conversation with the pharmacist, and asked him if he would consider changing the prescription. The doctor raised his eyebrows and said “In my 30 years of experience as a doctor, this is the first time I have a request from my patient to change the medicine”. He was a good sport and he changed the prescription.  I saved $70!

So do I trust my doctor? Yes and No. End of the day you still have to use your head and make a judgement.

 Fundamental to the idea of rational thinking is asking questions, evaluating the response and making a judgement. In that process some time you may have to place a degree of trust on someone or something.

"You have to have an open mind and approach everything from an open perspective, but not have your mind too open that your brain will fall off"- James Randi.

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About Me

I am an Engineer by profession. Spritual and Anit-guru advice is my part time job!