‘Trust science’, but don’t idolize it, says Vatican astronomer

VATICAN CITY — Those who are stubbornly skeptical of science and those who eagerly embrace science as infallible both have a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of science, an American Jesuit astronomer has said.

These two tendencies reflect “the temptation to make science or faith a fortress against our fundamental and human fear of uncertainty,” writes Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno.

“We trust the (COVID-19) vaccine not because it is perfect, but because it dramatically increases the likelihood of not getting sick. The real and obvious problem is that most of us cannot understand how probability works: this is why casinos and lotteries are so successful,” he wrote in an article published in the journal Jesuit La Civiltà Cattolica.

The article, which appeared in Italian in the January 15 edition of the journal, was titled “COVID, Faith and the Fallibility of Science.” A copy was distributed to reporters on January 13.

Anti-vax supporters and conspiracy theorists have the wrong idea of ​​what science is and what it can promise, according to the summary of the newspaper article. On the other hand, those who mistakenly consider science to be infallible unfortunately end up fueling scientific skepticism.

Consolmagno, planetary astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory, wrote that it is important for people to understand the true purpose of science and how important and necessary doubt is in order to progress and gain better understanding.

A popular slogan right now in the fight against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is “Trust science,” he wrote.

The slogan should be understood as saying that science is a reliable and trustworthy path to truth; however, to some it seems to suggest that science is “the only” trustworthy guide, he said.

This false either-or dichotomy fuels the fallacy that faith and science are at odds, he said. It could also partly explain why a September 2021 Pew study found white American evangelicals to be the least likely religious group to get vaccinated.

“It’s as if to say that the distrust of science present in this community, which translates into skepticism about vaccines, follows a perceived need to choose between science and faith. “, he wrote.

“The opposition between faith in science and faith in religion has implications beyond distrust of vaccines. This is evidence of a fallacious view of what science is and what it can promise,” Consolmagno said.

“This misunderstanding is prevalent not only among those who are skeptical of science, but also, and perhaps even more dangerously, among those who embrace (science) too hastily” because when science fails to live up to any kind of “exaggerated reliability, that failure only fuels skepticism” about science in general, he said.

People may not want to admit it, but “there is some truth in this fear of placing unquestioning trust in science,” he said. “Science sometimes makes mistakes.”

COVID-19 vaccines “prevent disease in the overwhelming majority of those vaccinated and reduce disease severity,” he said. “But vaccines aren’t perfect,” and people can still get sick, albeit rarely seriously.

Science is based on doubt and error, said the Jesuit, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Failure is not an option, it is a requirement” and knowing that one “knows nothing” is what drives further study and progress.

Science is always incomplete by its very nature, always growing and evolving as new knowledge and experience accumulates, he said. It’s perfectly fine to read an old philosophy or theology book, “but you would never study your grandfather’s biology textbook,” he said.

“You only become a scientist when you are able to look at something that you thought you understood and you end up saying, ‘That’s not true!'” knowing that there are important lessons to be learned from mistakes, he said.

“Accepting this uncertainty, however, requires you to also accept the risks of attempting something uncertain. You can’t win a regatta without risking tipping over,” the Jesuit said, recalling that the boat he piloted in college never tipped over and he never won a race.

“Certainty is not a religion but a fanaticism; it’s not science, it’s scientism,” that is, blind faith in science, he says.

The thirst for certainty and distrust or rejection of authority are strange companions since one wants “a perfect truth and, at the same time, one rejects anyone who claims to be able to guide us towards this truth”, a- he said.

What ends up happening, he said, is that people start looking for their own answers, do their own research online, and “favour secret sources of knowledge only accessible to a few people in the know.”

What is particularly dangerous, he said, is when clinging to these personal beliefs comes at a cost, such as losing one’s job, and it is felt to be an act of persecution. A purely erroneous belief can then become so ingrained that it can never be accepted as false since it has become a fundamental part of one’s being and identity.

“Science doesn’t give the perfect truth,” but experiments and theories can be constantly refined, giving people increasingly accurate descriptions of nature, he said.

“Doing science depends on loving even the boring parts of meticulous study, on believing even when confidence in our scientific progress wavers, on being ready to forgive and learn from those who have made mistakes in the past. To love is to live in uncertainty, to learn to trust,” he said.

Living with the uncertainty of illness, the fallibility of science, and the fear of losing personal autonomy requires trusting the work of others, which, like love, must be done “with caution and boldness,” he said. he declared.

Be reasonably careful, don’t jump blindly, but also believe in knowledge, which is beautiful and fallible, he said. Despite the imperfection of science, it still leads to an increased likelihood of living a healthy life.

“We are happy that God has given us the ability to understand and appreciate his creation through our science,” he said.