The Way Of Science: Revelation With Errata Sheets

The Burning Bush

Some people get their revelations from burning bushes, others through trial and error. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Mark Meckler, of the Tea Party Patriots, recently held a press conference to announce a “forty-year plan” that the group is working on. The plan will be configured as a highway with four lanes, he explains, only one of which is explicitly political. The other three will be educational, judicial and cultural.

“All civilizations and empires have fallen because their cultures became decadent,” Meckler said. “We need to lift up conservative culture, family values and wholesome things by supporting conservative musicians, writers, artists and producers.”

My Webster’s dictionary defines conservative as “disposed to maintain existing institutions or views; opposed to change.” A counterpoint to conservative is the word revelation: “the disclosing of what was before unknown” (fr. Latin velum, a veil).

Herewith are some musings on the word revelation, where their relevance to the Tea Party Highway will show up at the end of the piece.

Revelation is a central concept in the monotheistic religions. A truth, originating directly from God or via an agent such as an angel, is communicated to a human who, in passing this truth on to others, is called a prophet; in some traditions the prophet may come to be called a saint. For the traditional believer, these divine revelations are sacrosanct, the pillars of their faith.

An unconventional perspective on revelation was recently offered by Christian theologian Philip Hefner:

For those of us who begin with God, the challenge is to recognize that our scientific understandings of nature are revelation – revelation of what God has done, what God is doing now, and what God intends.

Connie Barlow, a writer and non-theistic religious naturalist, works with revelation somewhat differently. In her book Green Space Green Time: The Way of Science, she describes her religious orientation as embedded in scientific understandings of nature, and concludes:

I can live quite comfortably with a book of revelation that comes with the promise of errata sheets.

Here are some ways I’ve put these perspectives together.

It is possible to arrive at a rather troubling QED — namely, that scientists who engage in generating revelations about nature might be thought of, or come to think of themselves, as prophets, if not deities.

Indeed, such a perception is alive-and-well in the minds of many persons who distrust the scientific quest, including the occasional commenter on 13.7 and, presumably, most of the members of the Tea Party Patriots. I imagine them out there somewhere right now saying:

Those arrogant scientists talk like they’re gods or something, announcing how things are with the certainty of prophets, bashing other perspectives as heretical.

I’m not saying that there isn’t the occasional scientist who gives this impression. Self-importance is a vice that can transcend any and all vocational boundaries.

But in fact, the practice of science has everything to do with unabashed humility. Any substantive discovery that I’ve made in the lab has come via blundering false starts, pet hypotheses that turned out to be dead wrong and seemingly simple experiments that refused to give interpretable results after months of effort.

Our department library is laden with journals reporting spectacular breakthroughs and weekly department seminars present the latest exciting news. Yet those articles and seminars indubitably represent the fruits of countless frustrating experiments and dashed ideas.

Moreover, once I’ve done every control experiment I can think of and the journal article reporting our discovery is reviewed and published, the errata sheets start to pile up. Importantly, many of these sheets will be generated by my lab. We’ll ask the next question and, in the course of pursuing it, discover that the mutant strain that we were using in the first study in fact carried a second mutation that contributed to our earlier findings, or we’ll grow the cells at a different temperature and learn that some of our observations were temperature-dependent. The next journal article will describe these historical amendments, as well as any new findings we’ve generated.

Adam has posted a wonderful characterization of this mode of inquiry from historian Sheila Jasanoff. She lifts up “the skeptical, questioning virtues of an experimental turn of mind: the acceptance that truth is provisional, that questioning of experts should be encouraged, that steps forward may need corrective steps back, and that understanding history is the surest foundation for progress."

So I would say that scientific understandings represent revelations of a second kind. Unlike those canonized in a religious tradition, unlike those entombed in whatever fundamentalism — left-wing or right-wing — that enthralls a populace at a given time – they not only come with errata sheets; they come with the promise of errata sheets.

Whether we elect to frame our quest as understanding nature or as understanding the intent of God, the acceptance that truth is provisional, the acceptance that each revelation represents but the next step in acquiring the next revelation, is the surest path towards anything that, in my book, might be called an un-veiling, not to mention wisdom and — dare I say it — salvation.

There are elegant truths in religious texts, in philosophy, in the arts, in histories. But none, I would say, merits the insult of being considered a Truth. Each merits the promise of being taken back to the lab, back to the inquiring mind and heart, for yet another round of probing, evaluation, integration, and yes, often amendment or flat-out rejection.

So, circling back to the forty-year plan — conservative culture, family values and wholesome things — I suspect I’ve made my point. There’s a large swath of humanity out there that equates novelty with heresy and creativity with decadence, that wants its revelations to be familiar, predictable and sacrosanct.

In which case, in my vocabulary anyhow, they aren’t revelations at all.



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