In Premed we were forced to take electives in non scientific fields. Most of them were useless except for history (which helped me understand cross cultural medicine) and one I took about the Philosophy of Science.

From a Philosophical standpoint, science is not a concrete Truth as much as a humble search for reality. Each experiment lets us get closer to the truth, but science is description, not Truth itself. And often that description is in the language of mathematics, or uses analogies of real world things (e.g. electrons being solid and wave at the same time) to enhance understanding.

Great scientists have a humility toward finding the truth, but also have the ability to know that we don’t know everything, and that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absense”.

In constrast, there is a philosophy of scientism, that says only material things that we can measure are real. But scientifically this is nonsense: it might mean only that we are using the wrong approach to find out the answer.

When it comes to God, (or falling in love, or even Gaia), a true scientist would be an agnostic and say: I don’t know. Because so far, we can’t detect or measure God in our experiments. And so until there is a God detecting apparatus, much of religion comes down to philosophy, and scientists can only approach theology in the same way that Greek philosophers discussed atoms: as an interesting idea but not something they could measure.
So it is  disturbing is that a communist/radical left wing students have artificially manipulated a protest of Pope Benedict who was to give a speech at the University of Sapienza as if it were a scientific protest. The Pope correctly has declined to give the speech   ” in the face of protests by physicists and students who claimed his presence was inappropriate in a secular setting“.

But of course, this is nonsense. The Pope is a moral authority, and his speech was to be on the death penalty, not physics. And nearly every secular human rights NGO in the world sees the Pope’s opposition of the death penalty as a major help in their fight to have states eliminate the death penalty.

The excuse used (that the pope attacked Gallileo) is also nonsense: the Pope’s enemies took one line out of one long speech given 18 years ago to prove he was “anti science”. What makes it worse is that in the offending paragraph, Benedict was quoting another scholar.
So why the protests by scientists? I suspect it is political manipulation. One doubts many of them read the entire speech, or had the philosophical background to understand it even if they read it.
If anything, this cherrypicking an 18 year old quote resembles the Muslim outburst about the Pope’s Regensburg speech, where a single quotation was taken out of context to prove the Pope was Islamophobic.

At least those Mullahs had the excuse that the news reports were wrong, and many Islamic scholars withdrew their criticism once this was known.

So why are scientists acting like poorly educated Mullahs? Political manipulation, of course.

No, I’m not going into Ron Paul or Chomsky territory. It’s right there in the newspaper:
The AFP story shows such a link:

The protest against the visit was spearheaded by physicist Marcello Cini, a professor emeritus of La Sapienza, who wrote to rector Renato Guarini complaining of an “incredible violation” of the university’s autonomy.

Sixty-seven professors and researchers of the sprawling university’s physics department, as well as radical students, joined in the call for the pope to stay away on Thursday, the start of the university’s academic year.

Students opposed to the visit kicked off “an anti-clergy week” on Monday…Cini also recalled a colloquium on Darwin held by Benedict in September 2006 in which the “intelligent design” movement was given precedence over the theory of evolution.

“The Church can no longer use pyres or corporal punishment,” Cini said in the communist daily Il Manifesto. “Today it uses the Enlightenment’s God of Reason as a Trojan horse to enter the citadel of scientific knowledge.”

The scientists’ revolt, initially discreet, snowballed after radical students took up the cause.

On Tuesday they briefly occupied the rector’s offices seeking the right to demonstrate on Thursday.

In other words, this does not have anything to do with science. It’s politics, pure and simple, because unlike many of the empty headed “religious right” leaders who spout cliches, Pope Benedict is a deep thinker (George Weigel, a biographer of John Paul II, says he “speaks in paragraphs”) whose articulate and intricate writings don’t make easy sound bites, but don’t lend themselves to easy dismissal either.
The Philippine Inquirer article notes:

Indeed, much of Benedict’s papacy is about fighting a materialistic philosophy that sees truth only in material things…

The 80-year-old pope also warned that people in the West had so much knowledge and power that they “capitulate before the question of truth” and place far too much emphasis on “usefulness.”

Ironically, the Pope’s speech was to be about the Death penalty, which of course the Catholic church opposes.

Benedict said, adding: “The wisdom of great religious traditions … cannot be thrown into the dustbin of the history of ideas with impunity.”… Benedict rejected the idea that “theology, whose message is addressed to reason, be confined to a private sphere, whether big or small.”

Well, maybe that is the point: That there are some who wish to marginalize religion in today’s Europe.

Right now I’m listening to the history of pre World War I Germany via podcast.

And a lot of the arguments of  the protesters reasons sound a lot like the ideas pushed  by Bismark in the Kulturkampf: a political move to marginalize Catholics so that the secular German state could be the main power.

Is history repeating itself?

Ah, now that is a question for pundits and conspiracy theorists, not scientists.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she sometimes writes essays on medical ethics/culture/religion to Boinkie’s blog. 

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