The Sciences

Jon Stewart Doesn't Understand How Science Works Even a Little Bit

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollApr 17, 2012 1:40 PM


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I love Jon Stewart's work on The Daily Show, which manages to be consistently fresh and intelligent. Their segment on the Large Hadron Collider was sheer brilliance, and I've often said that between Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central is the best place to go to hear insights from real working scientists on TV these days. Which is why it was so crushing to listen to this interview he did with Marilynne Robinson, a leader among the movement to reconcile science and religion. I didn't agree with much of what Robinson said, but then again I didn't really expect to. Nor did I expect Stewart to challenge her in any way; a "why just can't we all get along" perspective is very consistent with his way of thinking. But I admit I was hoping he would not misrepresent modern science as thoroughly and lazily as he managed to do here. (It's a 2010 interview, brought to my attention by Scott Derrickson's Twitter feed; apologies if these complaints were hashed out elsewhere two years ago.)

If you skip ahead to 2:50, here's what Stewart has to say:

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I've always been fascinated that, the more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith. You know, when they start to speak about the universe they say, well, actually, most of the universe is antimatter. Oh, really, where's that? Well, you can't see it. [Robinson: "Yes, exactly."] Well, where is it? It's there. Can you measure it? We're working on it. And it's a very similar argument to someone who would say God created everything. Well where is he? He's there. And I'm always struck by the similarity of the arguments at their core.

Obviously he means something like "dark matter," not "antimatter," but that's a minor mixup of jargon. Much worse is that he clearly has absolutely no idea why we believe in dark matter -- what the actual evidence for it is in real data. He betrays no understanding that we know how much dark matter there is, have ongoing strategies for detecting it, and spend a lot of time coming up with alternatives and testing them against the data. What kind of misguided "faith" would lead people to believe in dark matter, of all things? (The underlying problem with appeals to faith is that they cannot explain why we should have faith in one set of beliefs rather than some other set ... but that's an argument for a different day.) In reality, the more you delve into science, the less it appears to rely on faith. When it comes to modern biology there are large parts I accept because of the testimony of experts; but when it comes to physics I actually understand the evidence behind it. There are certainly some good philosophical issues about what assumptions science must make to get off the ground: does it presume naturalism, can it address miracles, does it admit nomological facts, are there a priori truths about the physical world, can it deal with unobservable things? But Stewart isn't engaging any of these issues; he's just taking lazy swipes at parts of science he doesn't understand, which he therefore feels justified in equating with faith. If believers in God spent a tiny fraction of the time that modern cosmologists spend trying to invent alternatives to their favorite ideas and testing them against evidence ... well let's just say the world would be a very different place. For which I blame us, at least as much as I blame him. Stewart is obviously a smart guy who likes science and is interested in it, and frequently has scientists on his show. And yet, we have clearly completely failed to communicate the reasons why we scientists believe in apparently spooky-sounding things like dark matter. "Science communication" is a many-faceted thing, and all of its facets are important. We need to do better getting K-12 students excited by science and grounded in the basics. We need to do better educating college students about how the world works, since they're going to be running it soon. We need to do better in helping policymakers understand the science behind their decisions. We need to do better at encouraging and enabling a lifelong interest in science among the general public. And we clearly need to do a much better job at clearly conveying the foundations of our practice to interested non-specialists. There's a strong temptation to emphasize the weird and bizarre things that we discover, because after all the natural world is full of surprises. But if we don't at the same time do a good job at explaining why we believe the bizarre things, it will come back and bite us eventually.

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