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The End of the World: Science or Religion?

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Harold Camping died last month. In case you don't remember, Camping, the president of evangelical Family Radio, predicted that the world would end in 2011. Twice.

He made these prognostications on the basis of numerology, which sounds like it might be a sophomore-level math subject, but isn't. The data for the calculations Camping used to forecast rapture and Armageddon were numbers he found sprinkled throughout the Bible.

His procedures wouldn't impress a referee for a peer-reviewed, academic journal. And unsurprisingly, many scientists waved off Camping's doomsday dates as both silly and wrong. Well, it's true that havoc and destruction were a no-show. But silly? Didn't Camping follow the rules of science?

Let's first acknowledge that he at least made a quantitative forecast, an uncommon step for a theologian. Sure, many religions predict what happens after you die, which seems to be somehow dependent on how you've lived. But while such prognoses ("you're going to Hell, Bob") have been made for millennia, observations that could check them are AWOL.

So Camping really broke precedent: He not only put forward a strong hypothesis, but one that could be falsified. In other words, he offered up a calculated prediction that could be discredited if it didn't pan out. And falsification is the classic, middle-school acid test of science.

Being fair about this, could you say that, by definition, Camping was doing a science experiment? After all, he had pored over some data and reckoned that they forecast a major event. If scientists scoffed at his work, maybe it was only because they were simply defining science as whatever they do.

Well, the middle-school definition of science is too simple. Falsification isn't everything. Heck, Newton's laws, a classic bit of science, have been falsified (celebrated case for cognoscenti: the precession of Mercury's orbital perihelion, which required the refinements of Special Relativity theory to get right). Still, who would say that Isaac Newton wasn't doing great science?

Not only is falsification a poor litmus test for science, sometimes it's not even a possibility. Consider SETI's hunt for signals that would prove the existence of clever inhabitants far beyond the realm of our solar system. The hypothesis seems well-grounded, given the discovery of planets and moons where life could exist. But what's the bottom line? We haven't yet found any confirmed signals, and there's no way to ever, ever prove that the aliens aren't out there. In other words, SETI operates on an hypothesis that can't be falsified.

So maybe SETI isn't science? That possibility certainly appealed to novelist Michael Crichton, who once reversed our argument here by characterizing SETI as religion.

Well, deep in my innards, I sense that the difference between science and religion is hardly so muddled. It's not simply that scientists use fancy instruments, sport credentials, and wear tweed jackets (although all of that is usually true). To me, the main difference is context. The ideas of science germinate in a matrix of established knowledge gained by experiment; they are not lonesome thoughts, born in a rarified realm where no researcher has ever gone before.

Even Einstein, whose ideas are often characterized as radical and sprung from his brilliant brain in a flash of insight, were prompted by data from the lab. Experimentalists had shown that the speed of light didn't depend on how fast the light source was moving (contrary to expectation and everyday horse sense). He had experimental motivation for his relativity theories.

Similarly, modern SETI is an idea planted in a vast garden of planetary science, astronomy, and biology that give it plausibility. You may not recall, but the ancient Greeks also figured there was plenty of life in the cosmos. Their claim didn't rise to the level of science hypothesis because the knowledge that would underpin their idea with a foundation of facts didn't yet exist.

Context is certainly important in evaluating Camping's computations, which were predicated on a largely unverifiable narrative known as the Bible. Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants. Camping was standing on a single, very old source of mostly unrelated and unproven data, an entirely different kettle of kippers.

So, while both daring and interesting, Camping's forecasts were not scientific predictions. But here's one that is: The dying Sun will write finis to Earth's history of life in about 5 billion years. And my guess is that this doomsday forecast won't disappoint.