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VATICAN LETTER Nov-10-2006 (970 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

In scientific predictions, the only certainty is nothing is certain

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- How often does a doomsday report make the news warning the public about disappearing icecaps, the earth's resources drying up or yet another substance linked to cancer?

Such predictions often trigger a wave of public alarm because people have faith that such forecasts don't come from squinting into crystal balls or swirling around tea leaves, but are the result of years of meticulous scientific and, therefore, reliable study.

In an effort to remind science of the impact its predictions have on the public, the Vatican hosted a meeting on the limits and accuracy of predictability in science.

Dozens of scientists and several theologians from all over the world gathered for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Nov. 3-6 plenary assembly to discuss how far the eye of science can see into the future and when calculations might be considered certain, probable or highly unlikely.

On the one hand, most scientists want to give as much early warning as possible about impending dangers such as earthquakes or climate changes.

On the other hand, they know the earlier the forecast, the more likely the prediction can be wrong, and being wrong makes scientists run the risk of losing the public's trust.

While Pope Benedict XVI reminded participants in a private Nov. 6 audience that scientists should avoid "needlessly alarming predictions" when there is not enough evidence, he was equally adamant that they not succumb to fear and fail to speak up "in the face of genuine problems."

William Phillips, a conference participant and 1997 Noble Prize winner in physics, told Catholic News Service even "imperfect information is better than having no information at all" when it comes to helping people plan for the future.

Phillips, who is a quantum physicist at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, said science is neither perfect nor worthless in its quest to understand and predict natural phenomena.

What's important, he said, is that scientists honestly express the level of certainty they have in their findings. Otherwise, he said, "if you lose honesty in science, then you've lost what science is about."

Many of the scientists' talks at the pontifical academy meeting not only underlined the impossibility of ever being 100 percent certain or correct even in traditionally predictable fields like atomic physics, but they celebrated the natural world's seemingly fickle behavior.

Some said it was only after getting wrong results in their research -- because nature worked in unexpected ways -- that they made scientific breakthroughs.

Throughout history, they said, new or better medical treatments and improved technology sometimes came from experiments that failed to do what was predicted.

While predictability makes daily life easier -- knowing the sun will come up, the car will start, a pile of work will be waiting on one's desk -- unpredictability, uncertainty and a fascination with the wider mysteries of the world "are the driving forces of research," said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the pontifical academy's chancellor.

But "science will never be able to determine everything. There is always something that will elude it -- not from God's mind but from ours," he added.

In his speech, Pope Benedict reminded the scientists that theology and philosophy have an important role to play in helping science recognize its limits.

For example, just because scientists cannot always predict does not mean nature is a footloose mishmash of random laws or that people live in an indeterminate world.

Jurgen Mittelstrass, a German professor of philosophy and president of the London-based Academia Europaea, said it's not the world that is chaotic; the "chaos exists only for us, not for the thing being studied" that is ultimately following natural laws.

The nature of reality -- the big picture, so to speak -- and what humans can know about it are questions for philosophers and theologians to debate, not scientists.

But just as science is limited in what it should draw conclusions about, so too is theology.

Dominican Father Jean-Michel Maldame, a professor of philosophy and theology at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse, said: "Of course science does not know everything. But facing the unknown and the enigma created by the emergence of life and the (appearance) of mankind, it is erroneous to appeal to an intervention of God which would alter the natural course of things."

Father Maldame said that much confusion has arisen from supporters of intelligent design claiming "they are able to settle questions discussed by scientists," specifically "by rejecting the theory of evolution."

Father Maldame explained that the church teaches God created life and the universe as well as the laws that govern the natural world.

While God is the source of all creation, he does not alter "the course of natural phenomena" but "allows for the autonomy of his creatures and the play of nature's laws," he said.

Intelligent design supporters have created a "god of the gaps," meaning an unnamed intelligence or divine intervention to fill in or erase the uncertainties in science, he said.

Not only is this bad science, Father Maldame said, it is poor theology, since if and when science does come up with an explanation, God is then made unnecessary and disposed of as an incorrect hypothesis.

By not "giving ready-made answers to human research," he said, God "underscores the importance of man's freedom."

He told CNS that living in an unpredictable world means not only are people graced with freedom, but everything they "say, do and promise has an importance for today, tomorrow and after."

"Unpredictability and indeterminism leave room for human freedom (and with it) my responsibility" that "what I do is a little thing, but a little thing over a long time can make a great difference," he said.


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