Science and the Tinkerbell Effect

by Tom Dinger

The Bell

A commentary by an acquaintance of mine and from years ago. I believe there is only one person who might recognize the author. He was well liked amongst his fellow writers.

Americans Doubting the Big Bang Is a Healthy Thing

A new Associated Press-GfK poll asked approximately one thousand U.S. adults to rate their confidence in science and medicine.  The results showed surprising skepticism in various scientific concepts that many/most scientists consider established fact.  People were most likely to accept practical matters, such as smoking causing cancer or antibiotics causing more resistant bacteria.  More theoretical concepts, such as global warming, dating the age of the Earth, or the Big Bang creation of the universe met with greater suspicion.

Some scientists greeted the survey’s findings with dismay.  “It is enormously distressing that science, which is our most powerful means for gaining insight into the world, insight into truth, is so mistrusted by so many people,” Brian Greene, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University, told CBS News.

Others looked for explanations.  People find it easier to believe what they have personally experienced.  Many of us have known a heavy smoker who died of cancer but no one can look into the night sky and see visible evidence of the Big Bang.  Most of the readily accepted concepts have little to do with religion but carbon dating and the Big Bang appear to contradict/invalidate the Bible and other religious teachings.

Distrust of science does not equate to an embrace of traditional faith by Americans; quite the opposite.  A Harris poll taken in November 2013 found an eight percent decline since 2009 in the number of Americans who believe in God.  The same poll found those describing themselves as “not at all” religious has nearly doubled since 2007.  A May 2013 Gallup poll found seventy-seven percent of American say religion is losing its influence on American life.  Twenty-one percent of respondents in a March 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said that religion is “not that important” to their lives.

More to the point, the fact that people are as skeptical toward science as they are religion is no sign that science is overstepping its limits or doing something wrong.

There is a documented phenomenon in science that is known as the Tinkerbell Effect.  Simply stated, it says that our beliefs, biases, and assumptions can literally impact our physical observation and analysis of factual data.  The name derives from the fairy character Tinkerbell in the J.M. Barrie novel Peter Pan.  Barrie asserted that fairies require human belief in order to exist.  In the play adapted from the novel, Peter urges the audience to applaud for Tinkerbell after Captain Hook poisons and imprisons her, in order to save her life.

Religious adherents voice a faith in God that often borders on certainty.  However, none of them would argue that God requires their faith in order to exist – to do so would be to reduce the Lord of all Creation to a children’s fairy.  The same is true for global warming or the Big Bang – even a majority of disbelief by Americans does not mean they are bad science.

Scientific theories are formed as attempts to explain why/how things happen that align with empirical data.  It is impossible to know anything with absolute certainty.  Sometimes new evidence emerges that requires theories to be adjusted.  However, science remains a rational and honest attempt to make sense of our existence.

Even the most brilliant and dedicated scientists are subject to the Tinkerbell Effect and sometimes will engage in bad science.  Religious leaders and philosophers are also vulnerable in their respective fields.  So are all of us.  We will be more inclined to question scientific findings we find threatening or difficult to grasp as bad science.  Yet just because something is distantly divorced from our everyday experience does not mean it is not true or as real as us.

I sympathize with scientists.  They face public skepticism over string theory, even among their own ranks, because (current) tools exclude factual observation of the possible tiny one-dimensional objects and because eleven dimensions are really, really hard to imagine.  Yet forty-two percent of that same public readily accepts the existence of ghosts and fifty-eight percent believes in Satan and hell.

Still, even if some of their preferences side toward metaphysics, their methods are purely scientific.   Skepticism is at the heart of scientific pursuit, whereas many modern religions are bogged down in dogmatic absolutism.  For thousands of years, human society dutifully accepted whatever the institutions of power (i.e. church and state) told them was true.  Only a few iconoclast thinkers challenged the norm.  Today, we live in a society where everyone maintains a healthy doubt.  Science has done more to change us for the better than even it may realize.