16.32 Faith in Science


Many people are optimistic that science will find solutions to the problems that threaten us, like diseases, famines, depletion of natural resources etc. I am an optimist too. But I don’t believe that science can always provide the solution to such problems.

For example, suppose I were offered $10billion to recruit a team of scientists and engineers to make a vehicle that travelled faster than the speed of light. I would not take the money. Why not? Because current scientific theory (Einstein’s special theory of relativity) predicts that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. At some time in the future, someone may develop a more general theory of relativity that shows that Einstein’s theory is not always right – in exactly the same way that Newton’s laws of motion, that had been accepted for hundreds of years, were found to be not always correct (see post 16.2). But until we find evidence that Einstein’s theory is not always right (see post 16.3), we believe that it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light.

More interestingly, many of the problems that many people consider to be “scientific” also raise, ethical, financial, legal and other problems. Solving these problems may be more difficult than solving the scientific problem.

In October 2015, BBC World News covered a story about a South-East Asian family who “put their faith in science” by cryogenic preservation of their young son soon after he died. Cryogenic preservation consists of freezing dead people in the belief that scientists will, in the future, find a way to bring them back to life. At present, there is no evidence that the current techniques of freezing whole people will not damage them, either during the freezing process or when they are thawed. So, even if future scientists can cure the problems that led to their death, the preservation process could have damaged the bodies irreparably – we don’t know.

But I think the main problem with cryogenic preservation is likely to be financial, not scientific. Who’s going to pay for keeping dead people frozen? Not governments! They have enough problems providing for living people – why worry about dead people who may (or may not) come back to life at some time in the future? Not insurance companies! There is no way they can estimate the risks and, so, no way that they can make sensible business decisions. So who will pay? It will be: either (1) people who want their loved ones to come back to life in the future or (2) people who are about to die who want to come back to life in the future.

One way of paying that works for both types of customer, is to pay a large fee that covers the cost of keeping a body frozen. The other way is to pay an annual fee that is payable until the person can be bought back to life. In the first method, the interest on the fee must cover costs (and, in the case of a private company, make a profit) until the body is brought back to life. We have no way of knowing how long this will take, or how interest rates will change in the distant future. The second method works only for people who are paying the costs of freezing their loved ones. It is likely that they will die long before the frozen bodies can be brought back to life. So, who will pay the annual fee then?

Either way the cryogenic preservation company could run out of money. So what happens then? They won’t have the money to keep the bodies frozen. So, they may have to switch off the freezers! Will this raise legal or ethical problems? Probably not – because the bodies are already dead! They can then be disposed of in the normal ways – burial or cremation.

So, if you’re paying for cryogenic preservation, your faith is not so much in science as in the financial stability of a company and its business strategy. And this is just a very simple example where faith in science is complicated by other factors.


Related post

16.22 Science can’t explain everything
16.8 Predictions

Follow-up posts

16.46 The placebo effect




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