Monthly Archives: October 2009

Science is Indifferent to Beliefs

People are giving themselves and their ideas too much credit if they really think science is out to disprove them.

A few weeks ago, I read perhaps the most lucid and hard hitting blog post about creationism in America and what can happen when cherished beliefs are contradicted by scientific facts.

The post, “Facts are NOT Anti-religious” by Dr Steven Novella explores the curious story of a high school band that wore shirts depicting “the evolution of brass” which features the iconic evolving primates image.

Some people complained because “the image was offensive to their religious beliefs”. This is planet Earth we are tallking about, not some parallel dimension where such kooky ideas are woven into the fabric of space and time. Facts, you see, are not anti-religious.

People choose to take offence only when it is their beliefs that are challenged by the facts. There in lies the problem of believing in absolute knowledge dictated by an unchallengeable authority – challenges are met with disdain and reflexive emotional opposition.

You see, science and facts are indifferent to the beliefs of human beings. If the scientific method leads us to strong conclusion X and you hold contradictory belief Y then that is a contradiction created by you. And someone else may have their own belief construct (Z) that is also in contradiction with X. Beliefs are such that there will always be people who hold irreconcilable beliefs.

Heck, even Christians can’t agree on many points — whether they be theological or scientific or on which values are “Christian” and which aren’t. Some accept evolution yet think God started it all. Some think evolution happened but is guided by God. Some see the two Genesis creation stories as allegory, some see it literally.

This is what happens when you allow beliefs, both private and from authority to determine what’s true. If you leave it to the individual, then you’re going to get a belief that exhibits all the features of a belief — confirmation bias, filtering out contradictory evidence — largely emotional reasons for believing. In short, the more personal experience is a factor the less logical and the more irrational the belief will be.

Believe me cos I said so — Authority is not an arbiter of what’s true either

Beliefs based on authority have one main feature — on their face there is no way to determine whether the propositions they make have any reality to them. Authoritative beliefs tend to be insulated from criticism and are often serving the interests of the authority — not yours and they can be moral or immoral in nature. More often than not, authoritative beliefs are adopted because at some level there is some comfort and satisfaction to be gained from accepting them.

So why is science so great then? Why should we accept knowledge derived from science rather than personally held convictions, faith-based beliefs and authority? Scientific knowledge is backed by evidence and adheres to sound logic. Furthermore, science is an open system of knowledge because at the end of the day the only thing that counts is can you demonstrate your findings through testing.

It isn’t  someone trumpeting “believe me… because I said so” or “believe me… because it feels right to me”. If I do the same test I should arrive at the same conclusions, providing the experiment is well-conducted. Science is public revelation and open to anyone.

Non-falsifiable hypotheses are not amenable to testing and are therefore outside the realm of science. Endorsement of such ideas is therefore a question of speculation and belief in them must be underpinned by faith.

Facts are only a threat to the dogmatic, close-minded person.

Scientists will have their own agendas (they are human) which is why the opinions and research of individual scientists and organisations is not taken at face value by the scientific community. The scientific process includes checks and balances where research is replicated and results are submitted for peer review. This process filters the bad from the good and over time this self-correcting mechanism improves the status of scientific theories. Ultimately, debates and questions are settled by the evidence, not opinion. The scientific method has truth testing built into every step.

Contrast this with pseudoscience. Pseudoscientists may have peer reviewed publications. So aren’t they doing science? Well, no actually. The difference between say, the Creation Research Journal or one dealing in acupuncture is that the contributors have already decided on the conclusion. In this scenario, the research and peer review process is reduced to an exercise in apologetics and back slapping.

Show your work

In short: in science we are looking to disprove hypotheses. In pseudoscience, the aim is to confirm prior ideas. This resigns the pseudoscientific approach to the waste paper basket when determining what’s true. Pseudoscientific beliefs reveal all the hallmarks of the faulty epistemology they stem from.

The methods of science allow us to arrive at vastly different conclusions than religion. This doesn’t make them religious (the absence of dogma is not dogma). What this does mean to the true believer is that science is great unless it disproves their cherished idea.

People are giving themselves and their ideas too much credit if they really think science is out to disprove them. Regardless of whether these are religious claims or alternative medical modalities, science is indifferent to who is promoting them and what the claims are.