Monday, July 10, 2006

Doggerel #25: "Science is Just Another Religion!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. This edition is brought to you by suggestion of jess, combined with the nonsense Ann Coulter was apparently up to while I was busy saving the Mushroom Kingdom this weekend.

Many woos out there like to claim that science is just another religion. This is, of course, complete nonsense: Unlike religion, Science is an inherently self-correcting enterprise. When facts contradict theory, the theory is modified to fit the facts. Since experiments continuously generate new facts to deal with, our scientific knowledge is always changing and updating.

Many theories, however, don't need large overhauls to fit facts. The modern theory of evolution and the Big Bang are good examples of this: Most new facts revealed by experimentation fit in nicely. They aren't held in high esteem because they're dogma our worldview depends on: They're held in high esteem because we've continuously failed in our best efforts to prove them wrong. They have no problems surviving our worst efforts, either.

As I've said many times, the quick and dirty of science is this: 1) Form a falsifiable hypothesis. 2) Do everything you can think of to prove that hypothesis wrong. Whatever remains standing after all our attempts is probably true. There's no certainty in science, so all such conclusions are tenative. This cannot be said for religion: They'll typically ad hoc their hypotheses until they're unfalsifiable, rather than admit to being wrong.

Putting aside the disparity of science and religion, this "argument" is likely an attempt to lead people into a relativist fallacy. Even if the body of knowledge commonly referred to as "science" was religiously derived instead of scientifically discovered, science would still be a valid tool for learning, and it's be able to debunk religiously derived dogma, just like reality did for Lysenko.

Thankfully, unlike Lysenko, we probably don't have to worry about reality raining on our parade: Our knowledge works, and the fact that you're reading this blog entry is one such anecdotal demonstration.


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Anonymous said...

First of all, nice blog. However I have to disagree with this statement.

"Many theories, however, don't need large overhauls to fit facts. The modern theory of evolution and the Big Bang are good examples of this: Most new facts revealed by experimentation fit in nicely."

Big Bang theory has huge holes in it, with new observations resulting in concepts like dark matter, dark energy and inflation, all of which are "large overhauls to fit the facts". This only lends more credibility to the claims of science as religion since many scientists seem incapable of admiting current Big Bang theory might be flawed.

Bronze Dog said...

They're willing to admit it might be flawed. They won't admit it is flawed until you show contradictory data. All science is supposed to be tenative.

Of course, dark energy and dark matter have been added to account for the behavior of the universe as it is now. They weren't necessary to show that the universe is expanding, or to explain the existence of the cosmic background radiation. Those things pointed to a singularity, and they still do.

Of course, the fact that they're able to overhaul the theory to produce (more) accurate predictions demonstrates that it's the polar opposite of religion, which is mostly about ad hocking away failed predictions while keeping the core of the hypothesis intact in the face of contradicting data and internal contradictions.

Oh, and while you're here, what are these "huge holes" of which you speak?

AltWorlder said...

Science should function in the way you speak. But on a practical level, most people simply accept or reject the findings of science based on appeal to higher authority, personal beliefs, etc. Why bother confirming if something is true or not if Euclid or Kepler of Hawking already did the math and the observations to prove it? Why bother reading it up and studying it yourself if the majority of the scientific community has come to a consensus about it? So isn't there still a potential for science to become a religion, when the laymen start to take scientific facts and theories on the basis of faith in "science" and scientists?

In conclusion, As someone pointed out on a board-

"Faith is a funny thing. For instance, 99% of science I take on faith, because no one ever sat me down and proved before my eyes the concepts I read about. For all I know, the scientific establishment is lying their asses off about the big bang, outer space, and OxyClean(R)."

Anonymous said...


I think you are confusing "faith" with "trust". We trust science because it has a very long proven record of being correct and of guiding us towards the truth. And we do approach the truth more and more. Besides, everything science is based on can be tested independently (assuming you have access to resources).

Faith, on the other hand, is not based anywhere concretely! You merely "believe" things you were told without any evidence at all. And none of the belief-systems can be tested or ever proven wrong.

I hope you can see the big difference there.

AltWorlder said...

Yes, but to most people, faith is no different than trust. The masses do not care or do not possess the resources to test the knowledge they trust in. So ultimately, aren't "faith" and "trust" functionally the same thing? You can argue that scientists, the intelligentsia, a group of people is out there capable of testing and proving knowledge. But functionally speaking, does it matter when the masses are incapable of that? When you get into a society such as that, when does it turn from trust in the scientific method, to blind faith in your scientific personality/institution of choice?

Bronze Dog said...

You don't trust individual scientists or individual institutions. That's what replication and consensus is supposed to be for.

Anonymous said...

Their answer to that tends to be the idea that the scientists aren't really independant and they are all on some white council deciding things from on high, probably in some manner of tower. I think conspiracy is in a way their answer to the independant replicated results "issue". Mind you, they just more or less make up this grand conspiracy of those "smarties" and have no evidence for it, but it seems to be their thinking that so long as they CAN come up with some overly convoluted reason why you "can't trust experiments" that's good enough.

Anonymous said...

Atheism is not technically a belief system, but functionally it is.

And the differences between atheists are just as prevalent in Christianity. The different denominations have just as diverse world views tied by a few common facts. God as the creator, Jesus as the savior...that's about it.

There are clearly "denominations" of atheism as well (Humanists as a distinct group, etc.)And not all Christians go to church either.

Bronze Dog said...

Actually, a more apt comparison would be the denominations of "theism". Atheism is about the nonexistence of deities, and that's all the title of "atheist" implies. Theism as a whole only has the opposite belief in common.

Of course, it's kind of moot, since there's no evidence for deities, and the evidence is what this is all about.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't figured out that we differ in our subjective opinions yet, I won't spend more time trying to convince you. You'd do well to give up on me changing my tune as well. AGREE TO DISAGREE.

Bronze Dog said...

Where do subjective opinions come into this?

Don said...

If you really want to agree to disagree, Mr. Gayedintheface, maybe you'd do well to stop coming around and posting snarky pseudo-intellectual comments. Don't pretend that it wasn't you started this particular rodeo. BD didn't come to your corner of the web first.

Anonymous said...

Atheism doesn't really define any of my beliefs. It doesn't even suggest my rational for being an atheist. All it says is a chunk of things I don't believe in.

The thing is, there's a decent number of atheists I've met who are that way due to some rather silly and irrational stuff. I'm not even talking about the non-theistic religions so much as the people who say they are atheists BECAUSE, say, the church is evil, or because they "are too busy with life to bother thinking about it". Yes I've heard these as reasons. Generally while I "agree" with their final conclusion, I don't REALLY agree because for me it's all about the thought process to REACH a conclusion and not the conclusion itself.

This can be contrasted with a lot of religions where it's perfectly acceptable to have any ol' reason for accepting their god, so long as they actually reach the same conclusion as their religion.

Being an atheist to me is as incidental as noting that the sun rises or that evolution occurs. What really matters is that you used lines of reason and evidence to reach those conclusions. The atheists who just sort of think that "because" are just as much a part of the problem as every other person who doesn't take the time to think things through rationally. I'd rather they personally did end up taking up some religion personally but applied rationality in everything else in their lives (there's a good number of people who do just that, I believe Steven Colbert is a good example) than be an atheist and not bother thinking about anything at all.

My point I suppose is that not believing is pretty dang easy in and of itself but it's generally unimportant once I reach that point. The only reason I have to identify myself as an atheist is because society in general usually expects someone to have SOME religion. Heck I've seen shows on TV that literally have characters say "I don't care what you believe in but you have to have SOME spirituality!", I mean seriously, what kind of insanity is that?

Unknown said...

May I add that nice Feynman quote: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

AltWorlder said...

This is also good:

Alias 13 said...

...How the **** did I get to this from TVTropes pages about Digimon? And WTF are tanties and why is that my verification word?

Anyways, I count at least one flamer on the discussion board and two more that could be. Not naming names, but it should be pretty self evident.

...Sorry I don't have anything relevant to the topic at hand. That usually doesn't happen to me. Then again, it could be the fact that it's 12:25 am and I'm sleep deprived that's contributing.

In any case, I, personally, choose to trust in science because, whenever I look for the truth, I'd rather be able to confirm it myself, rather than be forced to trust someone who could potentially lie to your face for profit with you none the wiser. (If that bit doesn't make it clear, I'm generally distrustful of authority figures in general, not because they're authority figures, but because of the types of people that generally are "in charge" these days. That, and past experiences with other people have resulted in the uncovering of traits in others that are... less than trustworthy. [Sometimes I hate the fact that my autism means sometimes having to wait 5 minutes to think of the right word. Stupid underdeveloped speech center!])

Don't bother trying to respond to this, as I likely won't ever see your response.

...And now I realize I broke a few netiquette rules. *sigh* I'll go ask my friends which ones.

Bronze Dog said...

Ah, nostalgia. Been a while since I wrote this. I'll reply anyway to agree with the point about trust:

The authority in science is not in any particular scientist, it's in the work they do. That is, after all, the point of replicating experiments: If one scientist gets a result, so should anyone else who tries the same experiment.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I think I still have a couple other TV Tropes links (which I didn't add) you might stumble on.