Quad Erat Coquendum

The scientist's view of the kitchen world

Pathways to truth: Science vs. Religion

…faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
~ Joseph Smith

How We Find Truth

A few months ago, when I was attending a Logicon event in my city, I was first introduced to the idea of science literacy.  As a scientist by trade, I have been employing the scientific method for years without much thought.  I know that decisions should never be made based on emotion, unbiased evidence should be attained before forming a conclusion, and I should always be willing to change my opinions on things if the evidence compels me to do so.

I’ve noticed that in almost every case where a person distrusts science, they are also strongly religious (or “spiritual” but I’ll leave the pseudoscience rant for another post…hell, who am I kidding, there will be many rants on pseudoscience).  Now this is obviously not true in every case.  I have a good friend who is incredibly intelligent, a master’s student in chemistry, and an ardent follower of an arguably fundamentalist religion.  I also have friends in the arts who are staunch atheists.

I’m compelled to think there is a connection between why scientists and religious people often butt heads.  After musing on this for quite a while, I believe the major reason lies not in contradicting fact (though this can come up when speaking with a young-earth creationist) but rather in a difference in how the two parties find their truth.  In a religious setting, for example, truth is ultimate.  It is unchanging, fact has found its final form.  What I mean by this is if I were to take a cherished belief in a religion, say the Christian belief that Christ will come again, this fact (and I use the word “fact” in the sense that it is fact to those who believe it) has, is, and always will be unchanging.  No matter what comes along, a believing Christian will always hold this as fact.

Additionally, authority is infallible.  Now I know the argument, “we believe that our authority has the same flaws as any man,” but these people also believe that when speaking with the word of their god, the authority speaks ultimate truth.  This is seen in Catholicism (their Pope is also deigned the “Holy See”), Mormonism (where they hold the belief of a literal prophet who literally speaks directly with their god), Islam, and even in the less organized, “spiritual” religions (think of how many people believe the Dali Lama is the greatest thing since sliced bread).  In each case, the belief is held that some person, usually a man but that will be yet another post, holds either an inherent or given power which allows them greater ability to communicate with god or greater ability to discern truth than the average person.  The rest of the world cannot question their actions because they aren’t blessed with the same ability or power.  Therefore, authority is always right.  Even when it’s wrong.

Finally, faith is a virtue for the religious.  As a scientist, faith is just about the worst thing you could use when practicing the scientific method.  It is not only discouraged but punishable.

Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me.  Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.
~ Christopher Hitchens

But to the religious, faith is not only virtuous, but necessary.  How many times have we heard, “You have to have faith!”  This is because faith is not knowledge but the opposite of knowledge.  To refer back to the quote I placed at the beginning of this post, faith is NOT to know something.  It can be easily inferred that if one has knowledge of something, they do not need faith.  I.e. if there is evidence, faith is unnecessary.  The corollary to which would be if there is not evidence, no proof, no logic, faith is necessary to believe.  Since religion is belief in things unseen, faith is the necessary link between our reality and our belief system.  There is no logic, no empirical evidence, no pure reasoning that can lead us to a religious system.  Faith is the necessary component to jump over the logical constraints and nestle safely in whatever system of beliefs we choose.

Where is the difference?

I’d now like to address the three examples of how the religious find truth and meaning and explain the differences in the scientific world.

Scientific truth is not ultimate

The first complaint I hear from those who shy away from science is similar to this, “One day science tells me this, the next day they completely contradict themselves.  It always changes, it’s always wrong, what am I supposed to believe?”  Look, I completely understand this frustration.  If you come from a system where your beliefs are ultimate, as in never changing and have reached their final state (never will change), it would be confusing to transition to a system where truth is ever evolving.  In the scientific community, not only do we hold all truth as changeable, but we celebrate in finding our mistakes.  Each time a mistake is found, we deepen our understanding of the universe.  If we look at the evolution of the atomic model, we see this very clearly.  Once it was thought that electrons traveled in designated paths around the nucleus.  Now it is established that the electrons travel in a cloud.  As research at CERN is revealing more and more incredibly exciting results, our understanding of the atom is growing even deeper.  Which means 500 years from now, our model will likely be different from what it is now.

But if science is always changing, why trust the results you have now?

Because even though we are constantly gaining new results and forming new conclusions, our models rarely change drastically.  And our mistakes are rarely found to be 100% in error.  I present into evidence the evolution of physics from Newton to the present age.  Newtonian physics was a breakthrough in how our world worked.  Indeed your average Physics 101 class most likely revolves entirely around Newton’s principals.  Then Einstein came along and “revolutionized” physics.  But…what did Einstein really do?  He found that for bodies traveling close to the speed of light, Newtonian physics failed.  Or at least he was able to make a correction to Newtonian physics at those speeds.  You see, Newtonian physics is still valid, the discovery was that it’s only valid in certain situations.   Just because Newton wasn’t able to even dream of something traveling as fast as the speed of light doesn’t undermine the amazing work he did.  Even in the model of the atom, we now understand that electrons form a cloud without designated paths – but the previous model isn’t completely wrong.  We still understand there to be a nucleus made of neutrons and protons which is surrounded by electrons.

But what about when science contradicts itself?

I love to use the example, “first eggs were bad, then eggs were good, then the whites were good but the yolks were bad.  Why can’t they make up their minds?”  I would be frustrated as well if I didn’t know some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that happens.  The first report on eggs read something like this, “Eggs have a cholesterol content of [whatever it is].”  Another report read something like this, “Cholesterol, when found to be of type X and in quantities Y, is detrimental to the human body by causing Z.”  Now, some excitable reporter out there put these two studies together and made the blanket statement, “SCIENCE SAYS EGGS ARE BAD!”  Well, no, science never said that.  Science never made a moral judgement on eggs.  Studies only showed that eggs contained a relatively high cholesterol content when compared to other foods.

Later another report was made which read something like this, “Eggs have been found to be high in protein.”  And yet another report read, “Protein found in food is beneficial to the human body by causing X, Y, and Z.”  So some other reporter makes the blanket statement, “SCIENCE NOW SAYS EGGS ARE GOOD!”  Again, science never said that.  So someone comes out and says, “If you had actually read our reports, you would see that the cholesterol is contained in the yolk and the bulk of the protein is contained in the white.”  So some final reporter makes another blanket statement, “NEW EVIDENCE PROVES THAT THE YOLKS ARE BAD BUT THE WHITES ARE GOOD.”

If you were following, you would see that every science report was factual and not a single report contradicted another report.  But very often news reports will spin corrections and details to make it seem like something revolutionary has happened.  So I would propose that it is the media you should distrust rather than the scientist.

Furthermore, you will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever read a scientific article which concludes that something is either good or bad.  Let me repeat:

A scientific article will never conclude that something is simply either “good” or “bad.”

It is the job of the scientist to report unbiased findings and conclusions free of emotion.  Which is why you can go ahead and disregard most media headlines right off the bat as they will claim that new evidence has caused the scientific community to make a moral or emotional based conclusion.  And if you do run across something which says, “new evidence shows that car exhaust is bad,” you can throw it away as it has been tainted by an emotional conclusion.  A true scientific article will rather read, “Car exhaust may be detrimental to the health of the general human population when found in concentrations greater than X ppm as it has been linked through [case studies] to emphysema.”  It is left up to the reader to make the moral judgement that since emphysema is bad, car exhaust probably isn’t the greatest thing ever.

This is also where I see religion fitting in nicely.  It is the job of religion to make the moral calls, not to deny facts.

But the scientists claim they know everything and we can’t possibly understand them so we just have to accept what they tell us, right?

Not exactly.  But I’ll agree that there is some truth to this statement.  Even if you took the smartest, most studied person on the planet, that person could not possibly know everything about everything.  So often we defer to scientific authorities – people who have spent years of their lives studying very specific parts of the scientific field.  It shouldn’t come as an insult if you can’t understand something, most people can’t.  I can’t understand a paper written on particle physics because I have no background in particle physics.  But I do have a great deal of trust in the system by which articles are chosen to be printed.  This system is called peer review.

Unlike religious authority which cannot be questioned, scientific authority only gets its power through a rigorous questioning process.  Once the questioning bodies are satisfied that they cannot poke holes in the new conclusions being made, they will allow the article to be printed.  Having been through a couple of these myself, I can attest that they are harrowing experiences.  The peer reviewers have their reputations and careers on the line if they allow something false to slip through, so they think of everything.

Now, there are unfortunately some mistakes that have slipped through.  The most grievous of which, in my fervent opinion, was a piece of smut article which concluded the following, “Vaccines can cause autism in children.”  That article not only made it through peer review, but was published in a very well respected journal.  This single article reversed the decreasing trend of measles, mumps, and rubella in the United States and other first world countries, postponed (possibly indefinitely) the extinction of these three viruses, and has lead to the deaths of thousands of children and the elderly.   And all because a very evil man by the name of Andrew Wakefield was bribed into publishing a false report.

And this is why I retain my trust in the peer review system: after similar studies failed to find supporting evidence, an investigation was launched.  It was found that the report was entirely false and the article was immediately withdrawn from the journal’s archives.  The doctor was stripped of his title (a meager punishment for the harm he caused) and subsequent reports all verified that there is absolutely zero link between autism and vaccines.  Unfortunately the media had gotten ahold of the first, unverified article and caused a health scare which, to date, has resulted in the first five measles outbreaks since the introduction of the vaccine.

So what do I mean by “verified”?  Once a study has been printed, it must be verified multiple times before it reaches the status of “scientific theory” and must be so irrefutably verified that no possible argument can be made to the contrary to be upgraded to the status of “law.”  If I were to do a study which showed that, let’s say, blondes had a higher IQ than brunettes, and my experimental method was shown to contain an acceptable amount of error (side note: all studies have error, we just try to keep it as low as possible) I might be so lucky as to publish it in a great journal.  But more studies will be made by more scientists around the world.  Perhaps the next 5 studies show the same results, perhaps they all show different results.  The trick is, if you want to trust a scientific discovery, wait a few years to see how verifiable it has been.  Have numerous other scientists cited the article?  Have other studies shown the same result?  If they have, you can probably rest easy knowing that you are probably looking at some pretty good scientific truth.

Which brings us to the big one: EVOLUTION!

But evolution is just a theory.  Why not teach all the theories?

Because evolution is not just a theory, it is a scientific theory.  All others are philosophical theories, religious beliefs, or hypotheses.  If you take nothing from this big mess of a post, take this: a scientific theory is an explanation of the workings of a model which has been substantially supported by evidence from multiple fields and continues to hold true with little to no alteration when new evidence is introduced.  That’s a bit verbose but let’s put it this way, a hypothesis (which is a fancy word for guess) which has been proven verifiable with lots and lots and lots of evidence from multiple studies and has held true even when new evidence is discovered can be elevated to the status of scientific theory.  This means that when someone has said, “evolution has been established as fact,” it does not contradict the idea that evolution is a scientific theory.

I went to a museum and saw a really cool shark skeleton.  Then it turned out that all they actually dug up was a tooth.  Are you telling me that if they can make a shark out of a tooth then they can make a man out of a monkey?  

Okay, let’s talk a bit about museums.  What is a museum’s end goal?  Money.  Sorry, but it’s true.  They also try to educate but there isn’t as rigorous an editing system for museums as there is for journals.  A full shark skeleton is much better story than a tooth.  But the evolution of man wasn’t discovered nor is it perfectly laid out in museums.  The evidence lies in collections as well as in peer-reviewed journal articles.

Scientists like to extrapolate.  It’s highly likely that there have been many other shark skeletons which were dug up in a neighboring area at the same depth which all had identical teeth as the one in the Thanksgiving Point museum (I’m referring to a specific gripe I heard during an evolution discussion).  Based on the evidence, they could likely conclude that that tooth belonged to another giant shark.  It’s even more likely that the Thanksgiving Point Museum didn’t want to pay for the full shark skeleton.  Or maybe they own the real skeleton but it’s undergoing research at the moment.  After taking a couple paleontology and anthropology classes, I was amazed at what can be extrapolated from a small about of data.  All I’m saying is take the tourist-trap dinosaur museum with a grain of salt here.

Fun fact: the first date I had with my husband was at the Thanksgiving Point dinosaur museum.  Daaaaw.

Beliefs vs. knowledge

The discussion that prompted this post was interesting as the person on the “other side” kept using the phrase, “I don’t believe in human evolution.”  Believe.  That’s a curious word to use.  But it makes sense if you are viewing human evolution from a religious perspective rather than a scientific perspective.  See, science asks for no faith, no belief, no comforting reassurance.  It asks rather for doubt, questioning, being tested, being changed, ultimately being forged into something greater.  If something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t seem right, we aren’t suggested to, “put it on our shelf,” we are told, “Test it!  Discover!  Learn!  Change your perception of reality!  But be willing to leave behind what you once thought!”  And therein lies the greatest difference between religious perspectives of reality and scientific perspectives of reality: in the former, we are encouraged – commanded – to hold to our beliefs and never let them change (we can question but our questioning must lead us back to the same answer), in the latter we are told to step away from emotion and fear and be willing to change our understanding of the universe as the evidence suggests.  It’s terrifying at times to think, “we know so little!” but rewarding when you find yourself with greater knowledge and understanding than you could have imagined.

Look, if you want to have your religious beliefs about evolution, that’s fine, but you have to step outside of the science world.  Especially if you wish to believe in a literal translation of the old testament.  You must admit that you will ignore the evidence in favor of maintaining your faith (though, as I discussed earlier, faith is, in essence, the denial of evidence or belief without evidence so this is kinda what you are supposed to be doing anyway).  I’m not going to make the judgement call on which one is the better way here.  And, believe me, I have lots of respect for religious people…I just get a bit exasperated when I try to argue science with someone in a religious mindset.  A scientist expects a person to change their mind when the evidence is logical and persuasive.  A religious person feels it a righteous endeavor to stick to their beliefs especially when faced with evidence contrary to their belief.  Which is why these arguments end with the scientist feeling the religious person is stubborn and close minded and the religious person leaves feeling the scientist is lost and confused.

I’ve often envied those of faith as it seems to bring a lot of comfort for some rather uncomfortable questions.  And there is definitely a way (many ways) to mesh the two mindsets.  Perhaps you hold a scientific perspective of chemistry but you go to religion for early human history, future trends (prophecies), personal comfort, emotional decisions, etc.  There are many, many people who fall in this category (Sam, if you are reading this, I’m thinking of you, bud!)

But I’ve decided that, by and large, I much prefer stark logic and the absence of bias or emotion when learning more about my universe.

Well, sorry for turning this into a tome.  Kudos to anyone who makes it this far!

QEC (or, rather, QE verbosely discussed until Lauren’s fingers started cramping)

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4 comments on “Pathways to truth: Science vs. Religion

  1. Chad
    September 28, 2012

    I really enjoyed this post, Lauren. I wish you could have been around earlier this week, as Sam and I discussed just about every point you have made. I’d like to make a few contributions.

    I’m glad you said “I…PREFER stark logic and the absence of bias or emotion when learning about my universe” instead of “I USE ONLY stark logic and the absence of bias or emotion when learning about my universe.” The big difference in these two statements is that you do, as a matter of being human, allow logical fallacies, bias, and emotion to enter into (nearly) every decision that you make. You may prefer otherwise, but every person sees the universe in the light of their own assumptions. Of course, some people are more willing to change those assumptions than others and I think that’s where the difference lies. When your emotions become so strongly tied to an erroneous assumption you become unable to change the assumption when evidence to the contrary is submitted.

    I think the most important point, in any circumstance, is to know your assumptions and be prepared to adjust them as your knowledge increases. If I have the assumption that the earth is 5000 years old, I need to be willing to change that assumption when new evidence surfaces. Otherwise I’m holding on to an assumption which, in reality, has nothing to do with my core belief. What does the age of the earth have to do with the existence of God, after all? The argument is the same for evolution, the big bang, or any thing else we could learn about the universe. Perhaps it’s special pleading to say that God can be incorporated into any evidence science has, but I think as long as you look at the evidence and are able to change your assumptions to fit with the evidence it’s an unimportant fallacy. You haven’t compromised faith and you have accepted the evidence.

    I like your points about faith, and I completely agree. If you require evidence from God you don’t have faith; you have knowledge. I like Bryan Dunning’s interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac (See Skeptoid podcast Episode #12). He says that God was pleased with Abraham because he had no knowledge that Isaac would be saved. However, would God be pleased with Abraham had he known what was to happen? No. The modern corollary is, for example, a creationist who searches for evidence of intelligent design. This person may say “I have faith that God will show me” but in reality by looking for evidence he is destroying the only thing that his beliefs have to stand on – faith.

  2. Pingback: NaCl: from cooking to pseudoscience- « Quad Erat Coquendum

  3. Meg N.
    November 26, 2012

    My reaction to you citing Joseph Smith, not Alma 42, made me think, “Oh snap!”

  4. riderjones
    January 11, 2013

    As someone who is a scientist and a Christian I really appreciate this post. You have laid out a lot of things clearly and (compared to many who write on the same subject!) concisely.

    But I’m going to quibble about the term “evidence” that you use in the discussion of faith. In this context, I think that it is important to make the distinction between scientific evidence and colloquial evidence. Scientific evidence, when done properly, leads to a level of certainty; if someone were to replicate a scientific work, it would give them the same information as the previous scientist.
    Colloquial evidence, however, does not imply this kind of certainty. However many times a friend may be on time, there is always the possibility that he will be late or not show up at all. However, if he has been on time every time you have met with him, there is a certain amount of justification in thinking that he will be on time again.
    It is possible to have faith in the presence of the second, colloquial evidence. For example, in the story of Abraham and Isaac, mentioned in a previous comment, I agree that if Abraham had known exactly what was going to happen, it would not have been faith that led him to carry out God’s instructions. But neither was there nothing on which he based his faith. According to the story, God had already enabled his wife to bear him a son when she was well beyond childbearing years, so he had some evidence for his belief that God was capable of things that appeared impossible to him.
    I think it is important that it be recognized that religious people may (and many of them do!) have reasons for belief beyond emotional need or that they were taught it and told never to question it. Many of those reasons involve the use of the intellect. But none of them are proof (in the colloquial usage again) and so still require faith.
    So there can be evidence, just not scientific evidence. 🙂

    I hope I was as clear as you! Does this make sense?

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