C Rulon: The Scientific Method vs. religious “truths”

By | April 5, 2011

By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life and Health Sciences
Long Beach City College (ruloncl@yahoo.com)

“It is not so much knowl­edge of science that the public needs, as a scien­tific world view — an under­standing that we live in an orderly universe governed by physical laws that cannot be circumvented by any amount of piety or clever­ness.”

— Robert L. Park, Professor of Phy­sics

How do humans think they know something?

There are basically four ways in which we think we know something:

Authority: We read about it or heard about it from a source we trust.

Senses: We experienced it with one or more of our senses.

Reason: We reasoned it out based on what we already think we know.

Intuition: We intuitively know it, sometimes through a “religious insight”.

The problem, of course, is that each of these four ways of knowing can be notoriously un­reliable. Authori­ties can be mistaken; reasoning can be flawed; intu­itions can be wrong; our senses can be distorted. Consider the following once widely held belief:

“It’s common sense that the Earth doesn’t spin or race around the Sun. If it did we’d all be blown off, or at least feel something. Aris­to­tle logically proved that the Earth couldn’t be moving and St. Augustine, in direct communi­ca­tion with God, agreed. Even the Bible tells us in Psalms 104:5 that the Earth doesn’t move. So there!”

Yet, our senses, logic, common sense, inner know­ing and top authorities were all proved wrong. Our planet does dash through space, moving around our Sun at roughly 65,000 mph for the last several billion years! Now consi­der another widely held belief:

“I just know we didn’t evolve from apes. It’s too degrading and goes against God’s plan for us and His word in Genesis. Besides, you can’t prove it, since no one ever saw a human evolve from an ape. It’s just too impossible to believe.”

Yet, again, in spite of beliefs still held by over 40% of adult Americans, we really do have an extremely long evolutionary history. The sup­por­­t­ing evi­dence is just too compelling for any informed think­ing per­son to deny. Once again, those who thought other­wise based on intuition, their senses, script­ural authority, or reason, were proved wrong. How? By a collection of powerful methods of inquiry de­veloped and polished over the last 400 years of human existence, now collectively referred to as the Scien­tific Method.

Cur­rently mil­­l­ions of sci­en­tific and technological ar­ticles are being pub­­lished yearly in tens of thousands of different scientific jour­nals. This explosion of scien­tific know­­ledge has now imposed severe limita­tions on the ability of any one scientist to stay current except in very narrow specialty areas. Science today is like an extremely rapid­ly expanding region with a solid core of theories known to be true with a high level of certainty. As one moves outward from this core, theories become progres­sively more and more tentative.

The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method has turned out to be the most powerful and widely used method of inquiry humans have ever discovered for un­der­stand­ing how our bodies, our world and our uni­verse work—not the way we might want things to work, not the way we believe things should work, but the way things actually seem to work. It’s a way of discovering which hypothe­ses among many possi­ble explana­tions are wrong, thus hom­ing in on the right ones. Correct expla­na­tions open doors to ever deeper and more profound discoveries; wrong explana­tions lead to blind alleys.

To do science requires a healthy skepti­cism and high doses of logic, reason and intellectual honesty. The rational power of the human mind is highly respected. But this is not to imply that doing science is like following a cookbook with a particular recipe to follow. It requires considerable patience while stumbling down blind alleys, taking wrong turns, and sorting through incomplete and possibly biased data.

The Scientific Method requires following the evidence wherever it leads, despite personal beliefs or expectations. Its tools include formulating testable hypotheses to explain the raw evidence (observational, experimental, mathe­matical) on its own terms, rather than by “for­cing” the data to con­form to some preconceived belief. Although imaginative speculation is essential, hypotheses have to stand up to the evidence. They also have to be capable of being proved false, at least in theory. Experiments and observations require rigorous controls and reproduci­bility by independent investi­ga­tors

The data, theories and laws making up science are not secured by authorities. For no matter how convin­c­ing or inspired the auth­or­­ity may be, no matter how high in state, church, or even the world of science the authority may be, scientists always de­mand to see the hard evi­dence. When no evidence can be pre­sented other than revelations in dreams, the “voice of God,” the writings from an ancient holy book, or glowing (yet un­con­trolled) tes­timonials, scien­tists must with­­hold accep­tance of the claim. Inserting “God did it” answers into gaps in scientific knowledge is scientifically unsound, since all research stops.[1]

In science, extraordinary claims (claims that conflict with large bodies of evidence to the contrary) require extraordinary empirical evi­dence to become widely accept­ed. Thus, when someone claims to have a piece of Noah’s ark, or evi­dence that we’ve been visited by space aliens, or a human fossil found in the same rock layer as a dinosaur fossil, or evidence that intercessory prayer works in healing dis­ease, the Scientific Method requires that one remain very skep­t­i­cal. In such cases, scientists must demand strong empirical evidence ob­tained un­der conditions of extra­ordi­nary security to prevent any pos­si­bility of data tampering.

Scientific know­ledge is constantly up­dated through peer-reviewed journals and at science conven­tions throughout the world. Through this process errors are eventually caught and weeded out. Disagreements in science, although acrimonious at times, are usually resolved by more observations and experiments. Though much in science is now firmly established, no theories are beyond the possibility of revision in the light of new evidence.

One of the most striking features of the Scientific Method (and its resultant discoveries) is its universality. The rules and results don’t vary based on one’s nationality, ethnicity, sex, or geography. There is no such thing as “feminine science” or “African-American science.”[2] Science is an on­going enterprise involving a vast inter-generational and global community.

The basic scientific ethic must be absolute hon­esty in record­ing and pre­senting data. It’s curbing wishes, personal prejudices and emo­­­tions when inter­pre­t­ing the evidence. It’s bend­ing over back­wards in trying to dis­prove favorite hypo­theses. As difficult as this is to do in practice, it still is the essence of scien­tific integrity, an integ­rity many believe our society sorely needs.

“Science is much more than a body of knowl­edge. It is a way of thinking [that] invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our precon­cep­tions. “It urges us on to a no-holds-barred open­­ness to new ideas, how­­ever hereti­­cal, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of ev­ery­thing–both new ideas and estab­­lished wis­dom. We need wide apprecia­tion of this kind of think­ing. It works. It’s an essen­tial tool for demo­­­c­racy in an age of change.”

—Carl Sagan, astronomer

Religious “truths”

Unlike scientific knowledge, religious beliefs and truths vary enor­mous­ly over the planet, with deities and sacred dog­mas of every con­ceivable variety, seemingly limited only by human imagi­nations. The following comparisons between science and religion tend to refer to the more conservative and fundamentalist religious sects.

—Unlike science, religion is not a method of inquiry, but a body of belief usually grounded in sacred texts, supernatural explanations, faith (commitment in the absence of compelling empirical evidence), and religious experiences.

—Unlike science, the skeptical question­ing of religious beliefs, dogmas and moral positions is often seen as sinful, even heresy. Instead, religious disagree­ments tend to be “resolved” by more prayer and study from holy books, or even by splintering into separate sects.

—Unlike science, different religions usually see themselves as rivals rather than interlocking parts of one enterprise. Historically, ostracism, coercion, righteous attacks and even warfare have been used against those with dif­ferent religious beliefs.

—Unlike science, in religion faith is seen as a virtue. In fact, the more extra­ordinary the religious claim (by scientific standards), the stron­g­er the tendency of the faithful to believe that claim as a measure of the power of their faith. Many have been taught that to hold onto beliefs that have been disproved by science represents the highest of virtues, one to be reward­ed by God on the final judgment day. Examples include a literal belief in the bibli­cal creation stories, Noah’s ark, the Resur­rection and other religious miracles.

—Unlike science, religious believers “know” they have God-given inerrant truths in their holy books. Thus, religious dogmas and moral positions rare­ly (or very slowly) change in light of new conflict­ing scientific and historical knowledge. Instead, considerable energy is often spent in either willfully ignoring or attempt­ing to discredit those scientific findings, rational inquiries and ethical advances that conflict with religious dogmas. The power of human intelligence is often dismissed or belit­tled in such cases.[3] Thus, enormous ignorance regarding how our universe actually seems to work can remain hidden under cloaks of exalt­ed and righteously guarded sacred prose.

The abuse of science

The discoveries of science and the development of asso­ciated technologies have had enormous benefits for hu­man­kind in the past few centuries. Agricultural and medical advances have exploded, markedly reducing pain and suffering and contrib­uting to human welfare and happiness.

But in the hands of our recently evolved fallible brain and the political, social and religious institutions emerging from this brain, scientific and technological discoveries have also led to horrific nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and have dramatically accelerated our global ecological destruc­tion.

Today, we have power structures that disregard scien­tific consensus and expertise in favor of ideological alliances. This abuse of power has a serious corrosive effect on the public’s trust in science. When scientific information becomes manipulated and corrupted by partisan politics and/or by corporate power and greed to achieve political, financial or religious ends, the quality and integrity of the political process inevitably suffers. “It is the failure of the public to appreciate the power of the scientific method to discover truth, and to lift the human species out of the muck that enables politicians to ignore its findings in shaping public policy.”

“What the world needs is not dogma

but an attitude of scientific inquiry”

— Bertrand Russell

Some final thoughts

Applying rational critical thought to all areas of know­ledge, in­cluding formerly taboo subjects such as reli­gion, is one hallmark of an educated mind. Being scientifically skep­tical is not the same thing as being closed-minded, cynical or pessimistic. A scientific at­titude helps to protect us from being seduced by super­­­sti­tion, prejudice, pseudoscience, quackery and error. The demand for solid evi­dence helps to clear the way for intel­lec­tual pro­gress. After all, fool­­­ish­ness, fraud, fakery, error, wish­ful thinking, over-en­thu­­siasm and delu­sion are very common human attributes. If we wish to live in soci­eties that value rea­son, honesty, crea­tivity, know­ledge, truth and integ­rity—socie­ties that are opposed to ancient, irra­tional and some­times harmful super­stitions and dogmas—then a scien­tific and rational look at these dog­mas becomes essential.

Hon­est doubt is not a blem­ish upon our ability to know. The alterna­tive to uncertainty is authority against which scien­tists have fought for centuries.

—Richard Feynman

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[1]Inserting “God did it” answers into scientific unknowns is also bad theology. The strength of one’s faith now depends on whether or not scien­tists can fill this gap in our knowledge. Since scientists have been extremely suc­cess­ful over the last few centuries in replacing “God did it” answers with naturalistic explanations, the risk of one’s faith being undermined is quite high, as biblical literalists have been painfully discovering for centuries.

[2]This is not to deny that in fields such as sociology, psychology and cultural anthropology, female scientists and African-American scientists have often asked quite different questions than have white male scientists and have even exposed considerable white male bias.

[3]Some biblical passages used by believers to dismiss or denigrate rational thought: “The wisdom of the Lord can only be un­der­stood by the spirit­ual man. The un­saved just cannot under­stand these matters (Mark 9:42, I Cor. 2:13, Col. 2:8).” “Avoid the Godless mix­ture of con­tradictory notions which is falsely known as knowledge. Some have follow­ed it and lost their faith (1 Tim. 6:20).” “Be careful that nobody spoils your faith through intel­lect­ualism or high sounding nonsense. (Col. 2:8).”

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