Having “Faith” In Science

The topic of “faith” in regards to (particularly atheists’) “devotion” to the scientific method (and the institution of science generally) seems to be recurring at more regular intervals of late…

It was raised on several occasions in last weeks’ HIV/AIDS posts here and here, and this article at Wired (Artist Builds Temple of Science) makes the “science as religion” accusation tangible.

So why does this way of viewing science persist? In my opinion it stems primarily from peoples’ lack of awareness as to how science is “done.” It is not obvious to people that a free-market of ideas is going on in science — for grant money, for status, for fame — just as in any other field, scientists are working to be the “first,” they often treat other scientists as foes and are competitive even among those with whom they are in agreement… there is no monolithic “science”… it is a profession whose participants have many distinct personalities, ethics, motivations, desires, etc…

But from the perspective of regular people (non-experts, non-professionals) it is difficult to know where to put one’s trust — especially with all the competition and non-aligning motivations that crowd science. Meanwhile the language and ideas of the professionals have become so specialized (and will only become moreso over time) that even those who wish to untangle the “truth” can become hopelessly lost without the guide of a PhD. In other words, the folks who believe science may know no more about a given topic than folks who believe their religion, and furthermore, sometimes “science” just gets things wrong.

And yet there are key and fundamental differences between science and religion. If one takes an inventory of scientific achievement, it is not as if each generation overthrows itself (although this does happen from time to time). The achievements of science are more like a camera further ratcheting down its lens—bringing things into a sharper and tighter focus. Newton proposed laws of gravity that worked for the level of clarity that science was able to achieve at the time. Einstein’s theories replaced Newton’s, the focus was tightened, but Newton is still right for the objects he was working with…

The kind of trust that many of us have in science and scientific achievement seems to me deserved. Everyday we enjoy the fruits of science, that is, technology. We know that science has proved itself, people live longer, we watch HGTV on HD TV, we communicate with each other anytime and everywhere… all of these advancements prove that science does, generally, make accurate predictions and enable us to gain control over our lives and the things in it…

So what of the original question — is this faith?

It seems to me that faith is belief in something without or in-spite-of evidence. While I call what we have in science, trust — that is, belief based on past evidence of success. Science has been successful at making predictions and understanding our world far more than Priests, Shaman, Rabbis, Ministers, or Witch Doctors ever have. One may reply, however, that no scientist can give comfort to a dying woman, or a man searching for his “spiritual” center. I disagree.

A scientific understanding of the world does not include only wires and machinery. It includes psychiatry and psychology — sociology and anthropology. it includes therapy and understanding how biology impacts our moods and thoughts. I really and truly find comfort in being able to understand why I feel certain ways about things. Understanding the impulses and history behind “who I am” helps me to be more complete and it helps me to be more patient and understanding of others. And I am almost certain that I fear death no more than the most eager martyr for Islam or Christian anxious to be with his/her Holy Father. 

Trust in science is not faith because science gives us a reason to trust it. It produces for us, whether we understand all the technicalities behind it or not. I do fear that as time goes by, and as average people become even further removed from the arcane speak of the scientist, that distrust in science may grow and make it easier for pseudo-scientific theories to gain a wider “populist” appeal. I also fear that scientists themselves, specialized and isolated in some narrow sphere of learning, might loose sight of the bigger picture. For all of these reasons we need to keep politics and religion out of science — in the doing of science and in determining the “truth” of science.

Yes, there will be a role for politicians and religious leaders to help decide what to do with scientific discoveries, but, to the extent that we are able, those discoveries should not be colored by doctrine and dogma, nor used in the gamesmanship of those seeking power. Only by detaching science from “faith-based” institutions (yes, I am including politics under that label) can we keep a real and lasting trust in science.

3 Responses

  1. Ty: I was thinking about your comment that scientists engage in a marketplace of ideas as much as others engage in their markets of choice – and your comment about coming out on top (not how you phrased it) seemed fairly accurate. I’ve been listening to Terry Eagleton’s lectures on religion and science (present at Yale University earlier this year as part of the Dwight Terry Lectureship) and had a difficult time telling if he had a point to make about the validity of faith or about his dislike of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I have wondered if the academic world has become bogged down in its petty pursuit of one-upmanship and has forgotten its potential to help us more clearly see the world. I, too, find myself wondering whose arguments to trust.

  2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – science is a method, not an ideology, and it’s a method that has a proven track record of success – that’s the basis on which it makes sense to trust it. If gravity and evolution suddenly stopped working tomorrow then we’d be in a different position, but so long as we inhabit a universe that seems to operate according to certain (highly complex) patterns, and so long as the theories so far invented continue to be borne out by new observations, it makes sense to treat the scientific method as the most reliable means we’ve yet found of fathoming how the material world works!

  3. […] accusation often thrown at those who favour peer-reviewed science over other claims to knowledge. Tyson Koska looks into this agument, and possible […]

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