Posted by: Ticktock | January 7, 2010

Is Science a Religion?

I spent some time explaining my science advocacy to my friends last night. In the course of the discussion, one of them described science as a religion, which I interpreted to mean that they see my enthusiasm for skepticism as being cult-like in nature. It makes me cringe to think that my closest friends see me as being similar to the Jehovah’s Witness knocking on their door on a Saturday morning.

My immediate response to the comparison of religion to science was to agree but to clarify that it’s self-correcting.

Why did I agree?

Well, I can see the intended point that I’m required to believe in scientists and the scientific process to make most of my factual claims. I wasn’t on the Alaskan expedition when the fossil of Tiktaalik, the intermediate species between fish and amphibian, was discovered. I haven’t seen the fossil, except when it was shown on a recent episode of PBS’s Nova. Yes, I must accept the existence of Tiktaalik without being able to analyze the specimen itself, but I must also do the same with most information, as does anyone. Somehow, we all manage to find ways to interpret what is real and what is not.

But, science, as I said to my friend, is a self-correcting belief system. That is to say, if a consensus of scientists were to refute the existence of Tiktaalik (for instance, to say that it was a clay model) then I would revise my belief in the specimen and acknowledge that I was wrong. Before today, I thought that Tiktaalik was the earliest example of a tetrapod, and yet, my evidence-based assumption must be revised based on new findings of footprints that predate Tiktaalik by several million years.

It must be noted that even denialists believe in science. A creationist who denies 99% of Earth’s existence would gladly fly on an airplane to visit Kentucky’s infamous Creation Museum. He, more than likely, accepts the laws of aerodynamics, but does not accept the variety of evidence proving the age of the Earth and natural selection. Why? Because his belief system is not self-correcting – he will never admit when he is proven wrong by a consensus of scientists.

But, the point my friends were trying to make is that perhaps I shouldn’t be so vocal and confident about facts that are tentative. This is a valid argument. Skeptics can come across as arrogant and presumptuous, and that happens when we speak out on issues that lack easy answers. I try my best to not over-state the facts in my posts that concern factually ambiguous matters, such as spanking or Bisphenol-A; instead I try to use language that makes it clear that the content is merely my informed opinion, to be accepted or ignored.

I will not budge on certain points of fact. Someone who tells me that they believe that the Earth is 6000 years old or that homeopathic remedies are powerful cures may as well be telling me that the Earth does not revolve around the sun. As far as I’m concerned, reality doesn’t have wiggle room for creationism or homeopathy. My friends might argue that those ideas never killed anybody, implying that it doesn’t matter whether some people believe in these ideas.

Whatever.

Somebody cares. There’s somebody out there who will throw her “Arnica 30x” in the trash when she hears the truth about homeopathy being nothing but inert sugar pills. There’s a creationist out there who will abandon his belief when he is forced to confront the discoveries in whale evolution. There’s no belief that’s too precious to be questioned. There’s no idea that is to sacred to challenge.  In the end, though, we must have mutually agreed upon ways to define reality. The reality of a young-Earth-creationist can’t exist in the same reality where Carbon-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. Somebody has to be correct, which means somebody has a better tool to assess reality.

I clearly don’t think science is like a religion. Science and skepticism are tools that we use to assess claims, test hypotheses, formulate theories, and create universal laws of nature. What better method could we use to interpret our world?

I don’t think that science is the only way we should filter information. First of all, not everything is tested or analyzed by the scientific method. There are ethical, philosophical, artistic and rational reasons that we make decisions too. Sometimes we make choices based on a hunch, and that’s mostly OK. Sometimes we make choices because of our individual preferences, and that’s mostly OK too. Obviously, I would never want anyone to harm another person, but other than that, I’m not going to judge an individual for the choices he makes, even if they are not based on scientific principles.

Our articles here are mostly filtered through the lens of skepticism. We analyze claims that are important to parents, and offer our point-of-view from the scientific perspective. Many of us have friends and family who disagree with us. That’s OK. We hope that, though they may fundamentally disagree, that our friends (and enemies) respect our perspective and consider our arguments, as we will try to do for them.

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Responses

  1. The main factor that disqualifies science from being like religion is that when a fact or outcome of the current scientific method gets updated with new facts or even facts that contradict the currently held belief, it changes to conform to that new knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, stays the same regardless of new information that is contrary to its claims.

  2. “.. for creationism or homeopathy. My friends might argue that those ideas never killed anybody, implying that it doesn’t matter whether some people believe in these ideas.”

    Homeopathy, and religious fundamentalism both have their own section on whatstheharm.net. The issue isn’t ideas killing people, it is preventable deaths or harm by adhering to the evidence. One can kill people with bad ideas, science does it all the time, just we stop doing it when the evidence is apparent, religions wait for a charismatic leader to tell them blood transfusions when you are dying are fine….

    All you are saying is common between religion and science is they rely on trust, which is common to other aspects of life like banking, driving, etc. The difference is you can stop trusting the scientists, it just involves some work to verify what they claim. I had a professor who spent 25 years verifying the experimental underpinnings of special relativity, guess he had good grounds at the end of it for trusting Michelson and Morley.

    Science and religion have more in common than just “trust”. But I’d argue religions are more like fractional-reserve banking than science. Both require trust, the proponents live in huge building, the folk at the top live bizarre and extravagant life styles and wear distinctive clothes, they often make big promises of a better future if only you give them more cash now, they always want more of your money, it all breaks down as soon as the trust goes when it seems there was nothing at the bottom of it anyway.

    • Yes, I knew that somebody would bring up “what’s the harm” for the section you quoted. I agree with you on a fundamental level. However, homeopathy and creationism are not directly life-threatening, and for me to have argued otherwise would have taken me further away from my point that defending science and evidence-based truth can be a valuable resource to those who seek it.

      I know that scientists require funding, but I don’t really see them as being greedy or extravagant in the way you describe them. If anything, they can be manipulated by others who are greedy, which is why peer review is such an important resource.

      There are many more ways that religions are different than science than I mentioned here. I truly don’t think they are anything alike, but my article is based on the specific points brought up in my discussion the previous night.

      • I was referring to bankers for that later part, should have made that clearer.

  3. My answer to this question goes like this: if a religious person “prays” to their god for information about Titan, the moon of saturn, they get diddly-squat. When a scientist “prays” to their god for information in the form of the Cassini mission, they get real, usable data.

    And in fact, you can’t get that information any other way, you have to use science.

    So if science is a religion, it’s the one true religion.


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