23 August 2012

Confidence, not faith

I’ve recently had a couple of (quite civil) debates on religion with Christians, both Protestants and Catholics. One argument that my Christian interlocutors used was the old ‘belief in science is as much an act of faith as belief in God’, which is a sibling to the ‘science is a kind of religion’ argument. This false equivalence is frustratingly common, a logical fallacy made even by self-proclaimed atheists like Daniel Sarewitz, whose essay ‘Sometimes science must give way to religion’ was surprisingly published in that venerable science journal Nature.

Jerry Coyne, bane of accommodationists, takes apart Sarewitz’s lauding of religion at the expense of science on his website. As is his custom, Coyne ably demonstrates the flaws in Sarewitz’s reasoning, but this passage from Coyne’s post stands out because it articulates why having ‘faith’ in the scientific method and its discoveries is not the same as religious faith in the divine or supernatural (emphasis is Coyne’s).

Trusting the consensus of scientific experts is not an act of “faith”, at least not in the way religion construes “faith”: belief in the absence of evidence. All of us put our trust in areas of science where we have no expertise: the theory of relativity, the triplet nature of the genetic code (how many of us can recount the molecular biology that led to that conclusion?), or in even our willingness to accept medical treatments when we’re ignorant of their evidential basis. That is not faith, but confidence — confidence that the community of scientists who do their research has policed each other sufficiently well to arrive at a solid consensus. To equate that with religious faith is, to use Judge Jones’s terminology, “an act of breathtaking inanity.” The community of the faithful has arrived at no such consensus. What they’ve arrived at is a conflicting farrago of assertions that cannot be resolved.

Coyne hits it on the head: we have confidence, not blind faith, in the claims that scientists make because they arrive at those claims through a process that contains rigour, humility, replicability and a level of universality that religious authorities would envy. A chemist in the Netherlands subscribes to the same methodology, terminology and chemical data as a chemist in Nigeria or Nicaragua. There are no sects or denominations within chemistry along ideological lines as there are within, say, Christianity. Perhaps this is because chemistry, like any branch of science, bases all its claims on independently corroborated evidence, unlike Christianity or any religion that has a more ‘flexible’ approach to evidence, thus leaving plenty of room for subjective, arbitrary and even contradictory interpretations of its doctrines.

One commenter, Mattapult, makes this wry observation:

I think science and religion are similar in the fact that we “trust” those at the top of their fields.

We can trust scientists because we see them proving their work. We see them make mistakes, but we also see them correcting them. We see them show humility by admitting when they don’t know something, or have serious doubts, or even telling us what those doubts could be. We see practical applications of things they learn and pass on. When one scientist intentionally does something wrong, we see other scientists refuting the bogus claims. Any of us could, at least in principle, repeat their experiments and get similar results. Of course these things can take a long time to play out, but the trend is always towards better knowledge.

We trust religious leaders because… ummm, help me out, I seem to be stuck.

Sorry Mattapult, I’m just as clueless about that as you.


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