Questionable Motives

December 19, 2011

“Can we trust the science?”

I come across this little gem of a question all the time when discussing why religion and science are incompatible methods of inquiry. Accommodationists and apologists for religion raise the specter all the time that many scientific results are later altered or overturned, which indicates to them that we can no more trust ‘science’ than we can trust claims in Oogity Boogity (they use different words, of course). This reveals a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding of what science is: a process of disciplined inquiry (using methodological naturalism) into mechanistic causal effects. The evidence is ubiquitous for establishing just how effective a process this is; we are surrounded by effective technologies based entirely on our understanding of causal effects that work for everyone everywhere all the time.

So how is it that many results arrived at through the use of the scientific method change?

Well, from the theistic perspective, such change in results is bad. It indicates a degradation in trustworthiness. In comparison, the certainty of unchanging faith produces a superior result in trustworthiness. In what, however, is not open to any equivalent inquiry, but holding hard and fast to such an a priori conclusion is assumed in religious terminology to be a virtue: faith.

From a scientific perspective, such change in results shows that the process is is working marvelously well! And it is working because all results are tentative, meaning that results are open to revision from having to account for new evidence from reality. If the results were not open to revision upon encountering new and contrary evidence from reality, the integrity of the inquiry process itself would be undermined, replaced as it would be with a dogmatic and inflexible a priori conclusion based only on first results assumed to be final results. This same assumption that supports theistic belief, namely faith,  in scientific terminology is considered a vice.

So the confusion between understanding ‘science’ representing a method or process of inquiry and representing fixed results reveals the confusion about the compatibility of science and religion. In both cases when compared honestly – scientific method with religious method, scientific result with religious result – we find them incompatible. Only by ignoring the glaring incompatibility in both cases can we keep a straight face and pretend they are like supportive siblings who get along famously. They don’t.  And this is obvious when we look at the contrary claims made about the universe not just between religions and science but by various religions in conflict with claims made other religions! If we are concerned about our inquiries into the universe and everything it contains being the same for everyone everywhere all the time, then we need to be honest in our comparisons between them. As Jerry Coyne clearly observes,

Science and religion have different methods of “knowing” (science depends on reason, observation, doubt and replication, religion on dogma, authority, and revelation); science and religion arrive at different conclusions about the world (e.g., the existence of Adam and Eve or of a sudden creation); and while there is only one form of science that transcends ethnicity or faith, different faiths arrive at different conclusions, so that the idea of religious “truth” must differ from that of scientific “truth.”

The appreciation we hold for the scientific method producing applicable and reliable knowledge needs to be moderated by a better public understanding of why the method is not equivalent to its results. Media – just like each of us – could do a much better job expressing the necessary tentativeness-as-a-virtue of scientific results rather than contribute in such liberal doses to promoting this confusion that the surety of results are equivalent to conclusions of faith… but not as trustworthy.

A perfect example of how poorly served we in the public are by media intent on sales by hype can be shown with gross mishandling of the CCSVI treatment for multiple sclerosis and the political pressures brought to bear on the medical community in response to a badly misinformed public. In contrast, we have an excellent example of good science working its way through an interesting link between the disease and vitamin D. Steven Novella explains the effects of the difference:

The story of vitamin D and MS is a good illustration of how science is supposed to work. A new hypothesis was introduced, which made some sense, and so investigators did preliminary research (observational studies) showing that there was a potential correlation. As the evidence grew, scientific interest grew, and researchers started to look at the question from multiple angles.

So far the hypothesis is holding up under scrutiny, but is far from proven. So researchers are working their way toward large definitive experimental trials. Each step of the way we see that scientists are cautious, thoughtful, skeptical and yet curious and willing to investigate a completely new idea.

Contrast this story to the one of CCSVI – the notion that MS is partially caused by blockages in the veins that drain the brain. Here the plausibility is low, but not zero, warranting some follow up research of the original observation. The follow up research so far is largely negative – the closer  we look at this possible phenomenon the more it seems that it probably does not exist.

So scientific interest in CCSVI is rapidly dwindling, but researchers will likely put a few more nails in that coffin before they are done with it, just to be sure. Meanwhile, there is a huge public controversy over CCSVI – not because of the science, but because of unwarranted hype.

When religious believers hold their faith conclusions to be tentative and subject to revision based on mind-independent evidence from reality, then and only then will science and religion finally arrive on mutually compatible grounds. Until that day arrives, religious belief is not an intellectual stand compatible in any way with scientific inquiry… either in method or results. And we know we can trust the science…




  1. Too bad there isn’t a “love” button to show stronger than “like”.

    This article hits the nail on the head in terms of how religious people think versus science people think.

    Comment by Trick Brown — December 19, 2011 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

  2. If science would confine itself to the observable facts of nature there would not be any conflict between science and religion at all. No one questions the material benefits that have accrued to society from the use of the empirical method in the physical sciences. It is when science presumes to go beyond what it can directly observe, to make assertions about prehistoric events, first causes and ultimate reality, that it becomes more than a method but rather a comprehensive philosophy. To draw its conclusions it has to make certain naturalistic assumptions, and usually the conclusion is contained in the assumption. In other words, it becomes a circular argument. Our contention is that as a comprehensive philosophy of life materialism comes up short. It is one thing to find the cure for a disease or build a spacecraft; it is another thing altogether to explain the meaning and purpose of life. Some scientists, such as Steven Jay Gould could admit at least this much.

    Comment by Bob Wheeler — December 27, 2011 @ 6:58 am | Reply

    • This comment is rather slippery, in that it effortlessly slides a charge of scientism against anyone who respects reality’s role in arbitrating what is true about it but fails to make what Bob thinks is an allowable exception for religious beliefs, only to slip away from scientism like a thief in the night and replace it with the label of philosophical materialism as if they described the same thing. Yet I honestly don’t know of anyone who actually practices this self-defeating notion of scientism to provide personal meaning and purpose, or anyone who simply rejects appreciation for many non material subjects (comedy, literature, music, etc.) because it’s not informed by the scientific method. But one thing is perfectly clear: the model for successful knowledge claims about reality comes from natural science, meaning a method of inquiry that attempts to link causal effect. Is finding purpose in creating music making a knowledge claim about reality? Of course not. Is understanding relationships between things rejected as meaningless because the relationship is not material? Of course not. Yet Bob would have us think that respecting realty’s role in linking causal effect (that is the same for everyone everywhere all the time) means we must reject the musician’s feelings of purpose in making music or the beauty listeners may take from its production. This is nonsense and Bob knows it’s nonsense.

      The closer any discipline of inquiry comes to the natural science model, the more reliable its knowledge claims are held to be — and with good reason: repeatable experiment and confirmation. It is difficult to think of knowledge that works consistently and reliably well for everyone everywhere all the time as lacking. But Bob would have us distrust this method of inquiry that produces consistent and reliable knowledge about reality ONLY when applied against his religious claims about reality. How convenient for him. (Bob is quite convinced that there is a god, that it interacts in human affairs for causal effect, and knowledge about this causal effect it can be known through revealed christian faith, etc.) Yet we know that knowledge claims about reality like these, in direct comparison to the scientific method, made on the basis of christian belief that asserts without linking causal effect have no equivalency in repeatability or confirmation. Not only are these christian beliefs open to question, they are immediately confronted by the fact that all other religious beliefs contest them…. even within christianity!

      This inherent weakness of methodology Bob completely ignores. By trying to insert his religious beliefs as valid truth claims about reality while ignoring any need for linking causal effect, he creates the very conflict he tries to foist on to the back of science. Yet Bob insists that his revealed knowledge claims (causal effects) about reality do not need to be subjected to any similar testability (to show causal effects) to verify their validity by the arbitration of reality (evidence from reality to link causal effects); believing, for Bob, is sufficient. He doesn’t care his beliefs have no reliable and consistent relationship to reality (so no need for compelling evidence). He doesn’t care if what we can know about it is true (because he already knows through belief what is true about it), so he can safely reject the very basis on which we gain knowledge of causal effect – reality – and substitute his beliefs in its place. In other words, from Bob’s ‘worldview’ his beliefs about reality line up beautifully with his beliefs about reality. Whodathunk?

      This is the circular reasoning in play: assuming his conclusion is true to inform his premises about causal effect. And we see this kind of ‘knowledge’ presented all the time: godidit, you see. One ‘answer’ fits all and we really should call it an equivalent kind of ‘knowledge’ if we want to avoid being called intolerant, militant, fundamental atheist bigots! Mind you, when challenged, Bob informs his ‘knowledge claims’ only with what he believes is true – or by what appears to support what he believes is true – ignoring all contrary and incompatible evidence! And this is absolutely typical of the religious believer. I call it dishonest.

      The method of science does not enjoy its success because some of its practitioners try to cherry pick data and ignore what doesn’t seem to fit a personal preference, which is why this very human tendency is a sure fire way to undermine good science, and is generally held to be contemptible rather than virtuous in the scientific community. It enjoys success because it chips away at human biases and gets to the root of linking causal effect independent of belief… hardened on the crucible of what works consistently and reliably well in reality. To Bob, this is both a bad thing yet a good thing, causing him no end of cognitive dissonance when he knows how well it works as a method of inquiry to bring about remarkable gains in practical knowledge yet how it undermines the central causal role he wishes to grant to god. This is why like so many other believers he tries his best to blame the method of science for daring to confront his belief with contrary evidence from reality. But to have the temerity to call the method of science ‘circular’ as Bob has done while he continues to live his life and undertake activities on what it provides him in reality is deeply ironic and he knows this. That’s why such religious believers know themselves to be hypocrites and intellectually dishonest, wanting to have their religious cake but eating the scientific, too. One of these things just doesn’t belong here and Bob knows perfectly well which part is causing the dissonance… and it’s not reality.

      Comment by tildeb — December 27, 2011 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

  3. It is when science presumes to go beyond what it can directly observe…

    (…says the guy typing away on his computer…)

    (..awkward silence…)


    Daft beyond mortal ken.
    There are many things that cannot be directly observed. Seriously, think about it.

    …prehistoric events…

    Yep. Perfect example. There’s lots of stuff we know about prehistoric events from science. We can’t directly observe it but we know “x” happened due to the physical sciences.
    Geology? Archeology? Astronomy? Physics?
    There’s an almost limitless number of examples.

    …there would not be any conflict between science and religion at all.

    Science is the study of reality. It stands in direct contrast to magical mumbo-jumbo.

    …it is another thing altogether to explain the meaning and purpose of life.

    Magical mumbo-jumbo explains precisely nothing. It never has. Your magical mumbo-jumbo is as worthless as all the other magical mumbo-jumbo that has gone before. There are no invisible magic sky people watching you go to the toilet any more than there are pink, invisible unicorns watching you go to the toilet.

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — December 27, 2011 @ 9:52 am | Reply

  4. Good way of explaining, and nice piece of writing to obtain
    information about my presentation topic, which i am going to present in college.

    Comment by — May 17, 2013 @ 9:58 am | Reply

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