Have a Little Faith: Is it the Key to Credible Science?
by Ken Connor
“We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.” –The New Yorker, December 2010.
Over the last few centuries, our society has come to believe that there exists a fundamental incompatibility between faith and science. Fueled by the works of polemics like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher (the proud Unholy Trinity) there now reigns an assumption that people who believe in God are intellectually primitive, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who have failed to evolve beyond the superstitions of the past. Faith, the substance of things hoped for, is pitted against science, the substance of things measured, tested, and proven.
The dogma of the Unholy Trinity maintains that religious faith represents more than mere ignorance; it is a grave threat to civilized society. With its medieval notions of divine providence, original sin, and moral absolutes, religion stymies social progress and threatens to undermine the liberation of the human spirit from the oppressive bonds of the past. Religious leaders aren’t merely misguided, they are a dangerous influence on society. Apart from being so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good, the Shepherds of the Sheep are peddlers of lies and hatred. They lead their bleating followers in pursuit of what can best be described as a “diabolical” agenda (a purely metaphorical term, of course, since el Diablo doesn’t really exist) and they toil endlessly to shape public policy to reflect their pernicious world view.
Scientists, on the other hand, are defined by their objective dedication to the pursuit of truth and an uncompromising adherence to The Method. Their motives are pure and their integrity unimpeachable. They are the trailblazers of progress, the torchbearers of enlightenment, and the representatives of mankind’s continual evolution. In short, they have the best interests of humanity at heart.
Unfortunately for Science and its disciples, this paradigm is beginning to crumble. As it turns out, scientists are just as fallible and flawed as the rest of humanity, and this fallibility impacts their work. The New Yorker addressed this emerging phenomenon in a December 2010 article:
“The test of replicability, as it’s known, is the foundation of modern research. Replicability is how the community enforces itself. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. Most of the time, scientists know what results they want, and that can influence the results they get. The premise of replicability is that the scientific community can correct for these flaws.
But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. . . . For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling because of what it exposes about the scientific process. If replication is what separates the rigor of science from the squishiness of pseudoscience, where do we put all these rigorously validated findings that can no longer be proved? Which results should we believe?”
Which results should we believe? Which theories should we place our faith in? These are not questions that the scientific community likes to wrestle with publicly. Uncertainty tends to undermine authority, after all. Perhaps this is why some scientists go to such extreme lengths to preserve the integrity of their pet theories, even to the point of manipulating or falsifying data or suppressing information that doesn’t support their desired conclusion (remember Climategate?).
What this reveals is that the “scientific” world view is a rather fragile one, in which there is little room for debate outside the accepted parameters of prevailing scientific dogmas…
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