Thoughts on science and not-science

July 28, 2009

PZ Myers posted this excellent video of a section of a standup routine by Dara O’Briain this week, and it covers a few points which I think are pretty pertinent. Here’s the clip:

So first of all, he says that lots of people have no idea about statistics and how they should be used, and subsequently incorrect information gets peddled out by the media. I mentioned this in a post a couple of weeks ago, that some basic skills in stats and probability wouldn’t go amiss and would probably allow some people to see past some superstitions. Next up, he criticises how the media tend to report both sides of a story in a totally uncritical way. The BBC are notorious for this! Every science story that goes up on their website has a few paragraphs at the end of it dedicated to a loony fringe belief with no substance, expecting the reader to make up their own mind with the limited information a 300 word article can provide! Take CERN, for example. The possibility that it could create a black hole which would destroy the planet was taken seriously by a large proportion of the public, even though nobody involved in CERN thought there was the slightest chance, simply because the media portrayed both sides of the story with no critical thought whatsoever.

But Dara hits some nails right on the head. “But there’s this notion that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. My arse! A bloke who’s been a professor of dentistry for 40 years does not have a debate with some eejit who removes his teeth with string and a door!” Damn right! I can’t count the number of times in a discussion with an alternative medicine advocate or a religionist or something, I’ve made a good point and they’ve come back with “well that’s just your opinion”. Well yeah, it is my opinion, but if my opinion is backed up by evidence, and yours is your intuition or a story from a book, then I’m sorry, but mine is just better than yours! Show me some evidence and maybe I’ll start taking you seriously, but not until then.

But at 1.48 onwards he comes out with this gem: “but just because science doesn’t know everything, doesn’t mean you can just fill in the gaps with whatever fairytale most appeals to you!” Damn right! We once had a Christian come to one of our meetings at the Student Humanist Society and say that we all needed to do some philosophy of science because what we know is always changing so we can’t be so sure about trusting in science, using this in some absurd sense to justify their belief in Christianity. How ridiculous! So was this person not only pinning their hopes on the things not yet explained by science as all gap-worshippers do, but also hoping that other things incompatible with Christianity like Darwinian evolution* would be proved wrong by future scientists?!

But this goes even deeper than that, it shows an ignorance of what science is. Science is not just a bunch of stuff that we know about the universe around us, it is largely a method, an evidence-based process by which we can find things out about the universe and everything in it. If current scientific knowledge is proven wrong in the future, it will be through the scientific method itself, win/win! When was the last time the faith-based approach led to a significant advancement in human knowledge? The faith-based approach gave us leeching, witch trials and homophobia, I don’t think we need to hear about anything more from where they came from.

So anyway, a round of applause for Dara!

The Nature of Faith

October 20, 2008

I know I’ve already done a few pieces on the issue of faith, but it’s come up a few times recently at the ECG and at Student Alpha, and I want to address a couple of specific claims.

Firstly, at Alpha they were saying that we use faith for everything. Sitting on a chair, for example, you don’t know if it’s going to support your weight but you put your faith in it. I later said in the discussion that it’s a totally different kind of faith. From experience you know that most chairs do support your weight because that’s what they’re designed to do. So even though it’s not 100% certain that it won’t collapse, you can be fairly sure. Someone gave the other example that you put faith in all kinds of experts who say things about which we have little to no idea, such as your doctor’s medical advice, but again this isn’t blind faith. Scientists and even just academics in general go through a lot in the way of peer review to get their work published, as I’m sure Tim over at the Friendly Humanist will testify. The faith that you put in these kinds of everyday things is also not unfounded, it is again based on experience. You can’t really say the same about religious faith. So just because we sometimes use the same word to describe it, doesn’t make it the same thing.

It was said at the ECG that you must put faith in any account of the origin of the universe and that God is one of those accounts. Particular attention was drawn to people believing in the multiverse theory in spite of the lack of evidence, and that this is no different to faith in God. I have a couple of points to make about this.

1. Belief in the multiverse theory is not totally unfounded, it is to a small degree based on experience. We live in one universe, why could there not be other ones like it? Similarly there’s no reason to suggest the Universe could have existed forever, why does it have to be a beginning?

2. As I’ve said about a gazillion times, I have no problem with the deist idea of God as the first cause, or the idea of Spinaza’s God; it’s just as valid as any other origins theory. But this is totally different to the personal Christian God that the people at the ECG were talking about. It is not a case of accepting all or nothing.

There’s also the issue that I don’t put faith in things that are really important. I wouldn’t advocate the use of faith in something so important as whether to worship God every day of my life or not, or what to believe on certain contentious moral issues that have an effect on everyone. That I leave to reason, as I think we all should.