Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Scientific faith is an oxymoron

This past Sunday (11/24/2007) the New York Times ran an Op-Ed column titled “Taking Science on Faith”, written by Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University. I cannot decide which is more irresponsible; that a member of the scientific profession wrote such a column or that the Times deemed it fit for publication. Davies’ article contains numerous incorrect statements and non-sequitur arguments, and several people have already written detailed rebuttals of it in the scientific blogosphere. I am writing this simply to address Davies’ central premise because I think that it has significant implications in the current cultural and educational landscape---and is therefore worth examining. The problem I have is not with Davies’ opinion---he is entitled to having it and to expressing it. The problem is that Davies makes broad, sweeping and incorrect postulates about the nature of scientific investigation itself, and appears to present these as fact.

Early on in his column, Davies outlines his central premise as follows:

The problem …….. is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.”

Those three sentences can be evaluated as follows: NOT TRUE, NOT TRUE, and, NOT TRUE.

The scientific method is defined (by the American Heritage Dictionary) as “The principles and empirical processes of discovery ….. generally involving the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis concerning the phenomena, experimentation to demonstrate the truth or falseness of the hypothesis, and a conclusion that validates or modifies the hypothesis”. Scientists don’t study phenomena with the “faith” that they will find order, rationality or logical programming underlying in every phenomenon. Indeed, one of the first things scientists do when they encounter a new phenomenon is to determine (based on observation, for instance) whether there is any reason to hypothesize that there may be any order or program underlying that phenomenon. I don’t know about physicists but I can certainly add this from a biologist’s perspective---randomness and haphazardness are not rare in biology, and there is no reason to approach any new phenomenon with a faith that one will find an underlying rational order or program. Anyway, the significant point here is that all science does not proceed on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way; as a matter of fact, by its defining principles, none of science proceeds on that assumption or faith. Science is based on objective, evidence-based, reasoning; there is no room in science for biased thinking, preconceived notions and prejudice.

It is evident from Davies’ column that he uses the term ‘faith’ to mean “belief in the absence of proof”, not “confidence or optimism based on existing data”. If a person expresses confidence/optimism based on a body of evidence and data then that is, by definition, not faith anymore. If a person expresses confidence/optimism in the absence of supporting evidence or data then that is, by definition, not science anymore. While this may sound like nitpicking on semantics, it is not. The problem is that the logic behind Davies’ premise is critically flawed in a scientific context, i.e. his claim on faith in science is a contradiction in itself. The failure to understand this may explain how popular misconceptions about science arise and gain traction in public thinking. It may explain how, in the year 2007, we find ourselves living in a society where people demand that faith-based (not evidence-based) ideas such as “intelligent design” be taught as science in classrooms.

Davies also goes on to draw fundamentally incorrect parallels between religious belief and science, and here is a good representative example it. He says, “Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence”. Now, I do not know what laws he accuses scientists of invoking, but I think he is mistaking hypotheses for facts---not surprising, as faith-based thought frequently represents unsubstantiated hypotheses as fact. But, while scientists may invoke hypotheses as starting points for their investigation into phenomena, they do not represent these as facts until they have sufficient evidence to that effect.

Finally, there is that cryptic line about “failing to provide a complete account of physical existence”. He goes back to this in his concluding paragraph, and I quote, “In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus”. So basically his argument, as I understand it, is, “Science cannot explain everything in the universe. Yet scientists continue to explore nature. Therefore they have faith that everything in the universe is rational and ordered and that they will eventually find/understand this underlying order”. But that is just more flawed logic. As I mentioned before, scientists continue to study nature, not on the faith that order and logic will eventually be found universally, but despite having already encountered numerous phenomena that do not follow order, logic or precise programming. The mandate of science is to try and understand nature as it is, to the extent possible---not to hunt selectively for evidence that will support someone’s notion of what it should be. Scientists simply take the results of their studies for what they are and make objective conclusions based on the data---without pre-conceived bias, i.e. without faith.

People with anti-scientific agendas will doubtless try and use the views of Davies and his ilk as support for their cause of equating faith-based ideas (such as Intelligent Design) to science. To these people I have this to say: If you happen to find some policemen that are corrupt, would you conclude that corruption is a defining principle of law enforcement? I’m guessing that you wouldn’t. If you happen to find that some priests are pedophiles, would you conclude that pedophilia is a defining principle of priesthood? I’m guessing that you wouldn’t. So, just because some scientific professionals (by injecting faith into their ‘scientific’ thought process) may be guilty of flawed scientific method, don’t rush to conclude that science as a whole operates on faith. Making such an inference would be, to borrow a phrase, manifestly bogus.

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2 comments:

Shelby said...

Your logic is flawed, because due to the Shannon-Nyquist requirement for infinite sampling interval, there is never enough evidence to know if a theory has been proved. You must understand that aliasing error can be so great so as to give a completely misleading assumption of truth. Here are links to the math:

http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=1271&cpage=2#comment-240650

http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=1271&cpage=2#comment-240672

Example:

http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2000/0012fea1.asp

Read more:

http://www.google.com/#hl=en&source=hp&q=scientific+faith

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