Scientific knowledge should trump “belief”

By Ken Perrott 28/06/2012 21

I have listened to a few discussions on the Christian Radio Rhema recently. Unusual for me, I know, but I have followed the current controversy around the problem of religious instruction in New Zealand public schools. This issue has been debated (and defended) a bit on Radio Rhema.

My post Mixing values and Jesus in secular education discussed the problem. Basically it involves getting around the required secular nature of public education by closing the school for the duration of the instruction, which is provided by a church-trained voluntary “teacher.” Some parents feel the system is being wroughted by tying this instruction to the values content of the secular curriculum. And although there is a theoretical opt-out provision, parents are often unaware of this, or of the religious instruction, until the children come home with strange stories about creationism or hell.

But back to Radio Rhema. What amazed me about the announcer and the Christian spokespersons he interviewed was their naive use of post-modernist arguments to justify religious instruction and creationism/intelligent design teaching. They rely on the simple claim that inevitably everyone has a “world view,” a belief system. So everyone must be biased. That whatever is taught is only just a belief. And that science has not more access to truth than religion has. One belief is as good as another.

Dragging science down to a “belief”

It’s not the only place I have heard such arguments. In fact this seems to be the inevitable fall-back position when science challenges religious ideas. In this case one spokesperson even said that evolution is just a myth, no better than the creation myths! Another pulled out the old chestnut that any belief system required faith – science requires faith just as much as any religious story! Yet another claimed that both “human caused” and “non-human caused” beliefs about climate change should be taught in schools. Equal tome for each belief – forget about the facts.

In one way these people are sawing off the branch they are sitting on because when they deny scientific knowledge, or the epistemic advantage of scientific method, they attempt to put it in the same basket they reside in. But I suppose if you can’t give a reason for your myths to be better than scientific knowledge this may be all you are left with. Dragging science down to the epistemic level of your own ideology.

But those who use such arguments and who treat scientific or historical knowledge as “just beliefs,” having no more support than beliefs derived from magical thinking, show at least a basic misunderstanding of science. Of course, their motives may actually be more malicious. They may consciously be attempting to misrepresent science. to advance their own beliefs

In contrast to the beliefs comprising religious “knowledge,” scientific knowledge is intimately connected with the real world. Scientific ideas and theories are based on evidence, derived from interaction with reality. And they are validated by testing against reality. This does not make scientific knowledge absolute and complete “Truth” – in the capitalised sense. But it does give a picture of reality which usually closely reflects the truth of that reality. Very often close enough to enable practical applications.  It’s a constantly improving picture as we get more evidence and more ways of interacting with reality.

The epistemic advantage of science

But importantly, its basis in evidence and its close connection with reality means scientific knowledge is not a “belief.” It is very different to religious beliefs which may, in fact, bear no relation to reality.

This means that science has an epistemic advantage – an advantage that society generally recognises. That is why concern about possible climate change has caused governments to consult climate scientists to summarise the findings of their science. Governments are not interested in beliefs – they are interested in the facts, or at least the best summary of the facts the experts can provide.

If the naive picture presented by the commenters on Radio Rhema was true then governments could save a lot of money. Instead of all the investment in field work, laboratory analysis and scientific and technical staff we could have solved the problem of cobalt deficiency in New Zealand soils by hiring a theologian. And surely even an interfaith committee of theologians, flash robes and lifestyles included, advising the government over climate issues would have been a lot cheaper than NIWA or our contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Especially if no international scientific research was actually carried out on climate and these theologians instead consulted the writings of their overseas colleagues.

Mind you, after attempting to read some of the post-modernist material produced by theologians I can just imagine how useless the recommendations of this interfaith committee would be. I doubt if they could even agree on anything understandable, let alone specific enough for a government to base policies on.

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21 Responses to “Scientific knowledge should trump “belief””

  • An aside from your main point, I know (sorry), Russell Blackford and a few others wrote about an alternative to the ye olde bible classes that was doing the rounds in Australia a while ago:

    I thought it was quite a good idea. Teach a secular, ethics class while the religious instruction is going on elsewhere.

    • Yes, I am familiar with the secular ethics alternative classes trailed in NSW. On the surface is seems good – although specific to NSW. However, in NZ we have values as part of the secular cirriculum. I dont know how well it is taught – and the NSW classes could be useful examples. Certainly the kids there enjoyed the secular ethics classes. And the religionists were pissed off at so many kids leaving their scripture classes.

      But I don’t see that ethics requires importing external voluntary teachers – surely our teachers are trained to do the job. And importing volunteers leaves the system open to ideological manipulation as seems to be happening at the moment.

      We have got to insist that ethics is a secular subject like any other – and challenge the idea that one requires religion to be good or to teach values.

  • @ Derek.

    No, but it has the significant advantage that science recognises such shortcomings.

    Religion, on the other hand, tends to treat its “textbook” as, well, gospel…

  • Derek

    You’re off topic, but to give you an answer: it’s 100% correct that the definition that you read in a textbook is the one that is used by that textbook.

  • Derek – cant see the logic in your question – especially as it seems to have been already answered in the post. For example:

    “In contrast to the beliefs comprising religious “knowledge,” scientific knowledge is intimately connected with the real world. Scientific ideas and theories are based on evidence, derived from interaction with reality. And they are validated by testing against reality. This does not make scientific knowledge absolute and complete “Truth” – in the capitalised sense. But it does give a picture of reality which usually closely reflects the truth of that reality. Very often close enough to enable practical applications.  It’s a constantly improving picture as we get more evidence and more ways of interacting with reality.

  • You are certainly right in asserting that science holds advantages for descriptive analysis: no one disputes the properties of a leaf or the laws of physics. Science is invaluable in describing the things in our world.

    But many of the problems that some scientists have encountered is due to the expansion of this epistemic advantage to areas in which it is not warranted. Sam Harris posits that science can serve as the epistemic basis for morality. I may be young and naive, but I thought another quite famous skeptic (David Hume) had refuted this type of claim quite strongly when he said: what is does not mean what ought.

    This epistemological infection has also spread to climate scientists who not only make predictions, but also suggest radical courses of action that is not necessarily based on science- because they do not know the outcome of their proposals, nor do most honestly reckon with the degree of uncertainty inherent in their analysis.

    So while I certainly applaud your attempt to explain the natural advantages of science, I would also like to hear your thoughts on the limits of those advantages, particularly in the examples i have cited.

    • Erik, I have argued before (and so have others) that this is/ought fallacy is a myth. Hume is in fact misinterpreted. It’s a fascinating area, and I don’t believe Harris gets everything right. In fact I don’t think he attempts a full understanding of human morality. The main value of his writings are as an argument against moral relativism. And he should get credit for that.

      Personally I think Pat Churchland gives a better analysis. In general the emerging science of morality appears to be quite insightful and really shows how pathetic the religious approaches to the subject have been.

      I can’t understand your bitch about climate scientists. Sure some individuals do get involved in suggesting political solutions, which is their civic right. But the IPCC is clear that while they can summarize the physical science and consider suggested scenarios that it is not their job to dictate political solutions. That’s where the rest of us come in. As for uncertainty – I suggest you read some of the IPCC documents. They are very conservative and do specifically consider uncertainty.

      I have also written quite often in the limits of science and the humility of the scientific process. Rather than repeat myself now I will await your response to my comments before providing details. I need to know what specific questions you have.

  • I guess that I become bothered by the Christian Conservatives when they begin to argue against Climate Science as though it were a religious question, which it is not. Debate all you want the nature of humanity though Evolution or Creation, but as soon as Christians drag other scientific ideas into their sights it seems that their preachers have brought more politics to the pulpit than the Bible.

  • The author apparently has never had, or at least does not admit to ever having had, any kind of spiritual experience….certainly he knows less about religion in general than I know about string theory (which pretty abysmal). He should stick to writing about science, which he knows something about.

    If he feels threatened by religion, I suggest taking a good overview course at a local junior college.

    • Kip, for some reason you have taken offense at my post. That is your problem.

      But you surely should have noticed that I was actually writing about science. In particular why the religious spokespersons I mention we’re actually misrepresenting science.

      No, Kip, I don’t feel threatened by religion but I suggest your misinterpretation of my post, and the misrepresentation of the spokespersons I referred to, may indicate some feeling of being threatened by science in subjects like evolution and climate change.

  • Group hug!

    And punches from the facters to the believers:

    @ Erik:

    I don’t do philosophy (“epistemic”) but I note that science works and that includes climate science. Last year they achieved attribution to factors at 2 sigma (~ 90 %). That is a better diagnosis than you get from your doctor (~ 80 %).

    And the signal (GW) is raising as even climate denialists acknowledge, so 3 sigma certainty is reasonable within a few years. That is in parity with physics. Not that climate scientists care especially, their stated standard is 2 sigma considering their unique object of study.

    “nor do most honestly reckon with the degree of uncertainty inherent in their analysis.”

    Which only shows you haven’t bothered to read IPCC 2007. Up front they note that scientists have done over 20 000 (!) simulations, precisely because they wanted to assess uncertainty from those at that time. Which they proceeded to do.

    @ Kip Hansen:

    Statistics tells us that atheists know more about religion, including their experiences, than most religious groups. Often atheists are such just because they learned a religion a little too well.

    If you make that claim on an individual, you never know how correct you were. Without extra information or a good read, chances are you are mistaken.

  • Dear Ken,

    No offense taken at all actually. Just observing that you feel the need to ‘defend’ Science against the accusation that a lot of what passes for Science is actually belief.

    The Science is the theory and the supporting evidence — nothing more and nothing less. It is when scientists make the move from science and convert theories (with their supporting evidence) into beliefs about how the world IS that the problem arises.

    To say that there is a lot of supporting evidence, for instance, for some more modern version of Darwin’s theories on evolution would be true. When this is instead transformed into
    the oft heard statement “I believe in evolution” (or the reverse, the accusation that so-and-so doesn’t ‘believe in evolution’) and this belief is then used to try to explain everything then you have an example of just what you say doesn’t exist here : “But importantly, its basis in evidence and its close connection with reality means scientific knowledge is not a “belief.””

    That sir, is nonsense. Of course it is a belief and on the same basis that a Buddhist has for saying “Chanting calms my soul” — it is based on a review of evidence in hand to reach a decision on a all-pervading world view.

    Again, I recommend Comparative Religions 101, available at nearly every junior college in America.

    BTW, my major was solid science (pre-Med) and I am a citizen-scientist. My second major was Religious Studies. Together they are fascinating and, if one sticks to it, can klead to a very thorough understanding of “what is going on around here”.

  • Well, Kip – your resort to “nonsense” does suggest an emotional reaction.

    Most sensible scientists do not “believe in evolution.” They accept evolutionary science – which includes a whole range of facts (why should one have to “believe in” facts rather than accept them), areas of speculation and/or less definite knowledge, as well as unifying theories such as natural selection. In accepting this science they may actually declare that yes, they actually “sort of believe” that one area of specualtion may or may not correspond to reality and identify that as an area requiring more work. That belief is easily changed if and when the evidence shows the speculation to be right or wrong.

    We see scientific knwoeldge (theoires) as a reflection of reatity. Of course not corresponding exactly and completely to reality but providing the best picture of that reality we can achieve at the current time. Again – this is not a belief, or a faith, in the religious sense. It’s easily changed (maybe this is sometimes hard at the individual level but udsually much easier at the collective level).

    Most scientists probably do have a realist poicture of reality and scioenhtific knowledge. You say this causes probnlems to arise. What about being specific.

    I personally see problems arising more for those who have an non-realist picture of reality – who impose their own beliefs and prejudices on reality. Who make claims about reality whicc have no empirical support.

    Surely it is those people who have created huge problems in the nword. In contrast we rely on, and need science, to solve problems.

    Where these religious apologists get the nature of science wrong is they see scientific world views as just another prejudice like a relgious word view. It isn’t. The world view of modern science is that knowledge should be based on, derived from, evidence and verified by testing against reality. religion does not have that epistemic justification.

    A cannot see why you should recommend an American school course for me on comparative relgion. Beside the obvious fact that I don’t reside in the US (and the rest of the world looks on aghast at the prevailing US person-in-the streets attitude towards relgion and evolutionary science), what possible benefit could such a course provide?

    My point here surely is that the people who have had theological training and comment on Chrsitian radio stations here are completely wrong about science.

  • Well, Ken, maybe they have courses where you live too. The Kiwi version of junior colleges. I’m sure they teach Comparative Modern Religions….

    It is this part of your …. long dissertation…. that gets you into trouble .. “The world view of modern science is that knowledge should be based on, derived from, evidence and verified by testing against reality. Religion does not have that epistemic justification.” You seem to be bent on denying that religion can be a reflection of reality.

    This, I am afraid, may make you a practitioner of Scientism…which is, unfortunately, a, well, religion. Scientism is a minority religion in today’s world, and is usually defined along these lines : (Tom Sorrell) “Scientism is a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints”. Many definitions replace “most authoritative worldview ” with “only valid”. Edward Feser uses “Scientism is the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge.”

    If you mean this: “My point here surely is that the people who have had theological training and comment on Chrsitian radio stations here are completely wrong about science.” I’m afraid the error is at least partly yours. It is true that not *all* of science is ‘merely another world view’ but much of it is, particularly the parts insisted upon by the priests of Scientism. Only you know whether or not that applies to yourself. I have no opinion.

    If the very idea of studying religion is abhorrent to you, then I might recommend a serious study of the history or philosophy of science to round out your worldview.



  • Interesting, Kip. I have often said that the first person to make the accusation of “scientism” has already lost the debate. (Quoting people like Feser really just confirms this.) It is an abusive and really meaningless word. Why not critique the actual position?

    Now you seem to make this slur because I “deny that religion can be a reflection of reality”. Actually I didn’t say that. I said that the scientific process has far more epistemic warrant than does religion. And you would have to be really obtuse to deny that. Surely the whole history of science has shown that it consistently produces far better reflections of reality than does religion. – the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That is why governments employ scientists to investigate and advise on climate change – not theologians.

    If you disagree provide your evidence, examples and reasoning.

    And alongside this religion has consistently retreated on its claims to knowledge about reality. (Maybe bitching a screaming, but in the end retreated nevertheless). In the process it has also retreated into more meaningless bafflegab to hide its inability to reflect the real world.

    It is silly to say “the error is partly” mine when I criticise these theological comments. How the hell can I be blamed for those glaring mistakes when I am the one correcting them?

    I notice you are fond of making slurs like”much of” science is guilty of being “merely another world view”yet refuse to provide specifics. Surely serious charges require evidence – or we tend to get a bit suspicious of those making such slurs.

    Kip, lay of the arrogant insistence on my return to college. If you think there are gaps in my knowledge from what I have written here – then say why. We can then discuss it. After all, you may well be wrong and your understanding of my level of knowledge may be off beam.

    Perhaps I should also add my observation that people who make recommendations about attending college or courses instead of dealing with the issues also have already lost the debate. After all they may be trying to teach their grandmother to suck eggs.

    I suggest that rather than being paternalistic you talk about real facts. And participate in a real discussion. Surely its the facts and evidence that count, not unwarranted assumptions about a discussion partner’s educational level.

  • Not being one to pile on, but I will do that. The science view was well argued here and didn’t need help, but I’ll add my views.

    I’m an Atheist and would argue that Science is completely different than “Comparative Religion” and that is the point. We could change the name Comparative Religion to Comparative Ancient Fiction and teach that along side Comparative Science Fiction for the amount of accurate truthful consistant knowledge they have. We can learn something about human relationships and Philosophy from both Religion and Science Fiction but don’t expect it to get a person thru Medical School.

    Let’s apply religion to countries and societies. Japan is less than 1 percent Christian, 65 percent Atheist, and has a prison population of 59 (fifty nine) per 100 000 population and live to ave. 82 years old. The United States is over 80 percent Christian, 5-15 percent Atheist and has a prison population of 743 (seven hundred forty three) per 100 000 population and lives to ave 78 years old. Western Europe is much less Christian than the US and has prison populations in the 80s to the 150s per 100 000. New Zealand numbers are like Western Europe. From that, which is better, Atheist or Christian? All that preying didn’t help the Christians to live longer? That’s what the scientist would ask, what is the reality.

    Why is that we can land man on the moon, but can’t solve some simple human problems as the saying goes? It’s because NASA could fire you if you didn’t get the engineering or science right.

  • Dear Ken,

    I can only suggest that you re-read your own comments — your own words — in our little discussion, from a fresh viewpoint, and see if maybe you mis-spoke and made yourself look like the person I describe.

    No sense using the Dawkins defense — How dare you call me an atheist! If your spout the concepts of Scientism, then you might just be mistaken for one. I did leave the question open for you to answer for yourself.

    One last suggestion for you, and then I’ll leave you to contemplate. Read Feynman — about science. You’ll find that he is in stark disagreement with your views about science — and he was without a doubt one of the finest science minds of the 20th century.

  • Kip – you have ignored my suggestion “that rather than being paternalistic you talk about real facts.” I can only assume this is because you are reacting emotionally and don’t really have a factual basis for your reaction.

    So all I can do is respond to what you have presented as exuses for “facts”:

    1: You claim of me that I “has never had, or at least does not admit to ever having had, any kind of spiritual experience.” Obviously a personal attack as you actually have no way of knowing such things. If you interpret “spiritual” in the common halucinatory way – then have a look at my post My own miracle? If you use it in the more sensible way of refering to the higher cultural things of life – will just have a browse though my blog archives.

    Cleary you are wrong.

    2: You are also wrong about you assessment of my understanding of science and the philosophy of science. Perhaps you should have checked me out (eg at About me which most blogs have) before resorting to paternalism.

    3: You claim I “seem to be bent on denying that religion can be a reflection of reality.” Well I pointed out that I had actually claimed that religion had far less epistemic warrant for its picture of reality than does science. You have not presented anything to counter that – no example at all. Yet the history of science is stuffed with example after example of where scientific investigation has show religious knwoledge to be just completely worng. And it continues.

    4: You claim I object to being called an atheist. I don’t recall you doing so – but go ahead. The definition of atheist is so limited it is easy for me to agree that it describes me (of course in a very limted sense). And I have no objection to the term. The old connotations associated with the term are disappearing fast.

    You accuse me of “scientism” – a pejorative term usually used as a term of abuse. Yet you have nowhere supplied any evidence of that.

    You choose to interpet my pointing out the simple fact that science has far more epistemic warrant than reilgion as claiming “all real knowledge is scientific knowledge.” Yet you cannot point out anywhere oI have said that.

    I have often written that humans come to know all sorts of things politically, emotionally, morally, aesthetically, etc. Values are usually inolved in these sorts if knowledge. Science can often inform us in working out such knowledge – but it doesn’t dictate how I should feel, by any means.

    You real objection to my post is that I am pointing out that religion does not live up to its claims about access to truth about reality. A claim that is hardly controversial. After all we no longer turn to theologians to help us understand our environment, climate, and the cosmos. Or our history. And most of us no longer turn to theologians to help in coming to moral and aesthetic judgements.

    You might not be happy about that fact – but it is real. To respond by making an unwarranted accusation of “scientism” just illustrates the strawmannery involved in the common use of this term by religious apologists. Somehow they think this avoids the argument.

  • Do Athiests/Humanists believe that there is no God somewhere in the universe capable of creating everything or can they totally rely upon experimental and observable science to prove there is no God and so not have to rely on any sort of faith about believing that there is no God. Sorry. A badly written question . What I mean is , even if a scientist lives only by proveable facts , does not at least the most fundamental question of all require a degree of faith, that is , ” Does God exist , Yes or No ? ” Can the scientist answer NO and rely exclusively on experimental and observable science ?

    • I think you are mixing up scientists with atheists/humanists here, Morgan. Scientists have all sorts of beliefs – I even knew one who was a member of the Act Party! These usually don’t intrude into their science though.

      Personally I am an atheist. That’s a personal belief – and like all my beliefs it is not necessarily permanent. In my science I never rely in that belief and I don’t think religious believers rely on their religious beliefs in their science either. Science relies on evidence, reason and testing against reality. Humans are actually quite capable of compartmentalising their different beliefs and approaches.

      I didn’t arrive at my atheist beliefs through any faith – it just became, apparent that the religious story wasn’t adequate. Especially as so many questions are well answered by a scientific approach. And as science has developed there has been less and less need for including gods in our understanding of reality.

      I try to make sure my beliefs do have some sort of correspondence with reality and science is the best way of understanding reality. On the god question I have no faith commitment. So if in the future scientific evidence and knowledge does indicate the presence of gods I will have no problem adjusting my beliefs. That hasn’t happened – and I suspect never will. But I can imagine it.

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