Showing posts with label evidence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evidence. Show all posts

09 May 2016

That can't be right!

The truth is not always intuitive or obvious. Claims and counterclaims abound in our day, many of them helped along by the rapid spread of ideas on the internet. But false ideas are often very dangerous.

I'm thinking of ideas like creationism, a young Earth, vaccines causing autism, the denial of climate change, and many others like them.

It's been a while since I posted regularly on this blog, but I'm going to try to get back to it. Some of the  posts might examine one or other of these ideas. But at the root of all them lies a common issue - are we going to begin with the evidence? The alternative is to begin with a position and seek to justify it by finding evidence to support it. But to see the universe as it truly is we must begin with the evidence and argue from that. Often, this will lead us to ask more questions. This is the scientific way.

What we must not do is begin with a preferred view of the way things are and sift the evidence, gathering anything that supports our starting position and ignoring whatever seems to go against it.

I can assure you of one thing. If, as a society, we ignore the evidence, eventually our decisions will come back to bite us. It's happened before; here's one cautionary tale.

Lysenkoism - Jean Baptiste Lamarck was a distinguished French scientist working in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He developed an early theory of evolution and thought that organisms could inherit acquired features from their parents. This was a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence available in his day. But later evidence showed it was incorrect.

In the 1930s a form of Lamarckism was adopted in the Soviet Union. It was called Lysenkoism (after the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko). Based on his work to improve crop yields, his theories were approved by Stalin and laws were made to outlaw opposing theories. But the opposing theories were correct (inheritance and evolution as we understand them today).

How did this mistake come back to bite the Soviet Union? To put it as simply as possible, crops failed and people went hungry, biology and agriculture in western capitalist nations forged ahead, while Soviet biology and agriculture stagnated. Eventually Lysenko's ideas were discredited.

The moral of the story is this. Let's not ignore evidence and let's not pick and choose evidence to support our pre-existing ideas. If we do, the consequences may be very severe.

16 October 2013

Sciencism and religiology

Sciencism and religiology do not exist for very good reasons. Neither would be an appropriate endeavour, both would be doomed to failure. It's necessary to use faith for religion and the scientific method for science. Any attempt to swap these methods would be extremely foolish.

Science and religion
Science and religion
Near the end of my previous post I asked two questions, "Why is there no widespread science of 'religiology'?" and "Why is there no widespread religion of 'sciencism'?"

I'd like to consider these questions now, and we'll start with the second one.

Why is there no widespread religion of 'sciencism'? - All religions involve believing something without tangible evidence and this is called "faith". I should be clear about what I mean by "evidence". Evidence is used in a court of law to help the jury decide whether or not a person is guilty of a particular crime. This is the same kind of evidence required in science to establish whether an assumption (called an hypothesis) is wrong.

Suppose there has been a murder or a theft. The evidence that a crime has been committed is always clear, there is a body or a missing piece of property. But the evidence that the suspect was responsible is often harder to find. It might depend on discovering fingerprints or a weapon and there may be counter-evidence. Perhaps the accused has an alibi.

Science is based on clear and reproducible methods of making observations, creating hypotheses, testing them and rejecting whatever can be proved to be wrong. In some ways this is similar to a court of law. Over a period of time, often decades, if an hypothesis has still not been disproved it may be regarded as a theory, that is, an assumption that seems sturdy and has survived every attempt to prove it wrong.

That's how science works (by means of abundant evidence from observation and experiment). Because of this there is nothing to believe, science is not a matter of faith, so there can be no religious aspect to science. The religion of sciencism doesn't exist because it is a contradiction in terms. Some people might "put their faith in science" in the sense that they expect it to explain everything leaving no room for religion. But that is a dangerous point of view.

There are areas that science does not and cannot investigate. For example, the idea that there is a Creator who brought the universe into being cannot be investigated. We can observe the universe as it is today and we can draw conclusions about its state close to the beginning. But "before the beginning" makes no sense and is open to speculation and to faith, but not to experiment or measurement.

Why is there no widespread science of 'religiology'? - Let's be clear what we mean. We can use some of science's methods to study religion, but not all of them. It is possible to count or estimate the number of people who adhere to a particular faith, their geographic distribution can be studied, so can their ethnic make-up.

However, this is not enough to make a true science. Certain elements are there, but others are missing. Studies like these are part of the so-called "social sciences".  They share careful observation and hypothesis with science, but they sometimes lack the testability by experiment that is also necessary.

Suppose you form a hypothesis, perhaps that some kind of god figure is essential in a fully functioning human society, or that any god must be a feature of human imagination and cannot be real. How do you test that? What experiment can you do to disprove hypotheses of that kind?

There is no science of religiology because religion is not susceptible to the scientific method. And that turns out to be the same reason there is no religion of sciencism. (There is, however, a Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Perhaps this goes against the argument I am making and might be evidence that my hypothesis is faulty.)

What can we conclude? - The only sensible conclusion to draw is that we need different sets of tools for the two domains, scientific tools based on observation and experiment for science and religious tools based on faith for religion.

This is why it is incorrect to claim that evolution is as much a matter of faith as creationism. Evolution is evidence-based, creationism is faith-based. We need to use the correct tools. The creationists are right about creation and wrong about evolution. Richard Dawkins is right about evolution and wrong about creation. The two camps cannot communicate because they are using different languages.

You cannot dismiss science by claiming that faith is required. You cannot dismiss religion by claiming the scientific method is required. Both stances are equally incorrect, both are equally foolish, and both miss the point.


  • Why do you suppose there is so much heat and so little light in the debate?
  • Do science and religion threaten one another in some way?
  • Do they deal with two different parts of the human experience?
  • If so, why can't we all just accept that?

See also:


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