Category Archives: In Society

Science as/versus Faith

As undoubtedly none of you know, I am fascinating by disconnect that seems to occur between science and religion.  We see this perhaps most clearly in the battle over evolution that inexplicably still exists, but there are many other points of contention out there.  Just think of people who refuse medical treatment for religious reasons.  Likely you could have guessed this, but when there are sides to be taken, I tend to come down quite firmly on the side of science.  In the evolution in schools debate, for example, I’m bemused that there is a debate at all.  Evolution is taught in science class, because it is science.  If you want to teach creation, teach it in religion classes, alongside all of the other creation myths from various religions.  Debate over.  But I’ve been thinking a lot more not about the facts of the debate, but about the reason for the debate at all.

I think it’s clear that science feels superior to religion because science is based on facts.  Science is observable.  Science is reproduceable.  Science is logical.  Science has resulted in tangible, noticeable improvements in our society (and some not so great things too, sure).  Most important though, science is based on the natural world.  Things you can see and feel and touch and do.

Religion, on the other hand, is based on faith.  Belief in whatever it is you believe in.  Belief that your beliefs are correct, and that others are wrong.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing tangible to point to in order to defend that faith.  There’s a religion’s text usually that can be pointed to as evidence for points that your making.  And many people try to reference their literary texts in their arguments related to science. But the problem with the Bible as evidence is that it requires the person you’re arguing with to share your faith.  I, as a non-Christian, consider any argument that references the Bible to be invalid, because to me, it is simply a book written by people.  I lack the faith required to accept the words of the Bible as proof of anything.

I can feel religious people bristling.  Don’t worry – your time is coming.

Up until now, I’ve maintained an attitude of aloof amusement to people who disagree with science based on their religious beliefs.  That level of faith seemed naive.

But the more I’ve been thinking about it, I realized that I am operating in my world based on a different kind of faith.  I have faith in science.

Now, I don’t mean that in the sense that “I believe in science, that it will come through for us.”  I mean that in the sort of blind, simply accepting sort of faith that accompanies religion.  You see, I am not a scientist.  Most of what I read related to science, I do not understand.  I certainly am in no position to judge or critique science that is presented to me.  Why do I believe in evolution?  Because scientists tell me that it is so.  I haven’t done any research into evolution.  I haven’t personally explored genetics, or selective breeding, or the fossil record.  I have read articles about evolution by other people who most likely aren’t scientists, but rather reporters.  If evolution were wrong (and just to be clear, I’m not trying to imply at all that it is), I would have no way of knowing that, or no grounds to even challenge the premise of evolution.  I could simply regurgitate responses that other people have come up with.  Other scientists. I accept the consensus of the scientific community on faith, because I have faith in the scientific process.  I have faith that mistakes will be sorted out in peer review.  I have faith that reproducability of an experiment is a major sign of veracity of the results.  But I’ll never reproduce the experiments myself, so again, I have to operate on faith.

Now this is not to suggest that scientists themselves are operating on faith.  They are qualified to analyze the results.  They are qualified to critique.  They are qualified to disagree, or disrupt.  And I recognize that if I wanted to, I could make myself qualified – perhaps that is part of why I’m writing this blog.  But I’m not, and I likely won’t.   No, I am going to keep accepting science with faith – ferreting out nonsense where I feel qualified to do so (as a religious person might ferret out those who are misinterpreting religious texts).

This is not meant to suggest the possibility that science is wrong about the big things, or that there is some reason to question evolution or climate change or whether medicine should be used to cure.  I have complete and absolute faith in the scientific process that led us to those things, and that the scientific process will continue to protect us and make our lives better.  But it does make me pause when I am listening to the argument against evolution, quoting the story of Genesis as proof that evolution is nonsense.  Because ultimately, my response, listing all of the facts and figures that can demonstrate evolution, is based on nothing more than my own faith in the scientific process.  So maybe, just maybe, I should stop feeling so superior when confronted with expressions of faith that I consider naive.

I should.  But I probably won’t.  Because as everyone knows, my faith is more founded than yours.

Scientific from Birth

The other day, I was sitting with one of my twin boys on the floor.  He was sitting in a U-shaped pillow, and I was next to him in socks and sweatpants, just playing on the floor.  All of a sudden, he abandoned the toys that we were playing with, and started stroking my foot.  Then my pants.  Then his pillow.  Then socks, pants, pillow; socks, pants, pillow.  This went on for about five minutes.  I realized watching him that he was exploring the different fabric textures, trying to figure out what about them was different.  Very methodically, very carefully, and in the same order.  Socks, pants, pillow.  Socks, pants, pillow.  He’d thought through an experiment, and was carrying it out, trying to better understand the world.  He was following the scientific method to a T.  When he finally understood whatever it was that he was trying to understand, he looked up at me, laughed, and then got back to playing with his toys.

As it turns out, much of babies’ play time actually involves this methodical kind of experimentation.  The scientific method is something that we seem to have ingrained in us from birth.

A chart showing how babies follow the scientific method
Poster courtesy of: Tiffany Ard

And this phenomenon does not seem to be merely the delusion of a hopeful father projecting his shattered dreams of scientific brilliance upon his children.  It turns out, this is borne out by science.

According to an article on the National Science Foundation, multiple studies have shown that “Babies Are Born Scientists.”

“[Allison] Gopnik and her colleagues found that young children, in their play and interactions with their surroundings, learn from statistics, experiments and from the actions of others in much the same way that scientists do.”

So I wonder what that means for children who grow up and later either don’t like science, or don’t understand science (or at least think that about themselves)?  At some point in their development, something turned them away from their natural way of interacting with the world, took away the natural experimentation and style of learning that connects so well to skills in professional science.

The Limits of Science

On Wednesday, February 10, George Perrot was released from prison, after spending thirty years behind bars for raping a woman in 1985.  In all that time, Perrot, and the woman he was accused of raping, have maintained his innocence.  On Wednesday, an appeals judge finally agreed, and set Perrot free, stating that:

“The record before the court, which I have subjected to rigorous examination, makes me reasonably sure that George Perrot did not commit those grave offenses.”

The judge also recommended that prosecutors not seek to retry Perrot for a third time.

The interest that I have in this case is not based on Perrot’s innocence – I’ve had no knowledge or interest in this case before hearing about it on NPR Thursday.  What I am interested in, however, is the reason that Perrot was released after all this time, and why the judge is so certain that Perrot is innocent.

That reason is science.  (Not specifically physics in this case, but at the end of the day, most science comes back to physics, doesn’t it?)

Perrot was convicted, twice, based largely on FBI hair analysis.  This was before more modern DNA analysis was available – in 1985, hair analysis was done by hand with a microscope.  In a stunning admission earlier this year, the FBI and the Justice Department “formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”  When they say almost all, they mean it. Of 268 cases reviewed, “26 [examiners] overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent.”

95%.

Now of course, not all of those 95% of cases relied solely on the hair match evidence.  But some did.  Like George Perrot’s.

Florence Graves of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism summed the problem up nicely in an NPR article:

“Many people in the scientific community knew decades ago, including the FBI, that hair microscopy was used beyond the limits of science.”

Beyond the limits of science.  That’s a really interesting concept in and of itself.  What are the limits of science?  Science, is after all, the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of understanding how the universe works, and how we can make it work for us.  However, science isn’t perfect.  Science doesn’t have all the answers, and can’t explain everything.  Science is based on questions, and every new discovery leads to new questions, or a complete overturning of the answers to the questions that came before.  We understand more than we ever have, but we might also know more things that we don’t know than we ever have.

The problem we run into is when we let the hubris of our knowledge drive us to pretend that we know more than we really do.  Say, for example, in reporting hair matches with more accuracy than the science is actually capable of.  Or assigning causation when the evidence merely suggests a correlation.  Science allows us to make incredible discoveries and change our lives and the world around us, but it is not infallible.  Science is not all knowing, even if outside pressures (like political pressure to secure a conviction, for example.  Or monetary pressure from oil companies to ignore climate change) want it to be.  The limits of science are not actually limits of science – they’re limits to how we apply the science that we have access to.  Science is fallible because we are fallible, and because we want science to conform to our desires and expectations.