Recently, i have noticed the Science = Faith???? post on The Daily Transcript, where Alex complains (rightfully, I guess) about an article published in the New York Times. I am not going to discuss this article, as I haven’t read it and don’t feel like doing so. Reading Alex’s post, however, reminded me of another blog entry I read a few months ago (can’t remember where, sorry). In this other post, the authors also discussed the idea of science vs. belief and wrote something along the lines of “religious people believe, while I as a scientist do not”. As far as I remember, the arguments were the same: science is not based on faith but on testable hypotheses – scientist do not have to believe, they know. I have just seen that other bloggers too have covered the NYT article, e.g. here.
I probably don’t have to mention that I am with the scientist”s side of this debate. Nevertheless, I try to be as fair as possible, even if this means producing arguments that can be (mis-)used by people with fundamentally different views. Thus, I venture to say that this whole not-being-based-on-faith business is true for science in general, but does not apply to the individual scientist.
A scientist, even in his/her own working area, knows a lot of facts that have not been acquired by personal scientific investigation, but rather by reading or by being told. There are research papers, reviews, book chapters, text books and lots of other information sources. Whenever a reasearcher gathers information from the literature (and from that point on consideres them as facts), this is in a way an act of faith. What I mean is i) trust into the authors claims and ii) faith in the scientific system, including the peer review system.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but we have to acknowledge the fact that not every opion held by a scientist has been acquired by this person through scientific methods – there is a substantial proportion of knowledge derived by an act of faith, ideally after a careful evaluation whom and what to trust.
Let me briefly mention two popular and widely discussed examples: evolution and climate change:
I am not a hard-core evolutionary biologist, but one of my main scientific areas is the analysis of protein sequences and the assessement of their relationship. Thus, evolution has a pivotal role in my everyday work. Needless to say that I have little doubt that what scientists think of evolution (mutation, selection, and everything else that goes with it) is true. But the important question here is: do I know that it is true? Strictly speaking, I must admit that I don”t know, but rather believe in evolution. I am sure that other scientists will grill me for this statement, but this is the way I see things. There are a number of reasons why I believe in evolution:
- it makes sense
- it is in nice agreement with everything I see in my sequence analysis work, and also in biology at large.
- a lot of clever people have published papers and books providing evidence for evolution.
The first two points are all very nice and intellectually pleasing, but the real reason for my acceptance of evolution is the third point: I rely on what I have read in some books written by eminent scientists, and I believe that what they say is true. Does this put me on the same level as a bible-quoting fundamentalist? I hope not, mainly because I have good reason why I trust the work published in the scientific literature. On the other hand, I guess that the fundamentalists have also good reasons to believe in the bible – hey, it has been written by god, so how could it possibly be wrong! So, maybe there isn’t that much of a difference after all.
This problem gets even more striking, when I move farther outside of my expertise, e.g. when considering global climate change. Personally, I have no grasp whatsoever on climatology. From my general scientific experience, I have the impression that the area of climate prediction is very complex, with lots of influencing factors, positive and negative feedback loops and more difficulties like this. I would never dare to make any kind of climate prediction myself. I also dare say that most of my fellow scientists will be in a similar situation, unless they are working in this particular area. As I usually don’t read primary literature on climate modeling, I have to rely on secondary or even tertiary sources (down to newspapers, at the end of the food chain).
It is relatively easy to see that there are a number of camps with wildly differing ideas on the severity and the consequences of climate change: On one hand, there are climate scientists (in the broader sense), who I grant the right to have a (hopefully) scientifically funded opinion on their own. Apparently, most scientists in the field more or less agree on a core set of predictions, with a number of nonconformists deviating in any possible direction. On the other hand, there are politicians, lobbyists and activists of various affiliations, who typicall also have strong opinions on what is going to happen. However, these people have not developed their opinion on the basis of facts, but rather by subscribing to one of the scientific camps – either the mainstream or one of the dissident groups.
How about the bulk of the non-specialist scientists, including myself? Everybody has to answer this question for himself. For my part, I don’t know my climate science, so I do not have an original opinion. I don’t even know any of the climatologists’ work, so I do not even have a first-hand knowledge of whom to trust. At the end of the day, I have to resort to very indirect indicators, e.g. who publishes in a prestigious journal, or who works at a renowned institution. At the core of this decision chain is a fundamental faith in the scientific system and in scientific authorities. This is again not so different from what religious fundamentalists do, except that they have a very different set of criteria on what are trustworthy sources.
There is one important difference, though: For me as a scientist, quite a fraction of what I know (or think to know) is based on belief in science and faith in scientific authorities. Science, as a concept, is not based on faith in authorities, but on faith in the scientific method as such. The question if the scientific method is the only valid way of arguing cannot be answered from within science, for obvious reasons. I will leave it to the philosophers. For me, the answer to this question is not so important anyway: I trust in scientific reasoning, as this is in my experience in very good agreement with what is observable in nature. If somebody chooses a different way, be it religious, spiritual or whatnot, this is fine by me. I am a scientist, not a science fundamentalist. I have no proof that science is the only possible way of seeing things. For myself, I’d rather enjoy the company of a good-natured spiritualist than that of a malicious scientist. Ok, maybe a good-natured scientist would be even better.