Posted by: Kay at Suicyte | December 5, 2007

My two (euro) cts. on the Science vs. Faith debate

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.

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Responses

  1. I agree. I’ve never been comfortable claiming that scientists don’t use “faith” (unless one narrowly defines faith as faith in the existence of deities). It seems in most scientific disputes I’m aware of (such as the evolutionary relationship between two groups of organisms) that the whole reason for the dispute is that there isn’t enough data yet to answer conclusively, so both sides simply have faith that future data will support their side. If they didn’t have such faith they’d just say “I dunno”, but that would be boring and fewer papers would be published.

    And I agree that a company of a good natured spiritualist is better than a malicious scientist. Winston Churchill famously defined a fanatic as “someone who won’t change their mind or the subject”. Whether it’s atheism, religion, science, or politics, fanatics are obnoxious.

  2. “Science, as a concept, is not based on faith in authorities, but on faith in the scientific method as such.”

    As you note by linking to me, I disagree heartily. Faith, or conviction of any sort, is not correlated with any conduct in science. In fact, a hypothesis is the complete opposite of a conviction, where you are subjecting an inference to scrutiny, not affirming the conjecture.

    Faith is also based upon opinion for most people, is it not? Instead, you’re using it interchangeably with “trust,” as in you trust that evolutionary biologists and climate scientists are not lying when they present their arguments on evolution and climate change, and that their arguments are based on empirical data that’s been reviewed by their peers. Empiricism is (supposed to be, at least) an objective enterprise, whereas faith is explicitly subjective.

  3. An additional thought… ways to eliminate faith from science (whether it be your own research or reading the work of others):

    1. Check out the figures. Are they showing what the researcher claims they show?

    2. Reproduce the experiments. Alternatively, you can test whether the conclusions are correct on a separate but comparable data set.

    3. Calibrate the measurements. You don’t have to take it for granted that a measurement is correct – check it against a gold standard.

    4. Use experimental controls.

    5. Check the p values for statistical significance. You can also apply other standards of comparison (e.g., standard deviation, chi square, etc.).

    … just for a few.

  4. In fact, a hypothesis is the complete opposite of a conviction, where you are subjecting an inference to scrutiny, not affirming the conjecture.

    Yes, that’s the unrealistic way science is presented to schoolkids, as a dispassionate robotic “method” where scientists try to disprove their own hypotheses and thank their rivals for pointing out the flaws in their arguments, but actual scientists don’t act that way at all, not being from planet Vulcan. At any scientific meeting, scientists speak passionately out of conviction in their hypotheses (often raising their voice and using rhetorical devices) and generally take criticism of hypotheses as personal insults against their competence. Going to a talk by a well known scientist when you know their major rival is in the audience is an entertaining experience because of the fireworks that are sure to go off in the question and answer period. Without the differing convictions, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.

  5. Jonathan,
    That’s what happens when humans, who are subjective by nature, attempt to be objective. We err. That’s just the people conducting the science however, not the process itself. As I note above, if you’re doing science at all, you’re seeking to be empirical, objective, and skeptical, and faith-based accounts will get you laughed out of such conferences.

    As Carl Sagan once said:

    In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion.

    It is also telling that in the discussion on my blog’s post on the subject, the person arguing your position was forced to concede the point when I used the definitions of faith and science. Either you and he are wrong, or the American Heritage, Oxford, and Merriam-Webster dictionaries are wrong.

    And lastly, I had also said this in that discussion:

    Again, the practice of science is the search, the investigation, the process, the question, etc. The practice of faith is the affirmation, the conviction, the conclusion. If you’d like to call them ying and yang of each other, that is entirely consistent with the actual definitions.

    Which gets at what you’re saying – any enterprise that involves human beings you have imperfection. Science isn’t perfect. But as my second comment above tries to point out, science is about incrementally and cumulatively moving towards greater precision, not greater faith.

  6. That absurd quote of Sagan’s was exactly what I had in mind when I talked about the unrealistic way science is presented to kids. Note that Carl doesn’t actually give a case of this thanking happening — probably because he never witnessed such an event in his life.

    JBS Haldane had it closer to the truth when he said that there are four stages of acceptance of a hypothesis by rivals “i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so.”. Also Max Planck had a point when he said that acceptance of quantum theory wasn’t so much a case of classical physicists changing their minds, but a case of older scientists retiring or dying and the new generation being taught quantum theory as students. In my experience both are true for the acceptance of molecular phylogeny; classical taxonomists are dying off in droves, and what few remain are beginning to embrace the same molecular methods they decried a decade ago, but I haven’t seen any public admissions that classical taxonomy was wrong.

    Science isn’t perfect. But as my second comment above tries to point out, science is about incrementally and cumulatively moving towards greater precision, not greater faith.

    Well…we can *hope* that we are getting closer to the underlying truth of the universe, but I suspect the path of science, like that of civilization in general, isn’t a nice cumulative progressive path, but one filled with backwards and sideways steps as well as forward ones.

  7. The Sagan quote and your Haldane reference aren’t contradictory – both are the case. It sounds ridiculous that you dismiss the one and accept the other, unless you just prefer Haldane’s tongue-in-cheek style. On Planck’s, you’re getting closer to a description of Kuhnsian scientific revolutions. Also true.

    But none of them involve “faith,” according to any definition of the word that I’ve ever read.

    …we can *hope* that we are getting closer to the underlying truth of the universe…

    Underlying truth? You’re speaking like a philosopher or a theologian. Your profile says that you’re a staff scientist – act like it.

    Science doesn’t deal with underlying, greater, or rhetorical truths. It deals with empirical, observable, measurable and testable facts.

  8. If you believe the universe physically exists, then there has to be an underlying truth to it — it works in one way and not any other. That’s not mere philosophy or theology. Yes, scientific models aren’t “true” — they are just approximations — but that’s a different issue.

    My beef with overly idealistic depictions of science is that they misrepresent how science is done and don’t capture the reality that scientists generally have more conviction in their hypotheses than can be justified in the data, and this conviction is only later (with more data) shown to be correct or not. For example, Prusiner believed prions lacked nucleic acids long before the data conclusively supported it. If you don’t want to call it this conviction”faith” (because of the religious/supernatural overtones), call it “intuition” or something.

  9. If you believe the universe physically exists, then there has to be an underlying truth to it — it works in one way and not any other. That’s not mere philosophy or theology.

    Sure it is. Okay, maybe it’s politics too. But science?!?! Where in any of your scientific publications or conference seminars was there any reference to a higher truth?

    What you’re doing is confusing hypothesis with conviction. Think about it. Prusiner didn’t go around professing belief in anything, he proposed a hypothesis, and went around testing it. Case in point, you say “…call it “intuition” or something.” Yes, that’s intuitive logic – what goes into hypothesizing something in science. If this were faith, you’d stop right there and be done with it.

  10. What sort of scientist are you though, that can’t tell the semantic difference between truth and fact, subjective and objective, or faith and science???

  11. For comparison with another subjective enterprise relevant to the human condition: consider ‘art’ and science. Art, like faith, is a subjective thing, based on a conviction (in this case, a belief of what beauty is). And we also use the term ‘art’ loosely to describe any activity that involves intuition and creativity.

    Does that mean that science is art, or vice versa? Do you think that I could get the NY Times to accept and publish an article on “Taking Science as Art,” as Davies did with faith? It’s not so far-fetched, given that we do occasionally talk about certain protocols as “art forms.”

    But art is no more science than faith is.

  12. Oh, and to add one to my comment at 7:33: note the difference between hypothesis and conviction.

  13. Dan,

    1) Saying that the universe has an underlying truth isn’t saying that there’s a “higher truth”, whatever that is. If you don’t think there is a true way the universe works, there isn’t much point to doing science at all.

    2) You seem to be stubbornly interpreting “faith” as religious faith even though it is perfectly clear that neither Kay nor I are using the term in that way, Having faith in the scientific method or in a hypothesis, or the judicial system is not the same thing as faith in Zeus, or Xenu, or whomever.

    3) Insulting people isn’t as effective as you may think, especially when dealing with somebody with more practical experience in a subject than you have.

  14. 1. Which is it? Do you think that there’s an underlying truth or not? If you’re talking about reality, then why not call it that?

    2. I’m most definitely not defining faith as a religious term, I’m defining it as the American Heritage, Oxford, and Merriam-Webster dictionaries define it (quoted in the thread on my blog already, so I don’t see the need to repost it).

    3. Where did I insult you? I’m flabbergasted at your own stubbornness against using faith as it is commonly defined, but insult you?

  15. Also:

    with somebody with more practical experience in a subject

    Right, when reason fails, you choose to fall back to an argument from authority.

  16. Oh what the hell, since you’re not interested in looking up the definitions of faith yourself…

    American Heritage dictionary:

    1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
    2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See synonyms at belief, trust.
    3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one’s supporters.
    4. often Faith Christianity. The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.
    5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
    6. A set of principles or beliefs.

    Please pay special attention to 1 and 2.

    Also, a definition for belief, which I think we can agree is the sort of faith that you’re referring to:

    1: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
    2: something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
    3: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

    synonyms: belief, faith, credence, credit mean assent to the truth of something offered for acceptance. belief may or may not imply certitude in the believer. faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof. credence suggests intellectual assent without implying anything about grounds for assent. credit may imply assent on grounds other than direct proof.

    See in addition opinion

    Or, conviction, another word related to faith (the definition I found had to do with law, but the thesaurus was relevant:

    1. The fact or condition of being without doubt: assurance, assuredness, certainty, certitude, confidence, positiveness, sureness, surety. See certain/uncertain.
    2. Something believed or accepted as true by a person: belief, feeling, idea, mind, notion, opinion, persuasion, position, sentiment, view. See opinion.

    Where in any of those three definitions or synonym lists do you see something that resembles, even vaguely, science?

    I hope this helps – it’s helpful to use conventional and accepted definitions for words that you’re using in trying to make a point.

  17. I’d say definitions one and two of “faith” are exactly what Kay and I are talking about. :

    1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
    2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See synonyms at belief, trust.

    Prusiner didn’t just have a mere “hypothesis”, as in “hey, I’ve looked at the data and thought maybe prions don’t have nucleic acid, what do you think of that, guys? I could be wrong you know.”

    If you had a chance to see him speak in those days you would have seen that he was 100% *confident* that prions were infectious proteins — he had “faith” sensu 1) in it and bet his whole reputation on it. People thought he was a crackpot. And yet he stood fast. Eventually the evidence caught up to his idea and he was honored for it. Of course, for every Prusiner there are ten or a hundred scientists just as confident that are mistaken in their confidence and who eventually become footnotes in history. But science (and scientific meetings) would be a lot more boring without them.

    And “faith” sensu 2) also plays a role in science. As Kay mentions, only a small fraction of scientific knowledge known by any scientist is actually based on material knowledge or scientific proof. The rest is simply taken on trust, which relates to this definition.

    Kay and I are not claiming that *all* of science is based on this. Just that the naive view of science propagated by popularizers like Sagan isn’t the whole story.

  18. I’d say definitions one and two of “faith” are exactly what Kay and I are talking about. :

    1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
    2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See synonyms at belief, trust.

    Great, we’re getting somewhere. Now let’s try a couple definitions of science. The American Heritage dictionary (just the most readily accessible for me) defines it as:

    1a. The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
    1b. Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.
    1c. Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study.
    2. Methodological activity, discipline, or study: I’ve got packing a suitcase down to a science.
    3. An activity that appears to require study and method: the science of purchasing.
    4. Knowledge, especially that gained through experience.

    Where in there do you see something resembling faith, belief, or conviction?!?!

    You also say:

    Prusiner didn’t just have a mere “hypothesis”, as in “hey, I’ve looked at the data and thought maybe prions don’t have nucleic acid, what do you think of that, guys? I could be wrong you know.”

    I thought you just got done saying that you were a credentialed scientist?!?! I don’t mean hypothesis in the colloquial sense, which is akin to a hunch. I mean hypothesis in the scientific sense, as in the part that comes before the specific aims of a research proposal, or as in the “RNA World Hypothesis.”

    1. A tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation.
    2. Something taken to be true for the purpose of argument or investigation; an assumption.
    3. The antecedent of a conditional statement.

    What sort of hokey university did you get your PhD from anyway, if you think a hypothesis is a mere statement of “Hey guys, what do you think of this”???

    In any case, Prusiner very well could have been a crackpot had he not backed up his hypothesis with evidence. He didn’t sit around making “gee whiz” guesses as you’d suggest from your pathetic definition of hypothesis. Similarly with other scientific conjectures – and most importantly, these hypotheses were not accepted at face value as mere opinions, as the word faith implies, they were tested. You know – falsification and verification.

    I also don’t know why you’re speaking for Kay, who has been quite quiet this whole time. What does Kay think, anyway?

    For yourself, you might want to use the correct definitions for science, faith, conviction, hypothesis, etc., before you go around calling anyone naive.

  19. “Hey guys, what do you think of this”

    Also, I’d like to know how you hold down the job title “staff scientist” if that’s what you base the proposed experiments of a research proposal on…

  20. And that’s from the guy who couldn’t figure out he was using insults? Whatever,

  21. And that’s from the guy who couldn’t figure out he was using insults? Whatever,

    No, seriously. It’s not an insult – I’m curious how you call yourself a scientist, are having a conversation with a fellow scientist, talking about science, and somehow miss the scientific definition of “hypothesis.”

  22. Incidentally, you could always say “Gee, I screwed up,” instead of digging yourself deeper.

  23. If you had an interesting argument, I’d gladly give in or at least placate you with a “gee, you make interesting points”. But you don’t. You bore us with the same simplifications of the scientific method we already know and have discarded as naive from experience and you claim that the definitions were are use are nonstandard despite being supported by your own sources.

    If you are seriously curious why I’m employed, you might want to start by reading my papers. Then perhaps we can have a more interesting conversation.

  24. Hi,

    Dan sent me a note about the discussion here. I would suggest that you go and read Davies’ OpEd. In the article he clearly equates religious dogmatic faith and scientific “faith-based belief system”. I would like to add a couple of points.

    1) I think that Dan and Jonathan you are basically agreeing and this thread boils down to a semantic argument. I agree with Dan in that I would watch out how the word “faith” is used. In most of Kate and Jonathan’s writing you could easily replace faith with trust. I trust my doctor’s medical advice, but I don’t think that this advice is infallible, in other words I don’t believe that his pronouncement is the TRUTH. I understand that medical knowledge changes, but I trust that he is up to date with the best (or near-best) medical advice. In this way I trust climatologists opinions, but I don’t expect that their current interpretations of the world are unchanging.

    2) I agree with Jonathan that there must be an underlying reality to the universe, but I must add that scientists dispute models of that reality. As Jonathan points out,

    Yes, scientific models aren’t “true” — they are just approximations ‘

    But he then states that this is another issue. It isn’t. This is THE issue on which Davies errs. We as scientists may argue passionately (and sometimes irrationally) over our favorite models, but we are open to new data. We may scrutinize this data (sometimes irrationally) or argue over it or even ignore it sometimes if it does not support our model, but this is totally different from religious faith which demands belief in the absence of all data. If this were true of science, we would believe in phlogiston and galactic ether.

    Sure there are fights in science, and we do tend to favor our pet theories – and you may call this faith, but it is very different from religious dogmatic faith. That is where Davie is off.

  25. Thanks Alex. You’re right, I do recognize that in a sense, Jonathan understands what’s going on here, but the fact that he doesn’t recognize that science and faith are completely separate entities by definition, and that he doesn’t even know the correct definition of ‘hypothesis,’ are rather deplorable.

    Jonathan,
    I’m sorry that my use of proper definitions bores you. Perhaps if you bothered to consult a dictionary, we could have an interesting conversation.

  26. I would like to add to what I wrote by illustrating by looking at Prusiner and prion theory. Prusiner may have believed in his model, and for the amount of data he had, it may have been a bit on the irrational side, but Prusiner tried to convince his scientific peers with more data. If someone else performed experiments that went against his model, I’m sure that Prusiner would not abandon prion theory right away, but fight. He would perform other experiments and collect data that validated his model, but in he end he and his oponents would understand that this is a scientific dispute.

    This is not the way that religion works. It is religious faith that Davies evoked to describe how science works. This is why Dan and I insist on using faith in this way. With religious dogmatic faith, there is no testing of hypothesis. There is no need to test hypotheses – it is all given. The church expressly asks you to be a sheep and to accept without evidence. Pruisner believed strongly in his model and believed that he could validate it (even before he had enough data). But he did not try to convince you with blind faith but providing evidence and letting the matter be debated within the scientific forum. If Davies is so oppressed, then where is his alternate model of how the world works? He is not like Pruisner. He does not state a testable model. He does not provide new insight. He just cries like a baby and makes invalid comparisons. That just drives me mad.

  27. I don’t really think that I was using ‘faith’ (or quoting its definition) in a religious sense, but I agree with dogma. Religious faith is the specific instance of a belief or conviction, hence it is often used as a proper noun. General faith, however, still retains the concepts that you describe – dogma, lack of evidence, etc.

  28. Jonathan,
    You never did explain how you dislike the Sagan quote, but like the Haldane quote, when they’re saying the same thing – scientists can change their minds based on evidence. My conclusion from that is that both Sagan and Haldane agree that science is not faith. The only difference I see is that Haldane also refers to the fantastic egos of some scientists, in a tongue-in-cheek way (an insignificant difference, IMHO).

    Also, what ever happened to Kay? We’ve kinda taken over things here. 😉

  29. Kay seems like you took up a highly controversial subject this time 🙂 I am wondering what was going through Robin Warren’s [ http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2005/warren-lecture.html ] mind when he infected himself [ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4304290.stm ] with H.pylori. Was it on Faith or Trust?

  30. Apologies for my lack of reaction so far. Unfortunately, I feel ill and prefer to stay in bed most of the time. I will carefully read and comment everything when I am feeling better. Sorry !

  31. “I am wondering what was going through Robin Warren’s mind when he infected himself with H.pylori. Was it on Faith or Trust?”

    Do you think that he had some empirical basis to think that it was a reasonable risk?

  32. And get well soon, Kay!

  33. You never did explain how you dislike the Sagan quote, but like the Haldane quote, when they’re saying the same thing – scientists can change their minds based on evidence.

    Both Haldane and Planck were writing somewhat humorously, but, as I wrote, it seems they captured more of what I’ve witnessed in the phylogeny/taxonomy field than Sagan’s story does..

    Seriously, I’ve never witnessed anything like the public thanking scene Sagan describes nor have I even *heard* of it happening. It’s really that simple. I dislike it because it is unrealistic. It’s like that old Paul Muni movie about Pasteur which made Louis out to be a perfect saint, not the rather vain and unpleasant (yet still brilliant) individual that scholarly biographies show him to be.

  34. Sagan didn’t say anything about thanking though, nor did he specify that this was done publicly. What he said is that sometimes scientists say “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken.” If you haven’t heard of a scientist changing his or her mind on something, then I’m sorry. As Sagan also said, “It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful.” Sometimes it’s downright humiliating, and rather than correcting oneself, a prominent scientist proven wrong will just disappear.

    Take James Watson’s latest gaff – corrected, he backed down. Similarly, I had a standoff with fellow science blogger Larry Moran recently. We were talking about microevolution versus macroevolution. Although he didn’t explain it to me in a satisfactory way (I had to go to another source to be convinced), I was still proven wrong, and came around to his point of view, almost. Based on the evidence. Similarly, if you managed somehow to justify your use of the word faith in describing an aspect of science, given it’s loaded meanings, then I would give you the point.

    Now it’s also true that scientists tend to be conservative in their predictions, hedging their bets, so to speak. So maybe you just aren’t paying attention. Or maybe you just work with people of gigantic egos, who never admit mistake. But even in your Haldane quote, the scientist changes his point of view, even if he doesn’t admit it publicly.

  35. I would like to add to what I wrote by illustrating by looking at Prusiner and prion theory. Prusiner may have believed in his model, and for the amount of data he had, it may have been a bit on the irrational side, but Prusiner tried to convince his scientific peers with more data. If someone else performed experiments that went against his model, I’m sure that Prusiner would not abandon prion theory right away, but fight. He would perform other experiments and collect data that validated his model, but in he end he and his oponents would understand that this is a scientific dispute.

    I agree with this. Evidence eventually has the final say in science. But what makes science interesting is that bit of irrationality in support of of a model beyond what the data say; to have “faith” or “intuition” that it is correct and to stick to your guns in the face of criticism. Science would be boring if it really happened according to the textbook (or dictionary) definitions.

    I fully agree that Davies is trying to seed confusion between his religious faith and the sort of thing I’m talking about; I just think it’s dishonest to pretend that science is 100% rational.

  36. “I just think it’s dishonest to pretend that science is 100% rational.”

    Yes, that’s what you were getting at with the Planck quote, and is completely in line with Kuhns’ philosophy of science, IMHO. Popper talked about other things, but Kuhns’ descriptions of normal science and revolutions in science fit in nicely with what you’re saying. In revolutionary science, yes, there are intuitive leaps that can be called a variety of things.

    In my estimation, if you’re going to call the intuitive leaps of revolutionary science “faith,” even loosely, you have to take into account the crackpots who hang on to their pet theories long after they’ve been disproved. That is – is it the intuitive brilliance, or the evidence-based approach, that ‘makes’ the scientist?

    I still submit that it is the former.

  37. Damnit… brain fart (happens to the best of us, right?) – I meant the latter.

    … gotta get some sleep…

  38. Ok, it seems like I missed all of the action. Again, sorry for my lack of participation. At least, here are a few comments on your comments. Let me start at the beginning:

    1) In the initial discussion between Dan and Jonathan about idealistic vs. realistic ways of describing science, I am very much along the lines of Jonathan. Maybe this is because we are working in related fields (and tend to encounter the same breed of scientiests), maybe it is because we are in a similar age range (somewhat disillusioned), maybe it is just chance. I probably would not have gone as far as calling the Sagan quote ‘absurd’ – I hope that those cases do exist. I hope that Dan was in a bad mood when he told Jonathan to ‘act like a staff scientist’, whatever this might mean. I see no contradiction in being a (hard core) scientist and a bit of a philosopher at the same time. I think I can see Dan’s point, but I stay with my opinion that science as a whole might be neutral, unbiased and everything else, but scientists as persons are a different story.

    2) The next part of the discussion deals with semantics of ‘hypothesis’, ‘conviction’, ‘faith’ and so on. Again, I seem to very much agree with Jonathan. As he points out, I was not using the word ‘faith’ in an exclusively religious way. I must admit that – not being a native English speaker – I am walkling on thin ice when using those terms in the first place. Anyway, when I talk about faith, I mean
    ‘being sure of something without having formal proof for it, e.g. through being taught by sources considered trustworthy’. To me, this includes situations where a formal proof could be obtained (given enough time and resources) but typically is not, because other scientists claim to have this proof and are considered to be trustworthy. This is clearly not a purely religious thing.

    3)With regard to the ‘conviction’ vs ‘hypothesis’ discussion: I am convinced that most scientists have a conviction (of some degree) of some fact or mechanism; this conviction will in the scientific literature obviously be presented as a hypothesis (because this is what scientists are supposed to do). I am not even condemning it altogether, although it depends on the degree of stubbornness. I openly admit that I myself have some ideas on how certain observations can be explained, which you might call convictions. While I am not clinging to them to my last drop of blood, I would require VERY good arguments to convince me that I was mistaken. Every time I see another paper arguing against my idea, I look very hard to see what particular mistake those folks have made. I think everybody does this – after all, we are all human.

    More comments later.

  39. Reading on in the comments, it becomes increasingly clear that Dan and Jonathan are not really becoming friends.

    In the next posts, Alex tries to moderate between Dan and Jonathan (thanks!) and explains some of the issues he has with the Davies publication. I cannot comment on this, as I have not read this article (and didn’t want to make this my central point). I don’t get Alex’s point with his doctors recommendations: I did not even touch the issue where scientists are supposed to make recommendations (e.g. in the climate change area), I am rather talking of comparably plain scientific tasks such as explaining an observed phenomenon, or predicting the response of a system to a certain perturbation. The categories I am thinking of can be classified as ‘true’ or ‘false’, but ‘false-but-then-state-of-the-art) is not an option.

    In the last comments, it seems like there is some kind of common platform to agree on. I guess (well, I am convinced!) that this had to happen. After all, I think that we all are more or less on the same side of a science vs. religion argument are are just having a controversy about the details. I doubt that it would have changed a lot if I had participated earlier in the discussion, although I wish that I did…

  40. Faith vs. science blog posts, they never end well 😉

  41. Sorry to hear that you don’t understand my point Kay.

    “I am convinced that most scientists have a conviction (of some degree) of some fact or mechanism…”

    That’s the scientist, and the conclusion he walks away with. Science, and the scientist conducting the research, are not the same thing. So for you to say that a scientist has conviction says something about the scientist, but not about the scientific method.

    Please try to understand.

  42. I also find it very odd that you and Jonathan think that this is an idealism vs. realism issue. It’s not, and you admit as much when you mention your disillusionment with research – it’s a personal issue.

    It’s an objective vs. personal issue.

  43. Actually, I take that back – I think I kind of see your point, that we as scientists do tend to be rather dogmatic a great deal of the time. Some of us more than others.

    But you have to remember that empiricism trumps all, and if you refuse to consider alternative points of view in the course of investigation and research, you’re not doing science.

    So if realism here amounts to acknowledging that the best among us are flawed and take dogmatic stands on topics, then fine. Science IS a messy business, and scientists often do have huge egos. But this mere fact that scientists can (and do) change their minds in the light of new data demonstrates unequivocally that you’re not taking science on faith.

  44. Sorry to hear that you don’t understand my point Kay.

    “I am convinced that most scientists have a conviction (of some degree) of some fact or mechanism…”

    That’s the scientist, and the conclusion he walks away with. Science, and the scientist conducting the research, are not the same thing. So for you to say that a scientist has conviction says something about the scientist, but not about the scientific method.

    It seems that our positions on this issue are not that far apart. I am well aware that science and the scientist are not the same thing – this is the main point of my original post. It is my sole intention to say something about the scientist (as a person), not about science. Maybe I was not clear enough.

  45. Kay,
    Perhaps, yet just a few comments ago you were agreeing with Jonathan. Which is it?

  46. To wit, you said in one of the last few comments:

    The next part of the discussion deals with semantics of ‘hypothesis’, ‘conviction’, ‘faith’ and so on. Again, I seem to very much agree with Jonathan. As he points out, I was not using the word ‘faith’ in an exclusively religious way.

    You specify this form of faith as: “being sure of something without having formal proof for it, e.g. through being taught by sources considered trustworthy.” The formal definition, however, almost always includes (from above): “faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof. credence suggests intellectual assent without implying anything about grounds for assent.”

    So the question is – do you have ‘grounds for assent’ on sources that you consider trustworthy? If you do, then you’re talking about something that’s not what you could call ‘faith.’ If you don’t, well, then yes that would be faith. But I would hope that, in the course of your scientific research, you had a reason to trust a source before lending credence to their claims.

    Similarly, you say:

    I openly admit that I myself have some ideas on how certain observations can be explained, which you might call convictions. While I am not clinging to them to my last drop of blood, I would require VERY good arguments to convince me that I was mistaken.

    And why are you convinced of how certain observations can be explained? Are you making dogmatic assertions, or are you considering the possibility that your current convictions may possibly be at least partially incomplete? You say as much in the rest of the same comment, which leads me to believe that “faith” is an incorrect word for the situation.

  47. Seems like http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/18/science/18law.html?_r=1&oref=slogin is echoing a similar thought [“Dr. Davies asserted in the article that science, not unlike religion, rested on faith, not in God but in the idea of an orderly universe”].
    I am not sure when some one does a biological experiment (and extremes like self infecting with H.pylori), can they be theoretically as sure as a mathematician working on a proof where axioms are taken on faith?

  48. Animesh,
    What axioms are taken on faith? For myself, I generally try to use negative and positive experimental controls in my experiments, as well as corroborating findings with data collected from other experiments done in parallel. If there are discrepancies, or if I’m basing my conclusions on a loosely-supported theoretical model, I test those assumptions as well, troubleshoot, etc.

    Those few times that I have taken something on faith in the lab, it’s usually a bad assumption that I didn’t check up on. Case in point – earlier this week, I had an experiment where I thought everything was fine, didn’t bother to check in on it, and the experiment failed. There goes a week’s worth of work, because I took something on faith.

  49. Axioms by definition are not proved, they are taken for granted as true [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axiom ]. Sorry for the sloppy use of the word Axiom here though.
    Sad to hear about your failed experiments, but hasn’t there been anytime when something you took on faith, worked?

  50. In science? Can’t think of an instance. If you say “trust,” instead of “faith,” then yes, I’d agree – everything I’ve learned from science textbooks and journal articles has of course relied on my trusting in their research and in the peer-review process. But trust is not precisely the same thing as faith.

  51. Also, on the use of axioms in science, from the article that you cited:

    In natural sciences theories, an axiom is considered as an evident truth which does not need any explanation and is accepted without any demonstration or proof in their application domain. The weakness, applicability or utility of such logically correct theories depends on the arbitrary choice of their axioms.

    As with the instance of “trust,” I don’t think that “assumption” is precisely the same thing as faith. There’s a subtle but significant distinction, most greatly distinguished by the fact that axioms, as the foundations for theories, are generally falsifiable and subject to empirical evaluation.

  52. Yes, thats why I said the use was sloppy in this context. If you can give me a clear definition of what you think is faith (is it always blind?), trust and assumption then I can respond where I am trying to head.
    As far as my thinking of faith goes, when a coder writes a program which uses floats as representative of real numbers and he sees it working for the test cases, projecting that it will work for all cases is also a ‘leap of faith’ because we are simply unaware of all variable (and bugs, for eg the pentium IV float point cpu bug) which can affect results.

  53. Oh okay. I think I understand what you’re saying now.

    For faith, words such as blind and dogmatic frequently do apply, as faith is a strong conviction often held in contradiction to available evidence. But that’s not quite it’s correct definition either – faith is a strong belief held in the absence of evidence as well. As such, for myself, I’m working under the definition of faith as a strong conviction that is unfalsifiable, and are the opinions that one structures their life around: are human beings intrinsically good or bad; does true love exist; etc.

    For the example you mention above: I wouldn’t call that faith because he is basing his projections upon previous experience. That is, when asking “Will it work,” he can say to himself, “I don’t know, but it worked in the test cases.” That’s a concrete statement based on experience. Faith, in contrast, is by definition explicitly contingent upon previous experience not being part of the process.

    Now, you might say that faith involves experiences and thus evidence of a sort, but so does superstition. Faith as a logic process does not apply analytical or deductive reasoning, nor statistically test its conclusions. Instead, it is intuitive, and – yes – often ideological, blind, and dogmatic.

    That seems to be the common usage of the word faith, in my personal experience.

  54. So like all philosophical arguments, this was also about confusion with the way we perceive the meaning of a word… reminds me of PGs essay, http://www.paulgraham.com/philosophy.html . I hope some day we will be able to have mathematical presentation of our language expression, such confusions will be avoided to a big extent then 🙂


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