Faith in Science

Question from Markus:
Quite frequently I read the argument that it takes faith to “believe” in atheism. It’s quite easy to falsify this argument and I won’t repeat that here.

However, as opposed to answering this question on a logical and abstract level, I see a problem if we apply it in the real world.
All scientific facts we know today are well documented and proven by various methods that are verifiable. But while for science as a whole this holds true for me as an individual it doesn’t. For example I couldn’t reproduce the experiments that are necessary to prove that a Higgs particle is most likely. So I have to believe that these experiments where actually done, that the results were correct, and that the scientists doing it came to the right conclusions and were honest. I lack the resources and the knowledge to be able to verify the results.

But it doesn’t have to be something as complex as the experiment mentioned. There are a lot more basic questions which I might be able to answer had I enough time in my lifetime. The scientific knowledge available today is so vast that even the brightest individual could only verify a tiny part of it even if he dedicated his whole life to it.

It is quite easy to verify that the scientific methodology is reasonable. Furthermore it is possible to verify parts of it and therefore create personal evidence that all scientific facts might be true.

One might say that it is possible to verify random parts of science and therefore create evidence for its validity. But let’s say an individual is able to verify 0.0001% of all knowledge available today during his lifetime does he then really have enough evidence for not having to refer to faith instead?

The issue get’s even bigger if we think about the whole world population. I would say that 90% of all people don’t have the resources or the education to even try to understand basic scientific facts.

So if applied to the real world doesn’t it take faith in science?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s quite true that although we can all apply the scientific method to some degree and gain justified confidence in its results, we can’t each do all the experiments to confirm the wealth of existing scientific knowledge. So rather than faith in science, it’s more a question of the need for faith in scientists.

Fortunately, we don’t immediately have to resort to faith in the absence of what you call “personal evidence”. Through proper documentation, second-hand evidence can also be valid. For centuries scientists have made public not only their findings but their methodology, their preparation and even the results of individual trials. Nowadays, the physical experiments can be watched online or on educational DVDs as well. Simply seeing something happen in a video and believing it right away is of course a bit dodgy, but it can be part of a body of documented evidence from which one can reasonably conclude that the experiment really happened, really gave the expected results and really does demonstrate a real-world scientific principle. This in essence is the conclusion that must be reached by a peer-review board before the work is even recommended to the public.

So, individual experiments can be researched and confirmed by anyone who’s interested even if the means to actually perform the experiments are hard to come by. There’s still the issue that lay people aren’t about to research and confirm every experiment ever done. For anything you can’t check yourself for some reason, you do have to trust the writings and other materials of working scientists, past and present. Above all, that’s a good reason for everyone to check everything they can themselves, because this kind of trust can end up being simple acceptance of an argument from authority.

That said, even third-hand evidence (e.g. articles on science published by anyone but the scientists themselves) can be justifiably accepted if you know enough. Scientific journals publicise their criteria for peer review, and you can decide for yourself whether the measures they take are sufficient for you to accept what they publish. If the scientists in question have other work available, you can look up the kind of scientific rigour they apply to their lab or field work. Knowledge of and confidence in the methods of a scientist, as opposed to his or her standing in the scientific community, can lead to real confidence in his or her findings even without knowing the specifics of a particular experiment.

It is sadly true that there is a lot of blind faith placed in science as a whole, by theists and non-theists alike. This is sad because it’s a straightforward process to become scientifically literate, to know how science is done and to have ways of judging the merits of a scientific or scientific-sounding claim. Without these tools it’s terribly easy to be taken in by pseudo-scientific scams and anti-scientific zealots using science’s own language against it. So in fact there’s a practical reason to apply as much critical thought to science as to everything else, regardless of the philosophical implications of relying on some form of faith.

4 thoughts on “Faith in Science”

  1. Great answer SmartLX.

    I’d also like to add that there’s a fundamental difference in the faith one has in a deity and the reasonable expectation one has in science. I know it’s easy to use the word “faith” when it comes to science, but I like to leave that word in the domain of theism. It tends to obfuscate the discussion otherwise. Faith, as defined by most religious text is belief without evidence. If you had evidence for a god, you would no longer need faith, you would have knowledge, which is belief with evidence. I don’t have faith in science, I have a reasonable expectation that the scientific method of observation, measurement, experiment, and the testing of hypothesis, along with falsification and peer review, can be trusted. When ever I see someone claiming a scientific breakthrough and one of these steps is missing I become suspicious right away and don’t put my trust in it until all criteria are met. This is completely different from religious faith which can not be observed, can not be measured, can not be falsified, etc.

    That being said, there ARE those who do not look for these steps when evaluating scientific claims, and I would agree that they ARE placing faith (belief without evidence) in them. The difference is though that you can teach a person how to tell good science from junk science, but you can’t teach a person how to know a true religion from a false one.

  2. Science is great in it’s transparency. Even if a layman cannot directly test a claim, they can look through the research, tests, and methods used to formulate or evidence that claim. I think saying it takes faith to believe in science is ridiculous considering how there are very good reasons to believe in the progress/results of scientific efforts. .

  3. I agree with you Markus. Most people aren’t qualified to directly evaluate scientific claims. Not only aren’t they qualified to evaluate scientific claims, but most people aren’t qualified to evaluate claims from other fields of knowledge either. We have encyclopedias to give us all sorts of facts that we’ve never personally verified. We have maps and globes to tell us the size, shape, and locations of countries we’ve never been to or measured. So yes, I agree with you. We accept a lot of claims as true that we’ve never evaluated (and not just scientific ones either).
    I’d argue that we have to do this out of necessity. It’d be a giant burden on our time if we had to personally evaluate every claim before deciding whether to accept or reject it (particularly in a society with as much specialized knowledge as ours).
    However, I wouldn’t call that faith. How do I know that New Zealand is long and skinny? Well, first of all, I know that it’s shaped that way on maps of the world that I’ve looked at. Furthermore, I think it’s likely that our society has evidence about the shape of New Zealand. I think it’s likely that map makers have access to this evidence. I think it’s likely that map makers are telling the truth about what this evidence points to. Therefore, I think New Zealand is long and skinny. The word “faith” implies that my position wasn’t arrived at through any evidence or reasoning, but I don’t think that accurately sums up what I just did. Even though I didn’t directly evaluate New Zealand’s shape, I still evaluated whether the testimony of others about New Zealand’s shape is likely to be true.
    I would argue that laymen often judge scientific claims in the same manner. If they know how the scientific process works, they know that it’s a self correcting process designed to minimize the influence of bias and error. It seems probable that most people become scientists because they’re passionate about their subject, not because they have a hidden agenda or a desire to trick people. Therefore, when there’s a strong scientific consensus, laymen accept that as the position most likely to be supported by the evidence.

  4. A good answer. I would only add one thing. That peer-review is not bulletproof and that there are many magazines who have peer-review but post unscientific texts raging from alternative medicine to psychics research.

    Also it is important to know what is the expertise of the scientist because many scientists who are really professionals in their own category sometimes go into another category where they are totally wrong. As for example Sir Roger Penrose who teamed up with Stuart Hameroff and created the Orch-OR model which claims we have a immortal Quantum mind which can reincarnate and is like a ethereal soul. This is also to be considered because it happens and scientists sometimes like to fall into strange science ideas.

    I think the most important thing about science is that it can be replicated and this is one thing that is a iron law in science. All research which is done must be replicated under the same conditions and during tight protocols.

    These reasons are why there is no proof for psychics powers, reincarnation or other religious stuff that is claimed.

    Also Dr. Steven Novella wrote a great article about science and its dangers:

    This is all I wanted to add. The answer was great done.

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