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.