Science as a Religion

With the reaction to Simon Jenkins’ rant about science being just a kind of religion gradually abating, I suddenly remembered that I ended a book I wrote in 1998 with a discussion of the image of science as a kind of priesthood. The book was about the famous eclipse expedition of 1919 that provided some degree of experimental confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and which I blogged about at some length last year, on its 90th anniversary.

I decided to post the last few paragraphs here to show that I do think there is a valuable point that Simon Jenkins could have made out of the scientist-as-priest idea. It’s to do with the responsibility scientists have to be honest about the limitations of their research and the uncertainties that surround any new discovery. Science has done great things for humanity, but it is fallible. Too many scientists are too certain about things that are far from proven. This can be damaging to science itself, as well as to the public perception of it. Bandwagons proliferate, stifling original ideas and leading to the construction of self-serving cartels. This is a fertile environment for conspiracy theories to flourish.

To my mind the thing  that really separates science from religion is that science is an investigative process, not a collection of truths. Each answer simply opens up more questions.  The public tends to see science as a collection of “facts” rather than a process of investigation. The scientific method has taught us a great deal about the way our Universe works, not through the exercise of blind faith but through the painstaking interplay of theory, experiment and observation.

This is what I wrote in 1998:

Science does not deal with ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. It deals instead with descriptions of reality that are either ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’. Newton’s theory of gravity was not shown to be ‘wrong’ by the eclipse expedition. It was merely shown that there were some phenomena it could not describe, and for which a more sophisticated theory was required. But Newton’s theory still yields perfectly reliable predictions in many situations, including, for example, the timing of total solar eclipses. When a theory is shown to be useful in a wide range of situations, it becomes part of our standard model of the world. But this doesn’t make it true, because we will never know whether future experiments may supersede it. It may well be the case that physical situations will be found where general relativity is supplanted by another theory of gravity. Indeed, physicists already know that Einstein’s theory breaks down when matter is so dense that quantum effects become important. Einstein himself realised that this would probably happen to his theory.

Putting together the material for this book, I was struck by the many parallels between the events of 1919 and coverage of similar topics in the newspapers of 1999. One of the hot topics for the media in January 1999, for example, has been the discovery by an international team of astronomers that distant exploding stars called supernovae are much fainter than had been predicted. To cut a long story short, this means that these objects are thought to be much further away than expected. The inference then is that not only is the Universe expanding, but it is doing so at a faster and faster rate as time passes. In other words, the Universe is accelerating. The only way that modern theories can account for this acceleration is to suggest that there is an additional source of energy pervading the very vacuum of space. These observations therefore hold profound implications for fundamental physics.

As always seems to be the case, the press present these observations as bald facts. As an astrophysicist, I know very well that they are far from unchallenged by the astronomical community. Lively debates about these results occur regularly at scientific meetings, and their status is far from established. In fact, only a year or two ago, precisely the same team was arguing for exactly the opposite conclusion based on their earlier data. But the media don’t seem to like representing science the way it actually is, as an arena in which ideas are vigorously debated and each result is presented with caveats and careful analysis of possible error. They prefer instead to portray scientists as priests, laying down the law without equivocation. The more esoteric the theory, the further it is beyond the grasp of the non-specialist, the more exalted is the priest. It is not that the public want to know – they want not to know but to believe.

Things seem to have been the same in 1919. Although the results from Sobral and Principe had then not received independent confirmation from other experiments, just as the new supernova experiments have not, they were still presented to the public at large as being definitive proof of something very profound. That the eclipse measurements later received confirmation is not the point. This kind of reporting can elevate scientists, at least temporarily, to the priesthood, but does nothing to bridge the ever-widening gap between what scientists do and what the public think they do.

As we enter a new Millennium, science continues to expand into areas still further beyond the comprehension of the general public. Particle physicists want to understand the structure of matter on tinier and tinier scales of length and time. Astronomers want to know how stars, galaxies  and life itself came into being. But not only is the theoretical ambition of science getting bigger. Experimental tests of modern particle theories require methods capable of probing objects a tiny fraction of the size of the nucleus of an atom. With devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers can gather light that comes from sources so distant that it has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach us from them. But extending these experimental methods still further will require yet more money to be spent. At the same time that science reaches further and further beyond the general public, the more it relies on their taxes.

Many modern scientists themselves play a dangerous game with the truth, pushing their results one-sidedly into the media as part of the cut-throat battle for a share of scarce research funding. There may be short-term rewards, in grants and TV appearances, but in the long run the impact on the relationship between science and society can only be bad. The public responded to Einstein with unqualified admiration, but Big Science later gave the world nuclear weapons. The distorted image of scientist-as-priest is likely to lead only to alienation and further loss of public respect. Science is not a religion, and should not pretend to be one.

PS. You will note that I was voicing doubts about the interpretation of the early results from supernovae  in 1998 that suggested the universe might be accelerating and that dark energy might be the reason for its behaviour. Although more evidence supporting this interpretation has since emerged from WMAP and other sources, I remain skeptical that we cosmologists are on the right track about this. Don’t get me wrong – I think the standard cosmological model is the best working hypothesis we have _ I just think we’re probably missing some important pieces of the puzzle. I don’t apologise for that. I think skeptical is what a scientist should be.

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12 Responses to “Science as a Religion”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    A scientist should indeed be sceptical (provided that the word is spelt correctly) of any scientific theory. But science itself is based not on scepticism, but on axioms that have to be taken by faith – in particular, that laws of physics which work on earth also work in the heavens (denied by the ancient Greeks), and that the universe is comprehensible to humans (denied in eastern systems). Science evolved in a culture that asserted these things, which came from outside science. Also, science is a *passionate* activity – scientists love science; no scepticism there. I think that is great.

    The science-and-religion debate seems to me to be set by the terms used. The phrase presupposes that all religions are the same, even though their scriptures are incompatible. I would also like to register a gentle protest about the phrase “blind faith”. It is often taken together with “honest doubt”. But, in line with the axioms underlying science, I prefer to speak of honest faith and blind doubt.

    Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    Anton

    For the record, the One True Dictionary of all crossword addicts, Chambers, gives both skeptical and sceptical as acceptable spellings.

    Peter

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: perhaps because the two spellings have come to have different meanings in the UK, where a sceptic is the traditional meaning and a skeptic is a James Randi type?

  4. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    I wasn’t aware of that nuance. I looked in the OED to see if it gives that distinction, but it doesn’t. It also gives skeptic and sceptic as entirely equivalent. Interestingly, though, I always thought it was originally Greek but the OED gives it as late latin origin with the “sc-” spelling. It goes on

    The spelling with sk-, for which cf. SKELETON, occurs in the earliest instance, and has been used occas. by later writers. It is adopted without comment or alternative in Johnson’s Dictionary, but did not become general in England; in the U.S. it is the ordinary form. Now usually spelt sceptic in the U.K. and British Commonwealth and skeptic in the U.S. Similarly all the derivatives, scepticism/skepticism, etc.

    The old quotations given in the OED contain both forms, and others, including John Donne (1654)

    The Skeptike, which doubts all, was more contentious than either..

    which is a reminder that spelling wasn’t really considered important until much later.

    It seems this is yet another example in which the US acquired a spelling from 17th Century English usage, but the English spelling subsequently changed.

    Peter

  5. Garret Cotter Says:

    Anton: I must disagree with the notion of axioms in science, at least for me personally. Excuse my very naive philosophy. Take the Cosmological Principle, in which for convenience I’ll include the idea that there are universal laws, is to me a working assumption. We use it because it has worked in the past as a reliable way of describing the world that we see. In physics we gain pleasure from the fact that often our descriptions become more compact as we tweak them to describe new observations.
    It just, well, works.

    I certainly don’t hold that the Universe has to be comprehensible: it’s trivial to say that all the comprehensible descriptions we have so far are, um, comprehensible, isn’t it? We don’t know how many layers the onion may have, or even if that is a sensible analogy to use.

    I’d be surprised if many scientists held the view that, say, a fundamental physical theory was a certain statement of philosophical truth. Science seems to hold together, and it’s fun to do. That’s all. (Yes, and it has had lots of tangible benefits to our quality of life, etc, but allow me to skirt that point before it careers off into a debate on ethics…)

    Cheers

    Garret

  6. Anton’s point about science and religion is a good one. Also, both religion and faith are loaded words these days – repetitive and blind, respectively, and both taken to equal thoughtlessness. Religion can be applied to facing east on a treadmill at the gym each day, and faith, that one’s train will arrive as scheduled(!). And so in science – not thinking to question one’s routine, and taking one’s colleagues findings on complete trust.

    Thoughtful questioning is probably to be encouraged in science, religion and indeed elsewhere, but then, that is of course the academic way.

  7. Garret – that’s very interesting – I had thought the opposite to you – that most scientists would hold that the Universe could eventually be entirely comprehended, given enough time. Maybe we should do a straw poll.

  8. telescoper Says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any reason to suppose that our feeble monkey brains will ever be able to comprehend all that nature entails. In fact, I think it’s almost absurd to imagine that is the case. What we do, as Garret says, is find useful ways of describing particular aspects of the Universe. The point I was trying to make in my post was that we can never be sure that our models are “true” (whatever that means), only that they work as far as we can tell.

    But then there is a point when we basically stop questioning things. Now the Earth does go around the Sun, there are particles called electrons, and (perhaps) the Big Bang really happened. But the process by which such statements move from the epistemological domain into ontology is very mysterious to me. When physicists start making statements about the “fabric of reality” and such, I start getting very nervous.

  9. Garret Cotter Says:

    Hello again All

    Part of my reason for posting was that we were discussing some of these points in the pub one night last week. In the end I think we came down something like 5-1 in favour of fundamental physical theories not being statements of “truth”, for some vaguely-defined philosophical notion of “truth”. And I should add that this is aside from any discussion of essentialism, it’s just that we never know what might be round the corner.

    This was in a group mainly composed of observational astronomers, though, so there’s probably a selection effect 🙂

    G.

  10. telescoper Says:

    That’s funny. Last time I was in the pub we only talked about football. That must be a selection effect too.

  11. From my list of quotable quotes:

    A biophysicist talks physics to the biologists and biology to the physicists,
    but when he meets another biophysicist, they just discuss women.

  12. telescoper Says:

    I’m surprised to learn that there are no female biophysicists.

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