Science and religion - Ramblings of a carnivore

Science and religion

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.

Roy Harrod (about John Maynard Keynes)

Science is what scientists do. It is difficult to find a better definition of the word. No one agrees completely on what methods and rules should make up science. But there are still aspects of science that are generally agreed upon and that make more sense than others. One goal, if not the only goal of science, is to find facts and explain the world as it really is. Science is searching for truths rather than lies and untruths. Interestingly, a whole field of intellectuals work and live as scientists without actually having a clear definition of the word science. But it is not given that we need a strict definition. We generally know what people are talking about when they say something is true or false. Our language often works perfectly fine in conveying such vague ideas “truth.” Leaving out deeper philosophical considerations, words like truth, reason and fact actually make sense to most of us. It is true that the earth is round (or more correctly closer to an oblate spheroid) and it is false that the earth is at the center of our solar system. Natural selection is a fact and so the creation of all living beings by a god is a lie.

Dean Ornish
Whenever I write about many of the “scientists” in the field of nutrition, I often feel compelled to put the word “scientist” in quotes. I know they work as scientists, but are they following scientific principles? Are their results, scientific results? Is, for example, Dean Ornish a scientist? Is his work focused on finding truths and facts based on logic and reason? Because it seems to me that he disregards a great deal of data when he comes to his conclusions and that he has a great ability to cherry pick and interpret any cherry picked data to fit his existing world view. This makes many of his conclusions wrong, and many have argued correctly that he is in fact wrong about many things.

Ornish works as a scientist, even if he has not always followed agreed upon principles designed to filter out the truth. Should I then disregard anything he says? No, of course not. That would mean to disregard basic aspects of human nature, one of which is our great ability to screw things up. We all do, but unfortunately, some more than others. Thus, I have to consider anything Ornish has to say. This does not, however, mean that he has earned my trust.

Ornish is just an example here, and is in no way unique in his field. Scientists regularly work in unscientific ways. As Thomas Sowell puts it:
The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice and groupthink…
Although scientists should always put new theories to the test and assess their validity, this is not always done. Ideas are often accepted more on the basis of resonance with peers than empirical verification. In fact, as Sowell puts it, scientists act just like the rest of us:
If they are simply people who are like-minded in general, then the consensus of the group about a particular new idea depends on what that group already believes in general- and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world.
The fact that ideas are wrong does not mean they can’t be accepted by a great many people, and even sometimes by the majority of people. The ideas of Hitler, Lenin and Mao for example, was and are still accepted by millions as being very good ideas indeed, despite their lack of logic and empirical testing. The belief that humans are cured of illness because needles are jammed into immeasurable magical energy points or that homeopathy makes any sense at all, are also beliefs with numerous followers despite being completely devoid of reason. Religions, as the prime example, gather millions of followers without being in anyway rational.

By no means does working as a scientist or working in a scientific field mean that you are a reasonable person. Religion is in many ways the opposite of reason as it usually requires a lack of, or disregard of reason to exist. It is then difficult to understand how someone can work as a scientist or in a scientific field and at the same time believe in a higher power when there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a higher power.

An important part of science is the falsifications of hypotheses. Not every theory needs to be falsified, but many theories will be nonsensical if they cannot be falsified. The existence of a god cannot be falsified, that is, one cannot prove that there is no god. That, however, does not make the existence of a deity any more plausible. Although the existence of a god cannot be falsified, we do know enough about the human psyche, the history of the earth and the universe and the history and evolution of religions to say that any of the proposed gods are extremely unlikely to exist. I will not do the whole discussion of why religion is nonsensical. Others have done so before and have done so far better than I ever could. I can, however, recommend and refer to writers such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet. (Here is a short talk by Dennet, and while at TEDs, make sure to also watch Dawkins talk on militant atheism.)

Writing critically about religion is going to hurt many people’s feelings. Religion is personal. It is at the core of the identity of many, and challenging religion is challenging who people are. But religion is a part of human existence. It affects us personally and as a society, and most importantly, there is no reason to think that religions are benign or that they do not affect the wellbeing of humans negatively. So religions should be discussed and I am taking the side of the critic.