Science is not my god

Dear Deborah Orr,

When you next choose to write a small piece for the Guardian’s Science section, please do try to include some actual science. It’s considered good practice by scientists to label correctly what you do, and by no stretch of the imagination could said piece be considered science.

I consider myself to be a good scientist – I try to be thorough in my research, I do my best to be balanced, and I always explain my work. That’s why, rather than simply complaining that your piece is shallow, inaccurate, misleading, and, lets face it, a bit rubbish, I’m also going to explain why.

 

Thrilling news from Geneva. Scientists at Cern have captured some of those elusive antimatter atoms. We’re a tiny step closer to corralling the God particle. If, of course, its predicted existence is correct. I love that nomenclature, “the God particle”. It is a sign that scientists sometimes are unabashed about acknowledging what atheists are often reluctant to grasp: that “believing” in science involves faith too.

Faith in science is far more practical than faith in the idea that a big, omnipotent boy did it and ran off. Or I place my faith in that argument anyway. But it’s still faith, not fact, so sneering at faith per se is not a very reasoned or logical mode of argument.

Source: The Guardian, 9/6/11

  1. The God Particle – I’m glad that you enjoy the nomenclature, since an awful lot of real science nomenclature is rather stuffy, being based mostly Latin and/or Greek. I expect that someone else who’ll be glad is Leon Lederman, the author of the book “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question”. It is, of course, this book which has led to the media dubbing the Higgs boson particle the God Particle. In fact, take a brief look at the term (and in this instance, you need not look any further than another article from the Guardian) and you’ll find that, for the most part, scientists don’t use the term God Particle. They don’t like it, and tend to think that it portrays scientists as arrogant, and overstates the importance of the particle, which, funnily enough, is rather similar to what you’ve done in your piece. In short, it is people like you, with an extremely poor understanding of science, and 5 minutes to search the net, that keep propagating this term by using it, even though science never has.
  2. Faith – OED defines faith as:  Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine) and contrary to your apparent belief, there is no stipulation that faith is something which must be blind. While faith is most often used to describe the fact of belief in a religious context, that’s far from the only meaning of the word. Faith and belief are not dirty words simply because they are also used in a religious context. They both simply mean that you accept that something is correct, true, or trustworthy on the basis of the evidence that you have. Blind faith is just a little bit different, since that is accepting that something is correct, true, or trustworthy in the absence of evidence, or indeed, in spite of evidence which is proof of the lie.
  3. Faith in Science – Faith in science does tend to be a good deal more practical than faith in many other things. For example, I have faith that, should I jump off a bridge, gravity will ensure my speedy reunion with the ground. I have faith that if I combine hydrogen with oxygen, I will have water. Why? Because these things have been proven, demonstrably, to be true. Theories in science are rarely just flights of fancy – they are usually based on existing principles which have been proven to be correct. Additionally, a key difference between “science” and “blind faith” is that, while “blind faith” refuses to change, “science” redevelops its theories when new, more accurate evidence comes to light, even if that means contradicting something which was earlier thought to be true. For example, should there prove to be no higgs boson particle, scientists will not continue irrationally believing in it, but will instead accept that the hypothesis has been dis-proven, and move on.
  4. Logical mode of argument – As we’re conversing about modes of arguing, I suppose that I should bring up a construct known as a straw man. This is when someone sets up a falsely weak argument (e.g. linking science and God in a title by way of a particle named by the media and not scientists) and then proceeds to knock it over. While you may appear to have scored a point, you haven’t really tackled the core issue at all, merely the straw man which stands alongside it (and is loosely related to the argument, but is not the same). It’s considered a pretty poor technique, and is often used by people who don’t have a full understanding of the issues, but who just want to appear right.

 

Science is a popular target indeed. You can’t comment on people’s religious beliefs without being labelled a bigot, but mock someone for being a scientist, and you’re likely to wind up published in the Guardian. Science is based on fact. When scientists are trying to prove that something exists, that is not based on “blind faith”; it is based on evidence from previous experiments, established scientific principles, and facts which have been proven correct to the best of our ability.

It’s much easier to sneer at science than it is to sneer at faith, but perhaps you should consider the fallacy in your argument (one I expect was unintentional); if science truly is a faith, then aren’t you just as bad as the rest of us scientists?

With warmest regards,

Jen

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