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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

25 replies on “Science is not my god”

Also, Ms. Orr does not seem to realise that the antimatter experiments have little relation to the search for the Higgs in the first place.

They were done by a different team, on a different instrument, with a different accelerator*, and with very different goals in mind.

(* – Actually, the Proton Synchrotron is used as a first stage injector for the LHC, as well as the proton source for the Antiproton Decelerator, but it’s a separate instrument in its own right.)

I think the article is probably just having a little bit of fun to be honest with you. Just throwing another perspective out there, not suggesting that we treat cancer with aromatherapy or consult goat entrails for our foreign policy. Just pointing out that looking for something named the God particle is rather ironic, from a certain standpoint.

As it happens though, isn’t it slightly dogmatic for everyone to get so worked by this throw away comment? Perhaps there is a point to be made that the science brigade do tend to be a bit defensive. You know, like someone has burned a cartoon of the prophet or something…

Neils Bohr said that he kept a horse shoe above his door because he’d heard it bought good luck even if you didn’t believe in it.

Perhaps the Ben Goldacre sect should persecute him too?

That’s true, there is an irony in looking for something called the God Particle, but as I pointed out, that’s not what scientists are looking for. They’re looking for the higgs boson particle, and it’s newspapers and journalists who will insist on the God Particle moniker despite best efforts.

I’m not saying that people should get up and persecute everyone for a throwaway piece or anything, but I do think that pieces like this both create and fuel a conflict between God and Science which isn’t always there. Many scientists are atheists, as am I, but it’s hardly a requirement for study of science subjects. Whether you do or don’t believe in God has nothing to do with your study of science, and lord knows it’s hard enough to get people studying science!

“Whether you do or don’t believe in God has nothing to do with your study of science, and lord knows it’s hard enough to get people studying science.” <<<Tell me that use of lord knows was tongue-in-cheek! Haha!

Fantastic piece and the objections you voice on the article are so very to the point. Being an atheist, I get incredibly annoyed at having to answer for a justified faith in science in a conversation on religion.

On the other hand (and I am just saying this for argument’s sake, I am by no means trying to justify Deborah Orr’s piece) you have to admit there is some blind faith going on among scientists as well – its most obvious example the blind faith in (boolean) logic.

Seems pretty strange for the Guardian to have put that brief whimsy in the science section. Religious faith has no connection to scientific understanding at all. Religious faith is belief in an idea or concept in the absence of evidence, or preferably in defiance of evidence.

If a scientist were to use the word faith, it would clearly not have any of that meaning. You don’t need faith to understand science, you need skepticism: you need the ability to question, ~not~ a willingness to accept.

you’re a more generous person than I! seems like straightfwd plagiarism to me.

saw this on ben goldacre’s twitter (via johann hari’s feed I think) yesterday and lo and behold today it appears on the grauniad site…

that aside excellent work, enjoyed your article very much!

I wrote the Guardian article, not Ben Goldacre, and actually although it went up today I wrote most of it yesterday lunchtime! The similarities I suspect are just because a) we did the same quick Google to recall the origin of the name God Particle, and b) there are only so many ways that you can fisk a 110 word article! Besides, if I wanted to get Buffy’s writing on my blog I’d just ask her to do a guest post (always welcome) 🙂

Good piece anyway, but then I would say that 😉

We lack rigorous characterization of the topology and function of cluelessness. God save us from the congenitally inconsequential.

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/reality.png

Management exists to kill the future, for the only trusted employee is one whose sole marketable asset is loyalty. If a levied penalty is less than profit in hand, it’s not a deterrent – it’s a business plan.

Imagination is intelligence having fun.

As an atheist and practicing scientist, I have to be honest and say that it is actually you and not Orr who is attacking a straw man here. The word “blind” doesn’t appear anywhere in her tiny article.

Her point that scientists have a kind of faith is correct, at least until such time as someone comes up with an answer to Hume’s Problem of Induction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_induction). In essence: we scientists have faith that the world operates according to a fixed set of discoverable laws that do not change throughout time and space. Why do we believe this? Because believing it has “worked” (led to accurate predictions about the future) in the past. *But why do we believe that this inductive method of reasoning — i.e. reasoning that the future will be like the past — is valid?* Because doing so has worked in the past! The only way to justify inductive reasoning is with inductive reasoning: the argument is circular. And as we know, inductive reasoning often fails in specific cases.

There’s no reason why gravity should not double in intensity at precisely this time tomorrow. It’s not logically impossible that this could happen. I simply have faith that it won’t! 🙂

There are still grounds to draw a distinction between a scientist’s faith in induction and other forms of faith. It is in some sense a minimal kind of faith, insofar as any less faith than this would leave us unable to generalise from experience, and therefore unable to learn anything about the world through our senses. It is nevertheless a form of faith, and we should acknowledge that.

If you’re uncomfortable with the word “faith”, an equivalent way to state your position is to say that you “bet” that the universe will continue to behave as it always has. (Of course, they mean the same thing underneath.)

On a brighter note, I originally came here to read your article about “Elevatorgate”, and found it to be a much-needed breath of fresh air 🙂

Faith is an act on emotional feelings in one self. No one can taken it from you. Depends on the foundation and training from parents. And practiced on house of God that we preaching every sabbath day. No criticism

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