Friday, October 1, 2010

Do science lovers know the most about science?

All right everybody. Here's an unsatisfying attempt (read: failure) to brilliantly cap off this week's buzz....

All the rage this week has been about how people without religion know the most about religion and about how religious folks know relatively little about religion.

Since this has quickly become part of the greater Religion and Science discourse, the natural next question that follows, at least to me, is this:

Do the people who trust science the most (some called this "faith" in science), actually know the most about it?

Or, as we saw in the religion poll this week, do people who have the least "faith" in science know the most about it?

I think we'd all be very surprised if the answer to the second question is yes, but the first question is not as simple because there are certainly people who fully support science without looking into any of it for themselves. Everyone knows someone like this. Sometimes they're completely reasonable. Other times their embrace of science is so enthusiastically wide and undiscerning, that they support pseudoscience as well. My friend who thinks aliens built the pyramids. Yours who buys the vibration-laden sugar pills at Whole Foods to treat headaches.

To my chagrin, this poll and its results published in Scientific American this week have absolutely no bearing on our questions. Out of all the topics they listed, people trust scientists about evolution above anything else. It's interesting, but be forewarned... they polled readers of Scientific American and Nature. Guess how many scientists and science-minded people are in their sample population?

Hmmm. Wonder how much a randomly sampled population of Americans actually trusts science and scientists? I'm guessing it's a little less than these results.

There is nothing in this report about whether or not the science trusters are informed or knowledgeable compared to those who don't trust science.

Anyway, I hope that if you know of any links that have answers to our question (the question in the title), you'll post them in the comments.

Or, instead, you may choose to rant about how supporting science is not a proper analogy to being religious. (My personal view.)


Holly Dunsworth said...

Wow. Just now reading the comments on the Sci Am poll and they are livid about the sampling!

Holly Dunsworth said...

This is one of the rare times I'm enjoying reading the comments on anything online. Rare!!

Anne Buchanan said...

It's definitely a loaded pat-ourselves-on-the-back and totally useless kind of poll! That said, and back to the question of whether science is analogous to religion, I do think that belief in science is indeed a kind of faith, a faith in knowledge based on material evidence. I don't need to understand much about astronomy to trust this week's reports that indeed a planet was recently found in the "Goldilocks" zone where conditions are 'just right' to support life (assumptions about what's 'just right' are another issue). I trust it because I trust that it was people who do understand astronomy and know how to collect and interpret astronomical evidence who did this work. I believe that people did walk on the moon, even though I wasn't there to see it. And so on. Does this make science my religion? There are all kinds of reasons I'd say no, but the fact that I take a lot of science on faith isn't one of them.

Of course scientists are human and our knowledge and interpretations are fallible, and there is much we don't understand and may realize was wrong, and of course we have our own views and vested interests. But we rarely lie, and what is published is, by and large, the best we can do at any given time. So long as one keeps that in mind, and bear some element of circumspection, trust in science is not misplaced. Trust in religion is a different kind of faith because a different kind of evidence is involved.

occamseraser said...

"Trust in religion is a different kind of faith because a different kind of evidence is involved".

As in no evidence. At all. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Anne Buchanan said...

Well, OE, that just makes you one of us, a believer in material evidence!

Ken Weiss said...

But a lot of believers in material evidence also believe in supernatural evidence, or experience, or whatever the word is. Many if not most people believe that what they believe is the truth and wonder why others could believe in something else.

occamseraser said...

I'm quite happy to be one of you ;)

I really don't care if people believe in burning bushes, fat buddhas, or talking cacti. Superstition and self-delusion can be comforting. Hallucinogenics can help. But when religionistas make implicit or explicit material claims, I don't think it's unreasonable or rude to ask for their evidence. Not revelations or revealed wisdom, not astro-projections, not the Bible/Koran/Book of Morman told me so. And when politicians run on platforms of woo and try to turn our public schools into woo incubators, it makes me want to vomit. "Trust" in religion allows one to stop thinking about our place in nature; in fact, that's its goal.

Arjun said...

occamseraser, wouldn't you say that epistemic trust in general leads to some stagnation in thinking? Accepting a problem as solved is tantamount to declaring that it requires no further investigation-- by anyone.

Dr. Buchanan, I agree on your point that we take many of science's results on faith, for in many cases we have not undertaken the necessary effort to verify for ourselves whatever claim has been presented to us.

Claiming science to be a religion due to placing faith in it excludes the majority of what makes religion religion, but I'm not sure I have the space to go into that right now.

When it comes down to it, science, religion, art, what have you all seem to represent ways of apprehending and knowing the world, though each of their edifices rests on a different foundation.

Declaring what these foundations may be is a source of discussion itself, but for now I'd ascribe 'skepticism' to science, 'acceptance of the authority of a given absolute notion' to religion, and 'description' to art. I'd like to delve more deeply into this, but again, I'd rather not take up too much space. We'll see where this dialogue goes.

Ken Weiss said...

Certainly there are differences in the 'faith' element of fundamentalistic religion and science. I think the point is that while science 'officially' makes room for skepticism, as part of its doctrine, a lot more is taken on faith--accepted without question--than most scientists seem to be aware of.

We do this first because we must: we cannot know directly all the facts that we have to use and work with. We must rely on the truthfulness and accuracy of the literature.

Secondly, we accept many aspects of theory and interpretation without question or as if they are more securely established than they really are. This theoretical acceptance is in a sense closer to the kind of faith religions require.

Of course, many religions also allow or even encourage doubt and questioning rather than invariant doctrine.

Anne Buchanan said...

Arjun, take up as much space as you'd like! It's always good to have your thoughtful comments. I'd be very interested in your ideas about the foundations of different kinds of knowledge.

For example, "Claiming science to be a religion due to placing faith in it excludes the majority of what makes religion religion..."

I agree with you, as far as this goes, but I'd love to know more about why you say this.