A Few Words on Faith and the Scientific Method to a Friend

A few days ago, I had a discussion with a friend who enjoys having informal debates with theists. This is not usually my thing. I find the discussions to be pedestrian on account of theists typically not understanding basic concepts of logic. Their arguments tend to get get muddled and if I can get them to understand that much, it might well be deemed a miracle by the Catholic Church and I could finally become Saint Patrick #2.

I find that inevitably the theist will fall back on glib statements like, "That's just what I believe," or "It's all about Faith." Which tells me there was little point to having the discussion in the first place. I can only hope that this sort of person may eventually come to their senses after reaching a dead end with their belief enough times. Though, in my experience the person just stops talking about such things with me.

Anyway, back to my friend. We'll call him John. John doesn't really have any formal training in logic or science and he tends to shoot from the hip when he argues. Despite this he gets it right most of the time. He calls me after arguing with somebody on Facebook for a few days and since I'm not on Facebook, he has to email me a copy of the thread. After reading it, I send back a response telling him essentially where he went wrong.

In short, John first let the theist get away with comparing faith in a deity with faith in science. Second, he let the theist twist his words about "proof" into "absolute proof" which allowed the theist to create a few subtle strawman arguments. He then portrays John as being disingenuous when John mentions a 95% confidence interval.

These are my words summing up the discussion in brief. John doesn't actually know anything about statistics and 95% confidence intervals. As I was re-reading my response to John, it occurred to me that probably many people don't really have a keen grasp on how such things work in the scientific method and I decided that if I posted that same info here, there is a chance it may benefit someone else. Here is my response to John with some minor adjustments to compensate for this change in venue. I even left in a short personal rant about how the media reports science, sorry for that.

The fact that anyone would say, "This was before we had the premise that 95% confidence can equal proved" shows how little that person understands science. Science cannot "prove" anything if you're goal is absolute certainty. This is why scientists are forever stating margins of error and confidence intervals. Alas, most people lack this understanding, and indeed, when science is reported in the media, the margins are often ignored. Once a reasonable person understands that this is how science works, the question only becomes, to what level of tolerance must something be demonstrated before they are satisfied with the result?

Without getting into a discussion on prospective vs. retrospective vs. other types of studies, I'll simplify things and say that generally a 95% confidence interval for initial data is convincing enough for most scientists to proceed with more studies. For science to be useful as an empirical tool, a phenomenon must be replicable. So more studies are done. Oftentimes, further studies with better control over the variables shows that there was never anything there in the first place and eventually the hypothesis is discarded. Other times, better data, lead to the need for better/bigger studies. One simply follows the evidence.

Personal Rant:

This is why science reporting in the media is so disheartening. I can't tell you how many times I've read articles about "A scientific study that shows X", only to find out the study was on 55 people. Which means this was a simple prospective study, done to see if further studies should be done. This is tantamount to reporting on a student taking an exam and saying, "This student got 4 out of the first 5 questions correct, so we assume he'll be getting a B." Such lazy reporting is also why you have contradictory news articles about how X is good for you one week, but 6 months later X is bad for you. This happens when a prospective study was overturned. After all, with a 95% confidence interval on initial data we'd expect about 1 in 20 prospective studies to yield the wrong answer. Or worse yet, maybe X is good in one context and bad in another and the context isn't made clear. after all, reporters are more interested in headlines than details.

/Rant

Anyway, back to the topic of what constitutes a proof. The goal of science is to "effectively" answer a question for a "reasonable" person. These terms go more or less undefined as few people would agree on them and they're not really worth arguing over. The idea being, as a model is demonstrated to be effective/accurate, tweaked and then improved to be more effective, more and more people will be accepting of it. Once a model becomes so good in its explanatory power that most reasonable people accept it, the model is declared to be a "Theory".

For example, The Theory of Relativity, replaced the Newtonian Theory of Gravity. Was Newton wrong? No, Newton's theory was merely incomplete. There were observable phenomena that couldn't be explained, but what it did explain, it explained very well. Einstein didn't walk out on stage, set a copy of his theory on a table while saying, "Relativity Bitches!", then drop the microphone before walking off. After publishing his theories, scientists attacked and did everything they could to discredit the theory, only to show, over and over, that Einstein was correct. It took years before it was accepted by "reasonable" people.

It is important to note that in this context, reasonable people is not referring to your average 7-Eleven employee. The concepts that go into Relativity are often regarded as being too complex to be explained & fully understood by the average high school graduate. Reasonable people, in this case, refers to physicists. A 100+ years later, the only physicists that don't subscribe to Relativity, are crack-pots whining their fringe theories don't get equal time in the scientific community and the reason their theories don't get equal time is because their theories do not have equal or better explanatory power to Relativity.

Is Relativity complete? The answer is no. When you zoom in to the subatomic levels, Relativity breaks down and Quantum Mechanics (QM) takes over. QM is a tour de force of mathematics. In fact, no theory in science has a smaller margin of error when going from the mathematics to the statistical observations. The problem with the theory of Quantum Mechanics is that the rules it describes are even less intuitive than Relativity. People are fond of saying you cannot get something from nothing, but in QM, you can! Depending on how you define "nothing", after all, everything in Science has its caveats. The "rules" governing QM are so unintuitive, most college graduates cannot wrap their brains around it. Science is hard.

I'll say two things about Faith. The first, is that I find it surprising that anyone who is willing to accept anything on faith, by which I mean without empirical evidence, be it some form of deity or anything supernatural would require their science to provide evidence to the point of absolute certainty. It would seem to me that if you are a person who is open to ideas without evidence, then you would be even more accepting of ideas that do have evidence.
Second, it is intellectually dishonest to use the word "Faith" in two different contexts and claim it to be the exact same word. Faith in a deity, a belief without evidence, is not the same as Faith in science or Faith in physicists when they tell me Relativity and QM serve us well in describing the universe. The latter use of the word faith is more akin to "trust". I have faith, i.e. I trust they can provide evidence of their claims regarding Relativity and QM, but to the degree I am mentally capable of understanding their evidence is on me. They've done their homework. They've demonstrated their expertise. It is up to me to become a "reasonable" person in their field before I can make any claims as to the verisimilitude of their work.
I don't know if that blather will be of any use to anyone, but maybe it'll help a few people. Cheers!

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Comment by Frankie Dapper on March 4, 2015 at 4:38pm

Joan, I am sincere in my praise..it is rare that i read something and critique it that there is not even one small aspect in which i differ.

Comment by Patrick Brown on March 4, 2015 at 4:02pm

Glen:  LOL!  Thanks.  :)

Joan: Thank you. Of course you can use this on FB. The more people who can find use in these words, the better.

Michael:  I agree. Once the discussion is abandoned by the theist as I described above, or they fight back with threats of Hell, the discussion is over. I almost wish every middle school required kids to read the Bible as literature, so these people can be forced to face the crazy at a formative age rather than being indoctrinated. Sadly, I know too many teachers would abuse the privilege and simply reaffirm the indoctrinations.

Grinning Cat: Thanks. I think those are the two most important points as well. Only wish it made more sense to theists.  :-\

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 4, 2015 at 3:55pm

JEEZ Glen, you have a way of expanding my vocabulary: verisimilitude and perspicacity.

I agree with you, absolutely, except for the "appearance" of truth. Can you flesh that out a little bit for me? Does he appear to be telling the truth? Is he, in fact, telling the truth? Is there more to his story that give an appearance of truth? Does he have merely the appearance of truth?

Comment by Frankie Dapper on March 4, 2015 at 3:35pm

No hopolophobic carping here or see me after class. This man speaks with a verisimilitude and perspicacity that is often sought and seldom located.

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 4, 2015 at 3:07pm

Very well stated, clear, concrete with examples, accurate definitions, the words flow as if in conversations with no jargon. I like how you write. 

Patrick, may I use your piece for articles on Facebook, giving attribution to you? I would break it into parts ... short attention span, you know. And I would quote you directly so that my family and friends will know you wrote it. 

Comment by Michael Penn on March 4, 2015 at 2:44pm

I find it all helpful. In the religious world faith is akin to believing what you know is not so. When you present their "faith" in that manner to a believer they immediately start to say that you have faith that a ball will fall if you drop it. Then their argument is in trying to prove that both "faith's" are the same. Sorry. I don't have faith in something that is not demonstrable. The ball will fall to earth the same every time. Let's try your prayer experiment and then see how that worked. Simply put, it doesn't.

Then believers have a fit with the word "theory." They think it means "idea" or "opinion." This is why they don't want to believe a scientific theory. Everyone has ideas and opinions, but their bible has genuine answers. If the answers differ from science, then it must be science that is wrong. This is why they can look you in the face and still say that "a bat is a bird." The bible told them so.

Somewhere in between the two above ideas is where I find them getting off line and declaring that I'm going to hell. Once you get the believer confused that is what he tells you. It gets worse when he tells you that "someday you will wake up in hell." Apparently he thinks this is how his bible works and that the dead instantly wake up in hell if they were not a good (saved) person. I find the last one hilarious because it shows me they never really read or studied the bible in the first place.

Your comments were all right on!

Comment by Grinning Cat on March 4, 2015 at 1:53pm

Bravo! Worth repeating: "if you are a person who is open to ideas without evidence, then you would be even more accepting of ideas that do have evidence."

And thanks also for pointing out the two different uses of the word "faith", often conflated. "Faith in science ... is more akin to 'trust'... I trust they can provide evidence of their claims...."

Comment by Frankie Dapper on March 4, 2015 at 7:38am

Patrick Brown, well done.

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