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Science and Religion: Truth and Doubt

10/10/2013 01:17 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

This is what it looks like from here: a cadre of well-armed, well-funded, religiously-inspired zealots holds a country to ransom because it does not approve of the egalitarian notions of its weak, dysfunctional government. Which country might this be? Somalia? Pakistan, maybe? No, friends, it's the United States of America, where the federal shutdown continues, and, while it does so, is having a deleterious impact on science.

It has not escaped the notice of this transatlantic well-wisher that the damage done to science, although perhaps a side effect of the main cause of the shutdown, will be pleasing to some of those in Congress responsible for the ongoing debacle -- those to whom revealed truth is sacred, and for whom the word of the Bible is infallible.

Now, I'm going to get into trouble for saying this -- indeed, I already have -- but some scientists themselves have done themselves no favors by adopting an attitude to the notion of truth hitherto held only by the religious.

When he moved from Huffington Post to Science Blogs, the scientist David Sloan Wilson was quite explicit. Science, he said, is 'a Religion that Worships Truth as its God.' Fighting talk -- and, unfortunately, deeply antithetical to the aims of science and the meaning of that slippery moving target called 'Truth.' In trying to set science apart from religion, Sloan Wilson has actually succeeded in confusing the two, inadvertently setting up science as a kind of religion. The Tea Party must be passing round the watercress sandwiches and topping up the dormice in their teapots with delight.

Religion is easier to understand than science, at least for the great monotheisms, based as they are around holy books. In such religions, the truth in such scriptures is held to be absolute and beyond question. If it says in Genesis that God created the world in seven days, then, to a subscriber to Genesis, then, it did, and that's that.

Science could not be more different. Science is not about truth, but doubt; not about knowledge, but ignorance; not about revealed facts, but uncertainties. It would be well were more scientists (and all journalists) aware of the differences between science and religion. In my latest book The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, I explore how the failure to understand the limits (and strengths) of science has resulted in the persistence of an idea about evolution that is very far from what Darwin intended. But such misunderstandings -- among journalists, the public and scientists -- are not limited to human evolution.

This is how science works: a scientist will observe some natural phenomenon, and then come up with a mental model to explain its cause. This mental model is called an 'hypothesis.' Why do apples fall out of trees? Is there an attractive force between material objects, or does the Earth suck? Why do all living things resemble one another, with some resembling one another more closely? Did God make it like that, or could there be a simple, natural process that creates this pattern, without the necessary pre-existence of a higher power?

The scientist will then devise experiments to test this hypothesis. Most of the time, experiments will find the hypothesis wanting, in which case the scientist will go back to square one and come up with other hypotheses. Sometimes the experiments corroborate the hypotheses, in which case they are repeatedly tested by other experiments to find the range of circumstances in which these hypotheses hold. Newton's insight about apples, and Darwin's mechanism of natural selection to explain evolution, have all withstood multiple experiments, and, having done so, graduate into 'theories.'

Importantly, theories are not the same thing as absolute truths -- they are, at best, works in progress, subject to constant refinement and even refutation. Einstein's general theory of relativity provides a better description of attraction between objects -- gravity -- than Newton's, because it is better at expressing how objects behave when they are very massive and/or travelling close to the speed of light -- circumstances which Newton did not and perhaps could not envisage. This does not make Newton's ideas 'wrong' -- far from it. Apples still fall out of trees now as surely as they did in the 17th century, and Newton's equations work very well for computing the courses of modern spacecraft. Yet gravity is still a 'theory.'

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has been enhanced by subsequent work in genetics, biochemistry, comparative anatomy and palaeontology, much of which was completely beyond the science current in Darwin's time. This work has not refuted but refined and extended refined Darwin's conception in many ways, importantly by casting his ideas into a mathematical framework. Evolution by natural selection remains, however, a theory, in the same way that gravity is a theory. Despite their robustness, neither the Einsteinian scheme of gravity nor the Darwinian mechanism for evolution are absolute truths -- for, in science, nothing ever can be such, not in the absolute, revelatory sense that religious people mean. The creationist sneer that evolution is 'only a theory' betrays a deep incomprehension of the scientific method. Gravity is only a theory, too, yet no creationist would willingly test this by leaping off a tall building.

An important part of science is falsification. Hypotheses are falsified all the time. Established theories, much less so -- though it does happen. It is part of the job of the scientist to test hypotheses and theories, not to establish 'truth,' but to falsify them, all the better understand doubt and uncertainty. This is why the following statement by Sloan-Wilson seems so odd: "if [in a scientific discourse] I willfully falsify information," he said, "I'll be excluded in the same way that the most grievous sinners are excluded from their churches." Now, one might say that I am quoting this out of context. It's not entirely clear, but Sloan Wilson appears to be talking not about science but about politics.

"If I want to say that someone's health care plan is going to kill your granny," he says, "I'm free to do so on the public stage, despite screams of protest that it's a bald-faced lie, and the whole messy affair will be dutifully reported on the virtual pages of HuffPost. If I try to do something comparable as a scientist, I'm outta there."

Falsification, though, is essential to science. As a scientist it is your duty to falsify information. The difference, though, seems to be a matter of rhetoric. In politics, one cannot assume that information is presented completely, unbiasedly, and in good faith, whereas in science that is the assumption. So much seems to be clear in the context of what Sloan Wilson means about falsification -- but becomes less so in the wider context of the article and how it is framed -- that science is a 'religion' with 'truth' as its 'God.'

If science is a system of understanding the world, then it is based on experiment, skepticism, falsification and doubt, and thus very different from a 'religion' which is based on 'faith' -- in the 'truth' of (say) the incarnation, or that the words are directly dictated by God -- of which the adherent must be certain, with no room for doubt whatsoever. To equate science with religion is therefore profoundly erroneous.

The notion of 'truth,' in the sense of something that can be 'known,' is also antithetical to science. In religion, truth is truth and that's that. In science, the best we can do is to come up with a provisional solution which could be overturned by another solution that explains more of the evidence: no matter how unlikely that might seem.

Finally, the idea that science worships anything as its 'God' is quite appalling, for it suggests that scientists are not engaged in a dispassionate examination of nature but are seeking to replace one religion with another. God is quite unnecessary in science, even as a metaphor.

The God-bothering superstitions which currently hold American science to ransom are, indeed, damaging, not just to science, but to the health and well-being of people around the world, not just in America. They are damaging to civilization, gender equality and human rights. The same might be said of any such views when they become mired in politics. But science, if it is -- as it has proven itself to be, time after time -- the key to civilization, health, wealth, prosperity and advancement in a way that religion has signally failed to be, should rise above such things. It should grow up. To quote 1st Corinthians 13:11 -- "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

It could be that American scientists, faced with the grievous threat posed by religious and political fundamentalism, feel that they must fight fire with fire -- to employ more extreme methods than we otherwise might. As Shakespeare wrote in 'King John':

"Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire

Threaten the threatener and outface the brow

Of bragging horror"

But all scientists know that fire is best fought not with fire, but with something more rational and proven by experiment: with a fire extinguisher, a canister of foam, or a very large fireproof blanket.

Henry Gee is a Senior Editor of Nature. His book 'The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution" is published by the University of Chicago Press.