Science: a new religion

Any sane religion will exist in parallel to science, meaning that the abstract descriptions in that religion will match what science discovers.

The problem occurs when religions decide to deny physical reality, or when science decides to politicize itself and create its own competing philosophy to religion.

Science after all by its own founding mandate consists of revelations of consistent details of the physical world. It does not speak to anything else, including morality or philosophy. It is a tool for discovering our world.

Yet in the power vacuum left behind by culture, every person is scrabbling to be on top — not just for the power, and the existential purpose that provides, but for social power and the money it bestows.

After all, if governments become corrupt, corporations go bad, and even ordinary people make bad decisions, why would “science” (which is composed of human beings just like the others) be immune? Time has shown us how any form of authority becomes desirable for those who would abuse it.

Many want science to be like a religion and to have all the answers, because that way they feel like they are important and knowledgeable while all others are ignorant. You will recognize this behavior from the schoolyard: “No, my Dad/football team/friends are the best ever! You are nothing!”

In fact, it is usually those who are most incapable of independent analysis who want some absolute, universal, God-like truth authority to appeal to. Science is the modern choice, especially among those who cannot think beyond the immediate and material. It re-inforces the views they already have.

Further, as a deconstructive force, science is handy for those who want to argue against anything but the immediate and material. Those beliefs that sustained your ancestors for 5,000 years? They’re ignorant, because some guy (whose parents grew up in a trailer or asylum) read an article that says so.

Yet then we come face to face with the fallibility of science because scientists are human beings, and for money or social prestige they’ll cherry-pick data, broadly interpret results, extrapolate to levels best reserved for religion and philosophy, and in short do anything to create the headlines and perceptions that the “educated” proles find desirable:

Dr. Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye.

These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. “There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims,” Dr. Ioannidis said. “A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true.”

[…]

Statistically speaking, science suffers from an excess of significance. Overeager researchers often tinker too much with the statistical variables of their analysis to coax any meaningful insight from their data sets. “People are messing around with the data to find anything that seems significant, to show they have found something that is new and unusual,” Dr. Ioannidis said. – WSJ referencing “Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science” and “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” (others: The Economist and New Scientist).

This is the oldest form of superstition in the book: out of your results, pick the ones that re-inforce your existing beliefs.

In the vernacular, we call this “cherry-picking,” after the practice of looking over the cherries on a tree and only picking the ones you want to eat. Leave the rotten behind. It’s our foraging instinct, worn into us by millennia of survival.

We tend to avoid cherry-picking if we want accurate results because in life, results tend to vary relatively widely on individual attempts, but when we take the whole together (a statistical view) we can see a norm that expresses the normal function of the event.

It helps to think about this in terms of the “normal distribution”:

Image courtesy of Wolfram Mathworld.

Over time, the same event spreads out from one extreme to another. The extremes, both good and bad, are a minority of the results, and the majority are those in the middle. None fit into discrete categories so much as “clinal” or graduated ones. To figure out the real value of an event, it must be tested many times.

Supposing you did one of those tests, and threw out everything but the middle — handy for jumping to a conclusion, especially if it supports the product your donors are selling:

The makers of antidepressants like Prozac and Paxil never published the results of about a third of the drug trials that they conducted to win government approval, misleading doctors and consumers about the drugs’ true effectiveness, a new analysis has found.

In published trials, about 60 percent of people taking the drugs report significant relief from depression, compared with roughly 40 percent of those on placebo pills. But when the less positive, unpublished trials are included, the advantage shrinks: the drugs outperform placebos, but by a modest margin, concludes the new report, which appears Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Previous research had found a similar bias toward reporting positive results for a variety of medications; and many researchers have questioned the reported effectiveness of antidepressants. But the new analysis, reviewing data from 74 trials involving 12 drugs, is the most thorough to date. And it documents a large difference: while 94 percent of the positive studies found their way into print, just 14 percent of those with disappointing or uncertain results did. – NYT via an excellent discussion at Slashdot: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.

We forget at our own risk that science is not a religion or a philosophy, and in fact by its very nature is incompetent for being one of either. Science studies the details, and builds up linear connections between discrete events; philosophy studies the patterns of life and their tendencies, and religion tries to find a transcendental (connection between timeless mental concept of “meaning” and tendencies of the cosmos) explanation for those philosophies.

You can ask science whether mixing several chemicals will produce a salt, or the boiling point of lead, but it’s a mistake to ask it for more than that. It cannot tell you how to live your life, or what values to keep. When we try to use science for such things, we end up with superstition based on the error of thinking that says a correlation between events in an abstract, idealized circumstance somehow translates into reality. It does not.

Unfortunately, in our time we’ve relegated philosophy to memorization of argumentative positions that then translate into our modern ideals, and we’ve corrupted religion with money, politics and mass media. Or maybe religion corrupted itself. Or more likely there is one form of corruption, dishonesty, and it infested religion at about the same time it began infesting politics, but before it infested science.

It’s time to update our mental maps and realize that “science” does not give definitive answers. It gives linear results in a theoretical work-in-progress. Some theories, like evolution or gravity, remain very stable for a long time and then suddenly expand with our knowledge. This does not make them wrong, but like all things science, it makes them contextless, and so we should be careful with our interpretation.

As said above, in a healthy time science and religion describe the same things and are in accord, also with philosophy. In our time however we have made the individual, through equality which translates into every viewpoint being “valid,” irresponsible to truth and clarity, and as a result corruption has set in.

Even to science, which sounds so abstract we’d guess it would be above such things, if it weren’t an activity of humans who still need to feed their families and send their kids to college.

19 Comments

  1. Philosophy is about asking the question which mode of life is most preferable, and on which grounds. With other words: In accordance to which goals should we arrange our lives?

    Science is about finding out which methods work efficiently towards our ends and which do not.

  2. Bruce Charlton says:

    I think I take your point, but I don’t think religion can be *parallel* to science.

    (As an ideal) if life is lived by a religion, surely religion must be hierarchically superior to science – science must be practiced in a context provided by religion. Not vice versa.

    But I realize that what you mean is that scientific discovery should *not* be a matter of looking for confirmation of what has already been described by religion.

    (Often enough, the nature of religious stanements are misunderstood – the kinds of truth in the Bible are various, some parts are indeed historical but there are other forms of writing – such as stories (parables) and songs and preaching.

    But neither should religion continually be adjusting itself to this week latest ‘breakthrough’ published in Nature or Science.

    Many of these disputes are unsatisfactory, people talking-past each other.

    But there are genuine disputes. Often science is unaware of its own metaphysical assumptions – for example that (in an ultimate sense) all science is untrue because each (phsyics, chemistry, biology – in a,, their branches) is very highly selective of its reality, of the evidence it will consider.

    The same kind of thing exists between all major social systems – for example law and science often reach different conclusions (using different data, and different modes of discourse). .

    1. Often science is unaware of its own metaphysical assumptions – for example that (in an ultimate sense) all science is untrue because each (physics, chemistry, biology – in all their branches) is very highly selective of its reality, of the evidence it will consider.

      This is what I am writing of when I say that science should be parallel to religion.

      Religion describes our world in whole; science, too, needs to. Philosophy must also be parallel, and culture.

      In the hands of the right interpreter, there is no scientific “truth”/fact that religion cannot interpret. (It may not need to address each one. There is probably not much theological significance to the taxonomy of Notophthalmus viridescens, but I could be very wrong there.)

      As to whether religion or science “leads the dance,” I think you and I agree that an abstract values-oriented assessment needs to come first, otherwise we lack a framework into which to put our facts about details. The religious thinkers I admire fear no details as they know in a spiritual sense that all will fit together, because it must.

      Our modern conception denies the scientific and philosophical aspects to religion, and replaces it with pure materialistic science because that is more tangible. You can just about hold the results in your hand. True, it is also without direction. But they do not pay for profundity, only linear results.

      Throughout my life, most of the scientists I have known have been atheists — but all of the exceptional scientists I have known have been either perennialists or slightly apostate Christian mystics along the lines of Eckhart and Emerson.

  3. Paul says:

    Brett,

    I can’t tell you how many PhDs I know would become apoplectic reading an article like this. Keep the great work coming.

    I am also interested in your take on why theoretical model-based science, such as the “study” of the big bang has become as dogmatic as true science, that which uses experimentation with controlled variables to produce identical results.

    1. I am also interested in your take on why theoretical model-based science, such as the “study” of the big bang has become as dogmatic as true science, that which uses experimentation with controlled variables to produce identical results.

      You’re mentioning one of the more interesting developments in science and it does need addressing. In my experience, the reason people like models-based science is (a) it “seems” to be experimental, since it uses a digital replication of life and (b) it avoids the “pure theory” stuff that bends heads but is often of uncertain relevance and finally, perhaps the biggest reason: (c) it is achievable and it showcases our new computer technology, making everyone feel that they’re staying up to date and making good use of our technological fortune. But as we may all be thinking in that cynical corner of our minds, no simulation is good unless it incorporates every factor; otherwise, it’s like a videogame — a simple, blocky and unrealistic faux life.

  4. Ben says:

    “It cannot tell you how to live your life, or what values to keep….”
    I disagree, and as you have demonstrated yourself, there are three ways:
    models – for every system, a model could be extrapolated. Sometimes it could be simplified, so it could end up way off track, this is the least useful method, but it could greatly enhance other methods
    backwards experimenting – collecting data on past societies and analysing it could grant us with good results and answer the question – which things worked. When compared with a model, the error could be estimated and the model applied to contemporary life.
    real time experimenting – california, as you constantly suggest. The rest is the same at the previous two. obviously the best option.
    Science can tell you what will work. Whatever you do with it is up to you.

    1. Science can tell you what will work. Whatever you do with it is up to you.

      Someone else asked about models elsewhere on this topic; I think their weaknesses are manifest in an inability to capture all factors of reality. The other two methods you mention are more the domain of history and politics, as strict “scientists” will point out that they are not experimentally sound in that they do not isolate factors and test them exclusively with an equal control group. However, your point is well taken in that the “scientific method” (which we might call systematic consequentialism) can be applied in history and politics to find out the X->Y of any given action. We still need some form of thought about that to help us pick which Y we desire, as there’s not inherent consensus on that issue. Historians and political scientists forget what you imply at their peril, since it seems to me fatalistic to assume history is an accident, and the results of our “policies” are accidental as well.

      1. Modeling is a uniquely mischievious thing. The key to honesty is making the modeler personally culpable for result errors. The problem with doing that too well or too severely is that you have a dearth of people who are willing to build models….

        It becomes a Type A vs. Type B error situation.

        1. The key to honesty is making the modeler personally culpable for result errors.

          This doesn’t sound unreasonable to me. Those who claim they know reality should be willing to stand behind what they say. Most of the people I know who write about reality feel accountable to more than an audience; they feel accountable to the results of their actions, which for people passionate about life is even a harsher standard.

  5. Science has been corrupt since Isaac Newton got his hands on government money for it. Pres. Eisenhower was rather pointed in his predictions that much of this would come to pass. Read the last five or so paragraphs of his Valedictory Presidential Address.

    I loved the article you cited on Winner’s Curse. That happens in so many things relevant to daily life. Dating, Science, Job Negotiations, you name it!

    Well played, Brett.

    1. Science has been corrupt since Isaac Newton got his hands on government money for it. Pres. Eisenhower was rather pointed in his predictions that much of this would come to pass.

      It’s amazing that we consider government fallible, and corporations fallible (if not outright evil), but to say that “science” is composed of the same fallible people who work in government and industry is blasphemy. People are desperate for something tangible to “believe in,” because having a values or belief system is too dangerous to their social conception of self, it seems.

      1. Law is thought of that way as well. It almost reminds me of the old Marxian complaint about commodity fetishism. People willt hink that if science or law slaps their impromentor upon something, than that something must be good and righteous.

  6. crow says:

    When I pull the starting cord on my chainsaw, and it bursts into life, I have religion. When it doesn’t, and I ponder a pile of disassembled chainsaw parts, I have science. When I sit before a cosy fire from the wood the saw has helped to cut, I have satisfaction.
    All these things, together, and in their time, make up a life.
    Take any one away, and life is incomplete.

    1. All these things, together, and in their time, make up a life.
      Take any one away, and life is incomplete.

      This helps explain the concept of parallel reinforcement that was alluded to in the post. And it’s true: life isn’t about distilling to a single point, but harmony between all the necessary points.

  7. Slava Mirkocic says:

    Science is a religion, yes, only it is the most useful one to date. Religions are constructed to make sense of the world. Science goes a step more and not only makes sense of it, but enables us to exert near total control over physical reality.

    It is the most sophisticated religion to date. And it should never have been considered anything but a religion to begin with.

    An aging religion, science is, and I ask question, what is the next religion?

    1. An aging religion, science is, and I ask question, what is the next religion?

      To sound like a trivialist, I think it is type of civilization, in the sense of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” Many of us desire a civilization where philosophy, culture, heritage, language, customs, religion and science are in harmony toward a distinct and exclusive idea. We do not aspire toward universal, standardizing, averaging, conforming, uniformist religions. A change in type of religion is our new religion.

    2. Anon says:

      Science, by itself, does not enable us to exert anything close to total control over physical reality. This is very obvious when one looks at the unsustainability of our technological and industrial growth (cancer being the more appropriate word…), a large part of which scientific advancements enabled.

      At the moment, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our rampant growth on this planet is producing effects which we have not prepared to deal with effectively. Physical reality is essentially telling us to fuck off back to the caves we came from (if we’re lucky) in the form of pollution, destruction of ecosystems, numerous social problems, etc.

      Unless of course you meant something completely different by “exert near total control over physical reality”.

      I agree with Brett though, I don’t think religion can be practiced by a people without integrating it into their larger cultural and philosophical system (including science and religion; there’s a word for all this, surely…). At least, if a people were to practice religion in this manner (exclusive of their culture), the mismatches and inconsistencies would soon become evident. Hence the need for a “philosophy, culture, heritage, language, customs, religion and science” in “harmony toward a distinct and exclusive idea.”

      1. Slava Mirkocic says:

        Almost, total control of physical reality. We can build a bridge and fly through sky, but sometimes a plane crashes.

        Pollution, technology not being sustainable, this is inconsequential. If Man ends today, Earth heals tomorrow.

      2. Paul O'Tarsus says:

        “I don’t think religion can be practiced by a people without integrating it into their larger cultural and philosophical system (including science and religion; there’s a word for all this, surely…)”

        The word you’re looking for is integralism ;)

Leave a Reply

37 queries. 0.427 seconds