03 April 2006

Keep the faith ... out of science

One of my local dailies, the Asheville Citizen-Times, recently added a sophisticated talkback forum to its online edition, and it didn't take long for the backtalking to turn to the merits of the theory of evolution. Which is a good thing, I suppose, seeing as the other local daily, the Hendersonville Times-News, has banned the subject from its letters to the editor section altogether.

Unfortunately, the Citizen-Times forum quickly attracted some less-than-informed opinion. Which should not come as a surprise, I suppose, seeing as even this blueish corner of North Carolina has seen some pretty extreme examples of fundamentalism in action. (Like the pastor who expelled Kerry supporters from his congregation in 2004.)

What particularly disappointed me was the comment from one writer who was doing his best to defend evolution against the tirade of an intelligent design advocate who misconstrued both the second law of thermodynamics and the big bang theory. Robert Dale Breedlove -- that's our would-be defender of science -- made a valiant attempt to clear up the misunderstanding, but then wrapped up his rebuttal with:
If you want to say that God said, “Let there be light...” and the universe began, then science has no method nor any reason to disprove that belief. Most scientists, after all, believe in God; they just want to understand how it happened.
Now, I understand the impulse to appeal to the sensibilities of one's opponents. But this particular effort is marred by the inconvenient fact that is it just plain wrong. I pointed out his error in my own post:
A recent survey of the American National Academy of Scientists, for example, showed that 93 percent are agnostics/atheists. While it could be that less distinguished scientists are more likely to believe in a god, that still leaves us with the fact that the more successful you are as a scientist, the less likely you are to follow a religion.
That prompted some skeptical responses, the only coherent one being a request for a citation. That would be Nature 394, 313 (23 July 1998); doi:10.1038/28478. It's a survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences that found only 7 % held some sort of belief in a god. The rest described themselves as atheists or agnostics.

This sort of finding has been made numerous times, yet there seems to be a widespread belief out there that scientists are just as likely to believe in a god as anyone else. It's an important issue, one that deserves repeating often, because it goes to the heart of the neverending argument over whether faith and science are compatible.

My emerging opinion is that it is indeed possible for a layperson to respect both science and the idea of a Deist interpretation of the divine. In other words, so long as you don't believe your god tinkers with the universe by whipping up the odd miracle or responding to prayer, then you can probably manage to incorporate both belief systems without your head exploding.

But for scientists, it's not so simple. Good science negates faith as a matter of principle. For scientists to accept the existence of a god, for which there is no evidence, would be tantamount to rejecting the essence of their profession. After all, why stop at believing in just one thing without good reason? Soon your entire approach to the scientific method is suspect.

(Just to make my own position clear: Not believing in a god is not the same as a positive belief in the non-existence of a god. The only logical approach for a scientist to take is that there is no evidence for one. If you agree with that thesis, then there is no substantial difference between atheism and agnosticism.)

There are, of course, many scientists who have managed to produce useful research while clinging to some elements of faith. The authors of the 1998 survey even note that the then-president of the NAS, Bruce Alberts, reportedly said, "There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists." But the NAS survey makes it quite clear that the vast majority have decided that they can't straddle both worlds.

As Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins told the Daily Telegraph when commenting on an earlier and broader survey of scientists, "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge."

Science takes no position on the existence of a supreme being and is not capable of doing so. But let's do our best to put to rest the idea that there isn't a significant conflict between science and faith. We're fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.

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