Scientific knowledge – not “just a belief!”

A pernicious feature of current attacks on science is the promulgation of the idea that scientific knowledge is “just a belief.” That it has no more validity than any other belief. That non-scientific beliefs should be given the same status or legitimacy as scientific theory.

This idea is promulgated by “secular” new age, post-modernist and similar ideologies. It is also promoted by some religious groups advancing creationist ideas. For an example of the latter have a look at the documentary video “In Good Faith” showing a “science lesson” at the Australian Pacific Hills Christian School (see also Teaching science in faith schools). In this “lesson” students were offered a range of beliefs about biology and told they should consider them and choose which best fitted their religious views.

Not just a belief

But science is not about belief – it’s about evidence, reason and theories which well summarize knowledge. Scientific knowledge is never settled – it changes as new evidence comes to hand. In contrast beliefs are often set in stone. Often beliefs are just dogma without any evidential support. They survive new discoveries because they are immune to them.

The real power of scientific knowledge lies in its evidential support and the resulting ability to change, to update. Our modern society and technology could not have been built on dogma, on just belief. Nor can modern society have any hope of the solving the problems we face by reliance on belief.

Those diverse groups who oppose scientific knowledge have the same aim – to replace that knowledge and the powerful scientific method with dogma. With “just a belief.” This is true of US creationists campaigning to “teach the controversy” and “teach the strengths and weakness.” This is the motive behind the “academic freedom” legislation campaigns. All this is aimed at giving religious belief and dogma the same status in the science class as scientific knowledge.

It is also true of “new age”, “post-modernist” “alternative health” and similar secular movements. Although in these case the motives are often commercial.

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See also:
For an excellent outline of the scientific method given by Pamela L. Gay go to the Astronomy cast podcast Ep. 90: The Scientific Method
Download The Scientific Method podcast
Books and Ideas Podcast #14: Dr. Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast

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Teaching science in faith schools
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10 responses to “Scientific knowledge – not “just a belief!”

  1. You are right to challenge the “just a belief” attack on science and the scientific method.
    What is your take on the problem of induction? By which I mean David Hume’s observation that every inductive argument has a suppressed premise that, in principle, is unknowable; viz. the future will be like the past.


  2. Hi Bob. I am afraid I’ve never read Hume directly (or much basic philosophy in the last 40 years). It’s perhaps one of the areas I must get around to in my reading during my retirement. (So much to fit in, so little time).

    So, I need to interpret you question a bit.

    To me, I think objectively existing reality is, in principle, capable of being known. But in practice we ‘get by’ – we develop models which mirror reality. With time, more data and more reasoning our models become closer and closer approximations of reality. I guess, given an infinite times and infinite technology one could say that our models would equate with reality.

    So, I don’t think that reality is, in principle, unknowable. Even thought one has to accept the possibility that parts of reality may never be known (because of limitations in our technology and/or ability to understand).

    Maybe there are even parts of reality which are in principle unknowable but I don’t think it would be acceptable to humanity to take this as an assumption. Far better to assume otherwise and get on with the job.


  3. Now this might be a bit naive but why don´t assume that there are parts of reality which are unknowable and call that God or Allah or what have you. In my opinion that goes well with the distinction between religious belief and scientific knowledge.


  4. For me, the most likely current candidates for unknowable parts of reality are the very complex interlinked phenomenon which we are not capable of comprehending as a whole but where our current analytical techniques lose their effectiveness. Situations where breaking something to smaller more understandable parts (literally analysing) does not yield useful information because of the interrelated complexity of the whole.

    However, perhaps this can be overcome in the future through human brain development or the creation of better methods of analysis

    Also, often this sense of indivisible complexity is actually false and requires just a new idea to overcome. Think of the modern evolutionary explanations of the eye etc…

    I think this strikes at the heart of the issue in that it is one of approach. What is best? Marking off sections of reality as unknowable, labeling them as god and attaching them to a complex set of mythology (some of which may contain some good rules of thumb for people to follow). Or regarding them in a scientific fashion as currently not known and retaining the ability to make decisions based on what is known.

    My concern is that, once a portion of reality is relegated to the religious realm rather than the rational realm, we lose the capability of making rational decisions and taking rational actions. This is hard enough to do for the average human even when not encumbered with a religious outlook.

    On the other hand, I have no problem with somebody who manages to ring fence their religious belief system from their actions in the world, but I think we can all see a multitude of contra examples.


  5. Just a quick correction above. On re-reading, the second to last paragraph sounds a bit wrong. The last bit probably reads better as:

    This is hard enough to do even for the most scientifically rational human, even when not encumbered with a religious outlook.

    There is a whole body of evidence about all sorts of logical biases that effect everybody human, and which have to be constantly watched for and corrected for by anybody trying to understand anything properly.


  6. Hume’s point is that every inductive argument includes an unstated premise that must be true in order for the conclusion to follow from the set of premises. “The future will be like the past” is a claim about the regularity and predictability of nature, but Hume, as a skeptic, reminds us that in principle we cannot know the future, and so must believe that the future will be like the past. This problem of induction is still around in the literature of the scientific method. Edwards tried to solve the problem with his talk of “past-futures” versus “future-futures” …Popper claims to have solved it with his falsifiability approach to knowledge, but Hume’s skepticism is always around.

    For induction to be rational, it must be justified either by a priori or a posteriori reasoning. Hume argues that none of these reasonings can do the job.

    To begin with, there are two kinds of objects of human inquiry according to Hume: relations of ideas and matters of fact. Among relations of ideas there are mathematical and logical propositions such as, for instance, that two plus three equals five or that all bachelors are unmarried adult males. These propositions are demonstratively (deductively) justifiable; one need not appeal to sense experience to prove the truth of such propositions. This happens because it is impossible for one to conceive even in his wildest imagination that two plus three does not equal five, or that there is a married bachelor. As for the matters of fact, Hume claims, the contrary to each of them is possible to conceive:

    That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply contradiction, and could be distinctly conceived by the mind.

    Whereas the present matters of fact can be justified by direct sense experience, how can we know about the matters of fact that have not yet been experienced? What kind of reasoning authorizes our anticipation that the sun will rise tomorrow?

    Our expectations of the future matters of fact lies in the relation of cause and effect, say both Hume and common sense. “By means of that relation alone,” Hume continues, “we can go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses”.

    But how do we know about this relation? Hume denies that knowledge of this relation can be obtained by a priori reasoning, since, should we be given an entirely new object, we would never find out from it alone what cause produced this object and what effect it would bring about. Thus, knowledge of causal relations can be acquired only through sense experience of actual relations between objects. But we do not perceive causal relation between objects. All we can see is that they are constantly connected to each other. So, the only way we could obtain knowledge of causality would be to infer it from our past and present observations of regularities. And then we believe that the future will be like the past!


  7. Remember Russell’s rooster? Day after day the farmer feeds it. Then one day the farmer feeds on it.


  8. Hi Nick.

    Took me a few days after your previous comment to realise it was you. I appreciate you comments.

    I appreciate your point about the “unknowable” as very complex interlinked phenomenon which we are not capable of comprehending as a whole. Consequently its easy to fall back on a ‘belief’ or even superstition.

    Science is often criticised for being ‘reductionist.’ I think, however, that it has processes of both ‘analysis (reductionism) and ‘synthesis.’ The synthesis part is very hard and these days often clumsy (eg. computer models of climate change). So sometimes ‘belief’ (or at least informed belief) can be our best approach. I often think of computer models as being useful as ‘decision support’ systems. That seems to be the case in agriculture. Maybe also in finance and economics?

    Then, of course, there is the belief that refuses to be informed. We see this with climate change, agriculture and presumably finance. We certainly see it in religion with the creationists.

    Your point about personal bias is so true. Scientists can’t be trusted anymore than the next person when it comes to personal opinions and personal interpretation of data. I think the social operation of science (scientific debate, peer review, insistence on publication, repeatability of experiments) helps overcome the biases, although this can often take time.

    I have been reading about current concepts of brain plasticity lately. Each book makes the point that it took time to overcome the dogma that plasticity only occurred in young brains. Now we accept that even in the elderly the brain can change. Elderly stroke victims can now be rehabilitated using techniques recognising the ability of brains to replace damaged areas with new brain maps. There are interesting ideas to take from this science for us older people.

    Dale and I have been discussing similar issues in “Coming out” for evolution.


  9. I suppose synthesis is where I see that intuition lies. For me, real intuition (being the kind that actually works) is an unconscious (or undirected, because conscious calculation is too slow) thought process that is the result of somebody working and having deep experience of a particular field (specialisation). Actually, when I come to think of it, perhaps a lot of the scientific insights into reality, may have firstly come to mind through the intuition of a deeply experienced practitioner. (bear in mind, that I mean nothing mystical here when I say intuition, merely unconscious or subconscious)

    On the other point, unfortunately, I have no direct experience of how the social side of science ameliorates the inherent human biases, but am gratified to hear that this occurs in practice (when you consider the progress that has been made, I suppose it must work, otherwise humanity would have made little inroad into some of these most difficult subjects). As far as the other fields are concerned (finance in particular), reality does have an unfortunate habit of biting back every now and then. In some fashion, the financial world sometimes seems to be an accumulation of more and more complex ways of avoiding the obvious (read: any sort of risk management strategy based on normal distributions of history).

    Anyway, its good to make a couple of comments here, I have enjoyed reading many and varied posts (and discussions) that you have posted Ken, and will try to post some more when I have an opportunity.


  10. Pingback: Belief, knowledge and science « Open Parachute

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