Tag Archives: belief

I don’t “believe” in science – and neither should you

We should be very careful about naively accepting claims made by the mainstream media – but this is also true of scientific claims. We should approach them intelligently and critical and not merely accept them on faith

I cringe every time I read an advocate of science asserting they “believe in science.” Yes, I know they may be responding to an assertion made by supporters of religion or pseudoscience. But “belief” is the wrong word because it implies trust based on faith and that is not the way science works.

Sure, those asserting this may argue that they have this belief because science is based on evidence, not faith. But that is still a copout because evidence can be used to draw conclusions or make claims that are still not true. Anyway, published evidence may be weak, misleading or poorly interpreted.

Here is an example of this dilemma taken from the Vox article Hyped-up science erodes trust. Here’s how researchers can fight back.

The figure is based on data published in Schoenfeld, J. D., & Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2013). Is everything we eat associated with cancer? A systematic cookbook review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 97(1), 127–134.

It is easy to cite a scientific article, for example, as evidence that wine protected one from cancer. Or that it, in fact, causes cancer. Unfortunately, the scientific literature is full of such studies with contradictory conclusions. Usually based on real data and statistical analyses which show a significant relationship. But, if it is easy to find such studies which can be claimed as evidence of opposite effects what good is a “belief” in science? All that simple “belief” does is provide a scientific source for one’s own beliefs, an exercise in confirmation bias.

This figure should be a warning to approach published findings in fields like nutritional epidemiology and environmental epidemiology critically and intelligently. One should simply not take them as factual – we should not “believe” in them simply because they are published in scientific journals.

Schoenfeld, & Ioannidis (2013) say of the studies they investigated that:

“the large majority of these studies were interpreted by their authors as offering evidence for increased or decreased risk of cancer. However, the vast majority of these claims were based on weak statistical evidence.”

They discuss problems such as the “pressure to publish,” undervaluation or not reporting negative results, “biases in the design, execution and reporting of studies” because nutritional ingredients “viewed as “unhealthy” may be demonized.” 

The authors warn that:

“studies that narrowly meet criteria for statistical significance may represent spurious results, especially when there is large flexibility in analyses, selection of contrasts, and reporting.”


” When results are overinterpreted, the emerging literature can skew perspectives and potentially obfuscate other truly significant findings.”

They warn that these sorts of problems may be:

“especially problematic in areas such as cancer epidemiology, where randomized trials may be exceedingly difficult and expensive to conduct; therefore, more reliance is placed on observational studies, but with a considerable risk of trusting false-positive”

These comments are very relevant to consideration of recent scientific studies claiming a link between community after fluoridation and cognitive deficits. Studies the are heavily promoted by the anti-fluoridation activists and, more importantly for scientific readers, by the authors of these studies themselves and their institutions. I have discussed specific problems in previous posts about the results from the Till group and their promotion by the authors.

The merging of pseudoscience with science

We seem to make an issue of countering pseudoscience with science but in the process are often oblivious to the fact these to tend to merge – even for professional scientists. After all, we are human and all have our own biases to confirm and our jobs to advance.

This is a black and white contrast of science with pseudoscience promoted by Skeptics. It’s worth comparing this with the reality of the scientific world.

Do scientist always follow the evidence? Don’t they sometimes start with the conclusion and look for evidence to support it – even clutching at the straws of weak evidence (statically weak relationships in environmental epidemiological studies which are promoted as proof of harmful effects)?

Oh for the ideal scientist who embraces criticism. Sure, they are out there but so many refuse to accept criticism, “circle the wagons” and end up unfairly and emotively attacking their critics. I describe one example in When scientists get political: Lead fluoride-IQ researcher launches emotional attack on her scientific critics.

Are claims always conservative and tentative? Especially when scientists have a career or institution to promote. And institutions with their press releases are a big part of this problem of overpromotion. Unfortunately, in environmental epidemiology, some scientists will take weak research results to argue that they prove a cause and then request regulation by policymakers. I discuss this in . Specifically, there is the case of weak scientific data from Till’s research group being used to promote regulatory actions to confirm their biases.

Unfortunately, scientists with biases to confirm find it quite easy to ignore or downgrade the evidence which doesn’t fit. They may even work to prevent publication of countering evidence (see for example Fluoridation not associated with ADHD – a myth put to rest).


I could go one taking each point in order. But, in reality, I think such absolute claims about science are just not realistic. The scientific world is not that perfect.

In the end, the intelligent scientific reader must approach even the published literature very critically if they are to truly sift the wheat from the chaff.

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Being open-minded

This meme is for those commenters here who accuse me of having a closed mind.

open minded

I am always happy to change my opinion or view of things – if there is evidence to suggest I should.

And no, claims that “science once thought the world was flat,” or “science once supported smoking,” is not a credible argument that we should ignore current scientific consensus. It’s especially not an argument we should suddenly adopted unsupported claims as “gospel truth.”

Along these same lines, it’s worth considering this quote from Carl Sagan – if you want me to consider a really extraordinary claim your evidence had better be exceptional.


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A war between religion and science?

Alex Hern, writing in the New Statesman, has ticked off the Church of England (CofE) for their blatant misrepresentation of the statistics resulting from a survey they sponsored (see Church of England commits sins against statistics).

He subtitled his piece:

“Four out of five British adults believe in the power of prayer.” Really? Really?

and concluded it with:

It’s almost as though the CofE relishes the idea of a war between religion and science almost as much as Dawkins does.

Here is the CofE’s “sin.”

The survey “Prepared on behalf of Church of England by ICM Research” included the question:

“Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, What would it be for?”

Well, OK – even an atheist could say they would lump for peace in the world (31%of the respondents did) or an end to poverty in the world (27% did). After all, they had been asked to withhold their attitude to the efficacy of prayer.

But perhaps that was a purposeful trap? Because the CofE reported the results as “Four out of five believe in the power of prayer.” Even though no-one was asked if they believed in prayer. In fact they had, by implication, been asked to assume belief!

The Telegraph went even further claiming in their article Britons still believe in prayer – and young lead the way, poll suggests:

“Research commissioned by the Church of England found that only one in seven people insist they would “never” resort to prayer in the face of problems in their lives, those of their friends or the wider world.”

If you are really interested you can download a pdf with the survey results and see just how the CoE and the Telegraph got such amazing results – which  the Telegraph even acknowledged “contrast sharply with the findings of the most recent census which suggested a significant drop in religious affiliation in Britain over the past decade.”

OK – perhaps we should expect people to lie when it comes to statistics. Perhaps its only natural to cherry pick facts to produce the result your would dearly want, than the one which is more accurate. Perhaps Alex Hern was a bit harsh to write this suggests the CofE relishes “a war between religion and science.”

I wouldn’t worry about this specific distortion – but I can certainly sympathise with Hern’s response. I too react when I see or hear scientific ideas and data being distorted and presented as proof of supernatural ideas or an ideological agenda. But rather than distortion of polls and surveys (which we expect) my list of scientific knowledge and ideas which are commonly misrepresented and distorted by religious apologists, including prominent figures in the CofE, include things like:

  • “Fine-Tuning” of cosmological and physical constants – (Sure we don’t yet understand why some of these constants have the values they do, or even if they could have different values than they do, but that is not “proof” of a god);
  • The “big bang” theory of the beginning of the universe – (again science cannot completely resolve what went on at the beginning but that’s no excuse for introducing gods, goblins or angels – and it’s certainly not proof of them);
  • Human morality – (Yes, it’s a mystery to some even though cognitive science and evolutionary psychology is making progress in its understanding. But, again, mystery or ignorance is not proof).
  • Evolutionary science – (Sure  outright creationists are a minority among believers but in my experience scratch almost any believer and you find someone who willing to distort the science to give their god a guiding role).

It’s these unfortunately common arguments, and ones similar to them, used by the theologically inclined to “prove” their god exists which makes me feel that maybe there is “a war between religion and science.”

I just wish these people would think before they use such silly arguments.

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Who is guilty of misusing science?

I know someone is going to accuse me of “scientism” for this. But I guess that goes with the science blogger’s job – and it’s a diversion anyway. It will hardly be the first time.

What I want to dispute here is the claim that “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”

Now, I have no problem with private belief. And many people no doubt retain this “limits of science” argument as part of their private belief. We all have beliefs or quirks which we don’t feel the need, or wish, to expose to critical investigation. That’s fine by me.

But I do object to those religious apologists who make this “limits of science” claim, but at the same time resort to arguments from scientific knowledge, or even just from reasoning, to claim their god belief is completely justifiable, and that my god disbelief is not. You, know – those who prattle on about “fine-tuning” of physical and cosmological constants, of evidence for an origin of the universe as “proof” of the existence of their god! Even those who claim the facts of “moral truths” prove their god! And then go on to rule “out of order” scientific arguments used by those who don’t believe.

Don’t these people realise they are claiming one rule for themselves (use of “scientific proof” argument) and denying the same to others by claiming “limits of science”? You would think the contradiction was obvious but there seem to be just as many (probably more) books, newspaper opinion pieces, etc., out there claiming science has proved the existence of a god as there are claims that such subjects are “outside the limits of science.”

I think both claims are unjustified – they are just emotionally motivated “logic” arguing for, and protecting, a preconceived belief.

The “Scientific proof” of the theologian

The scientific proof of the religious apologist amounts to nothing more than weak claims that “the evidence of an Intelligent Designer is all around us.” Or that scientific explanations of life and the universe have huge gaps. That somehow when a scientist says “I don’t know” this “proves” the religionist’s myth-based belief must be true – bugger the need for evidence or validation of ideas.

That’s not scientific proof! You need to do a lot more than just badmouth scientific theories. In science you actually need to advance a structured hypothesis. One based on evidence that makes predictions which can be tested against reality. Hypotheses and ideas that stand up to scrutiny, are open to modification, even outright abandonment, in the light of evidence.

You know, the sort of science which leads to publications and conference presentations.


That sort of hypothesis would surely show a serious attempt to approach the questions scientifically – even if we were forced to acknowledge that we did not have the technology or mental capacity to provide a good answer. Whereas at the moment such talk of scientific proofs for gods is

The “limits of science”

As for the “limits of science” argument – this is never properly justified. If their god is part of objectively existing reality then surely the scientific approach is an acceptable way of investigating the claim. Of course science may not be up to that job. There are certainly areas which it finds difficult to investigate now – and there are potentially areas we may never be able to investigate because of limits in our technology and our intelligence. But at the moment the scientific approach is the best one we have to investigate difficult aspects of reality. And if science cannot sort things out then no-one has yet been able to produce an alternative, a specific “other way of knowing,” which could do the job – have they?

Yes, I know, these Sophisticated TheologiansTM have some clever arguments. Their god is outside space and time. Outside the universe. Therefore we have no way of investigating it. No way of detecting it even.

The obvious question that comes to my mind is “How do you know that? You seems to be so certain – what evidence do you have.” And isn’t this another one rule for me, another for you argument? After all –  you claim that god is answering your prayers, influencing events in the world, helping believers win races and overcome illness. Even causing a few hurricanes or earthquakes to discipline us for sinning! Going in for a bit of smiting! If that is the case your god is leaving an evidential trail which science can investigate.

But if you god is truly outside time and space, outside the universe, not only would we not be able to detect it, it would not have any influence here – would it? Haven’t you gone overboard in your attempt to protect your god from scientific investigation. You have ended up in defining your god out of any practical existence!

So before you start chanting “scientism” – ask yourself who is guilty of scientism? Of using science inappropriately?

Surely it is the religious apologist who claims “scientific proof” which is not at all scientific. Or who claims they know things about reality which they cannot possibly know. That they have an alternative “way of knowing” which can produce Truth with a capital T – but which they cannot even describe.

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Approaching morality scientifically

Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

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Secular democracy and its critics

“Secularism” and “secular”are very much maligned words. Partly because they are not really understood by some people. But also because some religious people feel threatened by the words.

But they shouldn’t. Despite some attempts to equate the words with atheism and oppose them to religion they really don’t mean either of these. Unfortunately, though, some people insist on using the words that way.

Consulting dictionaries is not always helpful either because they usually list several different meanings.

What does “secular” mean?

However, when we use words like “secular” and “secularism” to describe our modern society definitions equating them with atheism or opposition to religion are completely inappropriate. When applied to society the meaning is more aligned with neutrality towards religion and other beliefs. As the cartoon implies.

So proper dictionary definitions of “secular” include:

  • “Not controlled by a religious body or concerned with religious or spiritual matters;”
  • “Worldly rather than spiritual;”
  • “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body: eg secular music;”
  • “Of or relating to the worldly or temporal;”
  • “Of or relating to worldly things as distinguished from things relating to church and religion; not sacred or religious; temporal; worldly.”

And so on. You get my point.

Secularism - Monk doing monastery accounts

Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as “sacred” (whatever that means).

I have the picture of a medieval monk sitting at a desk in an old monastery. A candle by his side he is doing the monastery accounts. He is doing secular work. (I don’t think even the most convinced religious apologists would consider accountancy “sacred.”)

We are all “secularists”

All of us, no matter our beliefs, are involved in secular activities most of the time.

As a scientist I worked alongside scientists with all sorts of beliefs. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, and so on. Bloody hell, one of them was even a member of the ACT Party.

However, despite our different “world views”, we did our work, our scientific research, in basically the same way. We were all involved in collecting evidence, hypothesising, testing ideas against reality, producing effective scientific theories and validating them against reality. Our religious beliefs did not change the way we did our job.

Scientific research is secular – but done by people who hold many beliefs.

Most of you will also be doing secular jobs. If you are an accountant, a plumber, a builder, or whatever, your religious beliefs just don’t influence your work. Your job is secular. And you don’t feel any conflict with that.

Democracy secular by definition

We can look on society in much the same way. Of course opinions and beliefs inevitably do intrude into political and social activity. But while we can express religiously derived views we are actually dealing with a society which does not have uniform religious beliefs. Our society is pluralist. Religious opinions are very diverse. So while in New Zealand you can argue for an ethical or political position because your god told you it was correct or it is written in your “holy” book, such arguments are completely ineffective (outside your direct religious community).

This inevitably means that simple religious arguments cannot carry any weight politically or socially. The sensible protagonist will look for arguments which have wider appeal.

And that’s how it should be. Our political system is democratic, Our society is pluralist. No one belief can be imposed by loyalty. We have to engage in the market of ideas, putting forward our best arguments. And the best arguments are the ones that most people can respond to. Religious arguments just aren’t effective.

Consequently, in democratic, pluralist societies the political and social activity, the live discussion of ideas and decision-making about the best social or political situation, is inevitably secular. It must be to be democratic.

Our politics and social activity is secular even though the participants may hold a range of religious views.  It is secular because it is democratic.

So those religious apologists who argue that modern society somehow
“privileges” secularism over religion are making a basic category error. It’s like a political party condemning democracy, the very institution which provides them with a venue for their activity.

Unless of course, they would prefer a society which was undemocratic, but placed them in power while denying all other parties the freedom to exist.

Perhaps this is the way these religious apologists complaining of the “privileging” of secularism see it. Perhaps they would like to return to a society where there religious arguments were the only ones allowed in public discussion.

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Protecting yourself against bullshit

Here’s a very useful book for those who often get into debates with people who attempt to diss science. Its called Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. The author is philosopher Stephen Law.

It’s quite a short book – it’s purpose is to help the reader identify arguments and techniques used by the irrational to defend their beliefs. In short, the bullshit that can often suck people into the “intellectual black holes” of irrational belief.

The author aims to unpack and explain some strategies used by people who are “powerfully committed to some ludicrous system of belief.” Strategies used to construct “an impregnable fortress . . . . around even a ridiculous set of beliefs, rendering them immune to rational criticism and creating a veneer of faux reasonableness.”

Law concentrates on eight strategies and povides his own name for these in the following chapters:

  1. Playing the Mystery Card
  2. “But It Fits!” and The Blunderbuss
  3. Going Nuclear
  4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts
  5. “I Just Know!”
  6. Pseudoprofundity
  7. Piling Up the Anecdotes
  8. Pressing Your Button

I am half way through reading the book and recommend it. His discussion of the “scientism” ploy and analysis of the bullshit used to attack Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion were spot on. I also liked his Chapter 3 on Going Nuclear – he has an early version on his blog – see Going Nuclear. A version of Chapter 6: Pseudoprofundity is also on the blog.

Anyone with a passing interest in internet discussion will immediately recognise these strategies. They are generally a sign of weakness, but are often  used to bamboozle discussion partners.  This book will help people to understand what is going on and how to handle such bullshit.

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The myth of the noble scientist

David Goodstein used this term to describe:

the long-discredited Baconian view of the scientist as disinterested seeker of truth who gathers facts with mind cleansed of prejudices and preconceptions. The ideal scientist, in this view, would be more honest than ordinary mortals, certainly immune to such common human failings as pride or personal ambition. When people find out, as they invariably do, that scientists are not at all like that, they may react with understandable anger or disappointment.

I think it is a useful term. But I don’t agree with Goodstein’s belief that scientists are guilty of promoting it. Certainly not in my experience.

Before Fermi Lab visit

I think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them.

After Fermi Lab visit

I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.

These are drawings and comments made by Amy, one of a group of US 7th Graders before and after their visit to the Fermi lab

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Belief not the same as truth

Going through some of notes (scraps of paper all over the place) I came across these jottings:

“To believe in something because it’s true does not come naturally to people.”


“Subordination of belief to what is true is not natural to people.”

Perhaps you recognise this problem?

I think I noted them down while reading Dan Agin’s book: Junk Science recently.  It’s a great book (although I think he is a bit hard on evolutionary psychology). I certainly ended up feeling very angry with the huge negative influence anti-science groups and beliefs have on humanity.


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