Saturday, 20 June 2009

Talking past each other

It seems to me Creationists and other religious people who hold fast to Biblical authority seriously misunderstand science and scientists. They appear to think that scientists think the way they themselves do, and that scientists are engaged in anti-Christian religious warfare, with Darwin as their God and The Origin of Species as their revealed holy text. In essence, they think of atheism as a religion just like their own.

But at the same time, they see that science has been very successful in describing the universe, and they want some of the prestige of science to rub off on them. Knowing that scientists do rather go on about getting evidence, they assume that all this evidence is carefully selected in order to make the scientists’ theories look better. It simply doesn’t occur to them that scientists work on the basis that theories should be made to fit the evidence (including the inconvenient bits), rather than that the evidence should be selected to support the theory.

So the religious people try to act like scientists, or at least try to act the way they imagine scientists do. They go round cherry-picking bits of evidence, for instance trying to explain how the dinosaurs all perished in Noah’s flood, or how (based on selective quotation) they try to persuade people that scientists think that “fine tuning” of universal constants is a proof of God’s existence.

On the other hand, the incomprehension that the scientists labour under is almost as great. They have for the most part been so long in the scientific habit of thought that in many cases it doesn't even occur to them that somebody can function quite adequately based on a profoundly unscientific way of thinking. They often make the mistake of thinking that the religious types must be stupid, in that they can't comprehend the evidence that has been amassed. It doesn't occur to them that the religious types think differently, that the religious genuinely think that the scientists also think religiously, and that the religious simply prefer to accept the bits of evidence that support their own case.

The overall effect is often a dialog of the deaf, because neither side properly understands the thought-processes of the other. If you review many of the comment threads on CiF, you will find this mutual incomprehension demonstrated many times over.

If the scientifically-minded people are going to get the religious to understand them better, it is going to be necessary to go back further than a mere recitation of the evidence in favour of this or that scientific theory. That kind of recitation certainly isn’t going to be enough to persuade religious opponents of evolution of anything at all concerned with natural selection.

What is needed is a description of how the scientific method actually works, and of the principles of how scientific discoveries were made and checked. When I studied science at school, we were taught none of this. We were taught the results of science, not the processes of science. The question of how we can tell that we really know what we think we know simply wasn’t touched on in my day. I’ve picked that up in the course of reading since I completed my formal education.

My children have been through the school system rather more recently, and I was very heartened to see that much more emphasis is now put on this issue. I suspect that it could in principle be handled even better in schools than it is now, but there is at least definite progress in the right direction.

So, if you find yourself in a debate with a religious person who seems not to accept scientific evidence, I suggest you start talking instead about the scientific method and how theories are made to fit the evidence. Darwin himself spent about 20 years acquiring evidence before he felt able to publish On the Origin of Species. Be inspired by his example to explain this to others.

(This article was offered to the Guardian some weeks ago, but not accepted. It seems that Andrew would prefer to claim that no atheists have any interest in understanding the religious rather than publish an article which attempts to promote that understanding.)


  1. "do you think they try to act like scientists or they think that just thinking is logic? I wonder if there is a differenece in mathematical capacity between the two groups (relgious v atheist).

    I would disagree that "scientists work on the basis that theories should be made to fit the evidence, rather than that the evidence should be selected to support the theory."

    Rather, scientists put forward a theory as a testable hypothesis and then test to see if the hypothesis can be justified with one or more studies or experiments. Then, there is often discussion and debate with peers or further testing by peers or other experts.

    A good example of engaging and some-what popular presentation of scientific prinicples are the crime-forensic tv programs or series.

  2. Very nice article, highlighting an important problem. On I often try to put the case that those who disagree, even creationists, certainly aren't stupid. It can be hard.

    People have to be persuaded that certain approaches to understanding the world are useful to them, even if it means being able to follow what a scientist you disagree with is saying.

  3. OMFSM - This is so true...

    I used to be a YEC, and this is exactly what it was like...

    I honestly thought that we were doing science, and the claim that evolution was a religion (and scientists were all controlled by Satan) seemed like a perfectly valid argument.

    Because - why couldn't they just see the truth? Must be a conpiracy...