Monday, 29 June 2009

Web forums and expertise

One of the fascinating things about web forums of all kinds - newsgroups, blogs, newspaper comment sites like CiF - is that no matter how much you know on a topic, if you make a comment in a forum you are publishing it in a way that anybody in the world might see it, and somebody might respond from a standpoint of greater expertise than your own.

Unless you really are the world's expert on a topic, it is always possible that somebody may respond to you who knows more, and even if you are the world's expert, it is still possible that somebody else has a fact or a new way of looking at things which you haven't come across before.

For many years I have been a Microsoft MVP, with a particular expertise in Microsoft Word. When I was first made an MVP back in 1997, there was a private forum for general chat available only to MVPs and those members of staff at Microsoft responsible for running the program.

It was great fun to participate in that group, because we all knew that everybody there was extremely knowledgeable on at least one topic, and often on several. Moreover, everybody who had been made an MVP had also demonstrated that they were willing to share their knowledge freely to complete strangers. All you had to do was ask. This meant that everybody knew that everybody else there was deserving of a great deal of respect, and everbody acted accordingly. There was of course teasing and joking, but in the early days at least it was always kept within respectful bounds. At the time I joined, it was quite a select group, there were only about 300 MVPs worldwide. As the programme grew (there are now several thousand MVPs across the world) and Microsoft changed the criteria by which they awarded MVPs, this mutual respect was diluted somewhat.

In the early days it was very entertaining to see the somewhat awestruck attitude of newcomers to the group, wondering how on earth what they thought of as their relatively paltry knowledge had been enough to qualify for membership of such a group. When answering questions in the Microsoft forums, it seemed that there was an eerie efficiency about the way all the questions seemed to get answered. What the newcomers took a while to realise was that everyone answering the questions answered the ones they knew best, and between them the MVPs covered just about all the questions in the forum. The newcomer was comparing his individual knowledge with the collective knowledge of all the others.

It was my experience as an MVP which really brought home to me that however much I might know, there's always somebody around who knows something I don't and which it would probably be useful to me to learn.

In a previous career I used to sit on international standards committees for telecommunications. I made some small contribution to the standards on how GSM mobile phones and their networks work. I rapidly learned how to distinguish those who really knew their stuff from those who didn't. Those who were really expert were prepared from time to time to say "I don't know" or "I hadn't thought about that". They were so expert because they were senior people in their profession and yet they were still learning. By contrast, those who rarely or never expressed uncertainty almost always turned out to be less knowledgeable, though they strove mightily to hide the fact.

Looking at the articles on Comment is Free in the Guardian, it seems to me that quite a few of the "above the line" authors have never really cottoned on to this idea. It seems that some (I'm not going to name names - you will all have your own candidates) haven't quite managed to understand the distinction between being in authority and being an authority.

Being in authority means that you have the right (real or imagined) to be obeyed and agreed with whether in fact you are right or wrong.

Being an authority merely means that you are right most of the time on a subject. If you are an authority, you have become one by spending a lot of time learning, and changing wrong ideas into correct ones.

But quite a few authors seem to think that their opinions are especially deserving of respect merely because they have been expressed "above the line". Moreover, in its editorial policies and community standards guidelines, the Guardian editors appear also to have some difficulty with this distinction.

But the fact is that the age of this kind of deference to authority is long gone, and certainly long gone from situations where authority cannot be imposed by threats such as losing your job. It is certainly not going to work on a newspaper comment site. Articles are going to be treated solely according to whether the author can reasonably be throught of as an authority - and in these days of web searches, people who try to claim more authority and expertise than they really have can very easily be found out. Almost all the most vociferous comment threads in recent times have come about in response to a strongly-worded but inadequately researched and justified above-the-line article.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

CiF Believers meeting in Edinburgh?

I'm going to be in Edinburgh playing in concerts in the Fringe on 12-14 August, playing as part of St Clements Wind Ensemble.

Wed 12th and Thur 13th August at St Marks, St Marks Terrace, 7.30pm.
Fri 14th August at Canongate Kirk, 5pm.

I'll be there a day or two before for rehearsals. I'd be very happy to meet with any CiF Belief regulars who live in that part of the world or who will be visiting for the Festival. (Do please come along to one of the concerts as well!)

If somebody local can recommend a good place to meet (not too loud, so we can talk without having to shout) and have a drink and possibly a meal as well, perhaps on the evening of Tues 11th August then do please let me know. I'll put up more details when I know them.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Different kinds of God

It seems to me that there are three general classifications into which people's understandings of God can be grouped.
  1. The Supernatural God who works visible and spectacular miracles (or at least has done in the past).
  2. The Undetectable God who either does not intervene in the world or who works in such a subtle way that his work is not visible.
  3. The Metaphorical and Symbolic God, who doesn't have a separate existence but is used as a label applied to the good things of the world.
When discussing God, it is necessary to be sure that there is a common understanding of which of these three types we are dealing with, because they are really very different from each other.

I have no substantive disagreement with those whose conception of God falls into this third category. My only mild beef with such people (and it is very mild) is that by using the word in their own special and metaphorical way, they are liable to cause confusion amongst those (believers and atheists alike) who tend to reserve the word for more objective conceptions of God.

Regarding the Supernatural God, the question that needs to be asked is why these miracles never seem to happen when scientists are pointing their instruments in the right direction. Unless that happens, the fact is that the evidence for the existence of this kind of God which ought to be plentiful, is really rather thin.

Concerning the Undetectable God, all one can say about him is that all ideas about what he is like and what he does must be entirely made up, since his interventions (which by definition include his communication with us) are undetectable and therefore no ideas about his nature can even in principle be based on any kind of evidence.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Talking of mass hallucinations

Some people think that events such as Miracle of the Sun at Fatima are miracles. Others, working on good Humean principles say that such an event can't be a miracle, since if the sun really danced in the sky, it would have been noticed elsewhere, and that it must have been something more to a mass hallucination. Richard Dawkins takes this line in The God Delusion when he says "after all, Portugal isn't that isolated".

But this leaves us still with the need to explain what really was going on. Just saying it was a "mass hallucination" doesn't really do the matter justice. Calling it that is explaining-away, not explaining, unless you can offer an idea as to why mass hallucinations take place, and whether events at Fatima could reasonably be regarded as a characteristic example.

Some of the possible elements are already well-described - possible freak meteorological conditions, the fact that people had been encouraged to stare at the sun, the fact that most witnesses were devout Christians and already inclined to believe in miracles. But how is it that so many concluded that this particular event was a miracle?

One interesting clue comes from an entirely unrelated book. I've been having tremendous fun reading "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre. Those of you you have read my Guardian articles will know that I'm something of a fan of Goldacre, and have cited his article on homeopathy more than once as an outstanding example of how to rationally approach a problem where clear thinking is needed to identify what the evidence is actually showing.

The most outstanding chapter in his book is entitled "Why Clever People believe Stupid Things". It is only 14 pages long, but the book is worth its price just for those 14 pages. In it, Goldacre describes the ways in which we commonly fool ourselves because human cognition is not well-adapted to dealing with certain situations. He talks of cognitive illusions and compares them with optical illusions. The cognitive illusions he describes are as follows
  1. We see patterns when there is only random noise.
  2. We see causal relationships whre there are none.
  3. We overvalue confirmatiory information for any given hypothesis.
  4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
  5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs.
  6. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased the prominence with which it is brought to our attention.
  7. Our beliefs are strongly affected by social pressures to conform.
I strongly recommend you buy this book, if only for his explanation of these points. The rest is highly entertaining and informative as well.

This last item is particularly relevant to cases of apparent mass hallucination. Goldacre describes Asch's experiments into social conformity.
The subjects were placed near one end of a line of actors who presented themselves as fellow experimental subjects, but were actually in cahoots with the experimenters. Cards were held up with one line marked on them, and another was held up with three lines of different lengths - six inches, eight inches, ten inches.

Everyone called out in turn which line on the second card was the same length as the first. for six of the eighteen pairs of cards, the accomplices gace the correct answer; but for the other twelve, they called out the wrong answer. In all but a quarter of cases, the experimental subjects went along with the incorrect answer, defying the clear evidence of their own senses.
Given this, it is now easy to see how such a mass hallucination might come about. The subjects were phsyically and mentally weakened by events, already inclined to believe in miracles, so once word spread that a miracle had occurred, many people would (without any intent to deceive) interpret their understanding of events in order to conform. Of such things are miracle stories born.

The next chapter in Bad Science is "Bad Stats", in which he describes how journalists habitually misunderstand statistics and present them in misleading ways. Hmmm.

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.)

The Guardian's editorial policy on Richard Dawkins

It would appear that the Guardian Comment is Free has an anti-Dawkins editorial policy - or if not actually a policy, then at least an inclination on the part of its staff to publish anti-Dawkins articles and columns.

I've had that impression for a while, so I decided to do a bit of research. I did a search for all the Guardian articles this year that mention the word Dawkins. I came up with 52 articles. Most of them mention his name only in passing, while a few are talking about some other Dawkins. But of those that make some substantial comment, I've formed the following categories

Carlo Strenger, How the Enlightenment taught us to laugh
Ciaran Toal, How science and faith grew up together

Dan Jones, The downside of religious doing
Caspar Melville, The real debate about atheism is here already
Khaled Diab, Survival of the nicest
Colin Blakemore, Science is just one gene away from defeating religion
Simon Jenkins, Scientist v statesman: who can call the battle of the bicentennial men?

Mark Vernon, God, Dawkins and tragic humanism
John Harris, Tutu, an archbishop for unbelievers
Charlotte Allen, Atheists: No God, just whining
Thomas Jackson, Thomas Aquinas would have loved genetics
Justin Thacker, Did Darwin Kill God?
Andrew Brown, Enemies of creationism may be hindering science teachers
Mary Midgley, Hobbes's Leviathan, part 6: responses to readers
Ed Halliwell, Dawkins strips away religion's dead wood
Carlo Strenger, Dawkins is wrong about believers
Andrew Brown, Dawkins raises the tone
Terry Eagleton, The liberal supremacists
Mary Midgley, Hobbes's Leviathan, Part 3: What is selfishness?
Madeleine Bunting, Real debates about faith are drowned by the New Atheists' foghorn voices
Andrew Brown, Why atheism must be taught
Mark Vernon, Darwin's year

Most of the pro-Dawkins articles make some either factual or approving reference to Dawkins more or less in passing. I've bent over backwards to classify the articles in a way that minimises the apparent imbalance. The majority of the anti-Dawkins articles make quite a meal of their criticisms.

This isn't a matter of the Guardian not being able to find any authors willing and able to defend Dawkins's ideas. There are plenty such available, and some of them already write for the Guardian. The only available conclusion is that deliberately or unconsciously, there is a significant anti-Dawkins bias in the Guardian's editorial policy.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Taking the Mickey

The comments on CiF Belief, particularly Andrew Brown's blog in recent days that have been taking the piss out of the discussions have been tremendous fun.

Discussions about belief can get terribly serious to the point of becoming ponderous, and having your balloon pricked in such circumstances does no end of good.

I'm not good at that kind of creativity, and its hard to participate both in the event and the commentary on it, so I haven't joined in, but I've really enjoyed the Ringside commentary from freewoolly and GeneralX with colour commentary from BarabbasFreed (especially the way the discussion with tohimself was spun as an epic bout!), the mock biblical quotations by freewoolly, GeneralX, Beor and Savvymum, AmelieVincenzo's Italian tea lady (reminds me of Bella Lasagna from Fireman Sam, which I watched many times with my children when they were young!), Beors' janitor, and most recently AmelieVincenzo's "24" spoof.

Do please continue - I enjoy it all hugely!

Belliefs without evidence

Andrew Brown, in the comments to his article Resurrection shuffles, has said

... the claim for god is that he is not a thing amongst other things, as Santa would be, supposing he existed. In that sense the orthodox Christian belief is that god does not exist; certainly not in the sense that anything else might be said to. So there couldn't be evidence that such a god exists in the way that there could be evidence for or against a martian teapot. There might be reasons for believing/trusting/worshipping etc. But they are not evidence.
That last bit is very curious. Reasons for believing without evidence! When I asked him about it, essentially he told me to piss off. But it still remains a curious thing to say.

Now, maintaining an outwards how of believing something without evidence - yes, we've probably all done that at one time or another, but that isn't actually the same as believing itself.

You can mistakenly believe on the basis of what you think is evidence, but that isn't quite the same thing - you are basing your belief on evidence even though it is of much poorer quality than you are aware of.

What Andrew Brown seems to be claiming is that one can make a conscious decision to believe something, knowing that the belief is unjustified, i.e. lacking in supporting evidence.

Can anybody shed light on this mystery?

The Defeat of Creationism

The argument science has with creationism has been won. All that remains are mopping-up operations to persuade the remaining doubters as to the truth of the matter.

That might seem rather an over-optimistic statement in the light of the current situation, such as the large number of Americans who don’t believe in evolution, or the antics of Harun Yahya in Turkey, and the teaching of creationism in some British schools which have received funding from Sir Peter Vardy. As Adam Rutherford suggests, creationism seems to be on the march.

But consider this. Creationists have invented Intelligent Design, and ID claims to be a scientific theory with respectable evidence backing it. The primary reason for this tactic was to get round the constitutional prohibition in America on the establishment of religion, by passing off a religious idea as a respectable scientific theory so that it could be taught in public schools. That effort failed spectacularly with the Dover Trial at which several prominent ID proponents such as Michael Behe were thoroughly discredited when an attempt by the Dover Area School District to teach ID in public schools was successfully challenged in court.

Nevertheless, by inventing ID and claiming to be scientific, the creationists have committed a far more fundamental error. They have seen how much prestige science has with the public as a source of truth about the way the world works, and they want some of that prestige to rub off on them. It is very interesting to notice that creationists don’t seem to have a problem with most science, they target Darwin’s theory of evolution and that alone.

Darwin has a particular reason for raising their ire. It was Darwin’s theory which undermined the Teleological Argument (also known as the Argument from Design) as a convincing reason to believe in the existence of God. Briefly stated, as it applies to life, the Argument from Design goes as follows.

  1. Living things are so wonderfully complex and apparently designed for their environment that they could not have come into existence naturally.
  2. Therefore living things are products of intelligent design.
  3. Therefore, there is a powerful and vastly intelligent designer who created living things, and we call that designer God.

Darwin demonstrated that the original premise is not true and therefore the line of reasoning which follows from it is worthless, no matter how impeccable the logic involved. He showed that evolution by natural selection is a means by which creatures exhibiting the most amazing appearance of design could come into existence without the need for a designer. Creationists have never forgiven him for it, because although they claim to live by faith, they in fact have rather a high degree of respect for logic and evidence, and they were most put out when their favourite apparently knock-down argument for the existence of God was undermined.

It is that respect for evidence that has led the creationists into their present error. In seeing the prestige of science and wanting to acquire some of it for themselves, they have invented the “theory” of Intelligent Design, and in doing so they have implicitly accepted that science sets the terms of the debate, i.e. that this is not about faith, but rather about evidence.

They are not content to persuade people merely to have faith in the existence of God, they are attempting to prove God’s existence on the strength of their evidence. That evidence, as shown by the Dover trial, is pitifully weak. That is partly because, despite the fact that they are dressing up ID as science, they don’t really understand what science is really about. They are acting as if everybody cherry-picks the best data and hides the rest in order to come to the conclusions they want to reach. That is what the ID proponents do themselves, and they assume everyone else does likewise. It seems that they genuinely haven’t twigged that scientists cope with all the inconvenient data as well, and then come up with theories that can address both the convenient and inconvenient results.

We can’t stop people from believing irrational things - we all do that from time to time. But creationism as a systematic assembly of ideas has sown the seeds of its own destruction by trying to take on science on its own terms. All we need do is ensure that as many people as possible get a sound education in scientific principles, so that they can in due course make an informed decision for themselves as to the merits of evolution and of ID. That is not an entirely trivial task, and it is not made easier if some teachers aren’t able to cope properly with the subject, but at least it is perfectly clear what needs to be done.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Israel and the Golden Rule

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a universal ethic, common to all the major religions of the world. With some differences in formulation, the saying has been ascribed to Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Brihaspati, Confucius, various Greek philosophers including Epicurus, and even (in Leviticus 19:18) to God himself.

In past times, it was widely assumed that some people should not benefit from the equal application of the Golden Rule, in that they did not qualify as human beings. It was argued that some people were primitive, childlike, created to be subservient, and were therefore only fit for manual labour. Within that definition, slavery was thought to be morally acceptable or even righteous, even though in practice the slave trade resulted in the deaths of millions of slaves. However, others challenged that idea, and upheld the equal applicability of the Golden Rule to all humanity. The conflict between these ideas resulted in the American Civil War, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. The task wasn’t finished with the end of that war, and a century later, America had a further conflict (fortunately with far less bloodshed) over whether blacks should enjoy full civil rights. Fifty years on, the victory of the civil rights movement has enabled Barack Obama to become president.

Similarly, there has been conflict in Europe between the idea of the state having the responsibility to assure equal protection under the law to everyone within its borders, and the idea that a self-defining group of people can form themselves into a state and enjoy the resulting benefits to the exclusion of anybody in the vicinity who does not fall within the ruling group’s definition. World War Two became (in part) a conflict between these two ideas. That war ended up costing tens of millions of lives, including those of approximately six million Jews.

The issue remains active and topical to this day. Seth Freedman has described the conflict he sees between the Zionism of the Israeli political class and “traditional Jewish values” (he includes a specific reference to the Golden Rule). The arguments offered by various commentators in favour of Israeli government actions in refusing to countenance Palestinian statehood bear an eerie resemblance to the justifications for slavery in past centuries. And today, Dimi Reider has described Netanyahu's insistance on using the term "Jewish State" at every opportunity.

As Andrew Brown has suggested, this is a conflict, not a problem, and conflicts have outcomes, not solutions. Either everybody is covered by the applicability of the Golden Rule or they are not. There is no middle ground available. If you take the view that the Golden Rule is universally applicable, then there is ultimately no compromise you can reach with those who would limit its applicability to their chosen people. You cannot condone their activities without accepting their principles.

To expect Israel to treat its whole population (and not merely its Jewish population) equally under the law is not to wish harm to a single Israeli or to a single Jew anywhere in the world. If you accept the universal applicability of the Golden Rule as the guiding principle of morality, there is no scope for antisemitism or any other variety of racism. Nor does expecting Israel to abandon its exclusivist principles in any way immunise Arab governments or political movements from criticism. Many Arab governments are unlovely dictatorships which, for all that they may preach equal protection, fall far short of those ideals in practice. Neither Israel’s nor the Arab world’s failures can be used as an excuse for each other.

Experience suggests that these kinds of conflicts can end up costing large numbers of lives, but that this is by no means inevitable. The apartheid government of South Africa was a pariah not so much because its human rights abuses were particularly bad (there were and are worse examples elsewhere), but because it enshrined unequal protection under the law within its constitution, thus putting it in the wrong side with regard to equal application of the Golden Rule. The demise of the apartheid government was achieved without widespread political violence even though violence was loudly suggested by some to be inevitable almost until the moment when the transfer of power took place. This suggests that an arrangement can be offered to those who practice exclusivist philosophies concerning the manner and the rate at which changes are made, in order to find a way of preventing such a large-scale military conflict with its attendant loss of life.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

What can Catholics do?

I don’t think any decent person, Catholic or otherwise, can be anything other than sickened at events described in the Ryan Report. I have the greatest of sympathy for those honest Catholics who have discovered what is going on and who, like Madeleine Bunting, are wondering what to do.

Leaving the church may seem a momentous step, and indeed it is, one which many Catholics may baulk at, for it is not their Christian ideals which have been found wanting, but the human institutions in which they have placed their trust.

There is a way of expressing displeasure at the institutions while not abandoning your Christian ideals. I think and hope that it might be highly effective.

Continue to attend Mass, if that is what your conscience requires of you. Continue to take communion. But make it clear that you will give no more money to the church or to any Catholic charity and that you are diverting your charitable giving to secular charities instead.

You can say that this state of affairs will remain in force until you are satisfied that the Church’s institutions have been cleaned up, that all known paedophile or abusive priests have been removed from positions in which they can do any further harm, that all relevant evidence has been passed to the police and that the Church will in future operate a policy of openness and co-operation with the secular authorities regarding breaches in the law by Catholic priests and officials.

Only when you are satisfied that all this has been done will you consider that the Church is a fit steward for your charitable donations and resume your giving to the Church and its associated charities.

It is only by means of contributions from the faithful that this appalling system has been able to continue for so long. I’m sure the great majority of Catholics had no idea what was going on, and so cannot be held collectively responsible for events. But now that you do know what was going on, you have a responsibility to do all in your power to see that it is stopped, that those responsible are brought to justice, and that this can never happen again.

For most individual Catholics, you have just two effective means. One is to withhold your contributions, and the other is to express your concerns. Better still if you do both at once, with an explicit link between them. I hope that as many Catholics as possible worldwide will write to their Archbishop and tell him what they think of the situation and that they are withholding their contributions unless and until it is sorted out to their satisfaction.

You do have the power. Go forth and use it.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The conflict between science and religion

There’s been a lot of public discussion about the conflict between science and religion, whether there is one, and what it consists of. I think it might be worth looking at this in some detail.

First of all, I’d like to describe a bit about science, what it is and how it works. The press tends to report science much as it does politics - looking for disagreements and arguments between authority figures who can be persuaded to say uncomplimentary things about each other, and each of whom will defend their view in order to persuade others. The problem is that science isn’t actually like that.

Scientific theories are descriptions of the way the world works. You start with observations. Let’s take a very simple example. You notice that when you throw a stick up in the air, it falls to the ground again. No matter how many times you throw it up, it always seems to come down again. So you generalise this into a theory.

What goes up, must come down.

Although it is expressed in a very primitive fashion, this is in fact a respectably formed scientific theory. Other people can also throw sticks in the air and see if they come down for them. They can also try with other objects, such as stones. If they all come down, that is said to confirm the theory. If any of them don’t, it disproves it.

Now, suppose on some occasion, you throw a stick up and you don’t see it come down. Must the theory be changed? Not necessarily. There are various possibilities that you have to eliminate first. The most obvious one is that you lost sight of the stick and didn’t see it land. Or perhaps it got stuck up a tree. These sorts of problems are what scientists call measurement error, and it happens frequently, in fact far more often than truly new results that disprove existing theories.

Once you have established that your theory is probably correct by throwing lots of sticks, stones and other objects up in the air and seeing that they do come down, you can try to refine it. For instance, you can ask how fast do things come down? So you vary the experiment, you throw things up with different amounts of force, and measure how high they get and how long it takes for them to return to the ground. After doing this enough times, you are able to work out that the acceleration is constant, and is about 9.8 meters per second squared. In other words, every second, the downward speed of the falling object increases by 9.8 meters per second. This means that for instance if you know the speed with which a cannonball comes out of a cannon, and you know the upward angle at which it is fired, you can predict pretty closely where it will land. That is quite a useful thing to know in battles. And as it happens, Galileo, who famously dropped two different-sized lead weights off the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to demonstrate constant acceleration, wrote artillery manuals that would predict the fall of shot in this way.

But very light objects don’t seem to behave the same way. Balloons and feathers fall far more slowly. What of them? The number is no use if you can’t tell what objects it applies to and what objects it doesn’t. And so you have to start taking into account air resistance, and work out how much that affects the figures. And so on.

This is a very simple example, but it describes exactly what science is about. You make observations, and get your theories to fit them. And if you then get observations which aren’t predicted by the theories, once you have eliminated the possibility of measurement error, you have to change the theory.

That is why, whenever an experiment is reported in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal, there is a very specific format that has come to be used. First you describe what the experiment was intended to test. Then you describe your methods, how you went about testing it. Then you describe your results, and finally you offer any hypotheses that you think could be generalised from the results.

This separation has a very particular purpose. No scientist expects his word to be taken on its own authority. Scientific papers are written specifically so that others can repeat the experiment and see whether they get the same results. They can also look at the methods and may point out some measurement error that the original scientist didn’t think of. Or somebody might think of an alternative theory that explains why the results are the way they are. The scientist writes everything down that he or she can think of that might mean the experiment is wrong. Scientists are of course human, and don’t always manage to meet this high ideal. But this is what they aim for.

Now where does the conflict with religion come in? First let’s explain what the conflict is not. This is not about hordes of atheist scientists who have discovered evolution as the new religion, appointed Darwin as their prophet, chosen The Origin Of Species as their sacred text, and have declared war on all competing religions. That is the old religious way of thinking, and if you have understood anything at all of what I have written above, you will realise that scientists don’t think that way.

In practice there are two parts to the conflict. First is the business of always starting from observation. If you have no observations, you have nothing to make a theory about. As a result of scientific discovery we have learned that many things previously thought to be the work of God intervening in the world to enforce his sense of morality are in fact the result of natural processes. We have learned that many diseases are caused by germs, and that antibiotics work to cure them irrespective of whether the person being cured is a sinner or righteous. We know the cause of lightning, and that a lightning conductor works just as well on the roof of a brothel as on the spire of a church. These answers seem to conflict with what religion has told us.

The thing is, in all these observations and discoveries, we do seem to be a bit short of actual sightings of God. That means that science can’t really offer any theories about God, because we have no observations on which to base theories. Every time a scientific discovery has been made in an area previously thought to be evidence of God working in the world, it has turned out that the phenomenon can actually be explained by the consistent operation of unchanging natural laws. There hasn't been a single case where the scientists have concluded "Oh, it turns out that this is God working in the world after all".

The other part of the conflict is the question of testing and cross-checking. Scientists are trained not to accept each other’s authority. They want to check the evidence by trying things out for themselves and seeing if they get the same results as each other. This can get very complicated. For instance, human beings are very complex and varied, and don’t always react in the same way to things, and so your results have to take this variability into account if you are testing things like whether particular drugs work to cure a disease. Almost all the complexity of modern experimental science is in trying to get rid of measurement error and cope with this sort of variability, so we can be sure that we really know what we think we know.

Religion works in a somewhat different way. The most important is that you are not supposed to check things, you are supposed to accept them as a matter of faith, and that holding fast to this faith is regarded as a good thing of and for itself. Several passages in the Bible say words to the effect of “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. This is absolutely the complete opposite of the way scientists think.

Some religious people, seeing that scientists have gained a lot of prestige in terms of having their explanations of the world accepted by the public, have decided that they ought to try offering what they think of as scientific evidence in support of biblical stories. Unfortunately, again they are thinking in the opposite way from the way real scientists think. They start with a Biblical story (e.g. of Noah's Ark) and develop a theory from it (e.g. that there was a worldwide flood). Then they look around for evidence that supports the theory and carefully ignore anything that offers an alternative explanation. So long as they use lots of long sciencey-sounding words and write papers with lots of impressive-looking footnotes, they can fool quite a few non-scientists into thinking that they are doing real science. But it isn’t so. Real scientists start with observations before forming a theory, and if some observations don’t match the theory, they don’t cherry-pick the ones that fit and ignore the rest. As a scientist you have to deal with the inconvenient observations as well as the ones which gave you the result you expected.

The conflict gets at its sharpest when considering what should be included when teaching science to children. Scientists, not unreasonably, want science lessons to be about the finding-out process of real science. Some religious people want the pseudoscience that is designed to support their religion included instead, and for this to be accepted on authority.

The crux of the conflict between science and religion is the conflict between evidence and authority.