Are We Heading Toward a Faith-Based Science?

After reading two engaging essays in recent days, I'm now wondering if humanity is heading toward a faith-based science. That is, a future where people trust and believe in science in the same way most humans currently trust and believe in religion. Before you say whether this is a good or bad idea, read the following essay excerpts.

First, from the Esquire feature "15 Geniuses Who Give Us Hope" comes Tom Junod's "We Dream in Science" (via Andrew Sullivan):

"We are not going to live forever. We are not going to have our life spans scientifically amplified to biblical lengths. We will not be able to take pills that will give us the musculature of superheroes or allow us to gorge ourselves while enjoying the health benefits of starvation. We will reach our limits, and, with some hard-won variation, those limits will be — they will feel like — the same limits we humans have always had. We will remain human where it counts, in our helpless and inspiring relation to our own mortality.

"Does this sound obvious? It shouldn't. Indeed, what I should have said from the start is that I believe that we are all going to die, in that science increasingly believes otherwise — and science increasingly has become a matter of belief. Its logic, once pointed at the eradication of disease and infection, is now inexorably pointed at aging and death, which is to say the ultimate questions that were once left to religion.

"... It also means that, as loath as scientists are to admit it, science is simply a superior form of storytelling, its testable hypotheses and its quantifiable phenomena still subject to the human need for overarching narrative. The more ambitious and far-reaching its insights, the less likely it is that they will find expression anywhere but in the circumscribed circumstances of the laboratory or in the limitless expanses of the human imagination."


And as part of the Guardian's "Ten Questions Science Must Answer" article comes Brian Cox's goal for humanity (via Boing Boing):

"Can we make a scientific way of thinking all pervasive? This would be the greatest achievement for science over the coming centuries. I say this because I do not believe that we currently run our world according to evidence-based principles. If we did, we would be investing in an energy Manhattan project to quickly develop and deploy clean energy technologies. We would be investing far larger amounts of our GDP in the eradication of diseases such as malaria, and we would be learning to live and work in space – not as an interesting and extravagant sideline, but as an essential part of our long-term survival strategy."

I'm a ardent believer in the scientific process. I believe this not only because I'm a science fiction writer, but also because one can easily look around our world and see the benefits science has granted humanity. This isn't to say science can't also deliver bad things for humanity—more on this in a moment—but overall I believe science has been a good thing.

Despite this, the idea that people should believe in science in a faith-based manner—which is what both of these essays appear to suggest would either be a good thing or is likely to happen—worries me deeply.

This doesn't mean my worries are driven by a fault with science. Instead, the fault with this approach rests, as always, with human fallibility. Humans simply are not perfect. We'll never be perfect. As a result, no human creation should be given our absolute faith and belief. Not even a noble pursuit like science. 

The November 2010 Atlantic has a great article about how most medical research "is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong." Is the wrongness described in the article the result of a flaw in the scientific method? No. Do these problems result from using evidence-based principles to find solutions to life's problems? Sometimes. After all, it isn't unusual to have contradictory evidence result from similar experiments.

However, the biggest reason for flawed scientific results come from human emotions, needs, and desires intruding into the scientific process. Human are great at twisting science on both subconscious and conscious levels to achieve certain goals. Is this bad science? Of course. But it happens all the time.

This isn't very different from how people twist the stated beliefs of various religions to achieve goals which run against those very religions' core teachings. For example, even though most religions preach against violence, at one time or another believers of every major religion have used their religion to justify horrific violence.

This doesn't mean religion hasn't also had a positive influence on humanity. In the space of a few millennia modern religions have helped turn humanity from an extremely violent species—especially toward people considered to be outside one's "group" or tribe—into a much more peaceful species. Yes, violence still occurs. But compared to levels of violence thousands of years ago, the change toward a more peaceful humanity has been astounding.

Humanity is undergoing a similar change as a result of scientific progress. Since I'm an optimist, I believe this change will one day be as profound and important as the changes in human morality brought about by religion. This doesn't mean science won't also do great harm to us as times. Look at the horrors of World Wars I and II to see what science can do when turned toward violent ends. But overall science is a good thing for humanity.

Unless, I should add, we begin believing in science as if it's a religion. If we have faith that science is as infallible as the Pope. If we put science on a pedestal where one can't question it.

After all, how many of the world's problems result from people having absolute faith that their religion is the ultimate path to truth? And how is that so different from asking for humanity to have a similar absolute faith in science?

The irony is that in many ways we already run our world according to evidence-based principles, just as Brian Cox desires. Unfortunately, these evidence-based principles are usually based around the wrong goals and the wrong evidence. We make decisions based on our emotions and desires, often resulting in only short-term gain for our individual selves. We allow ourselves to think that each of us are among the most important people in the world (which is exactly the evidence our ego-centric minds and senses are programmed to create). We ignore those aspects of life which disagree with our world view—ignore them, that is, until the world forces us in often harsh ways to change our views.

One reason science is such an amazing learning tool is because of skepticism. Ideally scientists don't believe in anecdotes or rumors or any claim lacking empirical evidence. So count me among the skeptics who don't believe having science replace religion as an object of faith would magically result in a paradise on Earth.

I want a world where people both trust in evidence AND are skeptical of that evidence. Where we trust in science but also understand that science can be manipulated by base human desires and needs.

In short, I want a world where we have faith in humanity—even as we acknowledge that sometimes humans absolutely do not deserve such an unquestioning trust.