Several bloggers have commented on this article by Tom Stern about Ken Ham’s creation museum published in The Point magazine. While Stern’s article was generally OK in its presentation of Ham’s museum as pseudoscience unsupported by facts, he spoils the ending with a false conflation of science with religion. And although he claims he isn’t doing this (“Of course science isn’t a faith: it builds bridges…” etc), he really is and in a most intellectually lazy way. This is what you find towards the end of the article:
I was taught the earth is four billion years old and, going around the Museum, I realized I don’t actually know how “they” know that.
This isn’t the tired retort, often aimed at Dawkins et al., that science is just another faith. Of course science isn’t a faith: it builds bridges, it puts Americans on the moon and finds extraordinary new ways for us to kill each other. But it has more in common with faith than either the religious or scientific community would like us to admit. For Nietzsche, this was particularly evident in the consideration of scientific methods: there’s something comforting about the repetitive rituals of the scientific and technical life, which mimics the priestly cure of the Hail Mary or morning prayer. And there’s something silencing, too, about the way facts are presented to the public—as fossilized nuggets of information not to be questioned. Where once we used to turn to the priest for advice and guidance, now we turn to the scientific expert; we bend to the stamp of his authority, his status, his style—compare the expert witness in the courtroom to the priest at the hanging.
So science isn’t faith, but Stern doesn’t know how we know the age of the Earth and Nietzsche wrote something about the rituals of science being like religion, and so science really is like faith, except it isn’t. I find it telling that Stern finds the the time to mention Nietzsche seven (count them) times (why?) but apparently doesn’t have ten seconds to put earth is four billion years old into Google and find out how we know the age of the Earth. (If he had, he would have soon found this nice explanation of Isochron Dating.)
So what if there is “something comforting” about the rituals of science? Many secular activities include comforting things. The rituals of baseball are comforting to fans, the ritual of cooking a meal for friends can be comforting, the rituals associated with Star Trek fandom can be comforting to trekkies… you get the idea. But that doesn’t make these things religions. Or if it does it uses a definition of religion that is so wide as to be virtually meaningless. If everything is like religion, then nothing is. In reality, the “rituals” of science (which are not “rituals”, but procedures), since they are performed for a reason, are further from religion than the rituals of baseball etc. And frankly, I imagine many of the detailed procedures necessary for many science experiments are more tedious than comforting, anyway. So Stern is wrong here in at least two different ways.
This idea that science has religious-like “rituals”, scientists are “priests”, or “men of the white cloth” (lab coats), science journals are “holy scriptures” etc etc is something I have heard a lot of recently. It’s old, tired drivel. Science can be questioned. And, amazingly, this applies even to subjects that Tom Stern does not fully comprehend. Science is questioned by both scientists and non scientists. Only, unlike with religion, there is a basis for questioning and determining what scientific theories we accept and what we don't – the evidence. What do they use in religion to determine what to accept? Well, nothing really, other than what some authority just happens to think. They have no externally verifiable basis for determining what is true and what isn’t. By comparing scientists to priests, Stern is just lazily looking at the surface – what might appear to be happening – without delving any deeper. Then it occurred to me this is just cargo cult religion.
In 1974 Richard Feynman gave a lecture at Caltech where he described what he called cargo cult science - work that has the semblance of being scientific, but is missing the things necessary for real science:
In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. [My bold.]
It struck me that referring to scientists as “priests”, or science journals as “holy books” is cargo cult religion. Stern is examining scientific things that look similar to religion and using this to conflate the two. But this conflation of science and religion is cargo cult religion the same way as pseudoscience is cargo cult science. It may have the semblance of religion, but is missing the things necessary for real religion. (Thankfully.) Although science may have the appearance of some aspects of religion, it is different in all the ways that actually matter.
Of course, in an ideal world we should not just accept everything scientists tell us, but should examine their arguments to see if they are valid. But not everyone has the time or the inclination to do this with every claim they hear. Stern himself is proof of this. And even scientists cannot be experts in fields that are not their own. But just because each one of us hasn’t personally performed every scientific experiment ever performed in the history of the world, that doesn’t mean our acceptance of scientific knowledge is like religion. We trust what science tells us because science has a track record of being right more often than any other method of inquiry. But trust is not faith, and trusting experts in areas where we are not experts, is not religion.
Few if any of the similarities between science and religion are interesting or useful. On the other hand, the differences between science and religion are profound. Stern spoiled what could have been a reasonable expose of Ken Ham’s silly museum by dragging out this discredited canard once again.