14 October 2009

Is Science the religion for Atheists?

Austin Cline has a good article at About.com on this topic. I just want to focus on one sentence of the article:
To be fair, it can be argued that a certain amount of "faith" exists with how average person accepts what science says.

Cline points out a major difference of "faith" in science to "faith" in religion. In science, if you are willing, you could be in a position to proof to yourself what and how science works, eliminating the need of faith. In religion, you cannot. So that's for the diligent and devoted.

Cline also points out that for most people can observe the practical impacts of what science says and thus don't need to conduct experiments to confirm that scientists are right. Not everyone is able to understand the theories behind how electricity operates, but everyone is able to witness the obvious and dramatic effects of electricity at work — both good and bad.

I would also like to take another approach to this issue. Science is a process - scientific method itself is within the understanding of any rational mind. So even if you are not scientifically oriented, you can understand the scientific process and hence understand why there is no need of faith in the outcome of science. Granted, there are many intentional misinformation which are dressed up like a science argument, but they are not supported by evidence and have not undergone the scientific process of verification. We must learn to distinguish such mal-information from the real information.

Scientific process involves collecting observable repeatable evidence. One off occurrence may happen due to a large number of possibility. That's not the realm of science. Science only deal with repeatable, observable evidence. So, the first step is always to repeat and observe to see if the same phenomenon happens. Equally important is the conditions under which such phenomena are observed reliably and measured. If a phenomenon can only be observable to a single individual, that does not fall into the scope of science as well. The observable evidence must appear to be the same for anyone, not just the scientists! Yes, there are things which appear obvious to me, but not necessarily to you. However, if I indicate to you how I see the phenomenon, you should not have any difficulty in seeing the same phenomenon, because such phenomenon is a physical reality.

"Step" here is just for the purpose of exposition. In most situation, all the steps occur at the same time and/or shortly after each other and not always in the same order as presented here.

The next step is to propose a theory. The theory must satisfy several important criteria. One, it must be compatible to ALL previously established theories in ALL scientific disciplines. If two theories are contradictory to each other, one of them must be discarded, expanded, modified (whatever) to remove the incompatibility. ALL scientific theories are mutually compatible.

Two, the theory must be able to "explain" the observed phenomenon. Here explain means by applying a deductive logic, the observed phenomenon can be deduced from the theory.

Third, any other deduction from the theory must also be physical reality.

This is where step three starts. The theory is used to create new predictions. The predictions are then converted/expressed in observable events. Experiments are conducted to look for the predicted observable events. So in a way, scientists are also looking for "strange" observable events not commonly obvious to most people except those in the same field. If the observed event does not appear as predicted (at the probability frequency as predicted) then the theory has to be rejected, modified.

If this sounds hard enough, there is yet another hurdle for anyone claiming to be a scientist. The result must be published and be verified by someone else. In the publication parlance, the publishing has to go through a double-blind review process. Double-blind means the reviewer does not know who the author is AND the author does not know who the reviewer is. This eliminate personal favouritism and/or bias. For reputable publication, this double-blind review process is rigorous and demanding and is usually carried out by more than one reviewer. A standard practice is three independent reviewers.

In other words, if the observation is NOT a physical reality, the observation will not happen to a random third person and the theory will fail the double-blind review process. That also means the theory will not receive acceptance in the scientific community.

While some scientific theories are not fully settled - scientists are still arguing some parts of the theory, most of the times, such parts are only "academic" especially for theories which have general acceptance within the scientific community.

Scientific knowledge at the cutting edge is evolving, all the time - that's how progress is made. So adjusting, modifying, rejecting theory is part of the everyday life of any scientist. But a vast majority of established scientific theories are mature enough for us layman to apply and be benefited from such understanding. For example, when Einstein's relativity disproved Newton's laws of motion, it does not mean that Newton's laws of motion is completely wrong. It means that at speed near the speed of light, Newton's laws of motion is wrong. But at our human speed, both Einstein's relativity and Newton's laws of motion produce practically the same result. In this case, the scope of Newton's law of motion is adjusted and limited only to speed substantially smaller than the speed of light. Scientists still frequently rely on Newton's laws of motion as short hand when dealing with speed smaller than that of light.

With this insight, I hope everyone can understand that science DOES NOT require faith. The scientific method ensures the scientific theory is accurate to the best of understanding at that point in time. Major scientific theory may still happen and may throw some existing theories into the garbage bin. Until then, I don't need any faith to have trust on scientific result because I know that the scientific process has ensured a correct interpretation of reality for us.

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