Island Map


An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
(A review)

The Doubter's Companion:
by John Ralston Saul (Excerpts)

Skeptic Magazine:

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:

A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Place Where We Are Right

The Meaning of
  the Island of

More Doubtful Blogs
Carl Zimmer
Chris C. Mooney
Chet Raymo
SciAm Perspectives
Other Worthy Blogs
Rob Cottingham
John Gushue
Derek Raymaker
Author's site:


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2005 Archives

May 3:
  Climate of Bias

May 10:
  Repent or Resign

May 17:

May 24:
  Vector of a Weird
May 31:
  Museum Piece

June 7:
  History Will
  Teach Us Nothing

June 16:
  Castration of
  Public B'casting

June 21:
  Alarum of the Deep
June 28:
  Up Against the Wall
July 5:
  Fusion Confusion

Random Douglas Adams quote

By doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
--- Peter Abelard

July 12, 2005

Few claims give me as much cause for hyperventilation as the description of science as just another ideology or religion. Let's put this ridiculous notion to rest once and for all. Science is not a religion. Neither is it an ideology, but even it was, it would be an ideology like no other.

The most common arena in which this argument is introduced these days is the evolution-creationism debate. Typically, some well-meaning and otherwise enlightened columnist will weigh in on a local school board battle over whether "alternatives" to evolution should be taught in science classes. For example, Susan Hanley Lane, a columnist for the Hendersonville Times-News, one of the local dailies here in western North Carolina, recently tackled the subject and concluded that, when it comes to biological evolution and Judeo-Christian creationism, "Both teach a religious point of view, neither of which is provable."

A few days later, over at the Times-News' parent flagship, the New York Times, New York University law professor Noah Feldman confused rationalism with faith by urging secularists to argue "for the rightness of their beliefs" when debating evangelical Christians New York Times Magazine, July 3, 2005).

Even prominent members of the evolution camp, like philosopher Michael Ruse, can be heard comparing evolution to a religion. His book, the The Evolution-Creation Struggle, is largely devoted to equating the two. For Ruse, evolutionism is an entire world view built on the power of evolution to explain much of what we see in the natural world.

As wise as all these people may be, I couldn't disagree more. First of all, Ruse's evolutionism is just ideology, not religion. Second, while I applaud sincere efforts to bridge the chasm between religious fundamentalists and secular humanists, simply redefining science as a religion is tantamount to Orwellian doublespeak.

Here's the difference between science and religion: The former is the pursuit of truth through the testing of models of reality against the best fact-based evidence; the latter is the pursuit of truth through absolute faith in a supernatural authority.

Scientists do not have faith; they have degrees of confidence, sometimes approaching, but never quite reaching, certainty. Religious adherents do have faith; they are certain about those things that their scriptures and leaders have told them are important.

Scientists spend their lives questioning the assumptions of the current model of the universe; the most successful overturn the popular consensus and replace it with a new understanding. The faithful spend their lives trying to avoid contradicting revealed wisdom; the most successful attain absolute confidence in the immutability of their world view.

Consider the current state of affairs in cosmology. For the past few decades, almost everyone has assumed the universe as we know it began as an infinitesimally small point, which then exploded, and continues to expand. It was the only explanation that made sense of the available astronomical observations.

"The Big Bang is such a profound theory, and it's even more amazing because it's embraced by nearly everyone working in cosmology today," writes Simon Singh, in his widely praised new book Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.

But lately, that "standard model" of the universe is coming under attack by those who are unhappy with the model, which seems to require that only four percent of the universe is composed of stuff you and I would consider "matter." Another 23 per cent is "dark matter," about which there is much theorizing but no facts, and the remaining 73 per cent is "dark energy," about which we know even less.

This makes for very messy math. Maybe, say the contrarians, a simpler answer is that the Big Bang theory is wrong. (See New Scientist, July 2, 2005.)

This would be the equivalent of Billy Graham admitting that maybe Jesus isn't the son of God after all. That's not going to happen. (Or, I should say, the chances of that happening are exceedingly low.)

The proverbial jury is still out on the Big Bang challenge. But this kind of thing does happen in scientific circles. Consider last week's announcement that archeologists have discovered evidence of human habitation of North American 40,000 years ago. If the footprints they came across in Mexico are really that old, a great deal of textbook revision would be in order, as the common understanding today is that humans made it across the Bering Strait no more than 13,000 years ago. Make no mistake -- this is huge. It challenges much of what we thought we knew about human history.

Even evolution is vulnerable to such revolutions, in theory. I personally consider it unlikely that the basic idea -- the diversity of life on Earth can be explained by the fact that the most fit individuals in a population are more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation -- will be overthrown. But the point is that it could be, and every evolutionary biologist knows it. New York Times reporter Cordelia Dean considered such a scenario in her article of July 5:

And if this messy process were to produce an alternative to evolution that better explains nature and better meets the tests of experiment and observation, biologists would have to revise their ideas or even scrap them.

That would be a stunning shock, comparable to the shock that swept physics in the post-Planck decades of the 20th century. But biology would deal with it. And whoever initiated this shock would be at least as big a figure in biology as Planck is in physics.

Planck, in case you've forgotten your high school physics, is very big. I dare anyone to argue that any religion could accommodate a similar shakeup. And that's why science is not a religion.

James Hrynyshyn

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