Friday, February 17, 2012

I Don’t Need to Defend Science

I have a background in science, though I wouldn’t call myself an expert. I started out in pharmacy and did that for 4 years (of a 6 year degree). When I gave it up, I switched over to studying religion, and I also did a fair amount of study on cosmology. Before that I had taken quite a bit of biology, biochemistry, genetics, and basically anything that focused on living things.

Still, I don’t like talking to believers about the Big Bang or evolution. It’s annoying, since I know they are not paying attention. They’re just waiting for their chance to try to insert their ignorance into it and pretend that their inability to understand simple concepts means that it cannot be true. It’s futile to try to explain to someone how something works if they refuse to believe it even exists. It feels like I’m talking to a crazy person, and I don’t like talking to crazy people, so I try to steer the conversation back around to religion, where I can feel like they’re just stupid, not crazy. I can cope with stupid people, because you can fix stupid; you can’t fix crazy.

I just don’t feel compelled to defend science, because science doesn’t need defending. Even religious people almost universally trust science more than religion in actual practice. No one walks around with a bracelet that has a list of their religious information and the number of their priest, who should be contacted in case of a medical emergency. When someone is hurt, no one calls out, “Is there a clergyman? We need a pastor, immediately!” You aren’t reading this through prayers that are beamed up to heaven and sent back down to you by Our Heavenly Father through magical, supernatural means.

With the exception of the extreme nutballs out, people do not substitute religion for science. Religion is a theatre putting on a play called “Knowledge,” while science is an actual library. Religion can’t even come close to science when it comes to real applications. Most religious believers know through casual observation that they’re better off with medicine than prayer. Why should I have to defend something that is so universally accepted as actually being true and useful?

Through their very actions, most believers acknowledge that medical science is true. They wouldn’t get MRSA and say, “Oh, I’m not really sick. Evolution isn’t real, so I don’t have a disease that has evolved to be immune to common antibiotics. I’m fine.” But, if you suggest they were descended from monkeys (as opposed to being formed by mud), then they get offended. This is because they are stupid, and it doesn’t matter to them (or the medicine they take) that their drugs were tested on animals (since we evolved from them and have similar anatomy).

When it comes to questioning the validity of science, the religious are saying one thing and doing another. The same is true of the physical sciences. The world seems unusually devoid of miracles (except all those miracles that magically happen in hospitals…).

Unless you’re Amish, you reap the benefits of the physical sciences all the time. You’re reading this on a screen that was scientifically developed, which is transmitted via scientifically developed telecommunications, using scientifically developed power. It makes me laugh when I have a conversation with someone on such a scientifically dependent medium as the internet, and the other person just isn’t impressed with science.

But that’s the magic of science. You don’t have to believe in it or understand it to get the benefits. You can’t say that of religion. Religion doesn’t let you gain its benefits without first believing. You can’t get into heaven as a non-believer. You can’t even get the relief of thinking you’re going to heaven while you’re alive unless you believe. Religion only benefits those who adhere to it.

It’s not that religion is selfish, but rather, religion only exists if you believe it does. If you cease to believe in religion, or just never heard of it, then it ceases to exist for you. It plays no role in your life, it affects nothing (though religious followers are another matter altogether). This is in sharp contrast to science, where turning on a light switch will still always work, even if you don’t believe in electricity.

And at this point, all I can think of is a quote by Philip K. Dick:

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”


  1. That last quote reminds me of this one: "Believing in bullshit does not make it true."

    Don't know who said that.

    1. Ah, but believing in something does change things. The placebo effect, for example, is real, but that doesn't make a placebo medicine.

      Why... that reminds me of a quote by George Bernard Shaw: "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

    2. the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

      Which brings up some interesting thoughts on Christopher Hitchens.

    3. "Believing in bullshit does not make it true."
      Don't know who said that.

      Nikk Jakson in reply to more Bret Alan posts and comments than I can count.

  2. Well stated, and I agree with an exception. When religious people try to bring their religion into public schools & government. The creationism vs evolution is a great example. In these cases I speak up. I have family who fall on the side of religion. I have tried to tell them that science takes no stand on religion, but they feel attacked by it. I tell them that people who believed the earth was the center of the universe seem to have gotten over it. Why is this issue so hot?

    btw..huge PKD fan...

    1. I also speak out against religion in government and schools. It's not that religion "disappears" to the non-believer... I mean, we get stuck seeing it all the time... but it's through the actions of other believers. Religion ceases to exist for the atheist after they stop following it, but the consequences of other believers are what persist and continue to cause those who want nothing to do with religion to feel infringed upon.

      I did my senior research paper on PKD. I got to actually work with a woman who knew him when he lived near Berkeley.


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