Saturday, 31 May 2014

Why Science Grows And Religions Stagnate

A couple of interesting articles in the science literature this week showing how science works and why it ultimately corrects it errors, whether because of mistaken claims or deliberately false ones, and above all why it continues to grow and develop. I wonder if any keen theologists can cite examples of religions being extended and kept on track by a similar process.

The first, in Scientific American, concerns the recent announcement of the detection of evidence of gravity waves as predicted by the inflation model of the Big Bang. This model explains a great deal about the observable universe such as why widely separated areas of the Universe that could never have been in contact with one another given the limitations imposed by the velocity of light, appear broadly the same. However, inflation remained a hypothesis pending definitive evidence supported only by the fact of its mathematical elegance and that it explained what can be observed.

Then last March, as reported in this blog and elsewhere a team working on the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (BICEP2) experiment at the South Pole announced that they had found the evidence in the form of gravity waves, or more precisely, evidence for gravity waves; the smoking gun of inflation.

Now, however, and in the finest traditions of a major discovery, some serious questions are being asked and as yet not being fully answered. Doubts have been expressed about the validity of the conclusions from the data which the team have not yet made available for public scrutiny, nor have they produced a promised 'systematics' paper setting out possible sources of error although one was promised. Another problem for the science community is that, although the peer-review process is underway the team have not yet published their findings in a science journal.

Note that no-one is suggesting any dishonesty or falsification of data here, only questioning the validity and reliability of the conclusions from the data and whether it is the conclusive evidence for inflation that it was hailed as initially. As always, the concern is not whether the evidence agrees with the conclusion but whether the conclusion follows from the evidence. This is a crucial difference and one which can't be overstated.

The second article, this time in Science Magazine, is on a different scale altogether and deals with a strong suspicion of dishonesty and data manipulation or falsification. Although not formally proven there is growing concern about the work of Jens Förster, a Dutch researcher in psychology who resigned recently from the University of Amsterdam. As reported by Frank van Kolfschooten in Science Magazine, doubts had been raised about the statistical probability of his results being genuine and not the result of data manipulation to produce the desired results. One enquiry by the University of Amsterdam concluded that they were 'virtually impossible' whilst another concluded that there had been data manipulation in a 2012 paper.

Förster had accepted the charge of data manipulation but claimed the data used was from research in Germany, mostly at Jacobs University Bremen between 1999 and 2008 and suggested an unidentified and over-enthusiastic assistant had changed the data. However, emails have now emerged from 2009 which appear to be discussing the details of the experimental method to be used and which clearly post-date the pre-2008 German research claim. The offer of a professorship at Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany, supported by a €5 million grant from the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, has now been postponed.

So, in both these examples we see the scientific community using the scientific method to ensure that both genuine mistakes and deliberate falsifications are identified and investigated with all sides of the argument being heard before a final conclusion is reached - and the sanctions which inevitably follow from exposed deliberate falsification which can bring a reputation into disgrace and a career to a sudden end.

The reason for this, and the reason why it raises such concern in the scientific community is because the entire point of science is to arrive closer to the ultimate truth and to ensure that any conclusions are only and precisely what the evidence supports, nothing more and nothing less. It does not matter how badly one wishes that there was data to support a favourite hypothesis or how much one wishes to be the first to provide an elusive proof of a hypothesis, and it does not matter how much one researcher might put his own career prospects above his respect for truth, honesty and integrity, or how easily one researcher falls for the temptation to just change the data a little to show the world the 'truth' as he/she sees it, or to flatters his/her boss with the brilliance of his methods. None of this adds to the strength of the conclusion. The only thing that matters is the truth.

Contrast this to what we witness daily in theology and especially fundamentalist theology and apologetics where the only thing that matters is that the argument arrives at the 'right' conclusion; the conclusion that faith tells them is the right one. This allows apologists like William Lane Craig to get away with blatantly false arguments, circular reasoning, repetition of refuted arguments to a different audience and glaring misrepresentation of statistical methods such as Baye's Theorem which, used correctly would have proved the probability of Jesus resurrecting from the dead was virtually zero, as shown here, not the virtual certainty he claimed to the delight of his Christian audience eager for confirmation of their bias.

This is the simple faith fallacy which allows Muslims, Christians, Jews, Shintoists and Hindus to look at the same evidence and arrive at entirely different conclusions, and why that conclusion never changes. It's also why no evidence that might change that conclusion is ever recognised or taken into account. It doesn't support the conclusion therefore the evidence is wrong, and why when asked for the evidence for their god, all supporters of all religions can, with equal confidence and with a sweep of the arm tell you to, "Look around! The evidence is everywhere". The evidence is everywhere because it is simply deemed to be evidence; their faith tells them so. And it's also the reason that what's presented as a serious science text book for Christian schools can come up with this extraordinarily bigoted statement presented as a basic principle of science:

  1. 'Whatever the Bible says is so; whatever man says may or may not be so,' is the only [position] a Christian can take..."
  2. If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.
  3. Christians must disregard [scientific hypotheses or theories] that contradict the Bible.

William S. Pinkerton, Biology for Christian Schools

The conclusion is sacred so the facts must be ignored. If science had staggered along with that philosophy we would still be in the Bronze Age arguing about the best shape for wheels and arrowheads, and you couldn't be reading this. Religions, with their sacred conclusions and fixed dogmas, offering nothing more than comforting certainties, the delusion of false 'knowledge' and excuses for hate and ignorance, have no choice but to become increasingly irrelevant as human society progresses without them.

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