Science vs Religion on The Daily Show

Normally, I have great respect for Jon Stewart as an interviewer. On The Daily Show, he knows when to be serious and let his guests say their piece, but he’s also primarily a comedian rather than a journalist and so he has the freedom to call them like he sees them when he feels like it. For a great example of one of his better interviews, I like this wonderful mid-Obama-Administration talk with David Axelrod: 1, 2, and 3. However, Thursday I was rather stymied by his interview with Marilynne Robinson, about her new book on religion vs. science.

First, let me say that I thought Robinson did a terrible job making her thesis clear. It sounded to me like she was trying to say, basically, that Big Science and Big Religion are at each others’ throats when they don’t have to be. (This is, aside from the implied existence of Big Science and Big Religion, a fine idea – though not a very new one.) However, she would say things like,

people on one side of the argument have claimed the authority of science, but they have not construed an argument that satisfies the standards of science.

As soon as I heard her say that, I thought her statement begged the question: What’s “the argument?” Who, representing capital-S Science, had made an Argument to or about capital-R Religion? So far as I know, the scientific method and body of scientific knowledge is not diametrically opposed in any way to religious belief. Certainly, a scientific theory could contradict a religious tenet, but “science” and “religion” themselves are not the mutually exclusive poles of any spectrum I can think of. Nor can I think of any “argument” that the entire scientific community or body of knowledge have with the very idea of religion. I waited with bated breath to hear Stewart immediately voice my thoughts (“And what argument would that be?”), but sat in frustration as he nodded along with her, letting her define this imagined Science vs Religion debate on her own terms.

This struck me as dangerous.

Perpetuating the idea that Science and Religion are set against one another is dangerous because it implies that they are somehow equivalent, or at least equivalently valid means to accomplish the same thing. That implication is dangerous because it opens up questions like, “Why can’t we teach religion in science classes?” (Or even, “Why can’t we teach science in religious school?” – something that I also do not think is appropriate.) In fact, science and religion are not equivalent ideas or equivalent means. Science is a set of methods by which people can rigorously develop models of aspects of the universe based on observational data, as well as the accumulated collection of such models (which we call “scientific knowledge”). Religion is a belief system, based on faith rather than observation, mostly concerning ethics and morality, but with a good deal of mythology, and sometimes rituals designed around some socioeconomic lines thrown in. I have not heard “religion” collectively offer an alternative to the scientific method for garnering knowledge about the cosmos, nor have I heard the scientific community offer a set of ethical guidelines on how best to treat our fellow human beings.

When Stewart finally asked Robinson to provide an example of an “argument” made by “science” that does not satisfy the standards of science, she said:

I don’t think, frankly, that it’s scientific to proceed from the study of ants to a conclusion about the nature of the cosmos.

Again, given the ludicrous nature of that statement, I was surprised that Stewart didn’t make it an obvious jumping-off point for a joke. (My own would have been, “Oh, you read the last issue of Cosmological Entomology, too?”) Seriously – in what peer-reviewed journal article have any scientists, say, proposed a model explaining the nature of dark matter based on the exoskeletal structure of the ant? Not only does this premise seem completely fabricated, but I take issue with her statement that such a conceptual connection – extremely unlikely though it may be! – is unscientific. On what grounds does she make that claim, and by what authority can she determine what is “scientific” and what isn’t? If a scientist can, through rigorous, repeatable experiments, develop a model that connects ants with quantum gravity, and that model stands to peer review, then it is certainly scientific. (Whether that scenario is possible or probable is another matter.)

Jon Stewart himself provided the most damaging statement of the interview:

I’ve always been fascinated that the more you delve into science the more it appears to rely on faith.

His supporting example?

You know, they start to speak about the universe, and they say, “well, it’s actually, most of the universe is antimatter.” Oh, really, where’s that? “Well, you can’t see it.” Well, well, where is it? “It’s there.” Well, can you measure it? “Eh…we’re working on it.”

His implication being, of course, that scientists take the existence of dark matter (I think he must mean dark matter) on faith, just like religions take the existence of their gods and afterlives and morality on faith. He couldn’t be more wrong – scientists did not suddenly wake up one day, invent the idea of dark matter, and go around preaching to all other scientists the Gospel of Dark Matter. No, they developed the idea of dark matter as a model that fit certain exhaustive observations of the rotation rates of galaxies. They fact that we cannot see dark matter with our eyes is not relevant. Years of observations led to a model including the presence of dark matter, and further observations have been consistent with that model. No scientist asks another to accept the existence of dark matter on faith.

Certainly, if you question a scientist enough, you will get them to the point where they will tell you, “I don’t know the answer to that question.” What’s inside a book? Paper. Inside the paper? Cellulose molecules. In those? Atoms. Those? Protons, neutrons, electrons. Inside the protons? Quarks. Inside those? I don’t know. Or I can’t conceive of that. Science does not have a model that gives a meaningful answer to that question, and in fact, under the Standard Model the question itself may not be meaningful. Some people make the claim – as Stewart made, above – that scientists therefore ask us to take quarks on faith. All the accelerator experiments and mathematical modeling and careful observation that led to the formulation of a model that includes the quark are thus thrown aside in favor of the implication that the existence of the quark is a tenet of some belief system. Certainly it is true that some scientific theories (gravity, relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics, ray optics, thermodynamics, …) are so widely accepted, so consistent with data, and so successful that scientists cite and use them without further proof. But this is not the same as assuming that they are true a priori. This is, in Newton’s words, standing on the shoulders of giants. And it’s an entirely practical step if we are to push the boundaries of scientific achievement. The proofs and supporting data do exist. And whenever a scientist says “I don’t know,” really what he or she means is “I don’t know yet,” for not knowing something at present certainly doesn’t mean that we cannot find out. (I’ll get back to you about the inside of the quark, but it may be a while.)

There is another key difference between science and religion that makes the idea of an Argument between them difficult to imagine. Religious beliefs are an individual choice, while scientific knowledge comes from prescribed processes and observations. For example, I can choose whether to believe in the God of Judaism, the Pantheon of Roman gods, Buddhist nirvana, or none. I can choose which religious philosophy to ascribe to, which morality to accept. However, I don’t get any such choice when it comes to scientific theories. Such theories are models that fit observed data, whether or not I believe that they are true. In fact, some famous scientific theories arose when a scientist came up with an interesting way to fit data, and published the theory simply as that – a novel way to get a good fit. Only later did those models turn out to have further implications for the structure of our universe. (For a very profound example, see Planck’s discovery of the quantization of energy.)

I can think of two principles that scientists take on faith. One: That we can observe the universe around us. Two: That we can derive conclusions from those observations and our previous conclusions. Those are the cornerstones of scientific philosophy. The specific content of accepted scientific models comes from years, decades, and centuries of accumulated data and theory. Scientists do not “believe” in their theories, because such belief is irrelevant to the fact that observational data supports those theories.

Robinson made one statement that resonated with me. She said,

The gladiators for both sides are, I think, inferior representatives of both sides, and that’s where a lot of the conflict comes from.

I think that Robinson perhaps may have been confusing science with atheism throughout this interview – and, perhaps, in her book, as well. But, certainly, I can think of many inferior representatives of religious thought. However, if the most outspoken “scientists” are “inferior representatives” of science, then our scientific community has some serious failings. It is true that scientific communication and outreach can be very difficult, and is often misleading or confusing to the layperson, and that is a problem that I think must be addressed if we want everyone to have a full understanding of scientific thought and be able to think critically about scientific results. Stewart’s thought that scientists take the existence of dark matter on faith is one great example of such a failing in scientific communication. Another prime example is that most students first learn that a “hypothesis” is an “educated guess,” which means that lay people often equate hypotheses with guesswork. These sorts of imprecisions in communication have definitely contributed to and exacerbated things like the debate over whether certain religions’ beliefs can be taught in science classrooms.

I’m going to close this post by wishing that Carl Sagan was still around. Anyone interested in the “debate” between science and religion – or the (more legitimate) debate between atheism and religion – really should read his novel Contact. It contains some wonderful insights into those debates in the scenes where Ellie Arroway and Palmer Joss argue with each other, and demonstrates that Sagan understood those debates – both sides – on a much deeper level than Robinson seems to. Contact also serves as a wonderful window into Sagan’s agnosticism in its climax and denouement. I won’t spoil it for you except to say that Sagan saw value in applying scientific methodology to religion – devising experiments to test religious beliefs – and he was perfectly willing to accept a positive outcome, if that is what the experimental data indicates. I think that is the proper intersection of those two spheres.

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