Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thoughts on God in scientific research

In The God Issue of New Scientist, there was an article by Stenger which claimed that because science has not proven that God exists, God must not exist. After reading this, I pouted. I felt that it's not very good science to claim that because experiments designed to prove the existence of God yield non-significant results, these non-significant results prove God doesn't exist. I've had plenty of experiments with non-significant results. If that proves that the opposite is true, then I've made some pretty awesome negative discoveries! I'd better get those published!

The next few weeks have had many letters-to-the-editor about The God Issue. Mainly, they seemed offended by the articles which did not firmly proclaim God's non-existence--few of them had any problems with the article by Stenger. So I laughed when I saw this letter about the article that annoyed me:

Stenger confidently states that prayers have not been shown to have been answered. For some time now, I have been praying for other people’s prayers not to be answered. Could this explain these findings?
                -From Les Hearn; London, UK

I am so thrilled that I’m not the only one who found this article ridiculous!

In his article, Stenger’s main “proof” that God does not exist is that a study to determine whether intercessory prayers help recovery of surgery patients had non-significant data. Like the writer of the letter, I was amused that Stenger came to such strong conclusions based on non-significant data from one study. This is not good science. I was even more amused because the first time I heard about this study was in a book called The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (reviewed here). Beauregard claimed the same exact studies were indicative that God DID exist. He pointed out that there was a (albeit non-significant) data trend, and talked around experimental design and data analysis jargon to make himself sound more convincing. Isn’t it amusing that two scientists find their own personal beliefs so important to them that they take exactly the same study and (unconsciously) twist it to help them prove contradictory points?

Because of human errors exactly like these, I have long felt that science was rather like a religion—perhaps it is impossible for emotional humans to stick rigorously to the scientific method? Here are elements that science has in common with some of the oft-criticised aspects of organized religion:

Indoctrination/faith: scientists start out learning and accepting a set of “facts” laid out by those older and wiser than us (teachers/professors). Sometimes these “facts” are rather difficult to stomach—like an object that can move from point A to point B without moving anywhere in between??? (electron tunneling)

Ideology: Scientists (hopefully unconsciously) twist the experimental design or data analysis in order to fit our personal hypotheses. We ignore or discard data which is contradictory to our hypotheses (usually with a rationalized reason). We see what we want to see. This type of interpretation is unfortunately natural to humans and generally not a purposeful act, but it happens more often than we'd like to admit.

Heretics: Scientists ostracize other people from the scientific community if they suggest a hypothesis or provide data which is contrary to widely accepted (dogmatic) beliefs. These people sometimes turn out to be right, but generally after it’s too late for their ruined careers.

I like to be aware of these issues so that I can avoid falling into traps in my own work. I also think it's a good idea to be cautiously skeptical of dogmatic beliefs, and to accept that perhaps they could be wrong--entirely, or partially. I am also skeptical of models, whether they be quantum physics models or cell signaling models. Although I appreciate the amount of work scientists go through to develop these models, and I also appreciate the fact that these models can accurately predict the physical world most of the time, I think it's good to recognize that these really are just MODELS for the real world. The real world is almost always more complex than we could ever fully predict.


  1. First of all, I love the picture at the beginning of this entry (I might steal it at some point).

    As someone who's never been able to stomach religion, I think that your post is very rational and well-reasoned, though I ultimately disagree with the science=religion metaphor, because it lacks the requisite belief in non-observeable metaphysical phenomena (except in more conceptual stages, which I'd agree start sounding a lot like religion). Anyways, interesting post.

    From Nigel Braithwaite, Redditch Worcestershire, UK

    You state “Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life.” So somehow it is “rational” to expect people to believe that a particle can be in two places at once and indeed not in either, and it is “rational” to base an entire branch of science on the existence of a particle which—as yet—cannot be seen, but it is not “rational” to believe in a deity (can be in more than one place at a time, cannot be seen).

  3. Hi Sam! I thought I'd post another letter to the editor which states my thoughts on this subject exactly. I tend to think of science in the conceptual stages...I'm a biologist myself, and I think a lot of models in biology are as "out there" as quantum physics.

    I'm not saying I think these models aren't useful--they are! they are!

    I'm just saying that we have faith in things like this because someone with a white lab coat tells us it's true.

    How is that different from someone with a black suit and white collar telling us something is true? ;)


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