Ask Surly Amy: Science vs Faith

Ask Surly Amy

Hello Amy.

So, my bf and I had a debate about religion and belief systems. I was raised as a Christian growing up and became Agnostic a few years ago and got into skepticism. My bf was brought up as a Catholic and says he doesn’t really practice anymore, yet he wears a Catholic cross around his neck in tribute everyday. I am accepting of him and I love him of course, but sometimes his differences do bug me a bit. I told him that science is more real than faith because scientists do experiments and actually have evidence to back up their claims. He brought up some good questions. How do we know that science isn’t wrong and that the evidence is reliable? Scientists have been known to run many experiments that have failed so is there really a way to count anything as truth these days? Is everything really just faith? After all, Scientists are humans that are just more educated than most of us. I’d appreciate if you could tell me a good way to respond.


My response after the jump!

Scientific Method

Dear M,

The difference between science and faith is indeed that science has evidence to back up its claims and faith does not.

We have evidence that gravity exists for many reasons and anyone, including you and me, can conduct experiments that show evidence of a gravitational pull with repeatable results. In an extremely simplified example, you can drop a book from your hands and watch it fall to the floor. You can pick up that book and drop it and again it will fall to the floor. I can conduct similar experiments with a similar book in a similar environment and get similar results as you. I can predict that the book will fall to the floor, conduct the book dropping experiment and then use those repeatable results to establish data regarding book dropping and gravity. We both have evidence that the book is going to fall and not float in mid air. We can make predictions based upon the book-dropping and test them. I do not have faith that the book will fall. I have established evidence that shows me that the book will fall and anyone can test that claim and acquire similar results. We can then build upon that data with other experiments. Evidence is reliable if it can provide testable, repeatable results.

You mention scientists conducting experiments that fail and that is a good thing! In order for something to be validated is has to have the possibility of being proven wrong. Unfalsifiable claims are outside the realm of science. If you can not conduct an experiment that could prove something false you can not prove that it is real either. The idea of a God is unfalsifiable or untestable and therefore faith based and is much like an invisible pink unicorn, Russell’s Teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Just because you can not prove that something isn’t there does not mean that it is there.

So no, everything isn’t ‘just faith’. Faith is what you are left with in the absence of evidence. And yes, you can test evidence to see if it is reliable. That is what science does best!

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

*Ask Surly Amy is meant for entertainment purposes only. All advice should be taken with as much skepticism as anything else, really.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. The only “failed” experiment is one that doesn’t provide useful information. And even that should be carefully reexamined to compensate for bias-generated blindness.

    In the general context of “failed experiments”, though, the fact that some experiments fail to support their hypotheses does not negate all of science. That’s like saying that because sometimes people drown, all water is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Perhaps the hypothesis was incorrect. Perhaps the experiment was flawed. Perhaps the data generated will give insight into new ways of approaching the concept being investigated.

    And how do we know that science isn’t wrong and the evidence is reliable? As Amy said, it’s replicability. If you and I and dozens or hundreds of other people can conduct the same experiment in different places and times and achieve the same results, that’s a good indicator that the evidence is reliable.

    Rather than having good questions, it sounds like your boyfriend just doesn’t understand how science works.

  2. I’m sure the bf could pull up lots of examples of flawed scientific experiments, but science is open to whole of its community to prove its validity. As Amy and Rebel 16 said, if evidence is not valid, flaws will show up in repeated testing.
    The very nature of faith is that despite having no evidence or flaws you chose to believe in it. And that is a necessity for its existence. Evidence doesn’t demand belief, it is just real or not.
    Science requires criticism and debunking to hone the evidence. Religion shuns critics as heretics and sinners.

  3. “Science doesn’t give absolute answers, so it’s no better than / so it’s just the same as faith” is just messing with words.

    I _know_ my fridge right now contains, amongst other things, salami, pepperoni, strawberry jam, milk and cheese. I know this because of personal observation and experience, both of the content, and the regular routes of access. Theoretically all those items could have spontaneously disintegrated, or a cat burgler could have snuck and and stolen them, or god could have replaced them with two small sticks and 3 cc of mouse blood, so someone could say I don’t really know what’s in my fridge, I just have faith that there’s salami, pepperoni, strawberry jam, milk and cheese.

    Yes, someone could say that, but they’d have to be a dick.

  4. I’ve never been clear on what a “failed” scientific experiment is supposed to be. Is it because the outcome wasn’t what one expected? That’s not failed — that’s data! I look to my own research as an example. I’m looking for young extrasolar planets in a particular star forming region of our Galaxy. If I don’t find any….did I fail? Was the experiment a flop? No! Not discovering planets is itself a discovery. It tells us something about the Universe. It may not be as sexy as finding a new planet, but it is a useful constraint.

    Now if by failed, one means ‘flawed’….well that certainly happens. I may not find any planets because there aren’t any there, or because my experiment has some methodological flaw. But that’s why we publish, have peer review, present at conferences, and have discussions over beers…so we can find those flaws. Science has a method for overcoming mistakes and obstacles: it’s called discussion! The problem with faith is that it’s not really up for discussion. With faith, people say: “I just know.” That’s not knowledge…that’s just guessing and being stubborn about it.

  5. It sounds like the boyfriend is asking some postmodernist questions. How can there be objectivity when everything is subjective? I hate arguing with a postmodernist. No amount of logic or evidence will convince them that you are right, because they believe everything is subject to their own perceptions. It is hard to win an argument when you can’t definitively prove that you actually exist.

  6. I think the bf might be wandering into the philosophically boring territory of “how do we know anything is real, man?” as a way of rejecting science. As far as that goes, science works in what we have decided is the real world. The degree of realness of that world is debatable, but it is as meaningless to our lives as constantly thinking about whether or not we are in the matrix.

    Science is better because it fucking works. Every piece of technology you own, every medical intervention that saves your life, every picture of distant star systems that would take us a million lifetimes to reach is an affirmation of that statement. When religion does better, dude will have a tenable position.

  7. The false correlation between “good science” and “positive results” is widespread and problematic. Take for example the current hysteria over the XMRV retrovirus as a potential causative agent for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Are my fellow patients calling for *good* science to replicate the original, iffy study? No, many of them are screaming for *positive* studies.

    I understand, they want a happy answer that comes with a cure, but the wailing and breast-beating over every negative study that’s come out since drives me up the wall. Science is being utterly forgotten amidst emotion.

  8. @mikerattlesnake: My English major college roommate (the rest of us where all scientists of various ilks) used to say “If it works, it’s science”

    If reality is an illusion, it is a shared, internally consistent illusion, or experiments wouldn’t be replicable, and science wouldn’t work. Since it does work, we have to live in that illusion. So what does it matter if reality is real or not?

    And why doesn’t Opera’s spell-checker recognize “replicable”? Does it have something against scientific experiment?

  9. I’m always glad to see people discussing this issue, as I feel like the “science is just another kind of faith” meme gets a free pass far too often. Not to toot my own horn about it, but that’s why I went and wrote a bit about it on my own blog: As soon as we can, as a culture, get past this, we can get on to understanding what role science can play in society.

  10. Science will work whether you believe in it or not.
    I think the best comment I have heard recently about experiments is from Neil DeGrasse Tyson…
    “Any experiment is useful with a positive or negative result.”
    I agree totally with CosmicThespian, it’s not failed, it’s data! If your experiment “fails” congratulations, you now have more information than you had before, but you have a crappy idea of what an experiment should be.

  11. It sounds like he was going down the path of the “you can never be 100%” argument. This is true. We can’t be 100%, we are only human and are therefore limited and fallible.

    This is why science never claims to be 100% and simply aims to be beyond reasonable doubt.

    But as you said Amy, the most important thing is that we can at least run tests that have a chance of being false, repeat the tests, measure the results, and use those results to come to a conclusion (either positive or negative). Religion starts with the conclusion and doesn’t do anything else.

  12. @Buzz Parsec

    Opera? That’s what you get for using an arts based browser.
    What you need is a science-based browser.
    I been looking around and the ones that I’ve found are metal-based, travel-based, or involve setting small mammals alight. That last one seems particularly cruel.

    Anyway, good luck.

    (Using Opera because it works on Windows Me, I need a better job. j/k boss :))

  13. I will say that the one point to be made is that sometimes scientists aren’t to be trusted. When my non skeptic friends say “well science isn’t PERFECT”, I will say “well no people aren’t perfect, science isn’t a person”. N-Rays, incorrect treatments for illnesses (ulcer treatments are different now than they were 25 years ago), scientists theorizing about “Big Bang” “Dark Matter” and things the average person doesn’t differentiate from science of say penecillin working on infections.

    So one thing I always try to point out is that science has a meaning more than “guys in white lab coats that are perfect”.

  14. @kittynh: “So one thing I always try to point out is that science has a meaning more than “guys in white lab coats that are perfect”

    That wouldn’t be the take-away message I would encourage. In all of your examples, while there were scientists who were wrong, it is/was the methodology of science that would solve and correct the problems. The idea that you should be promoting is that, unlike other disciplines, science thrives because of people trying as hard as they can to find mistakes in current doctrine, while a hallmark of religions and pseudoscience is that they despise those apply scrutiny and skepticism.

  15. I just wanted to pop in re: failed scientific experiments.

    The Michelson & Morley Interferometer experiments were a huge failure in the eyes of M&M and proponents of the idea that the universe is filled with this crazy aether. Their experiment not working was mind-blowing to those involved, but it paved the way for Relativity (over-simplification).

    So scientific “failures” are just as important as successes, and that’s why science rules!!!

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