DX8 Topic 17 - How Does Science Differ from Religions and Ideologies?

Monday 22 February 2021, 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm [delayed until March 1]

Venue: Cafe Brunelli, 187 Rundle St · Adelaide

About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding

Focus Questions

1. What is your own opinion on the difference(s) between science, religion and ideologies?

2. Imagine that you took a poll in the general community. You ask them to explain how they think scientific research actually arrives at conclusions. What are some popular answers you might hear?

3. How well do you think the following analogy works for explaining scientific inquiry? A referee in a sports match applies the rules impartially to each team. A match is played and one side wins according to the rules, even if the crowd don't like it. A researcher establishes an hypothesis about some state of the world. He tests the hypothesis according to rules of scientific method (which have been independently established). He then impartially accepts that the hypothesis has been proved or disproved, even if he doesn't like the outcome.

4. How often does the assertion and practice of religious dogma, or an ideology, follow the procedures suggested in (3)? Does this suggest a useful difference between scientific inquiry and religion/ideology?

5. Why do politicians so often misrepresent what scientific inquiry is about? How often do politicians follow something like scientific method in solving national problems? Why/why not?

6. Confirmation bias is the tendency to prefer solutions you find personally attractive or credible, rather than accepting what systematic research has shown to be the case? In what situations is confirmation bias useful? When is confirmation bias damaging?

7. The two most common forms of explanation used by humans come from a) storytelling, and b) systematic observation. What do you think of the suggestion that religions have grown from our fondness for telling stories, and extended the stories into a grand framework for explaining the world, the universe and everything?

8. Systematic observation also requires some framework to explain complex phenomena which pose many questions. Such frameworks are often called models or theories. How does a model or theory differ from the storytelling method of explaining the world, the universe and everything?

9. Any social movement which attracts large numbers of people is a honey pot for those who seek political power. Such movements can be anything, from a religion or ideology, to mass entertainment, to organizes sport etc. Why do you think that genuine scientific inquiry rarely turns into a mass social activity? Is this common limit on the popularity of science a permanent limit on its power in human societies?

10. The storytelling power of religions and ideologies has historically both attracted followers and put limits on the technical advancement of societies. In the last three centuries or so, systematic scientific inquiry has led to massive technical advancements in societies. How do you think these competing tensions will play out in the 21st Century?


Extra Reading


Wikipedia (January 2021) "Scientific Method" @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

=> comment, Greg Feldmann - Quote from the Wiki article: "Though the scientific method is often presented as a fixed sequence of steps, it represents rather a set of general principles.[9] Not all steps take place in every scientific inquiry (nor to the same degree), and they are not always in the same order." And another article from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-method/#:~:text=The%20Platonic%20way%20of%20knowledge,through%20the%20inquiry%20into%20nature . - Notable quote: "For example, the physicist and Nobel Laureate Weinberg described in the paper “The Methods of Science … And Those By Which We Live” (1995) - The fact that the standards of scientific success shift with time does not only make the philosophy of science difficult; it also raises problems for the public understanding of science. We do not have a fixed scientific method to rally around and defend. (1995: 8)"

=> comment, Thor May - Greg, perhaps part of the justification for a diversity of approaches to a workable notion of scientific method is that they reflect the tentative nature of experimental conclusions themselves. That is, although there are whole institutions and libraries devoted to theological and ideological research, their agents start from a premise which accepts and asserts an unchallengeable final border - the validity of the god(s) in question, or the superiority of the ideology in question. Scientific research, for all its variety (and human failings) does not have that border. In the final analysis, any scientific conclusion is open to challenge, and sooner or later will be challenged.

The Khan Academy (n.d.) "The Scientific Method" @ https://www.khanacademy.org/science/high-school-biology/hs-biology-foundations/hs-biology-and-the-scientific-method/v/the-scientific-method 

Greg Feldmann - This isn't a free resource, but it's one I'd encourage anyone interested in scientific thinking to read. https://www.amazon.com.au/How-Think-About-Weird-Things/dp/0078038367
 . The book argues roughly along the lines that there is no hard and fast "scientific method", rather that there are various criteria against which we evaluate scientific theories. These are:

1. How testable they are - theories that are more readily testable are preferred to theories that are not.
2. Fruitfulness - the number of novel predictions a theory makes that are later verified (more is better).
3. Scope - the more things a theory can explain, the better.
4. Simplicity - the simpler the theory, the better.
5 Conservatism - the less a theory conflicts with other scientific theories, the better (e.g. don't expect an economic theory to get much traction if it violates the laws of physics).

This is broadly based on the philosophy of Imre Lakatos set forth in "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes", which can be found here: http://www.csun.edu/~vcsoc00i/classes/s497f09/s690s08/Lakatos.pdf

Paul Bloom (November 25, 2015) "Scientific Faith Is Different From Religious Faith - Not all beliefs are equal." The Atlantic @ https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/11/why-scientific-faith-isnt-the-same-as-religious-faith/417357/  [Thor, comment: recommended article]

Jerry Coyne (December 21, 2018) " Yes, there is a war between science and religion." The Conversation @ https://theconversation.com/yes-there-is-a-war-between-science-and-religion-108002

Eric C. Martin (n.d.) "Science and Ideology". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy @ https://iep.utm.edu/sci-ideo/ Rebecca Clay (June 2008, Vol 39, No. 6) "Science vs. ideology - Psychologists fight back against the misuse of research." American Psychological Association @ https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/06/ideology

=> comment, Greg Feldmann - Interestingly, there's a replication crisis in psychology. There's a blog post about it here: https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2016/03/03/more-on-replication-crisis/ Excerpt: "A reporter asked me if I found the replication rate of various studies in psychology to be “disappointingly low.” I responded that yes it’s low, but is it disappointing? Maybe not. I would not like to live in a world in which all those studies are true, a world in which the way women vote depends on their time of the month, a world in which men’s political attitudes were determined by how fat their arms are, a world in which subliminal messages can cause large changes in attitudes and behavior, a world in which there are large ESP effects just waiting to be discovered. I’m glad that this fad in social psychology may be coming to an end, so in that sense, it’s encouraging, not disappointing, that the replication rate is low." The papers referenced are:
* https://www.stephenpettigrew.com/articles/gkpw_2016_science.pdf 
* https://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6251/aac4716

=> comment, Thor May - The replication rate in social sciences generally is pretty low. The number of variables (if you look at them closely) is always huge and nearly always beyond strict control. A slight variation in research design can bring radically different outcomes. None of this means that social sciences are without value, just that interpretations have to be treated with extreme caution. Medical research mostly has similar issues. A human body is thought to have about 34 trillion cells + maybe 100 trillion other bugs that influence outcomes. There are over 200,000 known human diseases .....

=> comment, Bryn Williams - In response to Greg's post regarding 'there are no hard and fast rules regarding scientific method'. This is a quote from the textbook (Lillenfeld et al, From Enquiry to Understanding, p.52) which was the specified text for Post graduate studies in Psychology. "The scientific method is a myth because the techniques used by psychologists are very different from those used by their colleagues in chemistry, physics and biology (Bauer1992). From my experience because Psych has multiple paradigms ( Behavourial , Evolutionary, Cognitive, Neurological , Psychoanalytical etc etc) the research processes were vastly different, yet considers itself a scientific field".

Asimov (recorded 1988) "Isaac Asimov talks about superstition, religion and why he teaches rationality. He also explains why some people who think that we should abandon science are wrong and how scientific worldview is the best.". Youtube @ https://youtu.be/VSxMZBp-2Zs
Philip Ball (28/07/2016) "Science and ideology - The case of physics in Nazi Germany". Mètode magazine @ https://metode.org/issues/monographs/science-and-ideology.html

=> comment, Greg Feldmann - Not sure what the article is getting at. The body seems to argue that science itself somehow needs to consider politics because various scientists didn't take a moral stance he wanted them to take by arguing that science doesn't deal with morality. Insofar as the author is talking about science as a profession, it's not the job of a scientist any more than it's the job of a plumber or a bus driver to take up political causes. This doesn't prevent scientists, plumbers and bus drivers from doing so, they just have no obligation to do so based solely on their profession. The conclusion seems not really to relate back to the body in that it starts talking about the relationship between science and democracy. The body of the article dealt with issues of racism, which are clearly not limited to autocracies. Perhaps I'm missing something?

=> comment, Thor May - Greg, I agree that this article tends to meander. The author does not address what makes the practice of scientific research itself different from what a plumber does. A plumber follows a set of procedures to perform a narrow technical task. An original scientific researcher asks questions about nature, tries to design experiments (real or virtual) to answer those questions, and (should) accept whatever outcome the experiment suggests. The outcome is usually expressed as a probability concerning the truth of the answer. The Jew-hater physicist who attacked Einstein to conceal his own limitations was not practicing science. The politicians (dictators or democrats) who misuse scientific discoveries for political gain, or who fund science in the hope of political gain, usually neither know nor care what scientific research really is. When it comes to researchers, from in my experience of working in universities, I've found them as diverse as any other group of people in their social and political beliefs. Many are as terminally naive as any football fan plucked from a stadium. However, their work may have outcomes which are not trivial. For example, a scientist in China has successfully transplanted key parts of the human genetic code into monkeys. He seems untroubled by the potential consequences. Should his colleagues take a stand on this?

Thor May (29 January 2017) "Questions about Confirmation Bias". Meetup discussion topics @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics//QESUB-QUESTIONS/ConfirmationBias-QE.html

Thor May (2018) "Emergent Systems - An Overview". The Passionate Skeptic website at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/EmergentSystemsOverview.htm  or Academia.edu @ https://www.academia.edu/36660988/Emergent_Systems_An_Overview  [pdf] [I have included article because the terms of the discussion about both science and religion have changed over the last few decades in ways that few people grasp. A throwaway sentence or two can't cover this]

Gates, Bill (28 January 2016) Bill Gates "The Best Teacher I Never Had - A video tribute from Bill Gates to Richard Feynman: phenomenal explainer, amazing scientist, and all-around colorful guy". Gatesnotes @ https://www.gatesnotes.com  [3 minutes]

Richard Feynman (2 Apr 2012) "Why". Youtube @ https://youtu.be/36GT2zI8lVA  [7 minutes] [Thor, context: "Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test" (Discovery magazine)]. [Comment from a viewer: "Feynman gets stopped by a cop. / Cop : why were you speeding ? Feynman : what do you mean why ? Half hour later / Cop : please just leave me alone" ]

Richard Feynman (18 May 2012) "Knowing versus Understanding". Youtube @ https://youtu.be/NM-zWTU7X-k  [6 minutes]

Christian Busch (January 2021) "How to be lucky - Most of us think that luck just happens (or doesn’t) but everyone can learn to look for the unexpected and find serendipity." Psyche website @ https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-open-up-to-serendipity-and-create-your-own-luck  [Thor, comment: Humans have a compelling urge to create certainty in their environment. Religions attempt to create that certainty by arguing for an overarching supernatural landscape that can be dealt with (through belief, prayer etc). Science also attempts to create frameworks of probable certainty through systematic investigation. Luck is the occurrence of events which have escaped predictions based on either religion or science]

Thor May (2015) “"The peculiar interest of god(s) in human morality". The Passionate Skeptic website @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/peculiargod.htm

Thor May (2014) "Does religion emerge as a product of complex systems? – exploring an allegory". The Passionate Skeptic website @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/Religion.htm

Thor May (2013) “The Agnostic’s Survival Manual” (ebook), Academia.edu @ https://www.academia.edu/3486693/The_Agnostics_Survival_Manual  [pdf] or http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/TheAgnosticsSurvivalManual.htm  [This is a collection of evolving personal reflections over many years. Any conclusions in this collection are not necessarily consistent, and not necessarily what I would come up with today].

Thor May (various dates ) "Thor's Take on Religion and All That" Passionate Skeptic website @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/religionEtc.html  [A random collection of personal observations]

Rachel Cooke (17 Jan 2021) "Why your most important relationship is with your inner voice - Your internal monologue shapes mental wellbeing, says psychologist Ethan Kross. He has the tools to improve your mind’s backchat". The Guardian @ https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/jan/16/inner-voice-self-criticism-psychologist-ethan-kross-chatter-voice-head 

Thor May (2014) "What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century?". Academia.edu @ https://www.academia.edu/5681348/What_will_be_the_dominant_ideologies_of_the_21st_Century 

Antonio Regalado (April 10, 2019) "Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and yes, they may be smarter - A quest to understand how human intelligence evolved raises some ethical questions". MIT Media Lab @ https://www.technologyreview.com/s/613277/chinese-scientists-have-put-human-brain-genes-in-monkeysand-yes-they-may-be-smarter/ 



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How Does Science Differ from Religions and Ideologies? (c) Thor May 2021 

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