Religions encourage and praise faith without evidence in their believers. Christianity is no better, nor probably any worse, than other religions that way. Cynics would argue that religions have to do this, that their authority comes from a source that can’t be proven.
I write tonight, not to blast religions or the religious, but to discuss the limits of faith as a virtue.
It’s one thing to accept or deny a belief in the absence of evidence. Is there a god? Things that were once accepted as proof of gods are now more often understood through science. That doesn’t disprove the existence of a god, but it also makes it as hard as ever to prove that there is a god.
What about a hundred other things that were once taken on faith that no longer stand unchallenged? Are men superior to women? Is one race superior to the others? Is the Earth the center of the universe? Are left-handed people evil? Exposure to other cultures have raised or validated doubts about gender superiority and racial superiority, even if some refuse to accept those arguments. Science has provided us with models that match our observations better but require us to deny that the Earth is the center of the universe, or even our own solar system. And, thankfully for my sister and others, left-handedness is no longer seen as a sign of evil.
There are people who refuse to accept scientific evidence that contradicts beliefs codified in ancient religious texts. How old is our planet and our universe? A literal interpretation of Judeo-Christian scriptures would suggest an age of 6000 years or so; modern scientific theory suggests millions of years, not mere thousands of years. On one side, some suggest that the devil plants false evidence to make us doubt holy scripture. On another side, some suggest that religious scripture aren’t meant to be scientifically literal and accurate.
Closely related is the question of evolution, particularly as opposed to creationism. Again, does one take the Bible literally or does one accept scientific evidence to provide a more nuanced view of the world than was possible 3000 or 4000 years ago?
What about vaccines? This isn’t directly a religious argument, apart from some religions that reject more or all of medical science. But some people reject the arguments that vaccines are effective and best for the communal health of society. This is a particularly vexing issue for scientists, because the origin of the argument against some types of vaccines is well known, as is the fraudulent nature of that argument. Its initial proponent was trying to sell a different form of vaccines for which he owned patent rights; his arguments against specific vaccines became the basis of an argument against all vaccines, even though it’s well known the proponent was scientifically dishonest and fraudulent.
Here the arguments get, in many views, irrational. An agency of the US government, one argument goes, was corrupted and suppressed one or studies proving that vaccines are dangerous. Never mind that other governments around the world have refuted the arguments against vaccines; there must be some corruption somewhere to explain this. Others cling to anecdotes that blame vaccines for unexplainable illnesses, especially autism. We don’t know precisely what causes autism, so why not vaccines? The fact that there is no correlation found in large studies doesn’t dissuade the people who hear some parent’s anguished argument about how their kid was fine until they had vaccines. It is from this fallacy that one hears the argument, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”
This argument has real consequences. Some people, usually due to severe illnesses, can’t be immunized. The best defense for those people is to immunize everyone around them so they aren’t exposed to the illnesses for which they can’t be immunized. This is “herd immunity,” the concept that immunizing most of a group is almost the same as immunizing the whole group. How much is “most of a group” is a key point; some parents believe that it’s not important to immunize their child because everyone else will be, negating the risk. The percentage of a population immunized soon plummets below the threshold for minimal herd immunity, and suddenly we have outbreaks of diseases that are easily preventable.
The debates about evolution or vaccines, while emotional and fervent, usually are honest, with the notable exception of the initial claim that some mercury-based vaccines would cause autism. The “debate” about climate change, on the other hand, resembles the vaccines issue in some ways, but it is corrupted by very real commercial interests.
Approximately 97% of scientists accepted by other scientists as experts in the field agree that climate change, global warming, whatever you choose to call it, is driven by human activities. There are well debated theories on the mechanisms in modern human history that have caused and accelerated global warming. The science of the mechanisms of global warming are well understood; the human activities fueling (almost literally) the warming are understood.
Alas, some of the technologies driving the developed world’s economic explosive growth are also driving the devastating increase in the causes of global warming. Simply put, the burning of fossil fuels has been a boon for the developing world but a threat to the health of the planet. This is very analogous to how consuming tobacco products contributes to higher rates of cancer. Equally analogous, both fossil fuels and tobacco make their producers rich. Reducing demand for those products, while understandable from many perspectives, runs counter to the interests of those producers.
The tobacco industry lost their battle to prove their products innocuous. Their products haven’t been banned outright, but in the USA and several other countries, demand has been greatly reduced. The fossil fuel industries have learned from those battles and have fought tooth and nail to prevent acceptance of the role of fossil fuels in threatening our planet. They try to sow doubt that global warming is real. They try to sow doubt that humans cause it. They try to cherry-pick data to show the problem isn’t as severe as claimed. They try to attack the methodology and credibility of the scientists studying the problem and concluding that we humans are to blame.
All of this leads to this weekend’s Marches for Science literally around the world. Most of the developed countries of the world and almost all of the developing countries of the world accept the science of global warming. Every government on the planet accepts the benefits of vaccines. Basic scientific research is seen almost everywhere as a good thing that helps countries and cultures advance. My country, the United States of America, has the only government of the world that acts as if global warming isn’t settled science, and that is due to the self-interest-driving political activities of the fossil fuel industries.
Ours is a technology-based country. Internal combustion engines are ubiquitous, as are modern hospitals, cellular telephones, computers, plastic products, televisions, people conceived through artificial insemination, farm animals and race horses conceived through artificial insemination, and a million other elements of daily life whose origins lie in the scientific method. People who decry vaccines and people who profit from fossil fuels all casually use these products of the scientific method but deny its validity on their very narrow issues. Fossil fuel companies in particular employ scientists and engineers by the tens of thousands to help them find fossil fuels, extract them, refine them, and get them to market — but they refuse to accept the proof of the consequences of their actions.
Will the Marches for Science make a difference? I hope so, but it’s easy for me to be cynical. Will people suddenly turn against their elected representatives out of a new-found respect for science after this weekend? Or will this remain convinced that the Earth is 6000 years old and scientists who believe in evolution and geology where duped by the Devil? They’ve been so conditioned against “intellectual elites,” will they ever admit that perhaps they should listen to people smarter than them and not just people who say what they want to hear?
I’m glad for the scientists getting politically active, but I hope we figure out who to address the root of the problem: fraudulent rejections of science driven by selfishness.