Thursday, 27 August 2009

Science and religion- never the twain?

GUEST POST from Professor Adam Foster

Young scientists are often criticised by superiors for doubting their work and presenting it too pessimistically, and are encouraged to “have a little faith” and “believe in your results”. Taken literally, these kinds of comments are completely inappropriate to a profession based on quantifying the accuracy of data and providing detailed lists of possible sources of error and underlying assumptions.

You do not need to believe in the quality of your results, you know their quality - whether you choose to tell your audience exactly their quality is a question of ethics and whether you have tenure yet.

The ability to “not believe” and to avoid the seduction of faith is a critical component of good scientific practice. In light of this, studies of faith among scientists makes interesting reading. Overall, about a third of scientists in the US (certainly the global centre of scientific productivity) state that they believe in God, a significant drop from the nationwide average of 83%. However, some studies also defined a subset called “Good scientists” based on membership of the US National Academy of Sciences - in this set, only 7% believed in God. These statistics seem fairly damning - maintaining a strong faith in God appears to corrupt the objectiveness necessary for good scientific decisions.

Scientists full of faith are often highly vocal in praising the importance that spiritual balance brings to their work, or at least they are confident that the two spheres have no negative overlap. They seem to be wrong.

As such, it is difficult to understand the recent appointment of Francis Collins as director of National Institutes of Health (NIH) by President Obama. The $30 billion NIH is a massive responsibility, and few would argue with Collins' track record in administration and genetics research. However, he has made his Faith a very public part of his portfolio, including a book in 2006, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

He also co-started the BioLogos Foundation, which aims to emphasize the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life. The approach espoused, shared by many creationists and Jehovah's witnesses, is to start from a faith fact and then find scientific facts and theories that fit, disregarding any that don't. This is anti-science, and he has been widely criticized for his views, particularly by the watchdog of religious corruption in science, Richard Dawkins, and in the anti-creationist blog Pharyngula.

As head of the NIH he will have a very strong influence on Health policy in the USA. How many innovative directions and breakthrough treatments will be hindered because they clash with his religious views? Which lobby groups will get preferential treatment? How can we have faith in him?

Adam Foster is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the edge of the world (Tampere University of Technology, Finland.) Trying desperately to engage with reality when sober. He started blogging before it existed and then stopped when it did. And now?


  1. OK, so like two bickering children, science and religion should be kept separate.

    How do you react to the geneticist, Stephen Jay Gould, who said: "either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious belief."

    It's booby trapped.....!

  2. They should be separated because the mindset required to be an "effective follower" in one is incompatible with the other...or at least the evidence suggests so.

    As for Stephen's colleagues - which half are the better scientists?

  3. The fact that a lower percentage of scientists believe in Things, compared to the whole population, does not imply that having faith makes one a worse scientist. It may or may not, but arguing so based just on that particular piece of data is misuse of statistics. There is obviously a correlation, but you can't claim cause and effect. ;)