Thursday, April 5, 2012

Scared Science: belief and bias

~Tom Paine's Ghost is happy to present a guest post by Mieka Jensen.

Scared Science: belief and bias

One version of a famous story goes, Darwin recanted on his deathbed. Refuting his own theory of evolution and asking God for a pardon. For many this comes as a slap in the face, like telling Harvard you’re going to get your masters degree online instead. While that account is hotly debated, denied by his own children, if anyone were going to recant it probably would have been Darwin. Just for the irony. He was surrounded by a scientific community, his father and grandfather were doctors, and was raised as a Unitarian, which is what cause many to think Elizabeht Ried (aka Lady Hope) made the whole thing up.  

Should he have recanted on his deathbed, it was almost as if he knew that someday his name would be a flashpoint for the divide between secularism and Christianity and he wanted to complicate the issue. Needless to say, even a whisper of a rumor that it happened was enough for scientists who followed him to follow his supposed suit.

The trend continues even among scientists today. Professor and scientist Antony Flew, a lifelong proponent of atheism, announced he had switched to deism in 2004, six short years before his death. Other examples tell similar stories. Apparently old age brings its own doubts – or faiths – to the forefront, even within the scientific community.

Science has long been the bastion of factual evidence and practical atheism, at least in the minds of nonprofessionals. Actually, scientists lean slightly more toward deism than atheism, with studies showing that as many as 66 percent of scientists admit in believing in some sort of god. Doctors and other higher education professionals follow suit.

Similar studies have shown that, far from stepping away from their faith as long supposed, college students tend to stick with their religious affiliations in greater numbers than their unschooled peers. This may be the result of the confirmation theory, which suggests that the knowledge education gives deists also provides them with more tools to ignore evidence against god or create an even greater number of excuses for god and the afterlife.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, larger numbers of natural scientists working in biology, chemistry, and physics, tend to stick to their atheist guns, while social scientists tend to favor a master-design theory in greater numbers. This leads to several disturbing questions for the scientific community. If so many scientists are believers in a god, how does this influence their work? Are they tempted to fudge details or slant findings to support their own worldview? What avenues of study may be ignored?

Peer pressure also plays a role. Naturally opened-minded, perhaps scientists are swayed into agreeing with beliefs their colleagues hold while reserving private doubts themselves, making it difficult to count on the accuracy of any study. Politics and government laws may also encourage one point of view over another, especially when it comes to handing out grants.

In a worst-case scenario this leads to an arms race, where two divergent groups of scientists run toward evidence (or theories) that support their own worldview rather than favoring the truth. But in the best cases, scientists put their personal beliefs on hold when it comes to examining the evidence and considering alternative theories. After all, for every Darwin and Flew, there is a Stephen Hawking who states, "Science makes God unnecessary."

Meika Jensen is a west coast freelance writer who is currently beleaguered by the prospect of applying to Berkeley graduate school in the next few years to study the development of communications. With a diverse array of interests and an insatiable appetite for magazines, she is always happy to write a post or just talk one over. Follow her on Twitter: @MeikaJensen."
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