Is bad science like bad religion?

Biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake suggests in Huffington Post that “bad science” is indeed like “bad religion”:

I am strongly pro-science. But I am more and more convinced that that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.

Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.

Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system. But the “scientific worldview,” based on the materialist philosophy, is enormously prestigious because science has been so successful. Its achievements touch all our lives through technologies like computers, jet planes, cell phones, the Internet and modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed through an immense expansion of scientific knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.

Science has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, committed materialists have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These materialist beliefs are often taken for granted by scientists, not because they have thought about them critically, but because they haven’t. To deviate from them is heresy, and heresy harms careers.

Sheldrake gets more technical after this, diving into specific areas of science and using the occasional religious term to explain potential mistakes.

His concluding statement is my favorite moment:

Good science, like good religion, is a journey of discovery, a quest. It builds on traditions from the past. But it is most effective when it recognizes how much we do not know, when it is not arrogant but humble.

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  1. JohnQ

    Robert Anton Wilson said as much over a decade or two ago. Ironically maybe more people will listen now that a scientist has said it.

    JohnQ – please sign your real name when you comment at the Café. Thanks ~ed.

  2. Ajg

    Bad science may indeed be like bad religion, but one cannot tell from Mr. Sheldrake’s essay. He seems to be saying that since scientific inquiry has not answered enough questions (or has lead to more and deeper questions) that methodological materialism should be questioned more strenuously. Or perhaps that materialistic science is in and of itself dogmatic. A charge regularly brought by creationist to discredit their detractors.

    It is hard to tell, and the vagueness of his complaint is invalidating. Complaining that “Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for” sounds more like a Zen Koan than a real criticism of scientific inquiry.

    In the next-to-last graph, Dr. Sheldrake refers to some speculative fields in theoretical physics such as the pan-dimensional superstring and multiverse theories. He calls them a “Shaky foundation” for materialist science. I would take great umbrage at this characterization, for these fields are the speculative fringe, not a foundation in any way. To characterize them as a foundation is prejudicial and disingenuous.

    Ajg – please sign your real name when you comment at the Café. Thanks ~ed.

  3. Ajg

    I apologize for failing to including my name with the previous post.

    Andrew Grimmke, lay, Diocese of Atlanta

    Thanks Andrew, ~ed.

  4. Murdoch Matthew

    They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

    These are not dogmatic beliefs, but conclusions reasonably drawn from evidence, or lack of evidence for the contrary. Yes, these conclusions exist in the same world as dogmatic beliefs. All our settled thoughts are varieties of opinion — we don’t personally check out the physics of matter any more than we understand (most of us) the workings of our computers. We get most of our sense of the world from tradition, from what we hear around us. But since Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, we’ve learned to base our beliefs about reality on evidence. This is too cold and unromantic for many. They want transcendence and mystery.

    Well, transcendence and mystery are the realm of language, of story. We know reality, we remember reality, through language (Adam naming things). Language creates a sense of reality — Elizabeth Bennett is as real in our minds as Grover Cleveland (more, probably). Anything can be described in language, whether or not it happened, whether or not it’s possible. There’s nothing mere about story — we live in stories, we select from the myriad of daily events a thread that is our sense of our lives. Meaning is a human construction. (What did the dinosaurs mean?)

    After several recent tsunamis, destructive earthquakes, and damaging droughts, church people have been getting more humble about touting their Almighty God, preferring instead to think of God with us, a comfort in trouble (troubles ironically due to “acts of God”). All the “beliefs” denigrated above are likely — all you can say is that stories denying them might be true. (The Republicans found in the last election that fervent belief doesn’t necessarily trump scientific odds.)

    The church needs a revised story, based on community (two or three gathered together); that’s where love is found, a love that gives us a noble idea of “God.” Paul of Tarsus gave us a Greek-style demigod to worship; perhaps we can think more about James and the church of Jerusalem and work for a Kingdom of God on Earth — or, following Phillip Pullman, a Republic of Heaven.

  5. Murdoch Matthew

    Some background on the relationship between Paul and James. (A comment on Thinking Anglicans accuses the author, James D. Tabor, of being an unpleasant self-promoter. This one article seems reasonable to me. I’m interested in the chronology, not a possible agenda.)

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