Over on my other blog, where I've been writing about global warming recently (here, here, and here), someone commented that he was surprised I'm so accepting of the scientific consensus on climate change when I'm so skeptical of religious claims.
Well, I was surprised that he was surprised. It makes sense to me to have lots of faith in the scientific method, and virtually no faith in religious dogma.
Skepticism is a virtue.
I have no problem with people being skeptical of a purported scientific fact -- such as that our planet is warming and humans are responsible for it -- if, and note the IF, solid demonstrable evidence is provided to support an alternative hypothesis.
This is how science works: truth is sought for through open examination of evidence along with vigorous debate concerning the meaning and validity of that data.
Eventually a general consensus emerges among scientists.
Because I'm not a scientist, my default attitude is that I trust the experts in a field. Similarly, I take our hybrid Toyotas to a dealer when they need servicing because the techs there know a whole lot more than I do about the cars.
Here's where I think skeptics about science go off track: they over-emphasize scientific individualism. This cartoon from xkcd.com nicely captures what I'm getting at.
I mean, what's more likely -- that I have uncovered fundamental flaws in this field that no one in it has ever thought about, or that I need to read a little more? Hint: it's the one that involves less work.
Religions and spiritual/mystic paths often (if not usually) spring into being from the psyche of one person. Jesus. Buddha. Mohammed. Guru Nanak. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
No confirmations are required.
None of these guys had to submit their insights to a jury of their peers, such as scientists do when they publish in a peer-reviewed journal. There wasn't a systematic critical examination of the evidence supporting Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, or Transcendental Meditation after the founder claimed "this is the truth."
It seems to me that a similar uncritical attitude underlies most skepticism about global warming, as well as other areas where a scientific consensus exists: evolution, big bang cosmology, and such.
Obviously, just because someone challenges a prevailing scientific view, this doesn't mean they're correct. In fact, more than likely they're wrong, as the cartoon points out.
The scientific method isn't individualistic like the religious method is.
One person can found a religion or spiritual path. One person can't establish a scientific truth. A brilliant man or woman, such as Einstein, may come up with a theory or finding that ends up overturning a previous scientific consensus.
But this won't occur until a thorough "testing to destruction" has occurred via the scientific method.
For example, why were Einstein’s theories regarded as scientific, whilst a psychologist’s theories were regarded as pseudoscientific?
Popper postulated that science advances through a process of “conjecture and refutations;” that a theoretical scientist would develop a theory and an empirical scientist would attempt to test it to destruction. For this to happen, the theory had to be ‘falsifiable’.
If the theory could not be properly tested by science, then it could not be scientific.
For example, physics theory was open to empirical testing, and many scientists developed ways to empirically test relativity; therefore, it could be falsified and the scientific method applied.