Monday, March 31, 2008

I Have No Faith in Science

I have no faith in science.

This does not mean that I reject science – nothing can be further from the truth. What it means is that the decision to go with the scientifically best results is not a matter of faith. Accusations to the contrary – accusations that going with science is a matter of faith – are nothing more than political propaganda. It is a part of a system of lies, distortions, and misrepresentations that aim to portray the decision to go with science as something other than (worse than) what it is in fact.

Scientists have to prove their claims, and is characterized by this need for proof over faith.

For example, let’s say that your 11 year old daughter is sick. You have the option of taking her to a doctor, who will then make a diagnosis and try to treat her. You also have the option to pray in the hopes that prayer alone will cure her. This is not a conflict between two different kinds of faith. This is a conflict between faith and a completely different way of examining options – the way of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and theorizing.

Of course, this example comes from a recent case in which a Wisconsin couple spent 30 days watching their child die while they prayed for her recovery. An autopsy showed that she died from a treatable complication of diabetes.

Science works by taking similar sets of circumstances and actually studying them, and taking notes, in order to determine regularities in the events that occur within those circumstances. For example, a legitimate scientific experiment would take 300 11-year-old girls showing symptoms of a disease like diabetes, and randomly assigning them to two groups.

Group 1 will be our control group. We’re not going to do anything for them, other than normal care and feeding. We will see here what happens in the absence of care.

Group 2 children will be prayed for. We will go to a group of churches and ask them to get their members to pray as hard as they can to their God that the God will save these girls.

Group 3 children will be given medical treatment. This medical treatment will use blood tests, MRIs, descriptions of the symptoms, and other observations to make a diagnosis. From that diagnosis, they will prescribe a form of treatment that historically has the best track record at causing 11 year old girls with those symptoms to get better and live long and healthy lives. This ‘historically best track record’ has been determined by a long history of observations in which methods of treatment with higher chances of success routinely replaced methods with lower chances of success – methods like those use in Group 1 and Group 2.

We then look at which option has the better success rate. We then ask the question, “If I had an 11 year old daughter showing these symptoms, and I cared about her survival, which option gives her the best chance of survival?”

It is quite possible that some of the children in Group 1 might survive. Human bodies are complex entities, and illnesses are complex events. As such, we can expect to hear stories of people with a particular illness who seem to get better on their own, without any help. For the purposes of this story, let us say that 1% of the children show this type of spontaneous cure. Or, in this case, one child in our control group gets better without any treatment.

We can also expect that some children in the second group will get better as well. The same complex factors of human biology and the nature of different illnesses make it possible that a child who is being prayed for will get better. This is precisely why scientists use a control group. Just because a child that is being prayed for gets better, this does not prove that the child has gotten better because of the prayer. In order to determine that prayer helps, we need evidence that children who are prayed for have a higher percentage chance of survival over children not being prayed for. If we see a 1% success rate in Group 2 – if only one of the prayed-for children survive, then we have reason to chalk that one survival up to random chance.

This is one area where the advocates of Group 2 treatment fall into significant (and often fatal) error. One child survives. We can then expect – as certainly as water flows downhill – that the family of the one survivor will call this ‘a miracle’, and use this fluke accident to proclaim that their faith is superior to all other faiths, because their faith worked. They will instantly declare, without evidence or reason, that this child deserved to live and that God has decided to bless her, inferring that the 99 other children deserved to die, or that God did not care so much about them. When, in fact, we are dealing with the effects of random chance, with a child that would have gotten better even without prayer.

We can see the difference when we look at Group 3. We give Group 3 children to a group of doctors. Those doctors have learned that tests conducted on children with this particular group of symptoms show that their body produces less insulin than that of children who do not have these symptoms. They have also conducted experiments that involve measuring blood sugar on a regular basis, and giving insulin injections to children whose blood sugar gets too low.

At first (let us assume) children who were subject to this type of treatment had only a 30% chance of survival. However, through years of observation and experimentation, doctors have found similarities between those who survive and those who do not. This has caused them to alter their procedures. Now, the survival rate is 99%. For some reason, the treatment just does not work on some children, and they die in spite of the best efforts of the medical profession.

Now, a parent with a sick 11-year-old daughter has a choice. They can choose the same option as the children in Group 1, in which their daughter will have a 1% chance of survival. They can choose the same option as the children in Gorup 2, which also gives a 1% chance of survival. Or they can go with the option used in Group 3, where 99% of the children will survive.

This is not a matter of faith. This is a matter of brute fact. The people who choose Group 3 are not, in any way, expressing faith that this method will save their child. Indeed, they should enter Group 3 with the knowledge and expectation that they still have a 1% chance that their child will die. This is nothing less than the empirically verified result of using the Group 3 option. However, if they desire that their daughter live, then they have more and stronger reason to choose the Group 3 option for survival, than to choose either the Group 1 or Group 2 options.

However, here is the kicker. Let’s say that, in conducting this experiment, we get different results. Let’s say that of the Group 1 children, 1% will survive, just as before. However, we discover that of the Group 2 children, 90% of them survive. And, of the Group 3 option, only 30% of the children survive.

If this were the result, then science itself would dictate using the Group 2 option. Science itself would be saying – because the empirical facts demand that they say – that the rational option for any parents that value the survival of their children is the Group 2 option, if the results pointed in this direction. The reason that scientists in the real world pick the Group 3 option over the Group 2 option is not because they have ‘faith in science’. It is because the empirical evidence shows them that the Group 2 option does not work, and the Group 3 option does.

All parents who truly value the survival of their children should use the option that has been empirically shown to provide them with the best chance of survival. If it were the case that prayer actually improves a child’s chance of living, than scientists would be the first to shout, “Go with prayer!” However, if only 1% of those who go with prayer see their children survive, and 99% of those who go with medicine see their children survive, and if the survival of children is important, then the only sensible thing to do is to go with science.

The fact is, faith doesn’t work. The fact is, those who choose faith over science on the issue of keeping their children healthy, on the issue of keeping their nation fed, on the issue of protecting its citizens from natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, on the issue of defending the nation from outside aggression, end up failing far more often than those who go with science.

There is a simple reason for this. Science is built on comparing the results of different options and selecting the option that has the greatest effect.

This is not a matter of having faith in science. This is a matter of measuring the success of different options, and going with the option that has the highest success rate. Deciding whether or not to use medicine instead of prayer is not a matter of randomly choosing among options in complete ignorance of the possible outcomes. It is simply a matter of knowing that 99 > 1.

1 comment:

Doug S. said...

There's an interesting scene in Carl Sagan's novel Contact in which astronomer Eleanor Arroway challenges a preacher to a contest of faith. She takes him to a museum that has a giant pendulum with a large, massive bob. She says that she has faith in conservation of energy, so she is willing to hold the bob up to her nose and release it, confident that when the massive bob returns, it will come to a stop without breaking her nose. She then challenges the preacher to release the bob, take a step forward, and pray to God to stop it before it hits his head. Needless to say, he declines.

My freshman physics professor performed the same demonstration - holding a pendulum up to his nose, releasing it, and letting it return - and described it as proving his "faith in physics." (He had to close his eyes to avoid flinching, though.)

I think I had a point somewhere, but I forgot what it was...