Saturday 5 June 2010

Reformation or Deformation?

A blog entry by Patrick Redmond

I recently had chance to interview Steve Fuller; Professor of Sociology at Warwick University and I was eager to find out his thoughts on the relationship between science and religion. I was nervous about this interview as I’m not an academic and I’m still trying to work out my own views on many aspects of this area. Steve on the other hand is a full time Professor who spends many hours debating this subject.

You can listen to the original interview at which appears on Episode 13. Or you can go to

In a Guardian article from the beginning of May and during the interview he proposed a view of the development of science analogous to that of the church during the Reformation. In this imaginative construct the scientific establishment plays the role of the Catholic hierarchy, dominating and unforgiving in its eradication of heresy. The Protestants are those groups that challenge the scientific orthodoxy. Brave souls that dare to question the edicts of the self-appointed holders of truth.

He argues that just as the Protestants of the Reformation and onwards had a right to call their beliefs religion, so these non-orthodox scientists should be allowed their place in the pantheon of learning. He even has a hopeful meme of his own for this phenomenon “protscience”.

The interview was involved and for me at least challenging. Steve questioned my own definitions of science. I asserted that for me good science used careful experimentation, evidence gathering and analysis to reach a conclusion. To him this is too limiting and reeks of adherence to a dogma that stifles scientific freedom and empowerment. My definition might be narrow, but his is so wide that you could drive a bus through, sideways.

Who are these protscientists? It appears to be anybody that says they are doing science. Young Earth creationists searching for proof of a mythical 6000 years age tag, whilst studiously disregarding the mountain of evidence against them, would be classed as scientists. So too would proponents of alternative remedies based on misconceptions of human anatomy and a reworking of the laws of physics and chemistry. He would set these groups on a level with the disciplined individuals that spend years collecting and collating data to refine and redefine their theories according to methods that can be accounted for and that make sense.

Steve takes a somewhat Voltairian stance in that he may not agree with the conclusions of these groups, but he will fight for their right to do their science. This admirable if, to my mind, misguided position is possibly what led to his taking the stand in the Dover v Kitzmiller trial on behalf of the intelligent design movement. I don’t however think that we need the new term protscience as I believe that pseudoscience adequately covers this area.

I said during the interview that people can be intelligent but still act irrationally. In his response on the site Uncommon Descent he asserts that this was a “self serving” and “strange” view. I stand by it though. The whole cognitive area of heuristics and bias proposed by amongst others Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman illustrate that it is not only possible but common for people to be able to score highly in tests of intelligence but then go on to make decisions in opposition to the evidence presented to them.

He goes on to deride skeptics in general, and definitely me, for being selectively skeptical and accepting the scientific dogma of the priesthood. This is simplistic and misleading. All theories are open to question but the reality is that given the complexity of many of science’s big questions it’s hard to do anything more than weigh up the data that’s presented by those in a position to gather it. I’m not going to expend immense amounts of energy investigating theories that have a mass of solid evidence backing them or require me to construct my own particle accelerator, giant telescope or space station. I will however read with interest the reports and findings of the scientists that continue to work in these areas.

In some respects then Steve is right in accusing me of being selective in my skepticism. I will continue to reserve my harshest judgment for those that ask me to believe things without providing sufficient evidence, such as psychics, homeopaths and proponents of intelligent design.

Patrick Redmond is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub. A copy of this blog post can be found at the Badpsychics website.

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