Pharyngula

Science is a source of virtue

An essay by Dennis Overbye makes an important point: if you want a source for good values, look to science.

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

I’d broaden it a bit and use that fine phrase Jerry Coyne used, “secular reason”, instead of the narrower term of “science”, but this is exactly right. And the antithesis of that virtue is faith and dogma, which teaches deceit and self-delusion, certainty, credulity, mystery, fear and guilt, and intolerance.

Comments

  1. #1 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    Oh sure, but we ALL KNOW that those values come directly from the Judeo Christian worldview.

  2. #2 Don Smith
    January 28, 2009

    I had never thought of it as a value system before, just a way to get things done. However, it works rather well as a value system too.

  3. #3 Richard Harris
    January 28, 2009

    Good stuff! But you’ve got to feel sorry for the poor saps who’ve been indoctrinated with an ideology, (typically in the West, that would be a Bronze Age Mythological ideology), so that they can’t partake of the true wonders & mystery of the World without their Procrustean distortions.

  4. #4 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    Tolerance? from Paul Zachary Myers

    “Surely you gest.”
    John McEnroe

    Seriously, you should head back to the home before you get so lost you can’t find it.

  5. #5 Kitty
    January 28, 2009

    if you want a source for good values, look to science.

    Don’t be silly!
    We all know science produces mad professors who want to take over the world. Hollywood and fundamentalists say so, it must be right… and it would make a terrible movie too.

    It’s alive

  6. #6 Stephen Wells
    January 28, 2009

    William might want to learn to spell before trying to be clever. It’s “jest”.

  7. #7 Alan J
    January 28, 2009

    Hmm, I’m not so sure. Science isn’t a system of ethics, it’s a tool and the body of knowledge gained from using that tool. People who have the qualities described in the article above generally have them before they start practicing science, not after. In fact, it is precisely those values which lead them to doing science in the first place. It seems to me that science no more teaches values than does a screwdriver.

  8. #8 Nerd of Redhead
    January 28, 2009

    Excellent post PZ. I know a lot of people who have trouble with honesty, since the facts often go against one of the theologies/ideologies that they hold dear. And they don’t understand my pragmatism, where the facts rule.

  9. #9 (No) Free Lunch
    January 28, 2009

    William might want to know that tolerance is not the same as license. You may have the right to hold to random religious dogmas, but that doesn’t give you the right to lie about things because of those dogmas.

  10. #10 Frank Lovell
    January 28, 2009

    Tolerance? from Paul Zachary Myers?
    ‘Surely you gest.’ John McEnroe
    ” — William B.

    William: You can not be serious!!

  11. #11 (No) Free Lunch
    January 28, 2009

    In fact, it is precisely those values which lead them to doing science in the first place. It seems to me that science no more teaches values than does a screwdriver.

    Yes, it does because it keeps forcing you to ask “does that work?” “am I correct?” “do I understand this?” Unlike the ethics that are handed down from Somewhere Else, science keeps people focused on what works. Do ethics change over time? The evidence is clear that they do. Do those with received ethics understand that? Rarely.

    Science wasn’t designed to develop ethics, but the ethics that work in the context of science tend to work elsewhere and the success of those ethics gives people an idea how to develop ethics for themselves and the environment they are in.

  12. #12 rickflick
    January 28, 2009

    Every once in a while you get an exhilarating breath of fresh air. Thank you Dennis Overbye.

  13. #13 Andyo
    January 28, 2009

    I think that while it does not dictate a moral system directly like most religions pretend to do, it of course gives us the facts around which we can base our own moral principles. Without these truths, people could (and of course, do) think, for example, that there’s something “wrong” about homosexuality (“unnatural”), or blasphemy, and can, of course, justify horrific things, like the Inquisition or more recently, christian rock.

    People base their moral principles around what they think, believe or know to be true. The religious only do the “believe” part of it, notwithstanding that most of their religions fucking pretentiously also demand a certain unquestionable, given type of morality from their followers.

  14. #14 cedgray
    January 28, 2009

    Very nice. One of the main reasons, I think, that theocracies and totalitarian regimes won’t go for the open approach is that it requires putting their ideas in an unacceptably vulnerable position, from which they might be knocked down.

    Science and democracy do this on purpose, of course, to get the feedback from their mistakes. It’s a short term pain, but a massive long-term gain.

    I love that quote from JBS Haldane (IIRC) about evolution that really illustrates how far above the parapet scientific theories are prepared to stick their heads. He said something like “All that would be required to disprove the whole of evolution is a single rabbit fossil in Cambrian rock.”

  15. #15 Whatevermn
    January 28, 2009

    the antithesis of that virtue is faith and dogma, which teaches deceit and self-delusion, certainty, credulity, mystery, fear and guilt, and intolerance.

    Dogma? Yes.

    Faith? Not so much.

    I’m not going to pop into a predominantly atheist (rationalist?) blog and argue the merits of faith. What I will do, though, is point out that the above quote may be true only if faith is held to the exclusion of reason. Most moderate theists are quiet about their beliefs, and successfully balance the two in their lives.

    Can faith be misused? Yes.

  16. #16 E.V.
    January 28, 2009

    “All that would be required to disprove the whole of evolution is a single rabbit fossil in Cambrian rock.”

    I’m sure there are a lot of creationists trying to make this happen as we speak.

  17. #17 Alyson Miers
    January 28, 2009

    It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

    And he just named one of my “favorite” tropes of religion towards science. How many times have I heard someone frothing at the evils of scientific inquiry, warning that we’re taking the power out of nature’s wonders if we know what’s going on.

    It’s related to the argument of using the beauty of nature as evidence for God. Sunsets, mountains, frozen waterfalls, these are all supposedly signs of God’s power.

    So what I’d like to know is: simply because we can explain how atmospheric factors create the colors in a sunset, why should that mean the sunset is any less beautiful? It’s beautiful because we see it that way. We don’t find beauty in the “mystery” of nature, but in its scope.

    What science destroys is ignorance. Some like to call that “myth” and “mystery,” but I think myths are made to be debunked and mysteries are made to be solved.

    faith and dogma, which teaches deceit and self-delusion, certainty, credulity, mystery, fear and guilt, and intolerance.

    The hard part for secular reason is that human beings are extremely gifted at self-deception. Certainty and credulity make us comfortable, and this thing they call “mystery” shields us from ambiguity.

    The good part is that we’re also wired for curiosity, which is a natural counterweight to self-deception. Science is the process in which we privilege our curiosity over our credulity. That is how we keep our fear and guilt at bay.

  18. #18 PZ Myers
    January 28, 2009

    You’re glossing over what faith means, whatevermn. It means accepting claims without reason or evidence. It means trusting in authority. It means scrabbling to make excuses rather than throwing out failed ideas.

    So yes, faith is just as bad as dogma.

  19. #19 amph
    January 28, 2009

    Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues.

    Beste sentence I read this year.

  20. #20 JRY
    January 28, 2009

    “Tolerance? from Paul Zachary Myers?
    ‘Surely you gest.’ John McEnroe” — William B.

    Don’t call us Shirley. :P

  21. #21 DLC
    January 28, 2009

    PZ:

    I’d broaden it a bit and use that fine phrase Jerry Coyne used, “secular reason”, instead of the narrower term of “science”, but this is exactly right. And the antithesis of that virtue is faith and dogma, which teaches deceit and self-delusion, certainty, credulity, mystery, fear and guilt, and intolerance.

    Well, I would tend to agree. But the witch-doctors would like to pollute science with mummery and thus reduce the amount of reason. I would also point out that those who espouse faith and dogma cannot conceive of others not doing so, and so accuse those who prefer rational thought to hocus-pocus of adhering to dogma and accepting science “on faith.”

  22. #22 Matt Heath
    January 28, 2009

    JAD Haldane@21
    The little ticks like, “I love it so!” and “It doesn’t get any better than this!” probably don’t do anything to increase the likelihood of people thinking you aren’t a crank.

  23. #23 Richard Hubbard
    January 28, 2009

    Wait, we all know that moral values like monogamy, anti-genocide, anti-slavery all come from the bible…

    …what?

    … really?

    Is it too late to say I get my morals from Aesop?

  24. #24 Matt Heath
    January 28, 2009

    O sure, delete the sock-puppet so it looks like I imagined it. Now they all think that I’m the crazy one. YOU’LL NEVER GET AWAY WITH THIS!!!11

  25. #25 DLC
    January 28, 2009

    Okay, from now on I put in quotation marks instead of trying to be fancy and using the < "blockquote>
    Nonsense. Obviously the bit above where I type “Well . . .” is PZ Myers writing, not my reply. My reply, such as it is, starts after the gap, with “Well, I would tend to agree”

  26. #26 Stephen Wells
    January 28, 2009

    A few years ago, when I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, I did not only find it visually impressive; I also felt a kind of inward vertigo as I appreciated its scale in _time_ as well as in space. It seems weird that people think the beauty goes away if you lose your ignorance.

    I suggest starting a meme that the more you know about physics and biology, the better you are in bed.

  27. #27 Andyo
    January 28, 2009

    Using the what nonsense now?

  28. #28 Anna
    January 28, 2009

    That’s interesting. I was under the impression that science leads to genocide, baby slaughtering, vaccinations, hedonism, atheism, Satanism, communism, and Hitler.

  29. #29 Whateverman
    January 28, 2009

    You’re glossing over what faith means, whatevermn. It means accepting claims without reason or evidence. It means trusting in authority. It means scrabbling to make excuses rather than throwing out failed ideas.
    So yes, faith is just as bad as dogma.

    See, I would characterize “faith” differently.

    Stereotypically, a-theists regard it as blind and involving belief in God, and this is not always the case. You can have faith in your family/friends while being quite aware that they’re fallible. You can actually have faith that a deity exists without being confident of what he/she/it is like.

    I’m not advocating anything except that the Faith vs Reason dichotomy is convenient but artificial.

  30. #30 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    That’s interesting. I was under the impression that science leads to genocide, baby slaughtering, vaccinations, hedonism, atheism, Satanism, communism, and Hitler.

    don’t forget Puppy punting.

  31. #31 Andyo
    January 28, 2009

    Posted by: Whatevermn | January 28, 2009 9:44 AM

    [...] What I will do, though, is point out that the above quote may be true only if faith is held to the exclusion of reason. Most moderate theists are quiet about their beliefs, and successfully balance the two in their lives.

    You know, you probably didn’t mean it like this, but balance is exactly the right word. Because when one goes up, the other goes down. Faith doesn’t bring anything to the table, and a person lacking it (in matters of truth) can only be better for it, never worse.

    Can faith be misused? Yes.

    And it is, the thing is that it’s touted as a virtue, when in reality it’s just something inconsequential at best, dangerous and blinding to reality at worst.

  32. #32 Frank Lovell
    January 28, 2009

    …I’m not going to pop into a predominantly atheist (rationalist?) blog and argue the merits of faith…” — whatevermn

    Oh, please do! Or at least, tell us where you will publicly argue the merits of “faith” [confident belief held in the absence of logical proof or crucially supporting empirical evidence], as I’d (proverbially) give my left nut to participate in publicly exploring that with you!

  33. #33 Whateverman
    January 28, 2009

    You’re glossing over what faith means, whatevermn. It means accepting claims without reason or evidence. It means trusting in authority. It means scrabbling to make excuses rather than throwing out failed ideas.
    So yes, faith is just as bad as dogma.

    See, I would characterize “faith” differently.

    Stereotypically, a-theists regard it as blind and involving belief in God, and this is not always the case. You can have faith in your family/friends while being quite aware that they’re fallible. You can actually have faith that a deity exists without being confident of what he/she/it is like.

    I’m not advocating anything except that the Faith vs Reason dichotomy is convenient but artificial.

    ps. I hope this doesn’t end up in a double-post. Apologies in advance if it does…

  34. #34 Anna
    January 28, 2009

    @#31 Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Of course, thanks.

  35. #35 Helfrick
    January 28, 2009

    “don’t forget Puppy punting.”

    OMFFSM! That’s horrible, I thought it stopped at cat juggling.

  36. #36 Andyo
    January 28, 2009

    Whateverman,

    We are talking about faith in statements of truth. This applies to your second example (the existence of a deity), but not to your first one (have “faith” in your family? What exactly does that imply for the universe?). It is a given that the “hope” meaning of faith is of no concern to science, or even us nitpicky “atheists”.

  37. #37 Andyo
    January 28, 2009

    Dammit, adjust your numbered blockquotes, people, there’s a crank in the house about to be an ex-crank.

  38. #38 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    Stereotypically, a-theists regard it as blind and involving belief in God, and this is not always the case. You can have faith in your family/friends while being quite aware that they’re fallible.

    faith ? trust

    you’re on the verge of equivocating. There are a few different definitions of faith. While close they are not the same.

    1 a: allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1): fidelity to one’s promises (2): sincerity of intentions2 a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction ; especially : a system of religious beliefs

  39. #39 Sastra
    January 28, 2009

    I agree that the methods and approach of science assume a basic ethics — one that’s reflected in both democracy and the idea of human rights. In fact, that was the import of one of the posts I guestblogged on when PZ was away in the Galapogos, “Science and Human Rights.” It was no accident that both came to the forefront during the Enlightenment. They require a new way of thinking.

    Science is a system which approaches the world from the bottom up, instead of trying to explain the world from a top-down perspective, blurring the distinctions between inner worlds of thought and feeling and outer worlds of object and event. This means there are certain ground rules that have to be in place to even start. In science, you begin with a basic assumption of equality and humility. Trust nobody — especially yourself (and you are the easiest person to fool.) Check and cross check. You might be wrong. Your biases can mislead you. Try to be as objective as possible, and everything must be open to question and investigation.

    Theories are built, not proclaimed. An explanation will demonstrate every step, so that anyone else can do it. Show your work. It can’t just be understandable only to those who already “believe” it.

    The other way of looking at the world is top-down. Faith and trust. Higher and lower. Parent and child. Revelations come from above, and you either accept them in obedience or you rebel against the authority. Explanations are not cranes built from the bottom — they’re skyhooks which come from outside, doing all the lifting in mysterious and unknowable ways. Like comes from like. Mind is going to come from Mind Force, life from a Life Force — and you can know this through intuition, which ought to be trusted.

    Ironically, personal experience is the gold standard: you don’t need to vet anything through a system of peers so that it meets a consensus. There’s no need to meet a rigorous consensus, because some people are just higher than others, that’s all. Parents don’t need the approval of the child. You, as a person, make a choice to accept.

    There’s no competition among equals trying to gain a rational consensus. Instead, the model is that of the family: can the children learn to follow their elders?

    Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.

    That last word is the critical one: “contend.” And best one wins out, with no regard to who holds it.

  40. #40 (No) Free Lunch
    January 28, 2009
    “All that would be required to disprove the whole of evolution is a single rabbit fossil in Cambrian rock.”

    I’m sure there are a lot of creationists trying to make this happen as we speak.

    Surprisingly few, as in roughly zero are willing to try to make this happen. It’s amazing how few creationists have the courage of their convictions. Rather than learn enough science to get involved in the debate at a proper level, they argue, in the most condescending manner possible, that their training in law or philosophy or mathematics or theology is adequate for them to critique science: all without evidence or understanding.

  41. #41 (No) Free Lunch
    January 28, 2009

    You can have faith in your family/friends while being quite aware that they’re fallible. You can actually have faith that a deity exists without being confident of what he/she/it is like.

    I would hope that you are aware that you used two completely different meanings of “faith” in this comparison. Could you show me how the claim that a deity exists is anything other than dogma? The last I had heard, no one was able to provide any evidence that any deities exist.

  42. #42 Sastra
    January 28, 2009

    Whateverman #34 wrote:

    I’m not advocating anything except that the Faith vs Reason dichotomy is convenient but artificial.

    As others have pointed out, there are many different meanings to the word “faith,” and believers tend to equivocate between them and “religious faith” — which is different. It’s not just trust or hope in the general sense. It’s a trust or hope that is supposed to persist even in the teeth of counter-evidence or lack of evidence. “Substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.”

    If you trust that your car is in the garage even though you can’t see it, that’s not “faith.” That’s because, if you go out to the garage and it’s not there, you change your mind. Religious faith that your car is in the garage would mean that not seeing it there means nothing: it’s there in some way that we can’t see with the senses. Or perhaps, you know there is one there, even though you never put one there. No, you don’t have to check. You believe.

    Faith is not like a commitment you make to other people. It’s a commitment you make to yourself, to spin the facts so that you can’t be wrong — and to spin the situation so that it’s not you who can’t be wrong, it’s God who can’t be wrong. No matter what happens, it shows how God exists. Either God exists the way you expected it to, or God exists in a way you didn’t expect, but now you know, and adjust God accordingly. You are 100% committed to a view, and the companion view that you can’t be wrong.

    If you disagree, then tell us what sorts of things would have to occur for you to conclude that hey, you were wrong – God doesn’t exist, and never existed. What falsifies a belief built on “faith?”

  43. #43 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    I love this Davison guy. He sure has Myers’ number.
    Ooooooh, how sweet it is!

    “This Davison guy” is in need of serious psychiatric care.

  44. #44 Tabby Lavalamp
    January 28, 2009

    Anna wrote:

    That’s interesting. I was under the impression that science leads to genocide, baby slaughtering, vaccinations, hedonism, atheism, Satanism, communism, and Hitler.

    I’d hope it’d lead to at least two of those things, and definitely one of them.

    Of course I’m referring to hedonism and Satanism.

  45. #45 Ted Dahlberg
    January 28, 2009

    Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues.

    Though that would be a neat first entrance for a teacher of an introductory science class.

  46. #46 Bryson Brown
    January 28, 2009

    “Secular reason” is a good phrase here– it emphasizes the continuity of science with ordinary descriptions of the world around us. It would be nice to see this theme developed further– my account of that turf holds that science has grown from refinement and extension of the methods and cognitive values that are used in making and evaluating basic descriptive claims about shapes, colours, etc. Its success has confirmed (for now) that those values (explanatory coherence of our inferences with our observations plus being a successful guide to practice) really are worth pursuing: we have continued to improve on these measures throughout the development of modern science. Our answers to basic descriptive questions have become more reliable and more precise as well as more widely (and independently) tested and agreed to. What better reason could we have for putting our trust in science?

  47. #47 Chuy W.
    January 28, 2009

    Is there is a word for willingness-to-change-your-mind-when-it’s-clear-you-were-wrong? Or willingness-to-admit-you-were-wrong?

  48. #48 DaveH
    January 28, 2009
    Posted by: Chuy W. | January 28, 2009 11:18 AM
    Is there is a word for willingness-to-change-your-mind-when-it’s-clear-you-were-wrong? Or willingness-to-admit-you-were-wrong? < \blockquote>

    Honesty?

  49. #49 Alyson Miers
    January 28, 2009

    Is there is a word for willingness-to-change-your-mind-when-it’s-clear-you-were-wrong? Or willingness-to-admit-you-were-wrong?

    Intellectual honesty, perhaps? Humility? Realism?

  50. #50 N.Schuster
    January 28, 2009

    If science is a source of virtue, then why were so many scientists bad people? There was Werner Heisenberg, Konrad Lorentz, both Nobel prize winners, who spent the WWII yeasr working for Hitler. Had Heisenberg been as good a researcher as he was a theoretician, he might have built an atom bomb for Hitler. Scary thought. And that atom bomb could have been sent to any target in Europe on one of Wener Von Braun’s V2 rockets. And then there was Dr. Mengele.

  51. #51 Aaron
    January 28, 2009

    I was thinking a little bit about the Faith vs. Reason dichotomy, and I think that a 1-d analysis oversimplifies the behaviors that people are actually engaged in.

    It seems likely that a more informed analysis could be demonstrated if we looked at Faith and Reason in light of 2 distinct factors.

    1. Knowledge : ability to explain events, predict outcomes, etc. based on some evidence.
    2. Confidence : how much you believe your explanation and predictions.

    Scientists, in this analysis, tend to have high confidence only when it is paired with high knowledge of the situation. Exceptions to this rule might include hunches, e.g. when reading a paper and realizing that some facet was critically important but not able to verbally describe exactly why at that moment. I won’t bother to go into other types of exceptions here.

    For various reasons, other people tend to be overconfident about situations that they actually have very little knowledge about. Faith, in this analysis, describes high confidence about a situation, the existence of a god, which someone can actually have no evidence for. Faith about god is likely to conform to similar rules as other situations in which people are demonstrably overconfident. I don’t have the high quality examples handy, but there are solid psychological experiments that can experimentally manipulate overconfidence.

    Perhaps others can comment, but I thought this analysis might shed a little light on the Faith vs. Reason dichotomy.

  52. #52 Alyson Miers
    January 28, 2009

    If Christianity can’t guarantee that its followers are all lovely people, then why should science be expected to make sure all scientists are decent folk? Religion constantly claims to make men into angels, and it fails extravagantly. Science merely promises to give us better information.

  53. #53 Sastra
    January 28, 2009

    N. Schuster #50 wrote:

    If science is a source of virtue, then why were so many scientists bad people?

    Because the commitments to the ethical methods of science and its practice are not always adopted into a scientist’s personal life — or into a society. One can borrow them when convenient, and then throw them off when inconvenient.

    In the examples you give involving Nazism, how open was the society to free debate? How well-supported were the views for “racial superiority,” and was all the evidence allowed? When subjective needs or dogma are allowed to overrule the enlightened objectivity which comes from a bottom-up approach, then you’re out of the realm of science.

  54. #54 Steve_C
    January 28, 2009

    HF. You were put in the dungeon for a reason. #52 will get deleted too… but my reference to you being an ass will stay.

    There’s justice in that.

    You jackass.

  55. #55 Steve_C
    January 28, 2009

    N. Shuster… You’re confusing science with humanity.

    Also, the abuse of science isn’t a virtue.

  56. #56 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    HF Osborne (JAD), your comments that have been quoted stay to remind everyone how far your psychosis has progressed.

    I hope someone has contacted your family and let them know you are out wandering free again.

    I’d hate for you to get lost again.

    The last time was embarrassing for everyone.

  57. #57 Sastra
    January 28, 2009

    Alyson Miers #53 wrote:

    If Christianity can’t guarantee that its followers are all lovely people, then why should science be expected to make sure all scientists are decent folk?

    The problem with religious ethics isn’t just that not all people will follow them. It’s that, unanchored to tests in reality, they can go anywhere. Thus, you get situations like a man failing to follow the ethics of his religion and helping his sister escape stoning.

    Of course, you can also have a man help his sister escape stoning because that’s what his religion says to do. Morals based on God are arbitrary at the core, since which God (and which set of morals) you choose rests ultimately on faith and trust.

    When theists want to defend the superiority of morals based on God to nontheists, they pick morals that make sense without God. They have to, or their case falls through. But because they have to, their case already has fallen through.

  58. #58 marcus
    January 28, 2009

    Science and secular reason a source of modern virtue? Nailed it! Your postings open my mind to the possibility that humanity might actually survive and accomplish something beyond the merely technological.

  59. #59 AJS
    January 28, 2009

    If science is a source of virtue, then why were so many scientists bad people?

    Because the subjective goodness or badness of a person is ultimately orthogonal to their objective scientific skill. Someone can be great at science in the laboratory; but if they hang up the very principles that make them a good scientist on the peg with their white coat on the way out, they can still be as big an arsehole as any Christian.

    Also, you mentioned the Nazis, so you lose. Go home.

  60. #60 Dianne
    January 28, 2009

    If science is a source of virtue, then why were so many scientists bad people?

    One could equally ask that about religion. There are any number of religious people from Torquemada to bin Laden that one wouldn’t want to spend too much time with…However, to defend either hypothesis one would have to show that people involved in science or religion are more likely to be bad people (for a given definition of “bad”) than people not involved in science or religion? Do you have any such evidence or only a few isolated examples from a single time and place?

  61. #61 Watchman
    January 28, 2009

    If science is a source of virtue, then why were so many scientists bad people?

    Are you serious? You named four.

    Four.

    Are you implying that there have only been, oh, say, eight or ten scientists in the entire world over the past 100 years?

    I hardly call that a convincing argument.

  62. #62 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    If science is a source of virtue, then why were so many scientists bad people?

    How many priests were there that abused kids? What about Jim Jones, Popes John XII, XIII, Benedict IX, Clement VI, Paul III, Islamic terrorists, every Christian who’s every committed a crime (including murder), Emperor Theodosius, the Christian Peter and his mob who murdered Hypatia, Knights of the Order, Charlemagne who executed some 4000-5000 Saxons who refused to be converted, the Battle of Askalon, the Albigensians, The Inquisition, those who Burned John Huss and Michael Sattler at the stake, the Crusades in their many forms, those who hung the Scot Thomas Aikenhead for being an atheist, the witch hunts, Pope Pius V who slaughtered the Huguenots, the Council of Toledo that enslaved Jews and confiscated their property, those who slaughtered the 10k or so jews in Bohemia in 1290

    should I go on?

    What a stupid fucking statement.

  63. #63 Alison
    January 28, 2009

    Is there is a word for willingness-to-change-your-mind-when-it’s-clear-you-were-wrong? Or willingness-to-admit-you-were-wrong?

    IIRC, that’s “flip-flopping”.

  64. #64 GILGAMESH
    January 28, 2009

    My thoughts on the virtue of science vs religion comes down to this:

    If I found myself in the middle of one hundred scientists from all over the world with differing views I would relax and enjoy the discussion.

    If I found myself in the middle of one hundred religious followers of differing sects from around the world I would defecate enough bricks to build a temple.

    I’ve never had the fear of a scientist killing me.

  65. #65 Darrell E
    January 28, 2009

    Posted by: Alan J | January 28, 2009 9:27 AM

    Hmm, I’m not so sure. Science isn’t a system of ethics, it’s a tool and the body of knowledge gained from using that tool. People who have the qualities described in the article above generally have them before they start practicing science, not after. In fact, it is precisely those values which lead them to doing science in the first place. It seems to me that science no more teaches values than does a screwdriver.

    I would agree that these qualities in question can and certainly do arise without a formal study of science. Parents typically teach their children, knowingly or not, values that they themselves hold. If the parents of a child value critical thinking, intellectual honesty, respect for evidence, openness, accountability, tolerance and opposing points of view then it is much more likely, though not certain, that the child will share those values.

    However, it seems that the more pervasive that science becomes, more and more people share these values. For the past several hundred years the “values zeitgeist” seems to have been moving towards those values that seem to be required for science to work well. I would hypothesize that one of the reasons for this is that people can and do change their values when learning and practicing science.

    Even if that is all bullshit, there are highly visible examples on this web site, and many other atheist / skeptic / science type sites, of people who have changed there values, some drastically, after becoming interested in and spending some time learning about science.

  66. #66 taenarus
    January 28, 2009

    Science and Truth aside, fans of mixed metaphors will be excited by Overbye’s ingenious triple:

    “you could feel a dark cloud lifting like a sigh from the shoulders of the scientific community in this country.”

  67. #67 Darrell E
    January 28, 2009

    NICE!
    Sastra, you quite often have very interesting things to say (or write), but I really like this right here …..

    When theists want to defend the superiority of morals based on God to nontheists, they pick morals that make sense without God. They have to, or their case falls through. But because they have to, their case already has fallen through.

    I hope you don’t mind if I use that every now and then! The gist of what you said is self evident, but you’ve managed to state it very simply and clearly. Short, sweet and to the point. Thank you.

  68. #68 Greta Christina
    January 28, 2009

    Kudos to Mr. Overbye. As many people have pointed out, facts are just facts, they aren’t good or bad. The facts that science reveals don’t have any moral value one way or the other. But the practice of science and the scientific method absolutely does. It values truth. It values reality.

    The fundamental value that underlies science is the idea that, in order to know how to live in this world, we have to take it as it is. No matter how good our intentions are, we can’t act effectively if we don’t understand or refuse to accept how the world works. We have to be willing to accept hard truths and to change our minds. But the real world is more important (not to mention more interesting) than anything we could make up. Reality trumps everything. And the practice of science teaches us to respect that.

  69. #69 Greta Christina
    January 28, 2009

    Oh, P.S.:

    If science is a source of virtue, then why were so many scientists bad people?

    Um… Because not all scientists rigorously follow the virtues of science? Because scientists are, you know, human beings, no more virtuous or wicked than anybody else? Because we’re not talking about the virtue of scientists, but the virtue of science?

    And like Watchman (#61): What do you mean, “so many”? There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of scientists in the world. Are you saying most of them are bad? Or even a significant minority? Do you have anything at all to back that assertion up?

  70. #70 Louise Van Court
    January 28, 2009

    @ Gilgamesh #64
    ?If I found myself in the middle of one hundred religious followers of differing sects from around the world I would defecate enough bricks to build a temple.?

    And what if those one hundred religious followers were all scientists? Would you still be so afraid?

  71. #71 JohnnieCanuck
    January 28, 2009

    Soixante-neuf. Greta wins.

  72. #72 SplendidMonkey
    January 28, 2009

    Is there is a word for willingness-to-change-your-mind-when-it’s-clear-you-were-wrong? Or willingness-to-admit-you-were-wrong?

    Humility?

  73. #73 Tony Whitson
    January 28, 2009

    A white paper by the Poynter Center at Indiana University, on bio-science vs. ID/creationism, makes a case for science teaching as a mode of civic education, with due concern for civic virtues of the sort discussed here. See
    http://curricublog.wordpress.com/2006/10/24/poynter-civics/

  74. #74 E.V.
    January 28, 2009

    I have the feeling Greta did that on purpose.

  75. #75 AmericanGodless
    January 28, 2009

    About 40 years ago, Jacob Bronowski (in his book “Science and Human Values”) said that (I paraphrase — don’t have it in front of me), to do science, we have to act in such a way that what happens to be true may come to be known to be true. And Jaques Monod pointed out that you can’t do that without a commitment to truth-telling. For those of us who learned this as grad students back in the 60′s and 70′s, it is incredible that some people still try to claim that science is “values neutral.” As Greta Christina (post #68) said, it is not the findings, but the practice of science that forces us to value truth.

    It is said that the atomic theory of the ancient Greeks was confounded by these questions: if all is atoms and the void, then why tell the truth and why fight for Athens? The answer is obvious — we tell the truth in order to discover if it is true that all is atoms and the void; we fight for Athens because (and to the extent that) it provides a society in which we are free to inquire freely and honestly about the truth of the proposition that all is atoms and the void.

    Doing science IS an ethical commitment.

  76. #76 Robert Davidson
    January 28, 2009

    The jury room is one place where such virtues are very relevant

  77. #77 anon
    January 28, 2009

    theocracy sacerdotocracy

    No ‘god’ ever ruled anything; but priests (sacerdotes) have mis-ruled from the day they invented themselves.

  78. #78 Bob
    January 28, 2009

    Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.

    Nietzsche thought so, too…

    That’s kinda the basis for intellectual integrity…

  79. #79 octopod
    January 28, 2009

    I gotta say, I absolutely hate it when people use Dr. Mengele as an example of “an evil scientist”. He sure was pretty evil, but have you ever LOOKED at his experimental protocols? Dude wasn’t doing science at all, he was just fucking around!

    Anyone who says he was a real scientist does not understand how science works. Ever wondered why the standard ethics-and-science question of “using data obtained by doctors doing unconscionable experiments in the Nazi death camps” never actually seems to come up in reality?

    “Scientists” bound to the service of an ideology do not produce real science. See also: various sorts of denialists.

  80. #80 N.Schuster
    January 28, 2009

    Octopod:

    Okay, maybe Memgele wasn’t doing good science. But Heisenberg and Lorentz must have been doing good science because they were Nobel prize winners.

  81. #81 Facilis
    January 28, 2009

    Wow. I have to ask a couple questions to ask anyone hwo hold to this cult of scientism
    1) Does science make any ideological claims to be the source of virtue and morality?
    2)IF yes do we have an obligation to obey these laws science tells us?
    3)Isn’t this the naturalistic fallacy? Science tells us what is and morals are what “ought” to be. How do you get from an “is’ to an ought.
    4) Inductive reasoning is the backbone of the scientific method and PZ made a post where he admitted he was unable to account for induction. Can you solve Hume’s problem of induction?
    5)How do you account for the laws of logic and reason without invoking God?
    6)science is often subject to change. Let’s say there was a new scientific theory (using whatever process you sue to derive morals from science) you concluded that according to this theory it was OK to murder people for fun. Would you allow someone to murder you, or appeal to some other moral standard?

  82. #82 Sastra
    January 28, 2009

    Facilis #81 wrote:

    ) Does science make any ideological claims to be the source of virtue and morality?

    I think you misunderstand the claim a bit. It’s that science, as a method, invokes and promotes certain values and virtues that are already in human nature.

    2)IF yes do we have an obligation to obey these laws science tells us?

    Once in the system, yes. As for accepting the system, no moral system can force an obligation — even one based on “obeying God.” They are all chosen freely, or they’re not moral systems.

    3)Isn’t this the naturalistic fallacy? Science tells us what is and morals are what “ought” to be. How do you get from an “is’ to an ought.

    No, we’re not saying that science reveals a world where morals exist. The practice of science requires a commitment to honesty, truth-seeking, humility, discipline, caution, open debate, consensus-seeking, and assumptions of equality. If you follow these virtues, then you will contribute to human flourishing, and a better world.

    You get an “ought” from an “if-then.” If you want X, then you ought to do Y. This only follows if doing Y will get you X, and do it well.

    4) Inductive reasoning is the backbone of the scientific method and PZ made a post where he admitted he was unable to account for induction. Can you solve Hume’s problem of induction?

    Induction is only a “problem” if one is looking for absolute certainty in empirical matters. In science, one has to give up the desire to be infallible, and accept that one can always be wrong — and needs a way to find this out, if so.

    Thus, science encourages humility.

    5)How do you account for the laws of logic and reason without invoking God?

    They’re necessary relationships and self-evident truths which need no further proof or reasoning — and therefore more ‘basic’ than God, which needs to be argued for.

    6)science is often subject to change. Let’s say there was a new scientific theory (using whatever process you sue to derive morals from science) you concluded that according to this theory it was OK to murder people for fun. Would you allow someone to murder you, or appeal to some other moral standard?

    No, again, you misunderstand. We’re not talking about how the theories of science lead to virtue. It’s that the practice of science itself requires a commitment to certain virtues. Because science seeks after universal consensus, it promotes intersubjectivity: what works for all.

    Those are very brief (and probably inadequate) answers — but you asked a lot of questions. Maybe you could narrow it down to the ones you think most important, especially since you had some misunderstandings of the original claim.

  83. #83 Feynmaniac
    January 28, 2009

    Facilis,

    Inductive reasoning is the backbone of the scientific method and PZ made a post where he admitted he was unable to account for induction. Can you solve Hume’s problem of induction?

    Sigh, the scientific method hasn’t used “inductive reasoning” for a while now. Please read about Falsifiability .

  84. #84 apeiron
    January 28, 2009

    Sastra -

    #82 – Well said!

  85. #85 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 28, 2009

    cult of scientism

    YAWN

  86. #86 heliobates
    January 28, 2009

    Would you allow someone to murder you, or appeal to some other moral standard?

    That’s an interesting thought experiment coming from someone who previously stated that it’s okay to shoot someone in the head to win an argument.

    Nice how you completely ignored the points raised about inter-subjectivity. No talking points to cover that, Facilis?

  87. #87 heliobates
    January 29, 2009

    You get an “ought” from an “if-then.” If you want X, then you ought to do Y. This only follows if doing Y will get you X, and do it well.

    Richard Carrier has a really good talk about scientific morality.

  88. #88 N.Schuster
    January 29, 2009

    Diana et al:

    I mentioned foru Nazi scientists. But there were more. Each of these had teams of PhD’s wroking with them. Stalin had scientists working with him. As I type this, scientists in Iran are working on an atom bomb. Scientists in Pakistan have already created one. Are they virtuous? Scientists have created nerve gas, biological weapons, etc. Is that virtuous? And what about the Tuskegee experiment, where black men with syphlis were allowed to die so scientists could study the progress of the disease.

    And, over the years, I’ve read articles about scientists misappropriating research funds, stealing data etc. And in this article:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/28/nasa_climate_theon/

    a top NASA scientists says that his fellow scientists have been fudging the data on global warming. Is that virtuous.

    I’m basically wondering about the assertion that science is a source of virtue. Of course, we could prove is scientifically. This would mean studying a large group of scientists and comparing them to a control group to see if they are more viruous. Of course we would have to control for the variables.

  89. #89 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 29, 2009

    N.Schuster, what do you consider a source of virtue?

  90. #90 E.V.
    January 29, 2009

    N. Schuster:
    GIve it a rest. You’re well into reification fallacy territory and going into Tu quoque (you guys do it TOO) fallacy. Reread the posts above.

  91. #91 N.Schuster
    January 29, 2009

    Well, a recent book called “Who Really Cares” sites research that says that religious people give more money to charity, in total, per capita, and as a percentage of income. Religious also donate blood more often, and voluteer more often, than secular people. I’ve read studies that show that religious people tend to have a lower suicide rates, and lower rates of things like alcoholism and drug abuse. Of course religious people aren’t immune. However, this would seem to indicate that religion can be a source of virtue.

    Of course, the same may be true of scientists, but I’m not aware of any research.

  92. #92 Nerd of Redhead
    January 29, 2009

    N.Schuster, do you realize that your god doesn’t exist, and morals and virtues have always been defined by men? You probably haven’t even thought about it. God and religion are superfluous.

  93. #93 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 29, 2009

    However, this would seem to indicate that religion can be a source of virtue.

    What are the statistics on believers in jail vs. non-believers?

  94. #94 E.V.
    January 29, 2009

    SO your assuming Who Really Cares is not biased and a source of propaganda? Which are you arguing, that Scientists are not virtuous or that non-theists are not virtuous?
    Most non-theists work through existing charities, which tend to have religious affiliations, why? Because dumbshit zealots will refuse food, medical supplies and clothes from Atheist organizations if they know they’re atheists.
    Suicide samples are screwed because suicides involving clinical depression and bipolar disorder are not distinguished from impulsive behavior resulting from short term situational depression and many suicides go unreported (the old, “he was cleaning his gun.” “single car crash” schtick) due to social stigma. Religion has little effect on whether a devout christian suffering from severe unipolar or bipolar depression will commit suicide. ( I’ll be happy to provide sources when I have time.)
    We’re not denigrating religious people with a” live and let live” or “I’ll tend to my own garden, thank you” mindset. It’s the ones that want to define morality for everyone, the censors and the book banners, the homophobes/sex-between-consenting-adults police and the denialists who claim to be so virtuous, that prove the opposite.

  95. #95 Sastra
    January 29, 2009

    N. Schuster #88 wrote:

    I’m basically wondering about the assertion that science is a source of virtue. Of course, we could prove is scientifically. This would mean studying a large group of scientists and comparing them to a control group to see if they are more viruous. Of course we would have to control for the variables.

    But we’re not claiming that scientists are more virtuous than other people.

    We’re saying that the values in science — the open debate, the reasoned equality, the fair demonstration, the honesty in seeking a consensus towards the truth — are the same sorts of values which underlie constitutional democracy and human rights. When a society values the practice of science — the methods — it will be a more tolerant, open, and better society.

    Don’t confuse science with technology, or method with results. Totalitarian regimes which employ scientists to engineer a useful thing are not interested in objectivity, searching for larger explanations, and following the evidence where it leads.

    Well, a recent book called “Who Really Cares” sites research that says that religious people give more money to charity, in total, per capita, and as a percentage of income.

    Nobody doubts that religion can also inspire virtuous acts. But the type of thinking behind it is not going to fuel the sort of mutual human agreements and rights you got from the bottom-up approaches of the Enlightenment. Instead, you get kindness and charity (which are also nice, of course.)

    I think I’ve read some criticism of the methods in those studies, in that they didn’t compare membership in churches to membership in secular organizations such as Kiwanis or Women’s Clubs. A large part of the incentive to help out may have to do with the community aspect, and being in a place where you’re asked to work on specific projects or donate to good causes along with your friends. If that wasn’t controlled for, the fact that there’s a “religious” aspect may not be that significant.

  96. #96 E.V.
    January 29, 2009

    And again, I just love you Sastra.

    *sigh* (oh, to write like you do)

    {we have to stop meeting like this…}

  97. #97 Facilis
    January 29, 2009

    What are the statistics on believers in jail vs. non-believers?

    In the United Kingdom about 31.6 percent of prisoners said they had no religion (compared to 15.6 in the general population). If you compare the Christian-no religion figures ,professing Christians are 4 times less likely to go to jail.

  98. #98 Nerd of Redhead
    January 29, 2009

    Facilis, still mangling logic. You need to stop posting here. If you had any intelligence, you would do so.

  99. #99 Wowbagger
    January 29, 2009

    In the United Kingdom about 31.6 percent of prisoners said they had no religion (compared to 15.6 in the general population). If you compare the Christian-no religion figures ,professing Christians are 4 times less likely to go to jail.

    facilis got pwned by the statistically capable for trying to present these deliberately misinterpreted and distorted figures a few months back. I can’t recall what the thread topic was.

    You’re getting very desperate facilis; it’s the sign you’re for more concerned with convincing yourself than you are us.

  100. #100 gaypaganunitarianagnostic
    January 29, 2009

    Some say Heisenberg deleberately draged his feet on the Nazi atomic bome. Others think he just flubbed the job. His position is uncertain. (Of course)

  101. #101 Anton Mates
    February 4, 2009

    N.Schuster,

    Okay, maybe Memgele wasn’t doing good science. But Heisenberg and Lorentz must have been doing good science because they were Nobel prize winners.

    They didn’t receive their Nobel prizes for the work they did for the Nazis, so this hardly follows. Lorenz’s racial propaganda was not good science, by any standard. I don’t know whether Heisenberg’s work on the bomb followed good scientific methodology, but notice that he didn’t actually get there before the American team did.

    Moreover, during World War II virtually every German citizen was, of necessity, working for Hitler. Were scientists particularly more likely to work for him, or did they serve him more enthusiastically? You certainly haven’t shown that.