How do I convince someone that (S)cience is real?
July 15, 2008 12:50 PM   Subscribe

How do I convince someone Science is real?

I've run into a handful of people in the last year who are skeptical that (S)cience is real. Or is any more real/credible/valid than other "belief system."

Their arguments have all had one or a mix of "I don't believe in Science because":
1. It has been wrong before
2. There are still unanswered questions
3. There have been conflicting results on the same topic
4. I read "The Secret"/watched "What The Bleep Do We Know"/etc., and think that pairing pseudo-science with vaguely related Scientific concepts makes it all equally true.
6. Science is accepted because people are brainwashed by authority and not because it is true.
5. Any of the above reasons why Science is "wrong" proves my hypothesis right.
6. If it works for me, it is true.

I don't begrudge anyone their belief system, but am a little overwhelmed with the sheer baseness of why there is a distinction between Belief and Fact. It seems like there should be an easier way to explain it all than having to get into some long diatribe on the history and philosophy of Scientific thought.

So, hivemind, what is the most basic, and most respectful way to explain why (S)cience is "real?"
posted by doppleradar to Education (68 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
You don't. Seriously. There is nothing you can do to convince someone that science=good.

It will only frustrate you if you try. I'm sorry, but it's true. =(
posted by phunniemee at 12:56 PM on July 15, 2008 [7 favorites]

Boy, if you get a good answer for this one, I will eagerly check the results. In my experience, the type of people who dispute science are the type of people who have very little brain power to work with, and thus are less likely to listen to reason.
posted by newfers at 12:57 PM on July 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

There is an entire discipline/subculture devoted to persuading people about the scientific outlook. I get the feel, unfortunately, that the consensus in skepticism is that only fence-sitting members of the general public are possible to convert; that "true believers" in various forms of "woo" who specifically rebuke conventional science or science itself are usually impossible to convince.
posted by abcde at 12:59 PM on July 15, 2008

Getting a deeper understanding of the philosophy of science yourself might be a good first step. Not many scientists have really looked into it, but it is essential for understanding things like the nature of scientific truth and the emergence of scientific theories.

The best book I have read about it is Kuhn's excellent Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It's definitely not beachside reading, but it will provide you with lots to think about, as well as a large number of good examples.
posted by sindark at 12:59 PM on July 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


Come up with a hypothesis. Test hypothesis.

Doesn't matter what the results are; that right there was "Science!"

Er, a for-instance. There was a stupid chain email circulating around saying that microwave ovens are a health hazard. Supposedly water that had been microwaved will kill plants.

How to tell it's not true? Microwave some water. Let it cool*. Water plants with it (also, water the same kind of plants in a different pot with tap water). See if plant dies.

*yeah - if you pour boiling water on a plant, of course it's going to die.
posted by porpoise at 12:59 PM on July 15, 2008

Because other systems have failed. Ask them why they dont go to faith-healers when they are sick or why we dont still practice alchemy. Its not brain-washing. Its that these instututions, which were full of pretty smart people, have all failed compared to the collected practices called science.

Science (with a big S) is alway wrong and always right. Ideally its a self-correcting system, so not knowing everything and being wrong in the past is not a bug, its actually a feature.

Honestly, if yoru friends are making these arguments then I doubt anything will be convincing. Seems like they are contrarians soley for the attention.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:59 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Believing in 'science' is also an unfairly monolithic conception. All of these are important elements:

1) Believing that the scientific method is a good way to learn about the world and evaluate beliefs. (This is especially true in situations where the whole of something can be well understood by isolating and understanding smaller constituent parts).

2) Beliving in a particular scientific theory or set of scientific theories.

3) Believing that, at least in principle, the universe is subject to comprehensive universal laws.
posted by sindark at 1:02 PM on July 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

What do you mean by other "belief system"? Science is a process of trying to figure out how the world works: learning by experiment, testing and hypothesis. Everyone uses that process in their daily lives implicitly. I don't think these people that are skeptical of "science" realize that is what scientists do, but at a more technical level.
posted by demiurge at 1:04 PM on July 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Along sindark's suggestion, here are some more reads:
Carl Hempel, Philosophy of Natural Science
Bruno Latour, Science in Action
Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump.
posted by phunniemee at 1:05 PM on July 15, 2008

Best answer: Ask wfrgms.
posted by Pax at 1:05 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ask them how they think we developed electric lights, cars, computers, cell phones, airplanes, trains, medicine etc. (the list is almost unending) if science is bunk.

Most of the people I know who have expressed such a sentiment will gladly accept all the benefits of science while still withholding the "credit".
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:11 PM on July 15, 2008

Best answer: Well, you can't basically.

This doesnt answer your question, but a professor I had once (Astronomy prof) put the whole science/faith-religion dichotomy into relief the best I've ever heard with this comparison. He called it the Data-Model Loop (he maybe didnt invent it himself).

All beliefs (so he espoused) consist of Data (what you can see or feel or experience) and Models (what sense you make of that data). Science, in principle, starts with Data and moves to a Model to explain it. If more Data is discovered, the Model is changed to fit the incoming Data and so on etc. In Faith (or Religion if you like) you start with a Model, and Data comes in that contradicts the Model, it is discarded. The Model remains sacrosanct.

The point is that these are two VERY different, opposing views of looking at the world and for those die-hards from either camp who cant find a middle ground, you will never ever be able to convince them otherwise. They are simply moving in inverse directions on the Data-Model Loop.

Maybe just enjoy their company otherwise and dont even stress yourself by trying to change their minds.
posted by elendil71 at 1:12 PM on July 15, 2008 [19 favorites]

With a few specific exceptions, the scientific process relies on a foundation of trust in sensory perception. Ask if they trust their own senses. Do you trust what you can see, touch, smell, hear, taste?

If you ask a question about the world and get an answer, do you trust that your senses have reported that answer truthfully?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:14 PM on July 15, 2008

I don't think you can convince someone.

Most that reject science have a faith based belief system that is not based on reason and logic.

Reason and logic are the foundations of scientific theory. If someone cannot accept reason & logic, they cannot accept science.
posted by Argyle at 1:15 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

The book Why People Believe Weird Things gets into the mindset and also how to debate it. It's not necessarily the most respectful way to debate it, but it is an approach.

Frankly, I think that trying to debunk someone's superstitions is a fool's errand unless that person is, say, in a position to decide classroom curriculums.
posted by adamrice at 1:15 PM on July 15, 2008

What do you mean the don't believe in Science? They don't believe that things can be discovered through the use of hypothesis and testing? Or did you mean to say they don't believe in certain theories. They have all the right not to believe in every theory, because that is exactly what it is! It's a theory, that means it hasn't yet been proved (if it can) that it actually exists/happened.

In regards to what newfers said: In my experience, the type of people who dispute science are the type of people who have very little brain power to work with, and thus are less likely to listen to reason.

Honestly, if you believe this then you might as well make the world a better place and remove yourself from the gene pool. Questioning someone's reasoning abilities is an idiotic way to convince them that your conclusions are better than theirs.
posted by Deflagro at 1:22 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Encountering these kinds of arguments makes me tear my hair out. It has been my experience that people who are skeptical of Science do not understand that scientists are still WAY more skeptical than them-- they think that scientists are some kind of robot who will believe anything that is status quo. When it comes down to it, many people are just not interested in testing whether these new agey pseudo science claims are right or not.

When confronted with people arguing with us about the Happy Water Hypothesis last time (details), I told them the type of experiment I would design to test if it was true or not- making sure not to "talk down" to the original idea. They were not interested. Which is what I've come across in a lot of people with these types of arguments, namely, that they are ready to accept what some spiritual guru tells them about Science without questioning it, while berating Science for being unwilling to question hypotheses, and being unwilling to test something themselves.

Best way to deal with it? Find common ground and talk about that instead. When we changed the topic from Happy Water to 12-foot 4th dimensional lizard conspiracy theory, I was more than happy to discuss.
posted by hybridvigor at 1:25 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I don't believe in Science" = "I'm not curious to know anything I don't already know. In fact, it is not possible to know things I don't already know."
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:30 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's a theory, that means it hasn't yet been proved (if it can) that it actually exists/happened.

No, that's not what a theory is in the world of science. Wikipedia:

In science a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation.

The fact that it's a "theory" doesn't say anything about truth or proof. Some theories have little predictive ability, and some theories -- like "the earth revolves around the sun" -- are pretty well tested.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:31 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Science doesn't believe in them, revoke their science privileges and remove any scientific products from them at will.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:33 PM on July 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

The problem with a question like this is that skeptical concerns about the nature of scientific inquiry (are we discovering or creating laws?) and about the result of such inquiry (what the heck is a scientific law anyway? Is it an explanation, a thing, a function?) are perfectly respectable. Many philosophers struggle with the questions daily.

I suspect that the problem here is that they are attempting to support a legitimate position (skepticism about science) with spurious reasoning; they are, to be charitable, committing a non-sequitor fallacy. To remedy this you might try showing them that even if 1-6 are true, the conclusion that science is bad does not follow. Or you could construct a similarly fallacious argument against something that they believe, in the hope that they'll see the analogy.

Good luck; Don't hold your breath.
posted by oddman at 1:35 PM on July 15, 2008

people who dispute science are the type of people who have very little brain power to work with, and thus are less likely to listen to reason

This may be the experience of some people, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the intelligence of many people who disregard science. For some, it's not that they are too stupid to understand, it's that they have chosen to believe other things, and they may very well be putting their intelligence and mental energy into their belief system. An intelligent person with a commited belief system can very often run circles around a person with average knowledge of science. Many people who are anti-science may have more facts and figures at their command than you do. (Accurate or not.)

My advice: relax and don't worry about it. They are choosing to not believe science and you can no more talk them into believing it than they can talk you out of it. Such is the power of committed belief.

Been there. Believed that.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:38 PM on July 15, 2008

In my experience, people use the "Works For Me" test to explain why they believe in un-scientific things and disbelieve scientific things.

For example, if someone plays their lucky slot machine in Vegas and wins, their explanation works for them. Although not accurate, believing that they are in fact lucky and can in fact control how much they win is a more comfortable explanation than the real one (that they are playing a losing game). Similarly, someone who has been to AA and accepted a higher power as their only way to stop drinking is comforted by the fact that they have some help in a troubling situation.

People who embrace Un-Science for whatever reason tend to be very hard to convince, and in my opinion it's because on a personal level believing in the theory that happens to be correct does not always have many tangible benefits. If someone has assigned a lot of worth and value to God in their life, believing that the Bible is not literally true and that the Earth was created by natural processes billions of years ago can be a hard pill to swallow.

It's much easier to convince someone who doesn't have a strong belief to switch to the Scientific explanation in a specific situation that could have tangible benefits. For example, if your friend is questioning their luck after a string of losses in Las Vegas, it might be a good time to through some of the basics of probability and explain how the machines work and why the house always wins in the long run. But most of the time, if you can't make the person want to believe in Science over whatever they currently think, it's not going to work.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:43 PM on July 15, 2008

Best answer: How do I convince someone Science is real?

I don't think you mean this literally, but I'm going to take it literally, because I think doing so may help.

Saying "science isn't real" is like saying a hammer isn't real or holding-your-breath-while-swimming isn't real. Science isn't an object. It's not an elephant or a unicorn. It's a tool. It's a technique. (Rather, it's a set of related tools and techniques.)

The tool exists. If anyone seriously doubts it, take them to a lab. The people there are doing Science. Science is the label we've applied to what they are doing.

Better questions are whether or not the tool works, whether it works well, whether it works all the time, under what conditions it fails, etc...

I think many of these discussions come to loggerheads, because both sides insist on turning Science into something really lofty. Science as The Truth. Certainly, you can talk about Science that way, but I don't think that's the way to start when debating with people who aren't into it.

If science is a tool/technique, what's it for? Or, better yet, what might we use it for? It's pointless to ask whether or not a hammer works. Works for what? It's pretty lousy for frying eggs; it kicks ass at pounding nails into wood.

One of the things pro-science people claim science is good for is making predictions about the natural world. If I were debating your friends, I would start there, and I would keep things really simple and really mundane. Don't talk about the origin of the universe or whether psychic powers exist. Talk about dropping pennies.

Hold a penny up in the air and say, "What do you think will happen when I let it go? I'm going to make a hypothesis: when I let it go, it will fall to the ground."

Ask your friends what they think the best tool or technique is for testing whether or not your hypothesis is correct. You could do an experiment. You could drop the penny and see what happens. You could add controls. You could ask lots of people to drop lots of pennies in all sorts of environments.

Or you could read palms, ask a magic 8 ball, pray for an answer, gaze at your navel...

If you give your friends this simplistic example, and they STILL don't think Science is useful, then give up. You and they will never see eye to eye.

If they do think -- in this limited example -- science might be useful, then talk about what would happen if, after watching 1000 pennies drop to the ground, you concluded that your hypothesis was correct. Then, a year later, you found yourself standing on the space shuttle. You released a penny and it didn't drop to the ground...

Science isn't wrong. It's not a thing that can be right or wring. It's a tool. People use the tool to make predictions. Then, it what actually happens contradicts those predictions, they use various techniques (parts of the Scientific Method) to amend or correct early theories. Again, you can talk about these in terms of utility. You can talk about what might be a better set of tools. (If you don't think Science will help us build better computers, what would you suggest?)

Above all, give your friends some credit. I'm a really hard-nosed guy. I'm an atheist; I'm a skeptic; I'm a "believer" in Science; I'm a lover of Science. My guess is that your friends are anti-science due to ignorance and emotional reasons, but at face values, their questions are good questions, and the answers aren't simple -- especially if you want to go beyond my definition of Science as a tool. If you want to claim that Science is (or helps one discover) Truth, you get into some very murky, complex territory. What is Truth?

Science must rely on some unprovable assumptions. It tries to limit these, but they are always there: causation, a material universe, etc. Ultimately, I agree with your friends that Science is at least a little like a religion. As a "believer" in Science, you must take these givens on faith. To me, the difference between Science and religion is Science's greater utility as a predictive tool.
posted by grumblebee at 1:44 PM on July 15, 2008 [19 favorites]

Ask if they're willing to let you push them out of a 10-story window. When they answer in the negative, ask them why.
posted by scody at 1:50 PM on July 15, 2008 [7 favorites]

I have to join the chorus of voices that say, "don't bother." Someone saying they don't believe in science indicates 1). A deep misunderstanding of what science is and 2). most likely some deeply held beliefs that they aren't going to shed for you or anyone else.

You'd have to explain to them how science isn't men in white coats making proclamations about the universe. You would most likely lose them at this point. If you were able to get them to agree to your definition of science, they would most likely argue that "scientists" don't do what you are saying they do, but instead are acting on faith, when it comes to the beliefs that they hold that they feel science conflicts with.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:51 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Personally, I take a long term approach; I just wait until they die out.
posted by dhoe at 1:53 PM on July 15, 2008

Act as if you are going to throw something at them. When they flinch, ask them why. Go from there.
posted by phrontist at 1:56 PM on July 15, 2008

Stop calling it capital-letter Science first and foremost. Do you even know what science is? It's a method of asking questions, nothing more, nothing less.

I think the danger is that people incorrectly put entire belief systems into a box and call it "Science!" and then juxtapose it across from another box of ideas called "Religion!" Or "Superstition!"

This has led many anti-science proponents to make claims like, "Science is just a godless religion." Which is functionally correct if you're doing the above which is basically using the word "science" as a synonym for "truth."

Don't do that. Here's why:

Objectively we can never fully know if anything is real or not. All of this could be a dream, or a hallucination, or a computer program ala The Matrix (or more classically, The Allegory of the Cave.) As such we can never fully know the "truth" of anything.

That's okay because science isn't a method of truth finding, but a method of approaching a question.

It's not science you should be defending (because it's just a method and stands on its own accord) but empirical, naturalist thinking which provides the best account for our limited scope of reality.

Some other thoughts about science:

- Science is empirical not anecdotal. It relies on repeatable, verifiable, and universal observations to craft explanations.

- Science has an error correcting mechanism which sets it apart from "home spun wisdom," "just-so stories," and matters of faith.

- Scientific knowledge is cumulative.

- The explanations revealed through scientific inquiry are often counter-intuitive to human experience. This is perhaps the most important aspect of science.


- From the earth the sun appears to rise and set (and thus orbit the earth.) The heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Copernicus relied on indirect observations, not direct.

- Man, with his opposable thumbs and thinking mind appears uniquely designed to exploit his environment. Likewise the earth seems uniquely designed to support man. In the pre-Darwin world you'd be crazy to think that man and his earth did not have an intelligent designer.

Anyway none of this is a direct answer to your question, but hopefully this will take you in the right direction.
posted by wfrgms at 1:59 PM on July 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

There are several other stumbling blocks in these discussions. Until you can rid your discussions of the following side-tracks, you're not really discussing the pros and cons of Science.

First of all, Science gets all confused with other things.

-- Technology. Science is not technology (though, of course, science was used in the creation of a lot of it). I've heard people say that they hate science. In the end, it turns out they they're Luddites; they hate technology. I like examples like my penny-dropping one, because it doesn't involve technology.

Science is not "those darn computers that never work"; it's not atomic bombs; it's not Nazi death camps; it's not over-medicating children...

-- Philosophy. Science is not philosophy. Science is not The Meaning of Life.

-- Science is not scientists. There are traits that SOME scientists share. (Atheism, etc.) People may have strong feelings about those traits, but those traits are not science.

-- Science is not the opposite of religion. Science is a relatively simple bunch of techniques; religion is a very complex social phenomenon. Yes, many scientISTS may be atheists; Yes, science (if you accept it as a tool that allows you to gain knowledge about the natural world) may disprove certain claims made by religious leaders or texts. But it's not the case that there's a door marked science and a door marked religion and you have to open one or the other.

Second, I think there's a big lie that pop-science writers keep telling, and it drives me crazy. The lie is this: "You don't need magic! Science is every bit as wonderful and mysterious as the most magical thing you could think of."

I don't believe in magic, but I don't buy that hogwash, either.

Here's what I THINK they mean. They mean, "I, as a scientist, have seen great beauty in science." And it's true, if you get deeply into science, you will experience waves and waves of beauty. But the truth is, that beauty is not accessible to lay people who just dip into science. You're rarely going to be overcome with beauty by reading the science section of the NY Times, no matter how interesting it may be.

So saying "Give up your unicorns and psychic powers! just read a biology book, and you'll experience something every bit as wonderful" is bullshit. And those NOVA shows where they show pictures of the galaxy are really, really cool, but they're not as moving as "Lord of the Rings" or an uplifting church service.

If you embrace Science, you DO give up certain ways of thinking (e.g. magical thinking) which may have given you great pleasure and solace. Hopefully, you gain greater rewards. But those rewards don't come easily.

That -- I think -- is the basis of the big lie. Magical thinking is easy; science is hard. Science evangelists don't want to admit that, because they fear -- rightly -- that they'll lose their audience. But that doesn't make it not true.
posted by grumblebee at 2:07 PM on July 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Don't do that. Here's why:

Objectively we can never fully know if anything is real or not. All of this could be a dream, or a hallucination, or a computer program ala The Matrix (or more classically, The Allegory of the Cave.) As such we can never fully know the "truth" of anything.

Meh, solipsism.
posted by phrontist at 2:08 PM on July 15, 2008

They have all the right not to believe in every theory, because that is exactly what it is! It's a theory, that means it hasn't yet been proved (if it can) that it actually exists/happened.

There's an important point here that needs to be clarified: A scientific theory is just that -- a theory. It is a conclusion based on a set of facts derived from observable evidence. In a sense, you can prove a theory to be false, but you can't prove it to be 100 percent true. A theory holds only as long as the evidence supports it. Once a better set of evidence comes along, then the theory is modified or overwritten.

Faith is the opposite: It is a belief in something regardless of the evidence for or against it. Faith is not falsifiable and is not swayed by evidence to the contrary.

It seems as though most people who reject certain scientific theories these days are people who take offense at what they perceive to be an attack on deeply held religious beliefs. They will criticize science as not being as absolute as their religious convictions, or theories .

In my mind these are apples and oranges, and though I doubt you will have any success, you might want to approach your scientific non-believers from that angle -- science and faith are different languages, with one in search of small-t truths and the other striving for big-T Truth. One can believe wholeheartedly in God and still use one's God-given ability to reason and observe the world to formulate and accept scientific theories based on solid evidence.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 2:09 PM on July 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

I like to think of Science not as a system for discovering Facts or Truth, but as a system for making the best possible predictions. Science sees that when A and B happen, C has followed many, many times, so it's reasonable to predict that C will happen again next time A and B occur. Though it's often over-simplified in the popular press into these terms, Science doesn't say "A and B cause C." All it claims is "In our observations, A and B have always been followed by C. So if you want C to happen, your best bet is probably to make A and B happen first." It does not matter whether A and B are factually related to C, it matters that we can make some use of the fact that they seem to be related according to our most thorough observations.
posted by vytae at 2:15 PM on July 15, 2008

I have spent a great deal of my time trying to do this in the past and unfortunately phunnimee nailed it on the frist psot.
posted by alby at 2:18 PM on July 15, 2008

Best answer: As a "believer" in Science, you must take these givens on faith.

No. Science accepts no inviolable axioms. If there was a reason to believe that causation or a material universe were not justified assumptions, then we'd all get busy rewriting textbooks to account for that. Your example of causation has been called into question in many ways, most notably by quantum mechanics (Double-slit electron diffraction, virtual particles, even the very nature of the wave function.) As everyone else has said, science always accepts new data, while religion generally doesn't (although it does at some level, which is an interesting subject from a social standpoint).

With that aside, aside, a comment on the actual question: the best preparation you can have for dealing with science "deniers" is to know your stuff! Knowing how science works and the philosophical ideas behind it backwards and forwards will be very helpful in these discussions (as others have pointed out). But more importantly (for me, at least) is that it is more fulfilling and productive than studying all the crank arguments against "science".
posted by kiltedtaco at 2:20 PM on July 15, 2008

You can't change someone's beliefs but saying "science isn't real" is like holding a badge saying, "kick me, I'm stupid and I want to stay that way". Science is just a language for explaining things in the physical world. Are words real? What the hell does "the" mean anyway? I don't understand linguistics or expect to have to believe that it is "real" to use it. "The" isn't something tangible but I understand I can't just leave it out of my speech if I want to make any sense. Hebrew doesn't use vowels but does that mean that vowels are unnecessary in every language and that I should just drop them from my wrtng?

Basically any numbers or equations people use in everyday day life to solve a problem is science. Your weight of 170lbs is scientific notation for the gravitational pull of earth. A car speed of 55mph is scientific notation for velocity in specific units. Hell, the airplane you ride in is actually flying in the air because someone followed scientific procedures and equations to make a pile of metal into a shape that would take advantage of physical laws. Bridges, cars, buildings, computers, telephones, etc are all designed and built according to scientific principles and equations.

Not everyone needs to understand science in their lives but I expect someone that is designing that airplane I'm flying in to know all he/she can about aerodynamics and the science of flight.
posted by JJ86 at 2:21 PM on July 15, 2008

1. It has been wrong before
2. There are still unanswered questions
3. There have been conflicting results on the same topic

If someone is looking for a framework which gives them guaranteed correct answers to any question they have, science is not what they are looking for.

You might try explaining to them that science doesn't promise to always be right, and it doesn't promise to be able to answer every question they have. At best, it progresses in the right direction. Science is not truth; but given time, science moves closer and closer to truth. They may have been seduced by other belief systems they have heard of, which claim to give instant access to absolute truth, and science can never meet that goal. You can try explaining to them that science isn't supposed to give absolute truth, just better and better approximations to it.

If they are the sort of person who demands absolute truth, available immediately, from their framework, and cannot see the usefulness in having an approximation to truth, I don't think you'll be able to convince them that science is "real."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:22 PM on July 15, 2008

- Scientific knowledge is cumulative.

This is the route I would try. I would take something like a cellphone, and try to break it down into it's individual components: microprocessor, battery, radio, liquid crystal display, etc. I would then take one of those things like the radio and work backwards through the different variants that have existed until you get back to when it was all still theory. From there you could discuss how the theory evolved and what was required to get it from an idea to a device. You could then point to everything around you and indicate that it all has a similar path that could be traced, and at every step on that path, the scientific method was critical in making the advancement.

This is what you could try. I don't think I would though. I find that most people who have decided that science isn't useful in the discovery process are generally going to pretty dogmatic in their views, and I don't have that kind of energy.
posted by quin at 2:25 PM on July 15, 2008

Science isn't a belief system. It doesn't conflict with religious thought.
posted by JJ86 at 2:32 PM on July 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't muddle your message. The objections you are seeing from these people are likely boiling down for them into philosophical points, not fact-based discussions. In other words, they will freely admit that electric lights and X-rays and such are all "scientific" and useful, and you can perform any number of experiments and drop lots and lots of Mentos into gallons and gallons of Diet Coke, and they'll find it all quite interesting. "Oh!" they'll say, "The Mentos reacts with the Diet Coke to release all of its carbon dioxide very rapidly. How very cool!"

But you're not going to start from that, and then make the leap into convincing them that the Bible isn't real. Diet Coke and Mentos is one thing. Darwin and Jerry Falwell is something completely different.

If you're to have any hope of "reaching" these people, you have to do away with your own notion that "you can get there from here," on every subject. Viewed through their lens, diagramming the structure of DNA is not evidence that their favorite sky god is not in residence.

As Louis Armstrong once said, there are some people that if they don't know, you can't tell 'em.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:32 PM on July 15, 2008

Magical thinking is easy; science is hard. Science evangelists don't want to admit that, because they fear -- rightly -- that they'll lose their audience. But that doesn't make it not true.

I guess I'm a "science evangelist" because in my personal experience and those of many I've known, magical thinking leads to cognitive dissonance eventually. It's not a pleasant way to live. But more than that, I think being out of touch with the world we experience is a tragic waste of opportunity.
posted by phrontist at 2:34 PM on July 15, 2008

Best answer: I would then take one of those things like the radio and work backwards through the different variants that have existed until you get back to when it was all still theory.

This is similar to the common means of refuting the typical Watchmaker analogy argument of the eyeball. One person says, "The eyeball is too complicated a structure to ever evolve on its own. It must've been designed."

The counter is, "Well, you start with a cell that can sense light. That's useful all by itself, right?" And then you go from there.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:37 PM on July 15, 2008

Science isn't a belief system. It doesn't conflict with religious thought.

No, but reality, as illuminated by scientific inquiry can conflict with religious thought.
posted by phrontist at 2:37 PM on July 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

magical thinking leads to cognitive dissonance eventually. It's not a pleasant way to live

This depends on how you define "magical," "dissonance" and "pleasant."

My mother-in-law takes great pleasure in the notion that a magical Bible exists, and finds no dissonance whatsoever that we find dinosaur bones from time to time. ;-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:39 PM on July 15, 2008

Grumblebee is right. "Science" does not exist except as a reified noun. What exists is a constellation of rituals and practices first codified by Ibn al-Haytham in the 11th century as the "Scientific Method", which syncretises skepticism, positivism, and empiricism, and embeds them within economic structure that demands capital/patronage and rewards innovation and long-term investment. Over time, cultures that have practised and promoted these rituals have prospered, and cultures that have not or ceased to promote them have experienced relative decline or extinguishment. Ignore these people - what do you care what other people think?
posted by meehawl at 3:31 PM on July 15, 2008

Hit them?

Gawd, seriously, I don't know that it's possible. If they have basic reasoning capacities, it might be possible to show then the inconsistencies in their own beliefs (e.g., for those who believe in "the secret," asking them what would happen if everyone wished to win the lottery).
posted by paultopia at 3:50 PM on July 15, 2008

I think its important to understand why some of this stuff is popular. From my experience with these kinds of people, and having a long friendship with one; I think the issue is that in the US kids grow up in a religious climate and at a very young age, perhaps high school or even grade school, they are kind of forced to pick either atheistic scientific materialism or the religious beliefs of their parents. There's no shortage of shady characters who present science as this nihilistic evil religion to sell new age books or just to deal with their own cognitive dissonance. I think the idea that one has to choose is overplayed and getting a bit out of hand.

I doubt they are really coming at you with well reasoned philosophical positions. Extremists never do. They are probably coming at you from places of hurt and are reacting accordingly. Perhaps they fear death or a meaningless life and see science as something that validates that.

Perhaps an approach with your pals would be to identify what they honestly disagree with. Perhaps its evolution or determinism or global warming. Then explain to them that they do not need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. They can still embrace scientific inquiry as valid and choose not to believe whatever seems to be bothering them. They shouldnt need to see science as this monolithic tradition like a religion and they should feel free to have their own disagreements. There's no shortage of religious folk who accept a scientific worldview but hold spiritual matters to a different standard.

I doubt you can change their minds, but you may be able to coax them towards a moderate position and help stop their descent into extremism. If you explain that its okay to have doubts and that "believing in science" doesnt turn you into Richard Dawkins, you may be doing them a big favor down the line.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:58 PM on July 15, 2008

Many of the above are good, solid suggestions. And yes, you're likely wasting your time: cognitive dissonance is alive and well in most people. But unlike some posters, who believe that scientific thought and religious belief can co-exist hamoniously side-by-side without disagreement (a proposal with which I vehemently disagree), and assuming that it is science vs. insert-your-religion / mystical philosophy-here argument you are having, it might be easier, if somewhat harsher, to propose the following:

"Okay, so you don't believe in science. And I don't believe in your religion. So I'll make you a deal. I'll go six months without religion, or anything that is the direct product of religion: no prayers, no church services, no Handel's Messiah. In turn, you'll go six months without science, or the product of the scientific method: no electricity, no antibiotics, no internal combustion engine. Deal?"
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 4:03 PM on July 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Nthing that you don't waste your time. If it doesn't really matter to them and they want to believe in creationism or whatever, great.

"You just do you, umma do me." -Rocko
posted by onepapertiger at 4:43 PM on July 15, 2008

Your pal has metaphysical problems, and epistemological ones have to come second to fixing those. :(

Their next problem is really that they don't understand what science is. Disabuse them of the idea that it tries to be an omnipotent, definitive source of knowledge that falls from ivory towers. Tell them that it's an iterative, continual rethinking of how the universe works using observation, while being as honest as possible and trying to avoid all the self-deception that humans are prone to.

Ever time they try a new idea and contrast it against an old idea by changing only one factor, they're doing science. Trying a new route to get to a destination while driving a car is science, for instance. A lot of the firsthand knowledge your pal has is gotten using science, and he didn't even think of it as that.

Science is everywhere. We're all scientists. It's the best source of knowledge about the world, because it is a great system of discarding self-deception and mistakes that all minds make.
posted by cmiller at 4:52 PM on July 15, 2008

Response by poster: Just to clarify. None have been religious or creationists, just skeptics and/or enamored with two titles mentioned in the post.

...and the use of (S)cience instead of (s)cience was meant to denote the overall way of thinking and the process of inquiry stemming from the Scientific Method rather than specific results of specific experiments. I was trying to frame it macro to afford them the greatest benefit-of-the-doubt. Apologies if either point was unclear.

Really thoughtful responses so far. Thanks.
posted by doppleradar at 5:11 PM on July 15, 2008

I read an article in the past year (maybe in the New Yorker?) about how they're learning that infants use something like the scientific method to learn about the world around them. They experiment, say by throwing things, and observe what happens. This might be a way to discuss what science is, something natural that people do rather than some institution.

Anyone remember what that article was? It's gonna drive me nuts.
posted by maniabug at 5:24 PM on July 15, 2008

Best answer: Get them to read Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World". If they won't read it, read it yourself and quote from it often.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:09 PM on July 15, 2008

Asserting that "Science" is "Real" indicates an acceptance of something called "Reality", whatever that may be. As cliche as "I reject your reality and substitute my own" may be, it's true.

Now don't get me wrong, I <3>
Back to my original point----believing that the science of your reality, or even that any given consciousness is real, is to believe in things that are beyond our current possible scope of anything other than theoretical explanation.

Theory != law, and therefore isn't stone cold truth. Hell, who besides scientists and mathematicians likes to operate in absolutes anyway? Yucky. Take a close look at your "science", and you'll see that very little is "law" and very much is "theory", even if it's theory only because it *can't* be *proven.*

I mean, in my lifetime they've added "plasma" as a state of matter and removed "Pluto" as a planet. That's of course on top of completely changing the definition of "matter" because quarks are matter without mass. Those were laws even!

I agree with you, but I'm just saying that there are many of us who have no use for absolutes.
posted by TomMelee at 7:07 PM on July 15, 2008

oops bracket error. I !heart! science.
posted by TomMelee at 7:08 PM on July 15, 2008

There is a brick wall people run up against when it comes to wrongheaded beliefs, where the "DOES NOT COMPUTE" kicks in and they can go no further. A perfect example is from the This American Life segment"Ask and Iraqi". A young man from Iraq traveled around with a portable booth (like Lucy's in the Peanuts comic) that said "Ask an Iraqi". The results are fascinating (for certain upsetting levels of "fascinating"), but the one to look for is the man who says that the war is good, because now the people of Iraq are "free". The young man puts in front of him a list of simple, contradictory facts.

Part I

Part II
posted by tzikeh at 7:59 PM on July 15, 2008

i am a scientist. i was raised by scientists. i have spent most of my life surrounded by and/or studying science. i would agree, more or less, with most of the bulleted points in your question, except #4.

science is a method, and the findings constitute a model. dig deep enough, and you start to realize how little we really know. anyone who tells you that this is fact, or that we have the universe all figured out, is trying to sell you something.

this, though, is not a bug. it's a feature! its what makes the method good! you can say "hey, we were wrong; the democritus thomson rutherford bohr atom turns out to be a sucky model, but the wavefunction-orbital model works great!" and, through the process of continual refinement, you end up learning more. but still, all you get at the end is a model.

i'm responding to this question in this way because i think you should, maybe, reconsider your point of view. in all probability, you are dealing with people who are simply contrarian, or stubborn. but there is (to me, anyway) value in a more nuanced view of the role of science in describing the universe.

dogmatic adherence to what is taught in science class is really no different from dogmatic adherence to what is taught in sunday school; the prophets just have different names.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:05 PM on July 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Great question, and some great answers.

It's been said before, but I'll add my two cents...
- Science is a method of finding out about the world/universe.
- It is not a compendium of facts. This is in response to the uncritical thinkers who say "Science doesn't know everything!" True. In fact "science" doesn't "know" anything!
- Science is self-correcting. A scientific theory is a model. Sometimes that model is wrong. And when it is, science updates itself, and adds to / removes from / modifies the theory.

There's a lot more, I'm sure (IANAS), but I though these were worth stating (or repeating - I didn't read the whole thread).

For further reading, go to some skeptic sites. The forums are good sources of info.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:47 PM on July 15, 2008

And it's true, if you get deeply into science, you will experience waves and waves of beauty. But the truth is, that beauty is not accessible to lay people who just dip into science.

I must disagree. There is a lot of stuff that is "common knowledge" that can still really knock peoples' socks off, with a small bit of emphasis.

Like photosynthesis. Doesn't everyone learn this in 5th grade or something? Plants grow by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air. Consider how trippy it is that *trees*, which are so huge and solid, are built literally out of thin air. (It helps to have a 70 foot tall mature tree nearby to gesture toward, during this conversation.)

Or things like the changing of the seasons, and the different position of the sun in the sky through the year. You don't have to get very sophisticated to track the waxing and waning of shadows as the year progresses. Fact is that most people "know" this stuff, but don't usually really stop and notice it, and it kind of trips them out when you call it to their attention.
posted by Sublimity at 9:35 PM on July 15, 2008

and, through the process of continual refinement, you end up learning more. but still, all you get at the end is a model.

Learning more, certainly, but.. You frequently end up with more questions than you had to begin with, which can be really confounding..

There are a few possible approaches to this problem.. I posted about a video called Minds of Our Own a couple of years ago. It has a brilliant exploration of what scientific reasoning really is. CBC's Ideas has recently completed(?) a radio series called How to Think About Science, and many (all?) are online. Finally, Omie Wise turned me on to the book Disciplined Minds about the way 'science' ends up being practiced, under the influence of money, power and politics (follow the links - I'd forgotten that post, but it seems to be right along this line of thinking too).
posted by Chuckles at 9:38 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's been my experience that people rarely respond well to arguments presented with an air of I Am Right, You Are Wrong, Let Me Enlighten You, regardless of the merits of said argument. People usually become defensive in such situations. If you're asking someone to listen to your take on things and move outside of their comfort zone, they'll probably be more willing to do so if you demonstrate that you are also willing to do those things. So, I'd suggest a trade of sorts--hey, if you do this scientific experiment with me, I'll go and get a tarot reading with you or, hey, let's watch What the Bleep Do We Know and then a documentary about quantum physics and then talk about them together. Of course, whether or not it's worth it to you to do those things will probably depend on your relationships with the people involved.
posted by overglow at 10:48 PM on July 15, 2008

And it's true, if you get deeply into science, you will experience waves and waves of beauty. But the truth is, that beauty is not accessible to lay people who just dip into science.

I must disagree. There is a lot of stuff that is "common knowledge" that can still really knock peoples' socks off, with a small bit of emphasis.

All that stuff you brought up is incredible, cool and beautiful, but -- to me -- it's not as awe-inspiring as people coming back from the dead (e.g. Jesus), a soul that lives on after death, reincarnation, communicating via pure thought, etc. (I suspect a lot of people agree with me, which is one of the reasons sci-fi and fantasy are popular.)

I DO think that if you really study science, you can get the same feelings of awe, beauty and mystery -- maybe even deeper feelings -- than you can get from magical thinking. But I still say it takes more work than magical thinking does.

I eat up science writing. But when I read "Scientific American," I usually get a feeling of "Wow! That's cool!" But I don't get an oceanic feeling. I've only ever gotten that feeling from science (and I HAVE gotten it) when I've really hunkered down and studied some scientific field.
posted by grumblebee at 7:07 AM on July 16, 2008

To add to my last point, let's take physics: Relativity is pretty mind-blowing. But what do you have to do to get your mind blown? It's not enough to say, "According to Relativity, if you travel into space in a really fast-moving rocket, you'll age less than your identical twin on Earth!"

That's cool, but you (or at least I) don't really FEEL the awe unless I understand WHY the paradox works. And to understand that, you have to really study and understand Relativity. I remember when my mind DID get blown by Relativity. It really felt like religious awe. It was halfway through a 101 Physics course.

So, being honest, I think the Carl Sagans of the world should say, "Science can blow your mind every bit as much as magic, but you'll have to sit through several months of classes before you feel the effect."

And that's a hard sell.
posted by grumblebee at 7:13 AM on July 16, 2008

As a "believer" in Science, you must take these givens on faith.

No. Science accepts no inviolable axioms.

To me, this mini-debate between kiltedtaco and me is the the heart of the matter. If your friends are really open to discussion, I would talk to them about this. If kiltedtaco is right, and Science REALLY has no inviolable axioms, then it's truly in a different league that all other systems.

It's even different from Fundamentalism, because such systems don't evolve (or at least not easily). Science, as many people here have said, is self-correcting. Fundamentalism (according to people who believe in it) is perfect as is and has no need to evolve.

I still disagree with kiltedtaco. I don't see how any intellectual system can exist without inviolable axioms. For instance, Science assumes that new, contrary (or contradictory) data must modify old models (or force us to reject old models in favor of new ones). This axiom is part of the definition of Science. Science can't reject it. If it did, Science would cease to exist. At least that's how I see it.

Here's a site that agrees with kiltedtaco:

Philosophical foundations of the scientific method

One school of thought asserts that the scientific method (and science in general) relies upon basic axioms or "self-evident truths" such as internal consistency and realism. While it is true that many scientists believe these things and do assume them in their everyday work, the method itself does not rely on them: all such assumptions are just part of the hypotheses being tested, and many of them are subject to test as well. For example, one of the "common sense" ideas that scientists believed for a long time is that any measurable property of an object is something that exists in the object before it is measured, and our measurements are merely observations of that pre-existing condition; Quantum mechanics obliges us to question this assumption, because experiments appear to contradict it.

Some believe that scientific principles have been "solidly" established, beyond question, and are true. Some scientists themselves may indeed feel that way, having come to rely upon many of the results of science without having done all the experiments themselves; after all, one cannot expect every individual scientist to repeat hundreds of years' worth of experiments. Most scientists even encourage an attitude of skepticism toward claims that contradict the current state of scientific knowledge or some easy extrapolation from it; but that only means such claims must meet a higher burden before being accepted, not that they can never be accepted. In the extreme, some, including some scientists, may believe in this or that scientific principle, or even "science" itself, as a matter of faith in a manner similar to that of religious believers. However, neither science nor scientific method itself rely on faith; all scientific facts (i.e., measurements) and explanations (i.e., hypotheses or theories) are subject to test, and will eventually be rejected as the best available hypothesis when new evidence falsifying them is found. (See more under falsificationism.)

I guess I would say that scientists needn't take any facts about the natural world on faith, they must take the Scientific Method itself on faith. ("Faith" is a loaded term. I don't mean they worship it. I just mean they take it as a given that Science works. I assume most do so because it's been so useful in terms of predicting.)

I think if you're going to argue that Science could (prove or) disprove itself, you'll run into some Gödelean problems.
posted by grumblebee at 8:08 AM on July 16, 2008

Late to the party but I really think 'they won't ever be convinced so don't bother trying' argument is a cop out.

Here's XCFD to illustrate why.

Sometimes all you can do is NOT give a rational argument. I'm a science evangelist. I just get EXCITED about it. When I've talked with faith types I never denigrate their belief. I just find it boring. A simple 'I think you're wrong' is usually enough to open up a chink of doubt. I don't have to explain. I let them do the justifying because I know I don't have to.

Fighting fire with fire maybe...
posted by freya_lamb at 4:06 AM on July 17, 2008

I wouldn't say that science has no axioms. I would argue that one of the axioms of science is that induction is a valid method of reasoning.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:24 AM on July 17, 2008

XCFD?! WTF?! Sorry, xkcd - my head was elsewhere...
posted by freya_lamb at 7:20 AM on July 17, 2008

Forget about the airy fairy relativity/quantum/string theory/evolution/origin of the universe stuff.

See that toaster/radio/computer/internal combustion engine? It works doesn't it? Science.

'cept my hot rod. That was Jesus.
posted by juv3nal at 4:06 PM on July 18, 2008

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