Saturday, September 21, 2013

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. III

In Part III of this series (see Pt. I here and Pt. II here) on an essay by Tania Lombrozo in the Boston Review I want to consider the reasons she offers for thinking that belief in science can be at least as existentially satisfying as can religious consolations. She opens this section of her piece with this:
In fact, four recent papers confirm that science offers many of the same existential benefits as religion. The implications are powerful.
Well, given what Ms Lombrozo tells us about these studies her use of the words "powerful" and "confirm" seems a bit hyperbolic. In fact, based on Ms. Lombrozo's account, what these studies do in each case is make the mistake of assuming that because two factors are correlated one of them must cause the other. This is the "false cause" fallacy, and Ms Lombrozo seems oblivious to it. Consider her first example:
First, consider a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which examines whether belief in science can mitigate stress and anxiety about death. In an initial study, rowers were asked to fill out a questionnaire either immediately before a competition (a high-stress situation) or before a routine practice (a low-stress situation).

The questionnaire assessed the rowers’ belief in science by asking them to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as “science provides us with a better understanding of the universe than religion does” and “science is the most valuable part of human culture.”

Sure enough, participants in the high-stress condition were significantly more likely than those in the low-stress condition to endorse these claims, suggesting that affirming the value of science was a strategy for mitigating high levels of stress.
Because two variables were correlated the conclusion we're to draw is that preferring science over religion somehow, subconsciously reduces anxiety. This is more than a bit silly. It's like insisting that since you exhale about once every couple of seconds and since someone on earth dies once every couple of seconds, your exhalations must be the cause of the deaths.

And why does Ms Lombrozo conclude that affirming the value of science is in fact "a strategy" for mitigating stress? Are we to believe that athletes before a competition sit around in the locker room meditating on the wonders of the scientific method in order to calm their nerves? Who does that?

As philosophers frequently remind us, correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but Ms Lombrozo evidently thinks it does. She adds this:
The idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless.
One wishes she might have explained how the idea that we're the helpless product of deterministic processes over which we are powerless helps us relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless. Perhaps it's one of those paradoxical mysteries that must be taken on faith.

The conclusions drawn from the rest of the studies she cites are equally as mystifying, but you'll have to read those at the link.

She concludes her essay by tackling the question whether belief in evolution can make your life meaningful. I'll have something to say about that in Part IV next week.