Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Faith, scientists and the legitimate appeal to authority

It's almost enough to make you believe in synchronicity. You know, until you actually think about it.

It started with the discussion on the most recent episode of the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe of the so-called Monty Hall Problem. I won't bore you with the details here, because either you know about it or you can read up from a source far better at explaining the phenomenon than I. Basically, it's a statistical problem that seems completely counter-intuitive, and the main point I want to take out of it is that until you've wrapped your head around it, you really have to take the word of the mathematicians that they are right on this score. I think I've finally understood it myself now, thanks in the main to this interactive feature from the New York Times.

It really got me thinking about received ideas and our necessary reliance on authorities such as mathematicians and scientists. I idly toyed with the notion of blogging about it, but other things took precedence and eventually I just forgot. Then came this post over at Skepchick, which discusses much the same idea.

As I've mentioned before, with the aid of a Fry & Laurie sketch, we can't be expected to research everything ourselves. Dark matter, the particular instance pointed to by Vera's Skepchick post, is a great example. There's no way I'm going to have the time or inclination to delve elbow-deep into the stodgy mass of dark matter/energy research for myself, so - at least for the time being - I'm going to have to rely on the word of scientists to tell me what it's all about.

Does this amount to faith? The philosopher in me wants to go to town on that question, demanding delineation of exactly what faith should mean in this particular context. I think that might be a discussion to keep separate for another day - it has the potential to run on for some time, I think. To keep it brief, then, let's just say yes, it does amount to faith. The important difference here is, as you might imagine, that faith in scientists is justified and conditional. It is not the blind unquestioning faith of religion, but a rational faith in those who have proven the trustworthiness of their claims and methods time and time again.

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