Copyright 1999, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)


In one of her essays in PARADE magazine, columnist Marilyn Vos Savant - Guinness record holder as the person with the highest recorded IQ - laid down an interesting challenge: she dared us to tell the difference between "faith" in religion and "faith" in science:

"But do you believe [in the Big Bang theory]? If so, how do you support your belief that the entire cosmos was once smaller than a polka dot? (With a strong line of reasoning? Some solid evidence? Anything at all?) If you cannot, welcome to the world of faith: you're accepting what you've been told by those you respect. And that's what creationists do. They just respect different folks."

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and crusader against sloppy thinking and occult hogwash, took her to task:


"We do not 'believe in' the Big Bang, nor do we have 'faith' that it happened. These are religious words dealing with beliefs despite a lack of evidence. The Big Bang is well supported by overwhelming evidence, some of which doesn't take a Guinness-sized I.Q. to understand; e.g., the most distant galaxies are receding away at a faster rate than nearer galaxies, exactly what one sees in any type of explosion here on earth. We have 'confidence' in the theory of the Big Bang that comes through decades of testing and research. The theory of the Big Bang, like the theory of evolution, is so well supported that we can consider it a fact in science, if we define fact as something so well supported that it would be perverse to withhold our provisional assent."

I don't know what you're thinking, but I'm getting a big sense of someone who's pushing an angry agenda. Where's the dispassionate skepticism? That little dig about 'Guinness-sized I.Q.' won't endear him to Marilyn, that's for sure. But more than that, I think he simply missed her point.

I wrote to him, with a CC to Marilyn:

"I wonder if you missed her point? It's not the _scientists_ who have faith, it's the people who take them at their word without examining the evidence for themselves! In fact, how can lay readers of science reports - short of repeating the experiments on their own - do much better than 'taking it on faith?' Now, I'm one of those who's skeptical of religious claims: they're essentially unrepeatable, and therefore not truly public data. But I'll read a report about, say, that new planet some astronomer just observed transiting a nearby star, and I'll say, 'Wow!' and accept his conclusion without much thought. Yet for all I know it's trumped up evidence for a shot at a Nobel. Fudging happens a lot - witness Millikan altering his electron-weight data, etc. etc. etc. - enough so that I really should withhold judgment awhile. A central problem with modern science reporting is the rush-to-publish syndrome. Hey, it's a jungle out there! Peer review gets lost in the shuffle.

"I'm not a scientist. I haven't so much as peeped through a telescope since the last time I was up at Griffith Park in Hollywood. Basically I'm putting my trust in the reliability of newspapers and the honesty - and intelligence - of scientists. Am I taking them on faith? Perhaps it's trust based on past experience. That's less akin to faith, but these concepts can be moving targets.

"Marilyn's point seems to be that it can be hard to distinguish true believers in science from those in religion when they rely merely on the speaker's authority, be it a scientist making a claim or a preacher promising an afterlife. I doubt she, of all people, is attacking the scientific method, which - as you point out - has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with a rigorous, painstaking search for truth. It's us folks in the audience who may (but not always!) get religious about what we hear of science.

"I try to stay skeptical in all matters, but in some ways 'All I know I read in the papers.' Marilyn reminds us that we must wear our skeptic seatbelts at all times and not be lulled into a false sense of security just because a scientist says it's so. I think she's in fact a fellow skeptic - her 'Guinness-sized I.Q.' should help - and I hope you didn't fry your bridges with her...!"

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"Let me point out one aspect of good science that I have not heard Shermer mention, and it is not well appreciated. The most compelling aspect of a scientific theory is 'its ability to predict as yet unobserved phenomena, based on conclusions that can be drawn from the theory today.' If the theory can achieve that, it is more powerful than explaining known phenomenon. The reason is simple: any number of theories, with enough free variables and assumptions, can explain the known phenomena (notice how I avoid using the word 'facts'). It is the rare and worthy theory that can predict the outcome of experiments not yet performed. And I assure you, when a theory achieves this -- scientists take notice and are impressed." Peter Parrish, high-tech entrepreneur


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