The phrase “Science is the new religion” really pisses me off. If that’s your view, then I think you either don’t understand religion, or you don’t understand science, or perhaps both.
N.B. By ‘religion’ I'm referring to religious dogma and literal interpretations of and commitment to dogma. “sacred, protected, unquestionable ‘truths’ ”
If you mean “Science is replacing religion — as a field from which we can draw inspiration from, find joy, excitement, purpose, perhaps even feelings analogous to spiritual satisfaction”, then yes, I agree. In fact I wish in that context science could displace religion fully, and we could rid the world of this virus once and for all. But that’s a big topic and I’ll probably write about it in another article.
But going back to the topic at hand, I find the discrepancies between the two so glaringly obvious that I find it difficult to write, but clearly it’s not that obvious because the phrase is still thrown around. So here goes.
Science is not a thing you can believe in. It’s not a particular set of beliefs which is true or not. Quite the opposite, it’s the questioning of beliefs. It’s being open-minded and skeptical; open to discussion, and most importantly, prepared to admit that you could be wrong.
In the 17th century Newton revolutionized philosophy, mathematics, physics and gave birth to modern science when he described the laws of motion. He took some elements of what was believed at that point (Rene Descartes’s concept of inertia, Robert Boyles’s theory of “Atoms and the void”) and postulated mathematical laws that explained all observed phenomena and could predict future observations. It told us something about the world that we didn't know before.
For centuries Newton’s laws held true. Still to this day we use them. However, new observations in the 19th century regarding the perihelion precession of Mercury’s orbit raised some doubt. By the 20th century a ton of new observations and theories led to the realization that at speeds approaching the speed of light or in high gravitational fields, Newton’s laws made incorrect predictions. They were wrong. Instead Einstein’s equations of special and general relativity held true.
Was Newton wrong? No. The models he came up with perfectly satisfied the observations of his time. And still in most of those special cases (non-relativistic speeds, low gravity) it’s very accurate. But Einstein’s theory of general relativity works in a more general sense, and gives a more complete picture. Again it told us something about the world that we didn't know before.
Scientists are people, so they do make mistakes. They disagree and argue, especially at the fringes of knowledge. Science is not about believing one particular scientist or experiment, or taking sides. It’s about looking at the bigger picture and keeping an open mind. Many scientists will not do that. Perhaps they will commit to one particular hypothesis based on some kind of faith that their hypothesis is correct (E.g. string theorists!). They will commit themselves for decades trying to prove a particular hypothesis. Decades later they might realize that all that time they've been chasing an incorrect hypothesis. But they need to do that. That is exactly how science works, because until the hypothesis is proven — or disproven, no one can know for sure if it’s true or not.
By definition, the fringes of science is unknown. No one knows for sure which are the correct hypotheses. You will need to take a leap of faith. A leap of faith based on observations so far, but also on a gut instinct. Many, many, many of these leaps of faith will be unfounded. But you have to take them to move forward. The key is, you have to take the leap of faith, and then be prepared to drop it if it turns out to be unfounded.
What many people seem to fail to realize, is that coming up with a “that sounds like a logical explanation” is not good enough. There can be an infinite number of “that sounds reasonable” explanations for any given phenomena. What is important is coming up with an explanation that can tell us more than we already know about the world. I.e. make predictions. If you have a hundred data points / observations on a phenomena, and you can come up with an explanation of why those hundred observations are the way they are, but you can’t extrapolate that to anything else in any way, then you haven’t contributed to knowledge. You've only made a speculation about something we've already observed! However if you can verify your hypothesis with predictions, experiments and new observations, then it can become a theory.
And most importantly, this is not binary. The more you verify through different predictions, experiments and observations, the stronger the foundation your theory has. The more likely it is to be closer to the truth.
I like the metaphor of setting sail into unknown waters.
Imagine knowledge as the discovery and mapping of unknown waters and lands. The fringes of knowledge — which is where the science really happens — is like standing on the coast looking out to uncharted oceans, without a map. Out there somewhere, is new land, waiting to be discovered, but no one knows where it is. The only way to discover it is to go out there into the unknown and look for it. But in which direction do you set sail? Do you go north? Or east? Or south? Or west? That’s where you have to take a leap of faith. But it’s not a blind leap of faith. You look at everything you've learnt so far. You look to see if there are sea birds flying in from any direction, if there is any driftwood hitting your shores and where they came from. You can even try to model the currents and winds to see where the driftwood might have come from. You can build telescopes to try and see further into the distance. You can theorize based on the geology of the coastlines, which side is more likely to have separated from the mainland. Armed with all of these bits of information you make many hypotheses, and ultimately you need to pick one direction — often including your gut feeling— and set sail in that direction.
Hopefully this will be an informed decision, not a complete guess, but you could be wrong. While out at sea, you might make new observations, which could lead you to reconsider your original trajectory. You might hear from another ship miles ahead of you reporting that there is nothing in the direction you’re heading. Realizing this while you’re out at sea and adjusting your trajectory is not a weakness, it’s a strength.
It may be that you discover the specific land that you were looking for, which is great (like the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, 40 years after setting sail). Or it may be that you don’t find the land you were looking for, but instead find something completely the opposite, which is often more exciting (like in 1998 discovering that the universe expansion is accelerating when in fact you were trying to measure how much it is decelerating). Or it may be that you sail for decades, constantly feeling like you are within reach of land, but never actually finding it (like those poor string theorists).
But even that is not a waste. Because continuously, while you’re out on sea, you’re sending home information on everything you find, everywhere you go, and everything that goes wrong. Even if you sail uncharted territories for centuries and never find land, that is still new information. We can learn from that. Because before, we didn't know anything about what was in those territories, but now we know that it’s nothing. Now we learn not to go there again in the future ☺. Or if you sailed for decades and failed, drowning in an unpredicted thunderous storm, others can go back there in the future with a more storm resilient ship. If you sailed for decades only to be eaten by a giant sea monster, others can go back there in the future after they've built an anti-giant sea monster weapon.
And most importantly, there isn't only one ship out there exploring the uncharted waters. There’s thousands, perhaps millions. Science is simply the accumulation of the collective knowledge of all of those ships.
Religion on the other hand, is sitting on land and looking at a map drawn thousands of years ago, without daring to set sail to see if the world really does match the map. And if any brave souls do set sail and find discrepancies between the map and the real world, religion tries to either find some crazy explanations as to why the observations are wrong and the map is right, or in more extreme, tragic cases, try to destroy the evidence and anyone who might have seen it.
Science is nothing like religion. But many people blindly keep repeating that it is.
Thus, “Science is the new religion” is the new religion.
N.B. philosophers sit on land, without a map, thinking about what it means to have a map, or whether the sea is actually liquid land, or the land is liquid sea. Just kidding, I like their thought experiments ☺.