Saturday, June 6, 2015

Will you only believe that the sky is blue if a recent peer-reviewed paper says so?

The usual disclaimer: The following is my personal opinion. It is not my professional opinion and much less necessarily the opinion of any other person or any institution associated with me in any way.

Sometimes I see the kind of discussion where one person will claim that science has refuted the existence of gods, and then somebody else will offer a challenge on the following lines:
If you are going to respond that that's because "science" has decided that there is no God, surely you can point me to a number of high profile papers in Nature or Science that clearly shows how such a conclusion was arrived at, scientifically.
Even if one is convinced that science has not and cannot disprove the existence of gods this argument seems very weak.

Let's consider the following claims:
  • Science has shown that the world is not flat
  • Science has shown that the sky is not purple with yellow stripes
  • Science has shown that there are no unicorns
Surely even most people who believe in gods would agree with these. Okay now, where are the peer-reviewed papers in high ranking, international scientific journals that support these claims?

In the first case, one might be tempted to point towards publications that either assume that the world is approximately spherical and do not run into difficulties stemming from that assumption or that indirectly and inadvertently demonstrate the sphere-shape in other ways. But if that counts, then so should all the thousands of papers that assume or provide natural explanations for phenomena that were traditionally explained with reference to gods or other supernatural beings, like the diversity of life, the existence of diseases, or the stable orbits of the planets.

But apparently those latter papers don't count as scientific evidence against gods, only a direct refutation will do, and so it seems that likewise only papers directly testing and refuting the flat earth hypothesis count for our purposes. And those will surely be at least as hard to find as papers disproving individual gods. Should we now conclude that science has nothing to say on the shape of the planet?

One might also be tempted to say that the above conclusions are too obvious to need testing in a serious scientific journal today. Well, an atheist might say the same about the idea that gods exist, whether everybody agrees with it or not, so this doesn't help. Either way, there is a remarkable lack of recent high profile peer-reviewed scientific articles demonstrating the non-existence of unicorns, fairies and leprechauns. Should we therefore conclude that science has nothing to say on the likelihood of their existence?

So really the absence of recent high profile papers in itself does not demonstrate anything, especially if the conclusion under question is one that would have to be derived from a great number of individual observations (or, as it were, failures to observe) instead of a single lab experiment. Maybe there are good arguments for granting gods a unique exemption letter from scientific inquiry but this isn't one of them.

(Also, why does it have to be "Nature or Science"? Does science not count as science if it is published in Plant Systematics and Evolution for example?)

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