Which Beliefs Deserve Respect? Part I15 June 2008
This post is a result of a discussion that I had in the comments of a re-post of my note “Bad Parenting” on Facebook. I argued that while as members of a (supposedly) open society we are often told that we should treat all ideas equally and respect others’ beliefs, this eventually leads not to a breakdown of traditional moral values that those on the Right seem to be so afraid of, but to consequences that damage the pursuit of equality in our country and the world. That said, there are two perspectives that I would like to look at this from. The first, and possibly more straightforward, is the scientific perspective. This perspective will be used to examine ideas such as Creationism, naturopathy, homeopathy, and faith healing that claim to be scientific beliefs and ideas. The second is a socio-political perspective: Ideas such as racism, sexism, and classism.
Recently in the United States, there has been a great deal of debate regarding whether or not certain ideas should be taught in science classrooms. The most publicized debate has been between those who wish to teach a hypothesis (at best) called Intelligent Design. Those who are subscribers to this hypothesis claim that the evidence for Evolution just doesn’t exist. The problem is, that they offer no evidence besides what amounts to religious reasoning. Despite this, some say that both sides of the argument must be heard in the name of “fairness”. The problem is that science is not necessarily about being “fair”.
In science, a hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable. That way, research and experiment can be used to determine whether or not the hypothesis a person proposes is factual. This is where ideas such as Intelligent Design fail. There is no way to test “God did it”. Thus, Intelligent Design cannot be considered scientific, and should not be given the same treatment as tested theories, such as Evolution. However, this does not only apply to the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution debate. In essence, what the proponents of Intelligent Design are saying that despite what overwhelming evidence says, they are correct. Some even go as far to say that God placed fossils in the fossil record to “test our faith”.
However this simple criterion, evidence, can be applied to many things. One such thing is “faith-healing”. In this case the idea was testable: Does praying for people heal them as well (or better than) scientific medicine? When research was done it turned out that no, praying did not have any real impact on a person’s health (except for a small psychological impact). Yet, there are many who make the choice to pray to be healed rather than using modern medicine. Some say these ideas should be respected because, hey, it’s just something different that someone believes in. The problem is, that from a scientific stand-point, there is no reason to present this as a logical alternative to modern medicine as it has already been demonstrated that there is no reason to believe this is the case. When considering ideas from a scientific perspective, we must question whether there is evidence for a belief, and if there is no evidence, there is also no reason while the idea should be given equal standing. The idea of fairness does not apply to scientific arguments, and using such an argument is fallacious.
Part II will cover why we shouldn’t accept all social, political, and religious beliefs as only “cultural differences” without careful examination.