Is science an alternative belief system for the nonreligious?

Dr Alan Scarlett chose a provocative title for his talk to us in June. But he had a very serious point to make. 


Much of modern scientific research seems to be focused on getting papers published in order to generate grants to produce yet more papers, training students along the way to provide the workforce to keep the process going. The actual benefit of some of the research is dubious at best. But the situation is even worse than that. One of the principles of science is that experiments can be replicated in order to confirm their result. Yet only a tiny proportion of modern research is repeated, and what little that is often fails to replicate the published outcome. That other safeguard that helps ensure the integrity of published scientific papers, peer review, is also under threat. A paper that fails review in one journal can often find another, if less prestigious, willing to accept it. When publishers rely on the income from the fees that scientists are charged for printing their work, there’s always going to be the temptation to publish rather than refuse.

So what was Alan’s conclusion?  Well, Humanists, are used to casting a sceptical eye over the unsubstantiated claims associated with religion, ‘alternative’ medicine and other forms of pseudoscience. But we need to extend some of that caution to what comes out of the modern scientific process. To not do so risks treating science so uncritically that it becomes a form of belief system for the non-religious.

The talk was well attended - just over 30 people in all - and this made for a good debate after the traditional post talk break.


Ben introducing Alan at the start of the talk