Monthly Archives: October 2011

Christians Don’t Understand the Scientific Method

“[a Christian author] says, essentially that the reader must start the process of inquiry by assuming a certain outcome.  Don’t look for the most likely hypothesis suggested by the evidence, he says, nor the one that is most likely straightforward or reasonable.  Start by believing a certain conclusion is true…Examine the evidence throught the lens of that conclusion…..Ask yourself, ‘What explanations or intepretations can I come up with that would allow me to maintain my belief that these texts are not contradictory?’  If you can find any at all, you have succeeded in your task.  If you cannot, the problem lies with you, not the text…”

-James W. Loftus, from Why I Became an Atheist

When I was young, I was a Christian. I was taught the scientific method, but I didn’t learn where and when I should apply it. But I know now that the scientific method is good for evaluating the truth of any statement, as the Mythbusters demonstrate on TV every week. Let’s examine how they do it with a myth such as “You can torture a prisoner by letting bamboo grow through their torso”:

1.  The first thing to do is lay out your characterizations, which means defining the terms. Usually the definitions are obvious (don’t we all know what a duck is?) but if you want to prove a statement such as “Obama is a Republican“, you  have to clarify that by “Republican” you mean “a person with Republican values”, not “a person registered with the Republican party”. If someone wants to refute the results of an experiment that you’ve done, this is usually the easiest place to attack (your suppositions).

In this myth, it was important to note not only if bamboo could grow through a person, but whether it made a feasible means of torture.

2. The second thing is the hypothesis, which is just stating the myth. They may make some predictions on how the testing will go based on what they already know about bamboo and the strength of human flesh, but these predictions aren’t allowed to sway the conclusion of the test, otherwise you have bias, and people who review your experiment afterwards will dismiss the results if they feel you’re biased (as they should). The Mythbusters are frequently surprised (as they were with this experiment) which is only natural if you don’t make your conclusion before running the test.

3. Next comes the experiment. This test was easy – they simply put a bamboo shoot underneath a simulated corpse (made out of ballistics gel, a material that simulates human flesh) and let it grow. It did grow over 3 days into the torso of the “corpse”.

4. Finally, there’s the conclusion. This step includes many smaller steps – evaluating if the test gave you an answer to your hypothesis, improvements, and peer review. The Mythbusters felt it was too close to call (the bamboo died before going all the way through the corpse) so they retested and got a better result. They came to the conclusion that bamboo could be used as torture (painful yet slow) because it worked in both tests, but more so in the second try (after an improvement on the first try). And of course they do these experiments on TV, where you can look over their entire methodology and e-mail them with your complaints if you have any… and the Mythbusters, being true scientists, do re-run earlier experiments with viewer suggestions to see if they come up with a new conclusion.

Now that I’ve properly explained the scientific method, let me explain what doesn’t constitute a scientific conclusion. If you start your test with a presupposition that your test can come to one conclusion and one conclusion only, you’ve failed. The experiment is pointless, as it is not only swayed by bias but also can’t prove anything that you won’t allow it to. And if you come to a conclusion that doesn’t agree with your hypothesis prediction, you can’t throw out the results as being flawed because you messed up somewhere along the way… you may have, but if you feel that you can’t do the experiment properly then you shouldn’t have done it at all.

The bible is not proof of anything. You can’t solve a mystery with a mystery, and reading is not a step in the scientific method. When scripture is presented as evidence of something, we skeptics say “So how did you prove that this piece of scripture is true?”

“….there’s some forms of logic puzzles that I enjoy a lot where you’re trying to decide whether somebody is a knight who always tells the truth, or a knave who always lies. And so if somebody makes one true statement then you can establish for certain they’re a knight and every other thing coming out of their mouth is true. In real life, it doesn’t work like that. And so you see these apologists saying things like “Oh yeah, they dug up this ancient city that nobody knew about and it was in the bible, so the bible’s confirmed again.” No, that proves that this sentence in the bible is true, but it doesn’t make any progress towards determining whether Jesus rose from the dead.”

-Russell Glasser, from The Non-Prophets podcast