In this podcast, recorded at the May 2017 meeting of the current and former Sinai and Synapses fellows, Megan Cuzzolino, John Marc Sianghio, Josh Stanton, and Kat Robison discuss how science and religion treat facts. Why do we favor some authorities over others? Why do some continue to have such a powerful draw despite being repeatedly proven wrong?
Hi, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses. Sinai and Synapses bridges the worlds of religion and science, offering people a worldview that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting. It is incubated at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The following podcast is a project of our Sinai and Synapses Fellowship, a select interfaith group of clergy, scientists and writers who are committed to elevating the discourse surrounding religion and science. To find out more about the fellowship and our other programs, or to help support our work, please visit us online at sinaiandsynapses.org, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you very much.
Kat Robison: Hello and welcome to the third in a series of podcasts recorded at the May 2017 meeting of the Sinai and Synapses fellowship. My name is Kat Robison, and I am a doctoral student at the University of Alabama studying space policy, and a member of this fellowship, where we seek to personalize the relationship around religion and science. The fellows are models for a productive conversation surrounding these areas. They are dedicated to exploring their own stories, their own commitments, their own doubts, and are also dedicated to learning about and from other people’s journeys.
For the third part of this conversation I am joined by two colleagues from the fellowship, Megan Cuzzolino, doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Welcome, Megan.
Megan Cuzzolino: Hi.
Kat Robison: And John Sianghio, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago studying religious ethics. Welcome, John.
John Marc Sianghio: Hello.
Kat Robison: Today on the podcast we are going to discuss how we know what we know and why we think we know it. To start this off, we’re going to go with a question posed by a fellow from the 2013 class of Sinai and Synapses, Rabbi Josh Stanton of East End temple in New York. Josh, welcome to the podcast.
Josh Stanton: Thank you so much.
Kat Robison: And your question.
Josh Stanton: I have the chance to talk to a lot of really wonderful people, to congregants, to friends, to many who see me as a rabbi. And what keeps coming up is the question of how we know anything at all. How is it that we can sort fact from fiction, and even in this era, fake facts from real facts. How we can with any degree of certainty create a worldview. How much does religion come into play with its age-old truths, how much does science come into play with its rigorous methodology, and how do we come up with a coherent way to approach the world?
Kat Robison: Wow, that’s a great question, thank you so much for posing that. Unfortunately, Josh is very busy, and we have to say goodbye to him. But we are really excited that he was able to stop by and pose his question, and we will continue this conversation with John and Meghan. Thanks Josh.
Josh Stanton: Thank you so much.
Kat Robison: That’s quite a question we have to unpack.
John Marc Sianghio: So I know this is a little bit typical of the academic, but I want to complicate the narrative that Rabbi Stanton brought us regarding science and religion. And one of the things that he said was, how do we construct a worldview, and what role does science, with its rigorous method, and religion with its age old truths, what role do these two things play in the formation of a worldview, in the sorting of fact from fiction, and in the other questions that he posed coming from his congregation. And I think one of the things that I want to challenge is not whether or not science has a rigorous method. I think that is quintessentially the essence of science, is not in the facts that it generates or in the things that it observes, but in the method that it adheres to that provides some degree of, if not certainty, reliability in the answers it produces. At the very least, it produces some consistency among the scientific community, right. Aberrations are always tested. Those are the things that are examined the most deeply, when data seems to be anomalous.
But the other thing that he characterized was religion, and that religion sort of stands opposite to science in terms of its age-old truths. And what I want to challenge is that religion might, in some ways, seem monolithic, seem timeless, that oftentimes there are claims that religion deals with timeless truths, but I think sometimes if you look at the history of the development of religions, if you look at the history of the development of doctrine, even, something as sacred as dogma, that what you’ll see is a great deal of change over the course of time, and just as science has had to deal with changes, like the understanding that the sun and not the earth is the center of the solar system, religious doctrine also had to deal with that change. Now, for better or for worse sometimes.
So, it’s not necessarily that religion offers some age-old timeless truth in that its authority, or that the certainty that we attribute to religious truth is embedded there, but that religion also, like science, has to respond to a lot of the phenomena that arise that seem anomalous, that new information that arises that we need to process within our worldview. And both science and religion have to do that. And when it can’t do that, then both scientific perspectives and religious perspectives get called into question and need to be reformed.
Megan Cuzzolino: That’s really interesting. And one thing – that what you said, John, makes me think of – is the distinction between how we tend to view science and religion as domains, or disciplines, or institutions, versus the way science and religion manifest in our daily lives, right. The way that we use science and religion individually to make sense of the world, to process the things that we experience, and that typically the science and religion conversation is about the institutions, or the disciplines with epistemological assumptions that underlie each of those, that do not necessarily align with the way we make use of these ways of knowing. And there are data points to back this up.
So there was a Pew study that asked Americans about the conflict between science and religion. “Do you see science and religion as being in conflict?” and the majority of people said “yes, there is conflict between science and religion.” But then when they were asked about science and religion in their own lives, many of those people who had said “yes, science and religion are in conflict” said “but they’re not in conflict for me. In my own life, they’re not in conflict, I make it work.” And so we have this sense of these pillars of thought, of science and religion as approaches for understanding the world that somehow people see as being in conflict, and yet we all have our own ways, whether we assimilate and make kind of – some mash up of science and religion that works for us, whether we compartmentalize and say “I have my scientific hat on now and my religious hat on at this other time,” we all have different ways of approaching it, but I think when we’re talking about how we know what we know, it’s important to distinguish between whether we mean “we” as in humanity or “we” as in “me personally and how I make sense of the world.”
Kat Robison: That’s a really excellent point that you made, Megan, about this idea, that when asked, and this happens when a lot of people are asked about conceptual frameworks, that they might experience the conceptual framework differently than the actual experience of the concept. And I think that’s an important train of thought in this conversation about epistemology, how we know what we know, and why we think we know what we know.
John Marc Sianghio: Yeah, and I think one of the interesting things about science and religion is exactly what you brought up, Megan, that so often there is either an unthinking mishmash of “whatever, this works for now” or there’s a compartmentalization. But when you look at it deeply, these two things, these two paradigms, if you will, are looking at the same kind of phenomena, and I know that that’s sometimes a very unpopular view that people, when they compartmentalize, tend to say, OK, well, this is – religion deals with the moral, the transcendent, you know, the spiritual, things that we can’t see, and science deals with the physical world, the observable, etc.
But so often you need physical cues, for instance, to understand morality, right. If you try and think of what makes life worthy of moral concern, right, so often the answer to that question from religious ethicists, from people who do moral philosophy and religion, is well, “does that being have the capacity to suffer?”, right, and you have to have a physical understanding of pain, you have to have a physical understanding of stimuli, to understand what it even means to suffer. And so that informs one’s spiritual life.
At the same time, if you do scientific research, there are so often paradigms, things like the multiverse, that can frame different observations, that can provide explanations for phenomena that you see in the world and make coherent sense out of them, and yet the multiverse itself is something that – and there’s debate about this – you know, whether or not background radiation from different universes is observable in the far reaches of space. I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know particularly well how all of that works, but in the end it’s something unprovable. You cannot say that this might be background radiation, but I can’t tell unless I go to that multiverse. And that’s something that you have to take on faith. And so there are things unseen that one needs to take into account, even when one is doing something as empirical as science.
And when it boils down, though, what the common object is isn’t physical or spiritual, it’s making sense out of human experience. Whether that be the human experience of starting your car in the morning and relying on science and electricity and physics and combustion to start your car so that you can go about your day, or whether you deal with the fact of death. And there are religious perspectives that talk about meaning. It’s not just a biological shutting down of the body, but we ritualize death, we understand that there is social consequences, there is mourning, religion plays into that. And you look at all kinds of different human experiences, and both perspectives are trying to make sense out of information that we are processing from our senses, from our cognition, from our reason. All of these things are involved when you look at science and religion, and so in that they sort of have a unified purpose.
Megan Cuzzolino: There’s a really common metaphor that we talk about in developmental psychology about the child as scientist, right. Alison Gopnik talks about the scientist in the crib. That we’re born scientists, if by science what we mean is first-hand exploration, testing hypotheses, making sense of the world. You talked about making meaning, John, and that’s what we’re doing all the time, just trying to understand the world around us. I think that’s indisputable and is important to keep in mind, but it also is important to consider the role that secondhand information plays in both science and religion, and when we talk about the child as a scientist, or when we think about learning science, not everything in science is something that we are experiencing firsthand. It can’t possibly be. We rely on the expertise of others in order to know what we know.
And Paul Harris talks about this as testimony, and trust in testimony, how we decide who’s a trustworthy source of information, so most of what we learn about in science, we can’t just do an experiment about or observe with the naked eye, we have to just be told and trust. So germs, for instance. We are told either in a science class, or just anecdotally, “you need to wash your hands because there’s germs and they can be passed along to other people, it’s contagious.” And you can’t see them, we don’t even necessarily have a conception of what a germ might look like, it’s sort of a colloquial term, but we know this is a phenomenon, and it exists, we can do something about it, but we rely on people telling us that these things exist in the world.
And the same thing is true with religion. We may have firsthand experiences that feel spiritual, but we are also told by authority figures in our lives, parents, religious leaders other people in the community, different aspects of our religion that people want us to believe in, right. So we are told, you may be told there are angels, and that’s something that gets passed down to you, and you can choose whether or not to believe in that phenomenon. So I think when we think about how we know what we know, it’s also who do we trust with that information, and that’s on both a personal level, the people around us who we think are experts are knowledgeable, and it’s also on an institutional level of do we trust in science as a process, and therefore in scientists? Do we trust in religion as an approach and therefore religious leaders who can give us expertise that we can’t have? We have to divide that cognitive labor, and so I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle.
John Marc Sianghio: And I think this is getting more to the central question of what Rabbi Stanton’s congregation is getting at. In that what they want to know, I think, is in terms of sorting out fact from fiction, why is it that we select these particular authorities over others? I mean, I would venture to say that at this point, for the general public, there is, faith aside, esoteric things aside, there is a general belief that science, for instance, is more reasonable, more reliable, than religion. And I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing, and I’m not saying that that’s an unreasonable thing.
But the question for me is why do we vest scientific authority with greater reliability, greater certainty, whether or not empirically this is true, whether or not logically, you can go to the work of every Thomas Kuhn or Karl Popper and look at the logic of scientific propositions and whether or not conceptions of certainty are in fact validated by philosophical perspectives or different logical perspectives, but for the most part, we do tend to think science is reliable. So this hasn’t always been the case, right? It used to be that the institution that was trusted as concrete, that was trusted as reliable, that was sort of unquestioningly believed, was the religious institution, whether that be the synagogue, the mosque, or the church, or some other spiritual form of knowing. And it was the scientists that were sort of avocationalists, they were the ones that were sort of playing around, and there’s a question in medieval times of what counts as science, and what is in the history of this process that we call science, and what was alchemy.
And so I think the question of certainty has to get at why, and the question of why we think we know these things, what we know, has to get at what exactly is it in the human experience, in either the individual or in the social process, that validates these perspectives for us and makes them trustworthy for us.
Kat Robison: I think that this question that you bring up, of why do we vest certainty in science, is especially salient outside of the context of science and religion right now, because we’re asking ourselves, why do we trust certain sources? What is valid? What is true? What is – hate to bring this up, but I think it’s impossible in the context in which we’re in right now – what is real news and what is fake news? But these are the questions, the way that we think about science, do we trust the E.P.A.? When we think about religion, do we trust religious leaders? Who are we looking for to give us guidance about what we know and how we know it?
John Marc Sianghio: Especially when these things are contradictory sometimes. They get mixed messages.
Megan Cuzzolino: Yeah, and I think the implications of the information that these sources are giving us informs whether or not we choose to believe in them, because we have responsibility, this is something that’s come up in our meeting this week. That when we are told information about climate change and the human role in impacting climate change, once we have that information, we’re obligated to either do something about it or put our heads in the sand. And so, better to not trust the information and therefore not be held accountable, than to say “no, I really do believe this is happening, I’m just choosing to keep doing what I’m doing.” It somehow feels like a more logical argument, I think, for people to say, no, this is still up for debate, because then there aren’t the obvious implications that we need to act.
And so I think for those of us who are involved in science education, science communication, we’re thinking about the messaging, thinking about how we pair that with empowering the recipients of that information. That, hey, I’m going to tell you something that’s not so great, and yes we should be scared, that’s important, the alarm is necessary to get people to pay attention, but I’m also going to give you some concrete steps for what to do about it. But to just share information in a way that paralyzes people is not productive. So when we’re thinking about the ways that we can offer information, thinking about how can we pair that with something that makes it easier for people to receive and act on the information.
Kat Robison: I think that highlights something that’s important, that between the conversation of religion and science, it’s important for – within the conversation of religion and science, for our religious leaders and our scientific leaders or communicators, or religious communicators or scientific communicators, to have a conversance with one another. To where, in our conversation during this meeting, we talked about climate change and faith actions on climate change. If we want real and meaningful change on an issue like that, which science has told us, with overwhelming evidence, that humans are affecting the climate on this planet, if we want to do something about it, especially in our nation, where many people are believers of many persuasions who trust their religious leaders to guide them in the right sort of actions, we need to have our religious leaders to be comfortable, to be conversant with that science, and to share it in such a way that it’s understood by an audience that may be more motivated by religion rather than science.
John Marc Sianghio: I think that conversant is also true, that scientists have to be conversant with religious leaders who know their congregations. But I think what you’re talking about, this discussion of climate change gets to the deeper issue of certainty and the idea of knowledge itself, right. So part of, you know, knowing what we know is why we think we know it, as you mentioned earlier in this introduction. And I’m skeptical of certain knowledge. And if you ask any scientist, there are, as you’ve put it before, there are things with overwhelming amounts of scientific evidence, statistical evidence. Science always comes with a great deal of caveats, because modern science, especially, is probabilistic. It’s not necessarily the search for certainty, it’s the search for statistically significant causality, right, at the very best, that’s what we can hope for.
Kat Robison: With the information that we have available to us, this is the best explanation for this phenomena.
John Marc Sianghio: Right, and the other thing is we know that statistics fail. I mean statistics – we brought up fake news, and I think if you bring up fake news I think it’s apropos, then, to talk about the statistical analyses of the November election, right. Everybody thought, statistically, Hillary Clinton was going to wipe the floor with Donald Trump. Well, didn’t happen, right. And so the best statistical minds, working with a great deal of information, were wrong. And the actual experience of life didn’t match up with the statistical, political science, sociological science, perspective and theory. The prediction, and science works – confirmation of science is generally on prediction and affirmation, right. So one of the things that Megan brought up I think is key, in that it is practicality, it’s what we can do with it. It’s not necessarily just to make sure that we have actions, but that doing something about it, not being paralyzed, right, it’s not just climate change. It’s anything that we do in life.
All of our religious perspectives, our scientific perspectives, we believe them. Russell Tambiah, who was a sociologist at Harvard, or anthropologist, I don’t remember which it – anyway he did a study on religion and science and magic and beliefs in these things. And he came to the conclusion that we believe in science, not because scientists tell us that it’s going to be certain, right, they don’t, but because there’s a practical certainty to science, a practicality that religion no longer has. Or that religion has lost, because when we talk about angels, or we talk about faith healing, these things don’t happen, oftentimes. They’re not sharable experiences, whereas starting my car in the morning and relying on combustion is.
Megan Cuzzolino: And I think that this also points to the ways we use language in technical, expert terms, versus the ways we use language conversationally, and how that throws us off when we’re trying to understand expert perspectives from these domains. So when we use theory to say, “I have a theory that my friends are going to run late when I go to meet them at the movie theater,” that’s not the same as when we use theory to talk about natural selection. And I think that the conflation of these words in using these concepts in popular culture to mean something different than they mean in the disciplines causes a lot of problems, because it shifts our expectations about what science is and isn’t capable of, to the point that you see people saying “those stupid weather forecasters, they’re always wrong, why don’t they do their jobs better” because there’s a missing understanding about probability, about what it means to forecast.
And so I think that being more careful in the language, and choosing our words carefully, as people who communicate within these disciplines, is also an important part of this, so that people don’t say “stupid Nate Silver”, you know, that there is an understanding that probability means that sometimes we will be wrong. But on the flip side of that, that doesn’t make science untrustworthy because of probability, that to say 97% of scientists agree that humans are playing an important role in the changing climate, doesn’t mean that we can say, “well it’s only 97%, so who cares.”
Kat Robison: And we have a model for this, right? We all don’t go after sportscasters when they make a prediction about, oh, to use an example from my University, Alabama’s definitely going to beat – did they play Clemson again? I feel like I should know this and I have no idea.
Megan Cuzzolino: You’re asking the wrong person.
Kat Robison: I shouldn’t admit that I’m less than versed in college football, but you know, everyone was convinced Alabama was going to win another championship, because they had the statistically better team, right, and it was really likely they’re going to win. But everyone accepted that there was this possibility that the other team would upset them. And no one got, you know, outside of Alabama fans and other people who maybe bet on them, no one got bent out of shape. No one said, “oh, well we shouldn’t try and predict sports games, and we shouldn’t analyze which team is better anymore.” So we have a model for this. We do this in our every day life, where we accept truth even if there’s some uncertainty in that truth. I think, Megan, you really hit it on the head when you said that it’s a problem of language.
John Marc Sianghio: But there is a difference, right. I mean the the fact is that nobody dies if Alabama – well maybe some people do, but you know, if the tide doesn’t roll, it’s not going to have massive social consequences, unless you’re at Clemson. So when we talk about the practice of certainty, we’ve talked a lot about science and its certainty, and science and its ability to be wrong. But we earlier discussed that religion has sort of lost that certainty. And one of the things that we talk about with science, one of the virtues of science, why we believe in the rigorous methods, and I say “believe” very specifically, right, is because science has at least, in the past, fronted the fact that this is a proposition, that it’s going to be probabilistic, and that I could be wrong. And so often religion paints itself in absolute terms.
And I think the general conception, returning to the bidding of these age old truths, right, is the perspective that people have on religion, and when religion – and religious leaders are guilty of this and religious people are guilty of this – when something in religion doesn’t square with the data or with our experience, we tend to try and defend it wholeheartedly.
But historically, religion hasn’t always functioned like that. As I said before, science has dealt with the fact that, at one point, the best science in the world said the earth was the center of the universe. It lined up with the empirical observations. And then we got heliocentrism. For a long time, Newtonian physics dominated physics, until we got Einstein. And people thought Einstein was nuts. And it turns out that probably Einstein’s model actually fits a lot of the data that we’re getting, and now there’s quantum physics, and Einsteinian relativity is being questioned, and all of these things. Again, I’m not a physicist, so don’t quote me on these things. But religion’s done the same thing, right. There the ways that we’ve interpreted scriptures, the ways that we’ve interpreted religious practices, have changed.
For one example, it used to be that the view of God was as this specific being – you know, you look at some of the psalms, you look at some of the passages in the Hebrew Bible, and there’s a depiction of a God that isn’t a pantheon. We tend to think of ya’weh as monotheistic and that’s the way it is now, but if you look at some of the historical texts, it looks like God is in the pantheon. But philosophical developments have come, and different perspectives have come, and so that by the time you get to, say, Thomas Aquinas, logically God is not a being among beings, but what we talk about is God has to be the supreme being, the ultimate being. Otherwise, if there is something higher than God logically, that can’t possibly be what we’re talking about God.
And so there have been these shifts, and there have been shifts in what we think of as timeless truths. And we just think of them as timeless because they’re touted with the trappings of tradition. But religion continues to evolve, and I think that if religion is going to regain some of its utility, some of that practical certainty that science has gotten, that it too has to be able to make sense of the experiences of life. And it can do that. I mean, love. You tell me somebody who can explain love scientifically. You can explain biology, you can explain attraction, you can explain pheromones, and all those things, but the deep emotional idea of love, right, love the transcends all things, Shakespearean love, right? Explain that to me, explain that to me from a scientific perspective. What practical certainty can you get from that.
Kat Robison: Well, it’s time to wrap up this conversation, but before we do, Megan, if you have any last thoughts I’d like to give you the opportunity.
Megan Cuzzolino: I think that what you’ve just said is really important and needs to be a message that’s better communicated to people who are coming from more of the scientific perspective, because I think there is a tendency to assume, as the question was posed, that religion is sort of unchanging, that we draw on the texts, and that they are unchanging, and therefore our interpretation is unchanging.
And I think I speak personally, as someone who does not come from a particular religious tradition, and I know I make faulty assumptions about that myself. And I think, as we think about the conversation between science and religion, and the people who inhabit those worlds, that acknowledging that parallel between science and religion as adaptive and evolving is is a critical piece of this conversation.
Kat Robison: Excellent, excellent point on which to end this. And I want to say thank you so much again to John for coming.
John Marc Sianghio: Thanks everyone.
Kat Robison: And for Megan.
Megan Cuzzolino: Thanks so much.
Thank you for listening. This podcast was made possible by the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship and our founding director, Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. Our audio engineer is Kassy Tamanini, and I am your host, Kat Robison. Again, we thank you for joining our conversation, and we hope that you continue this discussion in your own communities.