The Anti-Scientific "Faith Method" Could Get Us All Killed

Revelation: The alternative to the scientific method's school of hard knocks.

Posted Jun 20, 2020

The scientific method isn’t just for nerds in lab coats, nor is it just experimentation, measurement, and math. You use the scientific method every time you try to get realistic about anything, about how to find or process with a partner, make your career work, or just get better at whatever. 

Employing the scientific method, you try to neutralize your personal biases, your hopes, and wishful thinking. You try to chill your confirmation bias, the universal natural human tendency to attend to evidence that affirms and motivates you and to dismiss evidence that disappoints your hopes. With the scientific method, you’re biased against your own personal biases so you can better understand your reality. 

The scientific method is enrollment in the school of hard knocks and reality checks. You don’t surrender your hopes – not at all. Rather, you recognize that in order to get what you want, you need to set aside what you want long enough to see what is. 

You use the scientific method when you try to unsnag your sweater. You don’t keep yanking. You check out your reality and sometimes make the paradoxical move of moving toward whatever has snagged it in order to get free of it. 

The scientific method works better than any other method we know. And you know it. You can’t help but notice its productivity. The evidence is everywhere from the technology in your home, in industry, medicine, and yes, psychology. The method is why, despite the calamities we face, humankind is breaking through to insights unimaginable to our ancestors. Whatever you claim to believe about science, you can’t help but adopt its methods when you need to get real. 

The scientific method is lifelong learning, a permanent enrollment in the school of hard knocks, no last words ever, no final solutions, no ultimate graduation to absolute certainty. It’s guesswork and remains guesswork. It’s probabilistic not fundamentalist. Every scientific theory remains subject to reality checks. If a more realistic theory comes along, the old theory is replaced. Every idea in science is held tentatively, to be beaten by a better idea should one come along. 

The alternative is faith method, also called revelation. You “discover” supposedly higher truths revealed to your intuition which you pretend somehow is totally unbiased. You embrace revealed insights because they fill you with confidence in your last-word theory and your last-word authority.

One can employ the faith method in religion obviously, but not just. You can employ it in spirituality, politics, philosophy, psychology, or just in blind loyalty to your gut. You can employ it as a right-wing or left-wing fundamentalist. There are even people who claim to be doing science who are really using the faith method.

With the faith method, you have epiphany, breakthrough, or insight that felt so huge that you assume it’s the last you’ll ever need, no further evidence worth visiting ever. The truth was revealed to you and from now on you’ve got the last word truth and you are the last word on truth. Your truth, whatever it is that was revealed to you, gives you absolute authority to know what’s true. Everything has to conform to your truth. You might still study but only the reasons why you’re already right.

Sounds arrogant and it is, but you can disguise the arrogance easily enough. Just pretend that you’re the most scientific by selectively doubting all challenges to your absolute truth. A religious person employing the faith method can say, “Science is arrogant. There are things that science will never understand, things about the unknowable that I know all about by revelation.”

The faith method is how we get authoritarian followers. Maybe they attend a rally and hear a speaker who really moves them, so much so that they had a “realization” that the leader is always right. From that point on, they’re proud to blindly believe anything the leader says and does, no matter what. It’s like falling madly in infatuation with someone such that you assume that it’s no longer possible for them to do any wrong and therefore no longer possible that you’re wrong to be so infatuated with them. 

Confirmation bias, the strong tendency to be more receptive to confirming than disconfirming evidence, is a huge problem for us humans. The scientific method employed not just in science but in all ongoing trial and error learning works to neutralize confirmation bias.

In contrast, the faith method licenses people to rely on confirmation bias as the solution to all of their problems. It is not just maladaptive; it's anti-adaptive, demanding that natural reality conforms to our revelations, not the other way around. 

The faith method is a total failure, natural and popular though it is. And yet somehow, out of tolerance and keeping the peace we give it a wide berth. If someone snaps “how dare you question my faith?” we tend to back off.

We don’t want a fight and anyway our culture sanctions and even subsidizes the faith method. We indulge and accommodate the special pleading of the faithful. When they say “Back off! I’m entitled to my proud, blind-faith, last-word vision,” we back off. Where this is most obvious is in religion’s exploitation of the faith method. Somehow we think it’s perfectly fine and even honorable for people to not only take weekly recesses from the school of hard knocks, it’s OK for them to bring it back into their scientific method work weeks and play trump cards for whatever wishful thinking they indulge. It’s OK for them to tutor people on the unknowable with absolute self-certainty and authority. 

My guess is that so long as we indulge the faith method, it will be near impossible for humanity to ever get its act together. My bet is that betting on the scientific method’s commitment to trying forever to make better bets about reality is the better bet. The culture wars these days are really a fight between the faith method’s always-right and the scientific method’s always trying to get it righter approaches. I’m betting on the scientific method. And I say that though I spend most of my time duking it out within science, which sanctions and subsidizes just such duking it out.

I encourage you to lower your tolerance for the anti-scientific, anti-adaptive faith-based method. Do not let yourself be backed off by those who demand the freedom to insist on their proud blind faith. And if you're the kind who insists like that, try to wean yourself off it. It's fine to take recesses from the school of hard knocks. It's not fine to pretend you've got some faith-based way to one-up reality.

For those who want to enjoy comforting escapes into the faith method safely, here's a podcast episode that addresses that: