A Hypothesis Accepted
Originally written April 2nd, 2006
I think it’s been a long time since I’ve taken a class in experimental design. Honestly I can barely remember the teacher or the classroom, or even who I sat next to. One of the things, however, that has stuck with me and continued to do so was one line in the book – “Once you accept a hypothesis, anything can be interpreted to support it’s conclusion”.
A good experimenter is always supposed to accept the null hypothesis first, or in other words, the hypothesis that posists the opposite of what the experimental hypothesis does. If your experimental hypothesis is that nicotine makes fluffy bunny rabbits super strong (that’s probably not a very good experiment idea, by the way), then the null hypothesis is that nicotine does not make fluffy bunny rabbits super strong. Good scientists accept the latter until there is ample data to show that they’re mistaken. Bad scientists do the opposite.
So why am I babbling about hypotheses and fluffy bunny rabbits? Well, I had a realization I made a while ago reinforced recently when a study funded by the Templeton Foundation came out regaring prayer and recovery after medical procedures. The results of this study indicated that prayer offered no benefits (and in fact, people who were prayed for tended to fare worse on recovery measures, though it did not appear to be statistically significant) for recovery. Hmm… interesting that a study founded by the Templeton Foundation found that prayer by strangers had no positive effects… but that’s a different story.
I’ve been “discussing” (I use the term loosely) the study and it’s results with some of my “friends” (yup, that one too) that range from bad Catholics to fundamentalist type Baptists to hardcore militant atheists. On the religious side of the spectrum I’ve been getting the response that the study doesn’t show anything because either:
- science cannot study theological forces whatsoever
- the study was poorly designed and suffered from methodological flaws (nevermind the fact that more than a couple experts have been calling the study the largest and best designed on the topic to date), or
- that we just can’t know God’s will.
On the atheist side of the spectrum, I’ve been hearing that this study offers proof that either:
- there is no God or
- God doesn’t care about / like us very much.
All of those responses strike me as… inadequate. Not that I’m looking for an accurate picture of what to take from the results of the study, but I think the responses I’ve been getting illuminate a bigger problem in the swirling ebby of theological debate – namely; we are quick to accept the hypothesis, whatever that may be, before we have any good reason to do so.
At this point we’re ready to interpret anything to support our beliefs. Tens of thousands dead in Iraq? God works in mysterious ways / God does not exist. New Orleans drowned? It was a city of sin and debauchery and angered God / God does not exist. President Bush re-elected? Proof of God’s existence / God does not exist (I guess the atheist position gets a bit boring, but at least it’s consistent!).
It’s been my experience, that any reasoned “discussion” on the topic can only be undertaken by those who have “accepted” neither hypothesis. You might ask “But, you are an atheist, and you have accepted the hypothesis that God does not exist, so how can you have a reasoned discussion?”. I would probably respond by saying that I used to be much worse than I am now, and to point out the difference between knowledge and belief. The people who *know* God exists / does not exist are the people who will be eternally relegated to flinging poo at one another. I don’t think anyone can *know* whether or not God exists – anyone who says they can or can not either a) has not thought through what it means to know something or b) has a nasty methamphetamine addiction. But belief is an entirely different matter – one can certainly believe or not believe. For instance, I do not know whether or not God exists, but I don’t believe that he does. The difference between that and the typical fundie / militant atheist position is that of proof and certainty. So in that sense, I think being either an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist, is the “wisest” (I also use that term loosely…very loosely) position to take.
Be wary of the confirmation bias, my friends.