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February 2, 2009
Volume 87, Number 5
p. 48

Men Of Science, Men Of Faith

Galileo versus the Inquisition. Scopes versus the State of Tennessee. And let's not forget Scully versus Mulder on "The X-Files" and Jack Shephard versus John Locke on "Lost." The HUNDREDS-OF-YEARS-LONG BATTLE between men (and women) of science and people of faith continues to rage. Even though humanity is 400-plus years deep into this debate, we seem to be no closer to a unified conclusion.

Now, researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Chicago provide some insight as to why. According to "Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations," published in the January edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.07.013), a person's unconscious attitudes toward God and science are fundamentally opposed because they offer competing and logically incompatible explanations for the same phenomena.

The researchers wanted to explore how religious beliefs effect a person's dismissal of scientific theories and vice versa. To investigate this, they conducted two experiments designed to manipulate how well science or God can be used for ultimate explanations of rather hefty questions such as how Earth came to be.

The study found that when people summoned science as a highly credible rationalization of ultimate questions, God-based explanations lost their significance. But when God was portrayed as a strong explanation for these same questions, science lost its value. The problem, say the researchers, is that science and God are both ultimate explanations; they have to conflict with each other because they both can't simultaneously be where the explanatory buck stops.

A dual belief system that accommodates both God and science and that thereby allows such believers to say things like "God put the wheels in motion, but nature took over from there," cannot be founded in our brains in a logically consistent way, the Illinois researchers contend. Maintaining logical consistency is only possible by sticking to one type of ultimate theory at a time.

"This is not to suggest that science and religion must always conflict, nor that one system of belief must necessarily be chosen over the other," the report says. Even so, the researchers state that "the conflict between science and religion is not an issue that is likely to go away any time soon," and the constant competition between the two schools of thought as ultimate explanations "is likely to create an intuitive and automatic opposition that may present a permanent challenge for both systems of belief."

The conflict between God-based and science-based explanations is set for yet another round now that Gary Chism (R), a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, has followed his Alabama legislative brethren by introducing a bill that would require textbooks in the state to include a disclaimer dubbing evolution a "controversial theory."

In its 200 words, the disclaimer raises standard creationist concerns such as the "many topics with unanswered questions about the origin of life," including "the sudden appearance of major groups of animals in the fossil record" and the "complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body possessed by all living things."

The proposed disclaimer would advise students to "study hard and keep an open mind" to other—that is, nonscientific—explanations for the origin of life. After all, the suggested disclaimer notes, "any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory" because "no one was present when life first appeared on Earth."

Come to think of it, Rep. Chism, how does anyone know that? No one was there to report the absence of everyone else.

Faith Hayden wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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