Scientific enquiry

How rigorous evaluations are carried out in scientific research.

If you’re not familiar with the process of scientific enquiry and how experiments are carried out, how’re you to know whether the findings reported by scientists are trustworthy?

Do you simply place your faith in the methods and results reported? Can you truly assess the soundness of conclusions drawn?

It’s only possible to do so when one has the skills and mental framework necessary to make a critical evaluation of such claims.

To truly believe something, one has to understand: Let’s examine each in turn.
One has to understand the assumptions being made.
This means that the writer has to clearly define how words and terms are used, and keep to the original definitions unless otherwise stated.

Furthermore, readers must accept these definitions and agree to stick to them for the purposes of the current discussion.

In all languages, the definition of many words is open to interpretation, and this causes ambiguity in communication. The potential for confusion is especially high when it comes to the topic of religion- each individual’s experience is subjective, and there are no rigorous, standardised ways of pinpointing or measuring the spiritual entities to which one is referring.

If a reader is unable to accept the underlying assumptions that a writer has made in the first place, then it is futile for the reader to try to follow the rest of the arguments put forth by the writer.

This is because the context in which they are applicable is too broad, narrow, improbable, or trivial, for the reader’s liking. Under these circumstances, the reader’s time would best be spent in other ways- such as examining arguments which do succeed in satisfying the reader’s requirements.
Understand the context to which claims are applicable.
Maybe the claims that are being made only hold true under a particular set of circumstances- for a select group of people, for members of a certain culture, or at a specific time in history.

The fact that the claims are not uniformly applicable for all time does not render them worthless. People sometimes think that if concepts or laws are not completely relevant to every situation, then they do not conform to ideal standards of ‘absolute truth,’ and therefore should not be applied under any circumstances whatsoever.

This stance is both unrealistic and unnecessary- after all, we live in a complex world, where numerous factors interact to produce unique situations. On a day-to-day basis, we have rules that we abide by under specific situations, but not others- if we insisted on a set of immutable laws that had to be followed under every conceivable circumstance, society as we know it wouldn’t be able to function.

What we can, and indeed, do, is to examine the most relevant factors for our situation, and come up with solutions or explanations that are feasible, and as closely tailored to our needs as is necessary.

Crucially, the claims made must hold true under the conditions stated, those conditions must be described in sufficient detail, and the claims should not be applied to situations where it would be inappropriate to do so.

Ideally, those making the claims should also provide a description of the conditions under which they are inapplicable, or where their validity is unproven, to add clarity to the discussion.
Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the methods used to collect and analyse data.
We use the resources at our disposal to formulate questions, find ways of addressing them, execute those methods, and analyse our results.

Some methods may be wholly adequate for our purposes and provide accurate, reliable results.

Others may be less tried-and-tested, and known to be applicable under certain conditions, but of unknown quality under others. If this is the case, then one has to be careful to make sure that the necessary conditions were fulfilled, and to define these conditions clearly. If it's not possible to meet the requirements, then one has to inform the reader. Methods that are inadequate for the task will yield meaningless data, and shouldn’t be used.

Sometimes people state their claims and conclusions without describing their methods fully. This may be acceptable under certain circumstances- for example, when their methods have been reviewed thoroughly by a reputable panel of experts and given clearance, before being published in condensed form, or when the methods used are so conventional and well-established that the majority of readers do not need detailed descriptions.

At other times, however, the absence of a thorough description is due to sloppiness in data collection and reporting of results, unwillingness to describe inadequate, poorly-chosen methods, or even a complete lack of substance.

Techniques that are satisfactory to some people may be unacceptable to others.

Let’s say, for example, that a religious leader states that a decree or a prophecy came to him or her in a dream, and this results in the creation of a rule that all followers must obey. Some members of the congregation feel that this method of gaining instruction through a dream is reasonable, and merits the establishment of rules that affect the behaviour of others. They are willing to comply with the new requirement.

Others, however, are less convinced of the soundness of this technique, and feel that it is too dependent on the subjective experiences of a single individual, and cannot justify the enforcement of edicts that have significant effects on everyone else.

Some members may consider the decree acceptable as long as the dream truly took place, however, it requires them to take the words of the religious leader at face value, and they have no definite means of knowing whether the dream really occurred or not.

The reactions of the followers depend on their individual levels of credulity, the level of authority invested in the religious leader, and the impact of the new ruling.

The dream reading ‘technique’ described in this example lies at the opposite end of the spectrum of information dissemination from that used in proper scientific enquiry.

Researchers are not allowed to publish conclusions that reportedly came to them in a dream and are unsubstantiated by any form of solid, verifiable evidence. Any attempt to do so would likely ruin their reputations and be met with utter amazement by the scientific community.
Understand the limitations of the study.
Numerous limitations exist for any given study:
  • Findings are applicable only under the conditions described.

  • Researchers perceive and interpret data from their particular perspectives. Judgements are made based on prior experience, and under various influences.

  • Researchers are constrained by time, material resources, money, and manpower.

  • The sensitivity of measuring equipment may allow researchers to draw conclusions about one particular subject, but not others.

  • Investigators may not have a clear idea of how their findings may be applied in a broader context, and it may be a long time before practical applications emerge.

Understand how the study is influenced by prior knowledge.
We make predictions and form hypotheses based on prior observation and experience. This information guides us and provides a starting point when we’re broaching a problem.

If we place too much faith in predictions that are as yet unverifiable, and we’re unwilling or unable to consider alternative options, these prior expectations can constrain our creativity and analytical power, and bias our perceptions.

We may jump to conclusions, make inaccurate interpretations, or lose focus of the main issues. Thus, it’s important to remain critical of one’s work, constantly evaluate oneself, and occasionally seek independent opinions from trustworthy sources.
Understand how the study contributes to the existing body of knowledge.
We want to know, as far as possible, whether the findings of a study are relevant to other aspects of life, and whether and how they might affect our attitudes and behaviour. If the findings have a useful, feasible application, then researchers might choose to develop and implement the ideas gained. At the very least, the study should yield reliable, genuine information about some aspect of the world around us.

The field of scientific enquiry is so vast, and the level of detail addressed is often so in-depth and specialised, that it’s impossible for any one individual to become familiar with all that is currently known. It’s even impossible, in many fields of research, to become fully acquainted with all the knowledge from one’s subspecialty.

Researchers in a particular field are entrusted with the responsibility to explore their subject in detail, using reliable techniques. When it comes to areas of research beyond our reach, we have to accept our personal limitations and trust that our colleagues in those fields are carrying out their work equally meticulously.

Fortunately, however, while particular details and techniques employed do differ across disciplines and sub-disciplines, the general principles for scientific investigation are the same overall.

The main goals are: to understand the context, the assumptions, the strengths and limitations of techniques, to identify the existence and effects of biases, and to explore the potential for making improvements to our current situation and supplementing our knowledge.

I don’t expect you to simply accept the claims that I make- particularly if you’ve been immersed in a religious environment for a long while, or have had limited opportunity to gain exposure to scientific concepts.

It takes time and lots of reading and thinking to acquire a large enough knowledge base to understand the principles that govern our universe- principles that don't invoke or depend on the existence of God.

I can assure you that it’s not enough to read only the material on this website, to become fully convinced about what I’m saying. The opinions and conclusions stated here are the products of years of continuous reading and thinking on my part, and despite having come some way myself, I've a lot more to go.

I do hope that it’s enough to help you question prior beliefs and motivate you to find out more about widely-used scientific techniques.

A key reason that allows believers to place their faith comfortably in God, is the fact that we feel at a complete loss to describe numerous phenomena- from human psychology, to the behaviour of various organisms, to the organisation of the universe.

Not only does it seem as if many things are inexplicable, it also seems impossible that human beings could ever unravel and understand the mechanisms behind them.

Many of these phenomena appear so complex and mysterious that a non-expert hasn’t the foggiest idea of how one might go about studying them.

The euphoric release that people experience when they humble themselves before God and declare their reliance on faith alone, rather than on elusive, hard-to-gain evidence, comes from the relief they feel upon finally giving up, throwing down the gauntlet, and deciding to take a break from the arduous pursuit of knowledge.

Let me assure you right now that with a basic grounding in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and geology, supplemented by years of further study and reading widely, many things which previously seemed mysterious and impossible to tackle become vastly more manageable.

One gains a framework within which to place them, and realises that scientific methods of investigation can be applied across fields, to diverse subjects, which initially seemed unrelated. You're then able to step back from the details, and view things from a broader perspective.

For example: when you watch some event take place, you might arrive at a hypothesis about the underlying causes of that event. This is a guessing game that each of us plays all the time. However, instead of resigning yourself to the notion that your hypotheses will remain forever untested and the results unknown, you can push your thoughts further, and calculate the likelihood that the explanation you intuitively came up with is correct, or not.

When you see a probable cause of an event, you're able to remind yourself that although your intuition might be right, it might also be mistaken. With continuous experience, questioning, and thought, you can gradually hone your reasoning and get better at estimating the likelihood that your guess was right or wrong.

With an overall understanding of the laws of the world around us, you'll be able to fill in the details for specific areas, as time goes on. You might not know the exact details pertaining to a particular area off the top of your head, but if you chose to find out more about that subject, you could use your existing framework as a starting point.

You can form an idea of how to organise your search, and then proceed to systematically gather the relevant facts. It's this ability to test ideas and gain new, evidence-based knowledge, which is so lacking in religion.
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