I was reading an interesting (and very old) post at the Gene Expression blog that, among other things, dealt with the fact that the vast majority of people who believe in evolution don't actually understand it at all, and simply accept that evolution is true because it is the scientific consensus. One interesting conundrum this raises is that it makes me question whether I understand the ideas behind natural selection as well as I think I do, but that's a topic for another post.
The other thing the post reminded me of was that I've been planning to write a blog post about the unfortunate double meaning of the word "faith." In the comments on that post, the phrase "faith in science" was used, and while I agree with what the commenters and the blog author were getting at, I am not comfortable with that word being used. I think there are two meanings of the word faith, and I think this is confusing for theists and results in that whole "Well, I have faith in Christ, you have faith in science. No difference!" fallacy.
Both meanings of the word faith involve believing something with insufficient evidence, or at least, without enough evidence to justify the level of confidence. So there is a similarity there. The two major differences, in my mind, are in 1) the presence of a pragmatic justification in one case for believing with insufficient evidence, and 2) the amount of contradictory evidence required to change the belief. I think these differences are distinct enough to make the two meanings of faith entirely different concepts.
As the post at Gene Expression describes, having "faith in science" is usually a matter of recognizing that reality is often counterintuitive, that as a result the scientific method is a better way of discerning truth than common sense, and lastly that it takes specialized knowledge to really understand the truth in a particular field.
The logical conclusion of this is that one's own intuition in a field where one does not have specialized knowledge is probably not going to be particularly accurate. The alternatives are to try to become educated in every possible area (which is not practical for those of us who have jobs and/or social lives), or to put tentative implicit trust in what the "experts" say about fields in which we are not knowledgable.
Of course, figuring out who is an "expert" worth listening to is easier said than done, and hence this is why I say that this is believing on insufficient evidence. I can't check out the claims of every expert I chose to trust. I can educate myself and see if their claims even make sense, but in many cases I'm ultimately going to have to chose between people who strongly disagree and yet whom I have no way of knowing who is right. We just do the best we can in these cases, because pragmatism dictates it must be so.
The other thing that makes so-called "faith in science" different from religious faith is the standard of disproof. This is not to say that those of us who chose to put stock in the consensus of "experts" are always perfect at reacting to solid evidence that our previous beliefs were false. It's always hard to change one's beliefs; that's human nature.
In some ways, this is even a good thing: As previously mentioned, reality is often counter-intuitive, so if I am presented with evidence that seems to me to contradict the established scientific paradigm, I would be well-advised to be resistant to accepting that evidence until I gather more information, no matter how plain the evidence may seem to me. This is because there may be some grievous error in the argument that I am not aware of due to my ignorance in a particular field.
The result of this is an undue preference for the current scientific orthodoxy. This has been historically demonstrated, with a recent example being the powerful resistance to plate tectonics theory. However, I don't see any reasonable way of avoiding this momentum for the status quo. The other alternatives are to either become 100% educated about everything (impossible), or to shift undue stock in our own personal intuition about things which we know nothing about -- and most educated people understand that doesn't usually work out so well.
But while pragmatism may lead us to exhibit an undue preference for scientific orthodoxy, this is nothing compared to the immutability of religious faith. This is complete apples and oranges.
For one thing, religious faith is mostly atomic, or at least highly interconnected. If one part is proven to be abjectly false, then sometimes it becomes difficult to continue to justify belief in the rest, e.g. if the story of Moses is shown to be pure fable, then the rest of Judaism kind of falls by the wayside. In contrast, the body of scientific knowledge is constantly changing, with old ideas shown to be mistaken, misunderstood, or even abjectly false, yet this does not in any way impact the validity of the scientific method -- or even in the idea of "faith in science" in the sense I am referring to it in this post.
For another, religious faith seems uniquely capable of spreading unwavering crankery more effectively than any other ideas. Certainly, you will get the rare cantankerous old scientist who does all sorts of mental contortions to stick to an old idea from the scientific orthodoxy which has since been proven false -- perhaps even contortions on the order of what Young Earth Creationists are known to do. But this is rare. YECs make up a non-trivial percentage of the American population. Not sure one can say the same about Flat-Earthers... and yet both ideas are equally ridiculous and require similarly fantastic mental contortions.
Recognizing these differences, I think it would be preferable to use a different word for the "faith in science" idea. I'm not sure what that word would be... but it should be a word that captures the idea that, yes, although I believe this with insufficient evidence, I am ready to change my mind or adopt a more nuanced position if presented with sufficient evidence to justify the change.
This post is already too long and I need to get to work. I may revise it or expand on it later..