Menus Subscribe Search
happy-science-girl

(PHOTO: AVAVA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Facing Adversity, Some Find Solace in Science

• May 30, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: AVAVA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests that, for some secular people, a belief in science plays a similar psychological role as faith does for religious people.

When feeling stress, or faced with existential angst, there are benefits to being a believer. A comprehensive way of making sense of the world, and our place in it, can provide consolation when it’s needed most.

For many people, of course, that belief system is religious faith. But new research suggests others have found a different source of solace: science.

“Our findings suggest that belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions,” reports a research team led by University of Oxford psychologist Miguel Farias. “Despite their different methods, both science and religion offer powerful explanations of the world,” the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “which may work at an intuitive level to provide comfort and assurance.”

As Farias and his colleagues note, many studies have shown the psychological benefits of religious faith, while others suggest that such secular belief systems as humanism, or even faith in human progress, can play a similar role as a source of meaning and motivation.

They hypothesized that the same needs could be met through a “belief in science,” which they describe as seeing science “as a superior, even exclusive, guide to reality, and as possessing a unique and central value.” But would people with that conviction lean on it in tough situations, as the devout do with religious faith?

Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.

Two experiments suggest the answer is “yes.” The first featured 100 rowers, accomplished amateur athletes who take part in international competitions. Half were surveyed less than an hour before competing in a regatta; the others were questioned at a training session.

All answered the questions “How much stress do you feel at this moment?” and “How religious do you consider yourself to be?” In addition, they filled out a 10-item belief-in-science survey, in which they rated their agreement with such statements as “The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge” and “We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable.”

The results: Among members of this group, which “reported a very low degree of religious commitment,” those in the high-stress group—that is, those about to enter a competition—reported a greater belief in science. This suggests such a belief “may help secular individuals to cope with stress,” the researchers write.

The second experiment, featuring 60 students and staff members from two British universities, addressed whether thoughts of one’s own mortality would boost belief in science. Half of the participants were assigned to write about the thoughts and feelings aroused by considering their own death. The others wrote about experiencing dental pain. All then took the belief-in-science questionnaire, along with questions measuring their religiosity and spirituality. Their answers showed that, once again, this was a largely secular group.

The key result: Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.

Farias and his colleagues are careful to distinguish between “belief in science” and what they call “scientific determinism,” which they define as “the extent to which people believe that their behavior is shaped and determined by nature, genes, and the environment, as opposed to their own volition.” Thinking about mortality did not change participants’ views regarding that belief system.

This suggests the consolation they received arose from their belief in the value of scientific inquiry as a way of obtaining knowledge, rather than an endorsement of any specific set of beliefs that may emerge from that process.

These results are somewhat surprising, in that science—unlike both religion and secular humanism—isn’t automatically associated with optimism or faith in a better future.

Nevertheless, the researchers conclude, “merely believing in the superiority of science as a method of making sense of the universe may be sufficient” to play a comforting role in difficult times.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


August 25 • 10:00 AM

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.