The Nature Of Belief

"Dr. Herschel's Forty Feet Telescope" anonymous engraver, published in A Complete and Universal Dictionary, 1812. Copper engraved print. Size 20 x 18.5 cms including title, plus margins. Ref F4507

Science vs. _____________________?  Science is not something to “believe in” anymore than “reading” is something to believe in or not. Science is simply a method, hence the phrase “scientific method.”

Science is a method of coming up with a hypothesis or theory, and then testing it either via experiment or observation. Test the hypothesis and welcome others to try to disprove it! Science is simply a method for understanding our surroundings.

There are alternatives.

We can believe things because we are told to, whether orally or in writing. Often, fear is used to enforce such beliefs. Peer pressure is also employed. “Are you a believer?” is a common question in parts of the US, especially the South. The person being questioned is being challenged with regards to his or her adherence to a set of Christian Protestant orthodoxies, usually some flavor of Baptist or Pentecostal. In Pakistan, one cannot hold office unless one professes the correct (orthodox) beliefs—in their case, Islam.

We can also come to belief through induction.

    1. I ate a peanut.
    2. I got sick.
    3. Ergo, peanuts make me sick.

Well, maybe. You can repeat this, eating more peanuts, suffering through the consequences, and go from maybe to probably, but that doesn’t go far enough. Scientific inquiry will want to know why the peanut makes you sick—if in fact, it actually does. Remember, correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps the peanuts had residue of a pesticide that was actually making you ill, and not the peanuts themselves.

A poisonous snake in Brazil, the Bothrops Jararaca, causes people to faint when it bites them. When researchers came to understand why this happened, because the venom had strong hemodynamic effects, they were able to create life-saving angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor medicines to control blood pressure, such as Lisinopril, based on the venom.

People might also believe things simply because they want to, with explicitly no interest in objective reality. Astrology works this way in many people, as do many “new age” beliefs such as “the healing power of crystals.” They don’t work, but certain people seem to enjoy believing they do.

So science does not tell people what to believe, rather it is a method for figuring out what to believe. As any tool, it is important to choose the correct one for the circumstances. For example, science is not philosophy or ethics. Science generally does not speak to what one “ought” to do. Science is not a judge of good or evil, virtue or vice.

Science can be applied to history. Archaeology and paleontology are examples of this. It can be applied to the future also, such as some disciplines within cosmology that apply physics to predict the long-term behavior of the universe.

So when someone asks: “Do you believe in science?” another way to frame this is: “Do you have faith in science?” The thing is, science does not demand faith; quite the opposite. It demands scrutiny, testing, challenge and revision when new knowledge is discovered that makes obsolete the old. Do you want to cross a highway bridge built on faith? I don’t. I want to cross a bridge built based on tested, challenged, and verified materials science when it comes to the materials used in its construction—the types of concrete and structural steel selected, the metallurgy, the geology determining how the foundation is constructed, and engineering (applied science).

Remember, anything worth believing deserves scrutiny. If it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and skepticism, to testing, experimentation and verification, it’s not worth believing.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me below.

Image: “Dr. Herschel’s Forty Feet Telescope” anonymous engraver, published in A Complete and Universal Dictionary, 1812. Copper engraved print. Size 20 x 18.5 cms including title, plus margins. Ref F4507

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