Early yesterday morning, I was sitting in my back yard with my wife drinking coffee and watching birds. At some point, I mentioned off-hand that I needed something to blog about. I had several ideas, but I couldn’t think of anything I could take from that nebulous realm of “wouldn’t it be cool…” to something that a reader would actually bother reading. After a couple more sips, my wife says emphatically, “I know what you should write about…god damn global warming!” I laughed and finished my coffee…and by finished, I mean got another cup.
The conversation got me to thinking about what really bothered me about discussions involving not just climate change, but a sundry of scientific topics. It’s not whether or not people agree or disagree with the theory of, say, climate change…it’s the concept of belief. When you hear, read, or are involved in discussions involving “hot” topics such as climate change or evolution, the counter-argument is typically phrased, “I just don’t believe in X.” In the case of climate change, I have been told many times, “I don’t believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe that climate change is man-made.”
Of course, the word “belief” is not off limits in science. I, for instance, believe that the graviton, the particle that mediates the force of gravity (and gives name to this blog!) exists. There is, of course, good reason to have such a belief given the Standard Model of particle physics that predicts its existence. Indeed, in the same way, it is perfectly valid for someone to state that they do not believe in, say, climate change. The key difference is that if scientific evidence is presented to me that the graviton does not exist, I will happily reformulate my belief to something that more closely represents Nature. In contrast, many (not all) people who do not believe in climate change, evolution, or whatever, maintain that belief even when presented with scientific evidence to the contrary. In this case, the word “belief” is really taking on a synonymic definition with “faith”…and, as the Bard said, therein lies the rub.
Science is built upon facts that are assembled into theory. The term “fact” here means something which is, at present, known to be true. These facts and theories are not immutable; indeed, they can be altered or completely disproven over time. In the 19th century, when men wore top hats, had long beards, and posed for awkward daguerrotypes, physicists believed that heat transfer from object to object was facilitated by an ethereal “liquid” called the caloric. This material would pass from hot objects to cold objects and gave physical form to heat, making it a “substance” like matter. It was a very successful theory and predicted a great many things. It moved to the wayside, however, as the atomic picture of matter emerged; under this theory, heat is known to be a transfer of energy that cannot be used to perform mechanical work. No one today believes that the caloric exists, though it does provide a convenient mathematical framework to explore some aspects of heat transfer. The point is, science had an idea, it worked great, and when it was shown to be incorrect, science moved on. Added bonus: this is where the term calorie comes from.
In contrast to this series of events, people who have a faith-based belief that something like climate change is false can be presented with evidence contrary to that belief all day and still hold on to it. Now, when I say faith-based belief, I’m not talking about a religious belief. I’m merely stating that if you take something on faith, by definition, it can’t be disproven. This stance, of course, has no place in science…indeed, a faith-based belief is not a scientific belief. As such, it is apples and oranges to respond to a scientific statement with faith-based belief.
Take the Flat Earth Society. This is a group of people who believe that the Earth is indeed flat. In case you don’t believe me, check this out. Despite a ridiculous amount of evidence to the contrary, they unwaveringly believe that “the earth is a flat disk centered at the North Pole and bounded along its southern edge by a wall of ice, with the sun, moon, planets, and stars only a few hundred miles above the surface of the earth.” If you believe this to be true, you must be taking it on faith as you have most certainly left scientific thought behind.
I suppose that’s what it all boils down to, belief in the process of science. If you accept that science forms the framework of rational thought and that the theories it produces are indeed “of Nature”, then you are more than willing to adjust your thinking as evidence is presented on a topic. If, however, you hold to a belief on a topic unyieldingly, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, then you must have issue with the fundamental nature of science itself.
Let me note that this argument only holds for a certain body of knowledge. Climate change and evolution, for instance, clearly fall in the domain of scientific thought. Religious concepts, such as the existence of God and such, do not fall in this domain. The existence of God, for instance, can never be proved or disproven. As such, attempting to use science to, say, disprove God is as fallacious an argument as refuting climate change because of a faith-based belief that it is not true.
So, what’s the moral of the story? If you wish to discuss a scientific topic, you must be prepared to accept facts that are given. In addition, you should be able to present facts that support your claim. Conversely, if you wish to discuss a faith-based topic, you must be prepared to discard scientific, evidence-based thought, as it does not apply. Note that this does not invalidate faith-based ideas, it merely points out that the scientific method is derived from experiment and, if no experiment can be performed, then the scientific method, an therefore science itself, does not apply.