Do You Believe Science to be Method or Belief?

For some of us, skepticism has almost become a religion. After I read each new science report, I often find myself wondering what I believe. Engineer Mike Macartney’s new article plays with the two ideas that I sometimes think of as fighting siblings, belief and science. Carl Sagan said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

A study says that Conservatives do not trust science anymore. It also says that 30% of Liberals do not either. Whatever “Conservatives” and “Liberals” are. Is the study actually the problem? Of course, right in the middle of the study report was a link to another study that eating chocolate makes you thinner. I hope this new diet advice really works!

For the last 40 years there have been thousands of reported studies telling everybody which food additives will give you cancer. A reader might know that the dosages in the studies were equivalent to drinking 1000 cans of the suspect soda every day for 10 years. And the studies were done on rats that are not people, except for a few who shall remain nameless! Interesting studies, but does anybody really trust them anymore, or just read them as entertainment on the web news?

Global warming will destroy civilization in 20 years, 50 years, or 2 years according to the United Nations or your favorite retired politician. 1000 other sites, experts, and cranks each report a different level of threat and a different spin – all at the same time. Almost all of them have a political or financial agenda behind their stories. They want to influence voters, that want more contributions, they want US aid in their country, they want to renew their government study grants, they want more visitors to their site, they want to sell more newspapers …

Lost in all this is that science has created the modern world we enjoy. It makes the computers, smart phones, vaccines, automobiles, power stations, cancer treatments and all the rest. Without science we humans would be eating bushes and sleeping in trees at night to avoid the lions. There would be no chocolate candy bars to keep us thin!

Do you believe in the answers that science produces? Who cares. The physical world goes on doing what it does with or without anybody’s belief at all. Science is wrong all the time. Isaac Newton was right about throwing a rock up in the air, but wrong about the orbit of Mercury that was correctly predicted by Albert Einstein. Medical science did not believe doctors should wash their hands in 1750. Some scientists and engineers once believed that the sound barrier could never be broken by an airplane. Scientists once believed that electrons, neutrons and protons were the smallest bits of matter in the universe.

Science is not the results that science produces, you should always take those with a grain of salt, until they are proven with objective, measured data by many people over and over. Science is about how the proving and studying is done.

NASA has a nice little statement of the scientific method, as does Wikipedia. The method is the science. The method works over and over. Belief is not part of the method. And, following the method changes the expected outcome or predictions made by the people who use it all the time – like Newton and Einstein.

As an engineer I never believe a scientific theory or study until I look at it myself and see machines that have been built with the theory. Those machines can be computers, medical imaging machines, new cancer drugs, or more advanced semiconductor chips for my smart phone. The final proof of theory is building something with it and having it work like the theory. That is the science I believe in – and supersonic airplanes.

Do you believe in science and are you willing to change your mind when better data comes along, or do you believe in belief?

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