Questioning Belief

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Questioning belief

“Belief” is generally used to refer to religious faith, but it is not as uncommon as we might think among scientists. All of us have certain basic concepts that we adopt as “true” or representing reality (whatever that means). The problem with conducting our lives according to systems of belief is that it can place us in untenable, absurd, and even dangerous positions. Some people believe that there were never any such animals as dinosaurs, or that the moon landings never happened, or that the end of the world happening right now. Those beliefs are not dangerous. They are just silly.

There are other beliefs that have the potential to lead to damaging, even catastrophic decisions. In the 1890s a group of Native Americans made sacred shirts that they said were bullet-proof. Of course they were not and that belief faded away, but not before many of those who thought they were safe had been killed. The belief that if you die in the process of killing infidels will send you directly to heaven has resulted in an abundance of people who strap explosives to their bodies and then blow themselves up in a public place. The Children’s Crusade was an ill-starred event based on the belief that God would protect the children. It did not happen, and most of them were captured and sold as slaves.

Some have asserted that the scientific perspective is simply another form of belief or religion, that scientists are somehow absorbed in a form of worship without calling it by that name. This serves to put science and religion on a roughly equal footing. It leads to the strange assertion that evolution and creationism should be given equal time and energy in the classroom because they are, after all, just different points of view, and all points of view should have equal credence in the educational system. That is the equivalent of teaching a flat Earth in astronomy class or teaching Lamarckian genetics in biology class. The fact that there are two (or seven or sixty-four) different points of view on a subject does not mean that they all have equal value and all lead to useful answers.

Some otherwise outstanding scientists have allowed “belief” to cloud their judgment. This does not refer exclusively to religious belief, although that has caused some glaring errors. The “belief” that some scientific hypothesis must be wrong even if the evidence supports it led to Einstein’s rejection of quantum mechanics. He believed that the universe simply could not operate in that manner, even at a very small scale. Isaac Newton was a brilliant scientist in many ways, but he too had shortcomings. He believed in numerology, for example, which is just nonsense dressed up in mathematical clothing.

The real issue here is not “should a scientist question belief”? The scientific point of view is to question everything. No matter whether it is a religious doctrine that obscures or prohibits rational consideration of the evidence available or a long-standing scientific axiom that has such a powerful hold on the scientific community that any evidence that throws that axiom into doubt is rejected immediately, the scientist should question everything.   

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