*This is a combination of two rants, really. One I started a long time ago and another from some stuff I saw on Twitter today.*
I hate hate hate it when people say they believe in science.
Believe in science.
As is if it’s a matter of opinion. As if there are groups of people out there who don’t believe in science which we must convert. As if we didn’t believe in it, science–like fairies–would die.
The thing is, no one blinks an eye at this statement. Everyone says it. EVERYONE. Either “I believe in science” or “I don’t believe in science” (sometimes, as in a Twitter debate earlier today between Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer) (who I follow and enjoy his writing) and Virginia Heffernan (@page88) (who I started following today to see what she’s all about–the link on her last name is the article she wrote that started all the hubbub), science can equal evolution–a conflation of the two words which also annoys me but I’ll save that for another time).
Science is not a faith-based thing.
Science is a process. A tool/methodology for looking at and understanding the world. To believe in science is akin to saying you believe in cooking. And when you berate those who don’t “believe” in science, it is like beating a raw foodist over the head with the Joy of Cooking. We all agree that we’ve got to eat.
A fucking waste of time and energy. I blame Richard Dawkins (though I do love his books with the following reservations) for this fervent pro-science as a faith proselytizing. He started it with his revival tent preaching style for atheism couched as scientific books, taking some really cool biological facts and insights and cheapening them by making them some sort of ammunition to knock down creationism straw men. Scientific research is hard enough already without having to science away faith. I think we can put science to better use.
The thing is science isn’t something to believe in or not believe in. As a tool, it is useful. But humanity for thousands of years survived quite nicely without it (though we could argue that science in some form has always existed; the conclusions were just a bit more mystical). And as we use it as the tool it is today, we find we survive quite nicely with it. We are finding some amazing insights into our biological systems. Amazing, scary, and beautiful insights. Things that will change the world just like Germ Theory and other paradigm shifts did (and yes, I know that there are other sciences besides biology; it just happens to be my field–I’m not ignoring you, chemistry or mathematics or physics or geology).
But still, science isn’t a belief system. One thing I’ve noticed in my years as a scientist is that biological processes happen. Whether we study them or not. Whether we understand them or not. We can choose to study them through many different lenses (and if a scientist says that they don’t have a lens through which they view their research and data and results, they are lying)–to gain knowledge to benefit our species and planet. But even if we don’t, life progresses. And sometimes even when we do, we are plain wrong and backward as any look at the back and forth in Letters pages of Nature will tell you. Scientists fight just as much as anyone about the validity of their conclusions they draw using the tool of the scientific method.
There is no belief here. Just (hopefully) rigorous observations and (hopefully) level-headed conclusions that get tested, again and again.
To yell at someone because they want to treat some of those observations differently, to call that person ignorant and obtuse, well that’s just ignorant and obtuse. A methodology don’t change its usefulness because someone doesn’t hook, line, and sinker swallow the conclusions. And today, I think that the self-proclaimed creationist wasn’t trying to say that science wasn’t useful. It didn’t even sound like she was saying that she didn’t think evolutionary processes happen; rather, she just had a faith-based view of origins. She didn’t believe in science because she doesn’t have to; she believed in the story of her faith because faith is predicated on belief.
That isn’t threatening to science as some people made it out to be–unless you are the type of person who “believes in science” and needs everyone else to believe as well in order to validate that belief. Frankly, in the time this Twitter debate was going on, not a single person was converted to evolution or creationism. Rather, someone got stood up as a straw woman and a bunch of people got to congratulate themselves about how smart and scientific they are . . . not like that ignorant creation lady.
I don’t want to yelled at to “believe in Jesus” just as much as I don’t want to be yelled at to “believe in science.” I don’t want to have someone screaming that evolution is wrong just as I don’t want another decrying creationism. Just stop yelling. Let’s assume that the people actually reading these popular science books (one of which I’m currently writing)–or Twitter feeds–are actually fairly intelligent and thinking people. They don’t need the drama, just clear-headed presentation.
And let’s all try to stop the knee-jerk triggering that happens when people use words like “creationism” or “evolution.” Friendly and fierce debate is one thing, but to say that someone can’t appreciate nature or biology because their idea about our origins differs is plain wrong. And then to have everyone clapping and high-fiving each other with the “wow, we showed that creationist” is just in poor taste. There are plenty of examples of faith-based people exclaiming over how magnificent nature is, wondering over the complexity, finding ways to affect processes to cause our various ecosystems to thrive. Just as there are people who don’t proclaim a faith doing the exact same thing.
The cool thing about science is that anyone can use it to great ends no matter what their beliefs. And that is its true power. Here I agree with Richard Dawkins: science is actually quite magical.
*For the record: I also hate when people say they believe or disbelieve in evolution. Evolution is not something you can believe in either–it is the process of natural (and sometimes unnatural) selection that happens to all organisms over time whether you “believe” in it or not. However, having a faith-based story of origin is not the same as rejecting evolution. People can understand evolutionary processes and be quite intelligent and still believe in God–and don’t need to rephrase the process as adaptation. God does not disallow evolution, nor does evolution disallow God. They aren’t even apples and oranges–they are a bee and olivine: completely separate. Except in the cases of the insecure on both sides of this debate that shouldn’t even be a debate.*