Faith in Science

The English language is wonderfully imperfect sometimes. Take the title of this article, “Faith in Science,” which does not, as you may have thought, pertain to having faith in Science, but rather to the role of faith in Science.

You might be scoffing at the idea that there is any component of faith in the realm of scientific endeavor, be you a scientist or non-scientist. Faith plays a critical role in Science, and it goes back as far as your own first experience with scientific thought.

English is imperfect so I feel we have to define faith, science, and Science. I differentiate science from capital letter Science in that the lower case version is a thing you do, and the upper case is the pursuit for objective Truth as to how the Universe functions. Now for the trickier thing: faith. Let’s separate faith from Faith, with the upper case pertaining to belief in a religious or spiritual system. As I mean it here, faith pertains to a belief in the truth of something without proof.

Yes. Science requires faith. Allow me to try and prove it to you.

My son is seven years old and is in the first grade. I don’t remember my own first grade experience, but evidently first grade is now when they teach you the three states of matter: gas, liquid, and solid. (I’m a plasma physicist so the fact that they leave out the fourth and most common state of matter in the Universe perturbs me, but whatever, they can barely read yet.) When you and I were kids we were similarly told that three states of matter existed; something is either a gas, a liquid, or a solid. There are clear rules that define which state the matter is in based on simple tests – Does it expand to fill its container? Does it have a definite shape? Can it be poured from one container to another? This is elementary stuff, hence the reason it’s taught in elementary school. Children take it on blind faith that this – and almost everything else their teachers tell them – is correct.

But you know, maybe that isn’t a great example. “They’re just kids and they’ll believe anything,” or so some will claim. Let’s jump ahead a few years to when we were teenagers.

In high school or college you may have taken a chemistry class. You may have performed a simple experiment using water and a metal called magnesium. Drop magnesium in water and you’ll get magnesium hydroxide and hydrogen gas. In the classroom experiment that hydrogen gas is captured and burned in air for quite the effect: drop a special rock into water and air catches fire.

But wait, if we believe that the special rock is an element called magnesium that itself does not contain hydrogen, then where is the hydrogen coming from? Ah, of course a single water molecule is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Then again, how do you know that? Can you personally prove that? Someone clearly did at some point in the history of Science, and countless people have certainly verified it. Now everyone believes it as scientific fact.

I’m being intentionally condescending to prove a point, but here’s something to ponder. Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, this we agree on and we’ll ignore how we prove this fact. Under normal room conditions (called Standard Temperature and Pressure, or STP), both hydrogen and oxygen are gasses. If both hydrogen and oxygen are gasses at STP, then why is water a liquid at STP? Why is it that fusing two gasses together in a room results in a liquid?

Just stop and think about that for a minute. Try and come up with an answer.

The answer – which I will not go deeply into because that’s a big enough topic for another day – has to do with how the inter-atomic forces of the hydrogen and oxygen change when they are bonded together to form water molecules. The change in these forces causes the water molecules to be more attracted to each other than the oxygen and hydrogen molecules are, resulting in a liquid state for water at STP. This simple question has an incredibly complex answer. So complex that it might even make it hard to believe the basic accepted fact that water (normally a liquid) is made up of two gases. The ancient Greeks believed that every chemical substance was its own unique element; water was not divisible into anything else. This is a common sense belief, but as we talked about last time Science often doesn’t adhere to “common sense” but to its own set of laws that can sometimes seem nonsensical.

Now ask yourself if you still believe that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. Maybe you don’t, in which case I should seriously consider a career in politics. I’m betting you do though, because your belief in the makeup of water is stronger than the few questions I’ve left you unable to answer on your own, which brings us to the key point: belief.

Every practicing scientist has belief in at least two things. First, that the Scientific Method can and does reveal objective Truth. The second belief is that the statements of the scientific majority are not intentionally misleading. The latter deals with a process called peer review, in which a scientist submits a report to a journal and other experts in the same field review the paper to determine if the methods and conclusions are valid. Only then is the paper published and certified by that gold standard of science known as “peer reviewed.” This does not mean it is immediately believed. Questioning controversial papers is a key part of Science, and motivates others to repeat that work and publish their results in turn.

Often times when faced with science deniers – be it evolution, climate change, or vaccines – scientists will respond along the lines of “Science doesn’t require your belief for it to be true.” Objective truth is objectively true, but this attitude misses the mark. Science deniers fall into two basic categories: they either have an incentive to deny accepted science (an evolutionary biologist employed by a Creationist organization) or they misunderstand science, usually because they were mislead by a celebrity or politician (I put most anti-vaxxers in this category). Those with incentive are beyond rational contact, but can usually be called out without too much effort. I object to scientists and science popularists saying that science doesn’t require belief because that assertion is fundamentally dishonest. Besides, such a condescending attitude does nothing to inform those that misunderstand science.

The truth is that Science is so far spread and complex that no scientist can personally verify all the facts that they need to accept in order to make new discoveries. Keep in mind that we’ve been doing science for centuries, which amounts to tens of thousands of lifetimes dedicated to the pursuit of objective Truth. Even in my own field of science there are countless fundamental conclusions that I’ve never proven to myself that I depend upon for all of my work. Why haven’t I taken the time to do that? Because I’d spend the rest of my life proving things that have been proven again and again – I simply accept on faith that they are true, as does every other professional scientist. Sometimes we do prove accepted truths to ourselves, which can be particularly enlightening if one is having difficulty understanding that particular concept.

I previously explained the Millikan Oil Drop Experiment, which I had the pleasure of performing for myself in college. In that experiment the charge to mass ratio of the electron is calculated, meaning that I have verified for myself that the scientifically accepted value is approximately correct. On the other hand I have never proved to myself that the charge to mass ratio of the proton is correct, yet I happily use the accepted value. I have great faith in the quoted value because there is not an incentive for anyone to lie about this. (Unless of course you believe science deniers’ claims that we’re all just in it for that sweet government grant money.)

Faith is a key aspect of Science, but not in the way faith normally works. Scientists, and the public at large that believes in Science, have faith that when scientists describe the Universe they are being honest and conforming to the Scientific Method. That is a sacred trust, which is perhaps why some scientists get so offended when non-experts decide not to believe in Science. Questioning Science is healthy, questioning commonly held opinions and accepted facts is also healthy, but when raising honest questions about scientific conclusions do so with evidence obtained via the Scientific Method. If a hundred studies are contradicted by one study that uses poor techniques then more likely than not that one study is wrong.

 

About Andrew Porwitzky

Dr Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist, comic book junkie, and freelance writer who is on Twitter way too much.

2 thoughts on “Faith in Science

  1. Hypothesis: a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence (faith) as a starting point for further investigation (science).

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