What do you believe? Do you believe in fate? In love? In God? Do you believe in evolution? Global warming? The big bang?
Our beliefs — those things we hold to be true — are a central part of what defines us. They shape our lives in ways seen and unseen. They form a foundation for our ethics, values, and even our political views.
There is a popular idea among scientists that belief is not a part of science. One does not believe in evolution, one understands evolution, as if the mere comprehension of natural selection ensures one’s acceptance of evolution. If you don’t believe in evolution, you simply don’t understand it. But that’s nonsense. One can understand a concept without accepting its validity, and people can and do choose not to believe in evolution. People believe in creationism. People believe the Earth is flat. They believe there is a divine creator, or that there is no god. Those beliefs are a part of their identity, and we cannot simply declare their beliefs to be invalid. The central freedom anyone has is a freedom of thought.
The reluctance to speak of belief in science stems, I think in part, from the fact that that it is often used by trolls and the like to paint science as a religion. If scientists believe in evolution then it is no different than a belief in the Holy Trinity or the Great Pumpkin, and can be dismissed as mere dogma. In this view all beliefs are statements of faith, made piously in the absence of evidence. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet believe, as Christ admonishes doubting Thomas. Thus, changing one’s belief is a sign of weakness. It demonstrates a tragic loss of faith.
But there are central beliefs (tenets if you prefer) of scientific adherents. A belief that the cosmos has (at least in part) an objective reality, and that humans have the ability to understand that reality, though incomplete it may be. A belief that, despite its many flaws, the scientific method of observation and experimentation allows us to build a confluence of evidence that brings to light an emergent truth. These are not controversial beliefs, and they are held by scientists all over the world, whether they be atheist or devout, and regardless of their political persuasion. Thus, evolution, global warming, and black holes are a part of that emergent truth. Like most scientists I believe them to be true, but it is a conditional belief, supported by the scientific evidence we currently have.
With the recent March on Science this weekend, there has been a great deal of discussion about science and politics. Is science inherently political? Should it be? Or should it strive to be neutral? Individually, scientists can be politically active, and many loudly proclaim their views. As debates over the science march and related issues have demonstrated, even scientists don’t agree on their politics. But one thing they do agree upon is that the cosmos has an objective reality, and humanity is best served when we listen to what that reality teaches us. To my mind, our political discussions should start with those lessons. We should start with a recognition of the scientific evidence we currently have. If we hold that to be common ground, our political debates will still be fierce, but they will lead to the betterment of us all.
At least that is what I believe.