But is science just another belief system?


It’s sometimes suggested that science is just something else to believe in. Like religion or astrology. Scientists can seem to be close-minded and dogmatic, rejecting anything that challenges their beliefs.

But what is a belief?

You can find many definitions but essentially it’s something that someone has decided in their heart to be true.

I believe life is beautiful.

I believe in angels.

I believe in reincarnation.

Someone who believes the above doesn’t need to go through the scientific method to decide that it’s true. It’s based on a feeling, an intuition, a vision. No one puts the world’s religions into a spreadsheet to go through all the pros and cons of each to see which is best.

The thing about belief, however, is that it’s mostly indifferent to evidence.

Some Christians in the US believe the world is between 6000 and 12000 years old – they added up the ages of everyone in the Bible. You could sit them down for a month in front of a projector and run slideshows about geology, dinosaurs and evolution but they wouldn’t change their minds.

Admittedly, sometimes scientists can be just as stubborn. It takes time for paradigms to change and sometimes there’s resistance.

Ever noticed how the continents of the world look like they fit together like a big jigsaw?

In 1922, Alfred Wegener published in English The Origin of Continents and Oceans suggesting just that. He proposed that once all the continents had been joined together and had since drifted apart. Scientists practically lined up to make fun of him and his ‘delirious ravings’. It didn’t help that he was German and this was just after the First World War.

It was only in the 1960’s (when many of the old guard of geologists had died off) that Wegener was shown to have been right. That’s why it’s sometimes said that science progresses one funeral at a time.

But that’s not because of a problem with science. It’s a problem with humans. We’re often vain, stubborn and opinionated. We don’t like to be wrong.

The truth came out in the end, however, because of that superpower that scientists have: the ability to change their minds when better evidence comes along.

Science isn’t a collection of beliefs, it’s a collection of ideas based on evidence. And it’s challenged, discussed, debated, criticized and reevaluated on a regular basis. As Wegener himself said when he was warned not to publish his book:

“Why should we hesitate to toss the old views overboard?”

Science isn’t a perfect system but it’s the best one we have.



Further reading:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-continental-drift-was-considered-pseudoscience-90353214/ – the story of Alfred Wegener and how he was mocked for his ideas by scientists of his day.

https://theconversation.com/yes-there-is-a-war-between-science-and-religion-108002 – on the conflict between science and religion in the modern world.