I get so tired of people who science is nothing more than a belief, rather than a method to understand facts about the natural universe. I don’t believe in vaccines. I don’t believe in evolution. I don’t believe in climate change.
In each of those cases, and much more, I review and accept the scientific evidence that supports a scientific claim, whether it is that evolution is real, that climate change is caused by humans, or that vaccines don’t cause autism. No, I am not an evolutionary biologist (though it’s kind of hard to be a biologist without accepting evolution), a meteorologist, or a vaccine scientist. But I do know how to follow the science in an unbiased manner and I know who are the experts in fields which means science is not a belief to me, but facts supported by evidence.
I like to say that I don’t believe in anything. Not one thing. My statement is always “the evidence supports” any claim that I make. Now, I don’t apply this many other areas of my life. I don’t like Brussels sprouts, and the only evidence I have is that they taste like little pieces of poison. It’s an opinion, one that will not be changed, especially once I found out that Brussels sprouts are frequently cut in half to determine if there is a brood of disgusting worms in the middle. But I have zero scientific evidence supporting my claim that Brussels sprouts were created to destroy human civilization.
Let me get a bit into science and belief so that you understand what I’m trying to say. Because if one more anti-vaxxer claims that “vaccines are a religion based on belief,” I’m going to scream. Or when a creationist tries to claim I am an “evolutionist” trying to make it seem like evolution is merely another set of beliefs.
I am mostly writing this article because I get tired of replying to people that I “believe” in something in science. I keep repeating myself, so I can just drop a link to refute their nonsense. Of course, I’m assuming that they can read what’s in the link.
What is science?
I’ve written many times about what is and is not science. And it bears repeating because I still think a lot of people believe that science is some magical process that is handed down on expensive parchment published in an ivory tower hidden in a secret mountain in Canada.
So, let me give a 10-minute lecture on what is science.
Science is an evidence-based systematic analysis without inherent opinion, bias, or emotion to answer questions about the natural universe. In other words, it is a method to cut through opinions and anecdotal observations, to state facts and claims about what we observe.
We can tell science is not a belief because science is not dogmatic. It is self-correcting based on new and better evidence. All science is provisional — bring evidence and it might change the course of science.
We can also tell science is not a belief because it is unbiased. Science is a process of accumulating unbiased evidence to support or reject a claim.
It is important to note that science is binary — it is black or white. Either there is evidence to support a hypothesis or there is not. Of course, there are various levels of quality of evidence, so a hypothesis might only be supported by weak evidence.
Let’s go back to the hypothesis that “vaccines are linked to autism.” Scientific research, published in high-quality journals, is given much more weight as evidence. Thus, if I propose the hypothesis that “vaccines are not linked to autism,” it is supported by a boatload of powerful evidence. On the other hand, the alternate hypothesis,” vaccines are linked to autism,” is not supported by any credible, peer-reviewed, high-quality published papers.
The anti-vaxxers who claim that vaccines cause autism should present extraordinary evidence to support their extraordinary claims. Instead, they tried to shift the burden of proof to pro-vaccine scientists who did show that there are no links between autism and vaccines.
But all vaccine scientists are open-minded to the potential that evidence could be presented that establishes a link between vaccines and autism. But it cannot be done through a “vaccine debate,” it only can happen with real evidence in the form of clinical trials or large, high-quality observational studies.
But in case you didn’t know, let’s briefly outline the steps of the scientific method:
- Define the question – this could be anything from “does this compound affect this disease?” or “how does this disease progress?”
- Observations – this is the subjective part of science. Do we observe trends or anomalies? Does a physician notice that every patient from a town or neighborhood exhibits the same disease? A lot of science arises from observations of the natural world, and yes, some of those observations can be anecdotes or personal observations.
- Hypothesis – using the observations, create a hypothesis that can be tested. In Jenner’s case, he hypothesized that exposure to cowpox immunized individuals to smallpox.
- Experiment – simply, the scientist then tests the hypothesis with experiments and collects the data. The experiments are not designed to solely validate the hypothesis but may also attempt to refute it. In real science, attempting to nullify s own hypothesis is an honorable pursuit.
- Analyze – examining the results carefully, usually using acceptable statistical methods to determine if the hypothesis was supported or not.
- Interpret – sometimes the data leads to a revision of the hypothesis, which means the scientist has to return to steps 3-6. Or it confirms or supports the hypothesis, which means the researcher can move to Step 7.
- Publish – in today’s scientific community, scientific data and analysis are subject to the scrutiny of other scientists before they can be published, a process called “peer review.” This is a critical step that ensures that the results can stand up to the criticism from others.
- Retesting – many times the research is repeated by others, or the hypothesis may be slightly revised with additional data. Science is not static, it constantly revises theories as more data is gathered. For this reason alone, science is not absolute, it is constantly seeking new data.
It seems like hard work, doesn’t it? Absolutely, and like the old joke, “if it were easy, then everyone would be doing it.”
And in case you’re wondering about the opposite of science, you can read about pseudoscience, which does rely upon belief, magical thinking, and logical fallacies.
Why science is not a belief?
As you read above, scientifically testing a claim is hard work. But it is not a magical belief, it does not rely upon a suspension of logic and evidence; on the contrary, it’s all about logic and evidence.
The definition of “belief” has several definitions, all of which are not scientific:
- something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
- confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.
- confidence; faith; trust: a child’s belief in his parents.
- a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith.
Not a single one of those points could be included in the definition of science. Science is based on scientific consensus. Science is not a belief. Science is not an opinion or conviction. Science is susceptible to rigorous proof. Science is not based on confidence, faith, or trust. Science is not a religious tenet.
But I can hear the science deniers say, “I bet you haven’t read every single paper about vaccines, so you ‘trust and believe” in vaccines.”
Indeed, I haven’t read every single paper on vaccines. It is also true that I am not a vaccine scientist. But I have an extensive science background (educationally and professionally), and I have read enough papers (in a completely unbiased manner) to know that the safety and effectiveness of vaccines are settled science. My opinions on vaccines are not relevant, the body of overwhelming evidence is relevant, and that overwhelming evidence says vaccines are safe and effective.
However, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), a scientific body within the National Academy of Sciences (funded by the US Government and whose members are not compensated for their work for the organization) has written an extensive report about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
The NAM’s consensus statement is:
Vaccines offer the promise of protection against a variety of infectious diseases. Despite much media attention and strong opinions from many quarters, vaccines remain one of the greatest tools in the public health arsenal.
Certainly, some vaccines result in adverse effects that must be acknowledged. But the latest evidence shows that few adverse effects are caused by the vaccines reviewed in this report.
In my review of this report, written by experts with hundreds of thousands of hours of education, research, and publication, the science is clear – vaccines are very safe and very effective. And this is not a “belief” in vaccine science, it is based on rigorous and robust scientific facts.
I also love writing about evolution because it inspired my love of biology. I loved learning about how all organisms evolved. I loved learning about how organisms adapted to particular environmental niches. I loved reading about the discoveries of fossils that built the human family tree.
No, I have not read every paper about evolution. But evolutionary biologists, as a whole, have probably read all those papers, and they haconcludedion that evolution is an observed fact, and that the theory of evolution accurately describes how evolution works.
The same can be said about climate change, the germ theory of disease, and many many other scientific ideas. None of this science is a “belief” to me — it is fact.
So please stop trying to convince yourself, or me for that matter, that science is a religious belief. It is not. It is based on scientific evidence that has been repeated over and over. It has been analyzed by dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of expert scientists across the world.
And as I have been known to say, if you don’t like the scientific consensus or settled science, then get up off the couch, quit watching dumb YouTube videos, get a college degree in a science, then get a Ph.D. in a scientific field, do real research in a world-class scientific laboratory, and publish research that disputes the consensus. Then go to scientific meetings and stand up to criticism or praise.
But using your Google University degree to claim that you know more than this old dinosaur, an accomplished physician, or a world-renowned scientist is laughable. It’s not that I have a belief in science, it’s that the science denier disbelieves the science for magical reasons, not as a result of evidence.
I know this is all hard work. Sorry about that. But don’t diminish those of us who did perform the hard work to understand all of this by saying we believe in science.