• Sean O'Leary

Believe in Science?

In 2017, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) launched the 'Believe In Science' campaign to promote the potential that science and discovery offer for Ireland. The 'Believe In Science' campaign showcases SFI’s work in partnership with the research community to share a mutual passion for science with the public, promoting an understanding of the ability of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to create positive change in the world.

SFI is the statutory body in Ireland that funds research in STEM which promotes and assists the development and competitiveness of industry, enterprise and employment in Ireland. The Foundation also promotes and supports STEM education and creates awareness and understanding of the value of STEM to society and to the growth of the economy.

Science is both a body of knowledge and a process of discovery that helps us to form a coherent and comprehensive knowledge base for understanding the natural world. Science follows a systematic methodology for investigating the material world by building upon existing evidence. In the real world, science will always be incomplete in the sense that our scientific knowledge is constantly being refined and updated as new knowledge comes to light.

The use of phrases, such as ‘I believe in science’ have become politicised in recent years. Such sentiments are sometimes used by politicians who wish to express their allegiance to progressive viewpoints particularly in debates concerning socially divisive issues. It can be used as a dismissive way of evading criticisms from those who support traditional or religious values. This is unfortunate as science itself should be a value-free process.

Hilary Clinton famously used the phrase 'I believe in science' during an election speech in 2016. It is unusual that a politician in the modern era should feel the need to express support for science. It seems obvious that such statements mean much more than the simple expression itself. However, it could be damaging to the whole project of science if the statement came to represent a social or political identity rather than expressing respect for academic rigour and genuine intellectual exploration.

Science is incredibly beneficial to society and extremely useful for improving our understanding of the universe, the natural world and our own lives. Yet, science is an extremely complex human activity encompassing diverse fields of investigation that are subject to rapid change. It cannot be judged in a simple sentence. The statement ‘Believe in Science’ suggests an adherence to the naive doctrine that all science is useful or true.

I believe that science is a powerful, rational and limited method for evaluating and gaining knowledge. However, many people hold different beliefs about science. Current research programmes using a Belief in Science Scale (BISS) investigate belief in the institution of science by exploring different attitudes to science ranging from rejection of the scientific approach through acceptance of the reliability of science to the belief that science provides exclusive insights into reality. Belief in science is multi-faceted.

It is important to note that belief in science may be associated with positive psychological outcomes but so can belief in other forms of knowledge. Research suggests that belief in science requires trust and confidence in scientific processes and findings. However, higher belief in science is related to the dismissal of non-scientific forms of knowledge. Therefore, on the surface it is unclear what exactly the appeal ‘Believe in Science’ means.

It could be that expressing a belief in science is a short-cut to countering the rise of science denial in the modern world. There are people who deny existing science in important areas, such as vaccination or climate change. This is a real world problem. However, it is unlikely that this is something that can be remedied by public appeals to believe in science.

It is critical that we fully understand the underlying science before we ever attempt to pronounce on its veracity. Not all science is applied appropriately. A poignant example here is the eugenics movement of the 20th Century, which sought to limit the reproductive rights (or even terminate the lives) of individuals who were perceived as less ‘fit’. This was an unfortunate and horrific consequence of mis-understanding Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. It is clear that any worldview that acts only on scientific findings is tainted by a lack of ethics.

The reach of science is limited and does not include valuable ethical considerations. If the phrase ‘believe in science’ is interpreted as denigrating non-scientific ideas, this could lead to a diminishing of valuable societal ideals. Not all good ideas are scientific and not all scientific ideas are good. Many non-scientific ideals provide the key to our humanity, such as beauty, love and goodness. To ignore other forms of knowledge in favour of science is to place science firmly on the path of authoritarianism.

A Cambridge English Dictionary definition of belief is ‘the feeling of being certain that something exists or is true’. This does not relate to science. Of course, I’m certain that science exists though I must admit that I’m not always certain that scientific findings are true. Sometimes, more evidence is needed and sometimes wider societal issues need to be carefully considered. The campaign label 'Believe in Science' does not appear to do justice to the critical role that legitimate scepticism plays in the process of science.

I believe in God though I'm keenly aware that I don't understand God. That's why faith is so important but my faith is not without reason. My faith is rational and harmonises well with the discoveries of science.

This is one of the reasons why I'm passionate about the growing dialogue between science and religion. To quote Saint John Paul II: 'Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes'. Anything that has the potential to reshape our values requires serious dialogue. And so, I wholeheartedly believe in the value of dialogue.

Using the campaign label ‘Believe in Science’ as a shorthand label for believing ‘in the ability of STEM to effect positive change in the world and drive a sustainable international economy’ is unwarranted. For instance, it would also be inappropriate to shorten the sentence ‘we believe in the ability of airplanes to drive international tourism’ to the label ‘believe in airplanes’.

Science is difficult and complex. It requires hard work and dedication. It requires a sensitivity to truth. The appeal that we should 'Believe in Science' is akin to sentimental hyperbole and does not do justice to the tradition of science. I applaud the aims of the campaign but question the use of such a misleading title by a state agency.

Despite my misgivings, I am inclined to agree with the sentiments expressed by the famous biologist and naturalist Charles Darwin in a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray in which he wrote: ‘Let each man hope and believe what he can’.

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