A blog about belief

Believing in evolution

In Philosophy, Science on June 29, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Via Language Log: A Philadelphia Inquirer article questioning whether “Do you believe in evolution?” (asked of Miss USA contestants) is the right question to be asking.

“I have attempted, largely through spurring on from several colleagues . . . to never use the word belief in talks,” said Arizona State University physicist and writer Lawrence Krauss.

“One is asked: Does one believe in global warming, or evolution, and the temptation is to answer yes,” he said, “but it’s like saying you believe in gravity or general relativity.”

“Science is not like religion, in that it doesn’t merely tell a story … one that one can choose to believe or not.”

I agree that what science asks of us is not belief and that talk in those terms can therefore be misleading, but I don’t think this means that the concept is inapplicable to scientific claims. To believe something (a proposition, a story, etc.) is to be in a condition in which one is compelled to act on its implications, which can, but which doesn’t necessarily have to be a consequence of holding the thing to be true. In many cases, I think that it’s good to believe (in this sense) the things that science tells us, in addition to knowing them in the way appropriate to scientific claims. Do I myself believe in the theory of evolution? I would say that I do, since I care about it and am willing to incur costs in order to defend it politically. It’s just that “it’s good to believe this” is a non-trivial statement, and one that’s outside of science’s domain.

As a result, it might indeed be best that science avoid referring to belief in its public face. This does not, however, mean that science education should have nothing to do with belief. Education is about the formation of persons, not just the transfer of information, and an important part of the schoolteacher’s job is to encourage students to develop an active interest in whatever subject they teach. This doesn’t mean that schools can try to force all students to believe in the value of science, but at least they have the responsibility of making sure that the beliefs students end up with are based on correct information.

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