Faye Flam is coming into her own as the evolution-centered science columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column, which deals largely but not wholly with human evolution, is called Planet of the Apes. And her latest piece, “Belief in evolution? It may be the wrong word” takes off from some of the answers given by Miss USA contestants when asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, especially the many responses that mentioned (either pro or con) a “belief” in evolution.
Flam interviews scientists and skeptics like Lawrence Krauss, Ted Daeschler, Michael Shermer, and Glenn Branch (deputy director of the National Center for Science Education). All of them pretty much agree that the term “belief”, while having a useful function in science, shouldn’t be applied to a concept as well established as evolution:
[Krauss]: “Science is not like religion, in that it doesn’t merely tell a story … one that one can choose to believe or not.”
Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, also disapproves of the word belief as applied to science. “You might say, ‘I believe in democracy’ or ‘I believe in gay marriage,’” said Shermer, author of the book The Believing Brain. “But it is not reasonable to say ‘I believe in evolution,’ because this would be like saying ‘I believe in gravity.’” . . .
. . . scientists tend to use the word belief to be synonymous with a suspicion, or hunch, when more definitive evidence is lacking.
A recent issue of the journal Science includes a story about a scientist who believes a virus causes mad cow disease (the orthodox view blames an infectious protein called a prion). She believes it now because she hasn’t found such a virus. If she does, its existence will no longer be a mere matter of belief.
Others use the word belief in areas where different types of measurements arrive at disparate answers, which has happened in the quest to date the split between the chimp and human lineages. A type of DNA analysis called a “molecular clock” indicates a somewhat more recent split than is shown by the fossil record. So for now, some believe the DNA and some believe the bones.
Physicist Krauss agrees that scientists tend to use belief when they lack definitive evidence – as in “do you believe black holes exist and have a singularity?”
It’s fair enough to apply the word to ideas that are still being debated within the scientific community, said Gregory Petsko, a biologist at Brandeis University. But as ideas become established, the word belief no longer applies.
“How we talk about things has a lot to do with how we think about them,” he said, “and believe is the wrong word to use in reference to evolution.”
This is one case where I think we do need to be careful of our language, for using the word “belief”, in front of those on the fence, might imply that evolution has an epistemological status similar to that of religion. And while I do use the words “belief in evolution” as shorthand with my colleagues, who know what I mean, I bite my tongue when I’m about to say that in public. My preferred phrase is that “I accept evolution.”
Anyway, kudos for Flam for using a popular newspaper column to make a serious point.