Saturday, December 20, 2014

'Belief' in evolution? It may be the wrong word

When the contestants in the Miss USA pageant last week were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, many volunteered that they either "believed" or "didn't believe" in the concept. Some scientists were not impressed, saying the use of the word belief as applied to evolution confused science with faith and discounted evolution's central role in biology.

‘Belief’ in evolution? It may be the wrong word

TONY AUTH / The Philadelphia Inquirer (tauth@phillynews.com)
TONY AUTH / The Philadelphia Inquirer (tauth@phillynews.com)

When the contestants in the Miss USA pageant last week were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, many volunteered that they either "believed" or "didn't believe" in the concept.

"I don't believe in evolution," said Miss Alabama. "They should teach both sides since some people believe in evolution and some people believe in creation," said Miss Arizona. "It's something people believe in," said Miss Florida. "I believe in evolution ... and I like to believe in, like, the big bang theory," said Miss California, who won the crown.

Some scientists were not impressed, saying the use of the word belief as applied to evolution confused science with faith and discounted evolution's central role in biology.

And though some opponents of N.J. Gov. Christie have wagged their fingers at a nonanswer he gave on evolution last May, scientists are sympathetic. At a news conference, Christie was asked whether he "believed in evolution or the theory of creationism," according to the Star-Ledger. "That's none of your business," he retorted, which may not have won him the title of Mr. Congeniality. Yet some thought it was a reasonable response, considering the question.

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Academics differ in their beliefs about the word belief. A number of them agree, however, that it can have multiple meanings and is often misconstrued, having the same denigrating effect on evolution as the much-misunderstood word theory.

"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."

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.'"

Others had less trouble with this locution. Darwin himself discussed the beliefs of his scientific colleagues in either creationism or evolution, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.

And scientists today use the word all the time, said University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman, author of the blog "Language Log." Just a quick search of some journal headlines revealed: "Do we still believe in the dopamine hypothesis? New data bring new evidence"; "Three reasons not to believe in the autism epidemic"; and "Seven (and a half) reasons to believe in Mirror Matter: From neutrino puzzles to the inferred Dark matter in the Universe."

And yet, as these examples show, 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."

He said other established areas of science aren't talked about this way. "Certainly plate tectonics isn't. Atomic theory isn't. Quantum mechanics isn't. Each of these is as important to their respective disciplines as evolution is to biology."

And yet, evolution is still widely discussed in the general public as a matter of belief.

Penn philosopher of science Michael Weisberg said the ambiguous use of belief can have a corrosive effect similar to that of the word theory, which in science has a specific meaning but has been wrongly used not only to make evolution look speculative, but also to dismiss its breadth and scope.

Ted Daeschler, associate director of vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences, said it was frustrating to see evolution talked about as "just a theory" or "a matter of belief," since these phrases obscure the central role evolution plays in the life sciences. "It actually unifies all fields of biological sciences and makes them make sense," he said. "It's not just this idea that human beings came from apes."

Daeschler said he sympathized with Christie when questioned on his belief in evolution or creationism. "It's a terrible question," he said.

In contrast, some did like the question posed to the Miss USA hopefuls. "The question offers the opportunity to demonstrate the kind of breadth (knowledge of history, culture, and science) that college graduates are expected to have, but often do not," said Eric Plutzer, political science professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Not all the contestants were necessarily college grads, but their answers were nevertheless revealing.

Some addressed the teaching of evolution as a revolutionary notion that had never been tried. "I think it's a great idea," said Miss Delaware. "People will have an issue with it," opined Miss Utah.

Most tried to advocate a middle ground by approving of the teaching of evolution along with "the other side," or "creationism," or "other theories," or "belief in faith."

A few clearly advocated teaching evolution, however. Miss Vermont did so, and went on to say evolution was relevant to the way bacteria were becoming resistant to "drugs and whatnot."

Others deflected. Miss Indiana said, perhaps wisely, that this might be a better issue for the government to work out than the contestants in a beauty pageant.

Which was surprisingly close to Christie's answer to a follow-up question. Asked if creationism should be taught in New Jersey schools, he, too, said it should be left up to governments - just not the level of government he happens to occupy.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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