The Science of Belief

I didn’t forget you all, honest: I’ve been working on this for three days. It’s not worth the wait, and yesterday I read that “science” is only 400 years old, which sent me to the dictionary, where I learn that science is “the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” (Apparently I learned this from the Oxford dictionary.) So when I say “science,” I really mean the structure and behavior (on this side of the pond) of the physical and natural world.

Chemistry orbitals illustrated. Yeah, I don’t know what it means, either.

While it probably matters to scientists themselves, I’ll bet science itself doesn’t care if you deny it or not.

This is the conclusion I have just reached, which has probably taken me 50 years longer than it should have to get. It ought to be obvious to 9-year-olds, although perhaps it’s not, given how many out there are still in denial about the very existence of science.

Let me just say up front that I was a dreadful science student. I don’t believe I ever conducted a successful experiment in my entire school career; I did not impress my eighth-grade earth science teacher in the least when I did a report on Houdini (I can’t tell you even now how that had something to do with science); I impressed my sophomore biology teacher even less with a written report rather than the insect collection I was supposed to have tendered; something something P and S orbitals from chemistry; and before college I borrowed a book from my sophomore biology teacher and passed a College Level Examination Program test to get out of six hours of college science.

So while I have never denied science, I have done a lot of ignoring of it. But you know what? As I just figured out today, science doesn’t care. It’s just going to go on about its business, whether I believe, or ignore, it or not.

Don’t believe the world is billions of years old? Science doesn’t care. It’s just going to keep shifting its tectonic plates (which were a “new” thing in my sixth grade science book), lifting up mountains, dropping others, letting water in here, draining it there.

I watched, more than once, some Tom Selleck movie, a period piece where he was a pilot (High Road to China? maybe?), and this is what I remember from it: “The oxen are slow, but the Earth is patient.”

Science is doing a lot of this so slowly that we don’t see it, so maybe we don’t believe it. We probably all believe in volcanoes, even if the volcanoes don’t need our belief, because whether it’s baking soda and vinegar or molten lava spewed from deep within the Earth (or wherever you might want to believe it comes from), that’s all pretty dramatically visible.

These days science is making it pretty obvious to the volcano-observant eye that those climate scientists we chose not to believe for so many decades might have been onto something after all. I bet the scientists’ feelings might have been hurt to not be believed, but the science itself didn’t care, plodding along at an ox-like pace until suddenly the oxen got spooked and started running, running so fast we could barely believe it except that all our basements were flooding.

[When I say “all,” I’m not being literal — yet — since Gunnison still has dry basements. But Colorado had floods where we least expected them just a few short years ago, and the other day I read about a man in Michigan who is tired of his basement having a 500-year-event every year, and twice this year. I didn’t even have Midwestern flooding on my radar.]

Then of course there are invisible viruses, most obviously the one we’re in the throes of arguing about whether to believe in or not. I have read at least two columns by different nurses, kind of scolding in tone (“Are you trying to get out of bed again, Mr. Jones?”), taking readers to task for calling this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Their basic premise, right before they essentially go on to excoriate the unvaccinated, is that the virus isn’t specifically targeting anyone, and people are not our enemy. “The virus doesn’t care,” all of these articles state, but then — and I hope I don’t ruin the ending for you — it turns out the best way to defeat this uncaring, unthinking virus is to get vaccinated. Because the vaccinated aren’t nearly as sick, nor as dead, as the unvaccinated, suggesting that perhaps it is, currently a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

[If your font and type size change right here, it is WordPress’ fault.]

But the nurses are right: the virus doesn't care, and while we mere mortals care a lot, we can't seem to agree on what exactly to care about. So there's a lot of shouting, but none of that is advancing science.

The one science I did like, and took three classes in, stopping before we got to the "physics" portion of astrophysics, was astronomy, although now all I can remember is my animated professor imitating car noises on the freeway to demonstrate red shift, whatever that is, and Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me, which is how you remember the star classifications (ours is an M -- not really, now that Fred has corrected me: we're a G). That's not a lot from three semesters worth of learning.


But through the study of history of the study of astronomy, we have vivid examples of how science just doesn't give a crap whether you believe in it or not. As Europe was horrified by Copernicus, who had the audacity to suggest that Earth was not the very center of an extremely limited universe, our little globe just went right on orbiting our M (G)-class sun, one of any number of celestial bodies doing this same thing, even as our sun is one of uncounted illions, no first letters yet available, in this galaxy alone, which is one of probably another illion or two. It was happening, whether Europeans believed it or not.

Then there's the new science issue, perhaps not right up there with climate and disease, although it does go right to the very groin of the survival of the American species: spermicide.

I’d seen a few headlines recently, but only got a real explanation — which you are free to believe or not — the other night on a comedy show, the newly-returned Daily Show. Correspondent Dulce Sloan looked into the issue of declining American sperm.

She went to a sperm bank, where an official noted one donation used to result in six viable vials, but now they get only three, with many of the sperm lacking motility (fewer swimmers in the sample). Then she spoke with one of those sciencey types who explained how they can measure reduced testosterone levels in males, noting that Europe bans 1,100 chemicals for use in personal-care products, while the U.S. bans 11.

While some people will believe that 1 + 1 = 2, because science (and math) say so, some other large number, probably compromised largely of young, not-so-virile men, will dispute this notion, loudly and angrily, and protest any regulation — but they will buy some testosterone supplement as seen on late-night TV because their friends on Facebook recommended it.

Science won’t care. It will just continue on, as it has.

Maybe people taking action can change things already set in motion — a warming planet, the trajectory of a lethal virus, the declining state of American sperm — but we’d have to all be believers. And in that, science is apparently asking too much of us puny humans.

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