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Rachel’s Question

Understanding the difference between scientific theory and belief

By John J. Zywar ’73

Credit: Guy Billout

“Do you believe in the big bang theory?” my high school freshman niece Rachel asked. We were waiting in line to enter the planetarium at Boston’s Museum of Science. Educated in a southern Christian school, Rachel’s question had as much to do with religion as it did with science.

The answer came quickly from my daughter, Sandra, a theater and visual art major at Marietta College in Ohio. “The big bang is a scientific theory,” she explained to Rachel. “In science, you don’t believe things. You judge whether the theory is supported by observations. You cannot believe in a theory.”

It seems that so often engineers, scientists, and science educators try to argue that the observations are so compelling that we should believe that a theory has been proven scientifically as a fact. The argument in favor of believing that evolution or the big bang is a scientific fact often takes this form. The media supports the fallacy of promoting scientific facts. It is a scientific fact that dark chocolate is good for you. It is a scientific fact that most Americans are obese. Even such an honored venue of science reporting as PBS’s NOVA often uses the scientific fact format as in “We now know that…(insert scientific fact)” when they really mean to say “Observations now support the theory that…(insert scientific theory).” What becomes of our scientific facts when new observations inconsistent with the theory come to light? Too often the old scientific fact is just replaced by the new scientific fact.

When people protest against an IMAX movie on deep-sea vents because it promotes evolution, it is evident that President Jackson’s comments are true that “we must engage…not only to see the fun of science, but also to understand what science is, what a scientific theory is — as opposed to a belief.” [President’s View, “Where Science Meets Society, Spring 2005 Rensselaer magazine.]

As my daughter concluded, it is the nature of Rachel’s question that needs to be understood — not the answer to the question. Rachel’s question as stated can only be answered in a personal or religious context, not in a scientific context. Because of the deep-seated religious beliefs held by science opponents on particular theories such as evolution and the origin of the universe, we might be better off using a less controversial example of a scientific theory. Sandra’s choice would be to ask the question:

“Do you believe in gravity?”

We can observe the effects of gravity as Galileo did. We can measure these effects. We can develop a mathematical theory as Newton did.

The scientific question could be, “Is Newton’s theory of gravitation consistent with observations?”

My answer to the scientific question is “In physics lab at RPI, I recorded observational measurements that were consistent with Newton’s law of gravitation. Others took observations and they were also consistent.”

That is such an unsatisfying answer to a person looking for a definitive insight into the nature of gravity. We crave a simple certain answer. But by the very nature of science, it is the best that science can do. And when you think about it, it is not a bad answer. It is the scientific truth.

When we encounter the questions “do you believe in intelligent design?” or “do you believe in creation theory?”, let’s be sure we do not answer these questions in the context of science because, as President Jackson points out, intelligent design is not “rooted in experimental results.” They may be questions of interest to be pondered in a philosophy class but as they are stated, they are not questions that are rooted in science. And so, Sandra’s answer also applies to these questions.

So… do you believe in gravity?

John Zywar ’73 is a senior financial analyst for Saint-Gobain Corporation in Worcester, Mass.

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