A couple days ago the Times ran a much-debated story about Marcus S. Ross, a young-earth creationist who completed a PhD in geosciences at the University of Rhode Island. Apparently his thesis was a perfectly-legitimate study of marine reptiles that (as he writes in the thesis) went extinct 65 million years ago. Ross merely disavows the entire materialistic paradigm of which his thesis is a part.
If you want some long, acrimonious flamewars about whether the guy’s PhD should be revoked, whether oral exams should now include declarations of (non)faith, whether Ross is a walking illustration of Searle’s Chinese Room experiment, etc., try here and here. Alas, most of the commentary strikes me as missing a key point: that to give a degree to a bozo like this, provided he indeed did the work, can only reflect credit on the scientific enterprise. Will Ross now hit the creationist lecture circuit, trumpeting his infidel credentials to the skies? You better believe it. Will he use the legitimacy conferred by his degree to fight against everything the degree stands for? It can’t be doubted.
But here’s the wonderful thing about science: unlike the other side, we don’t need loyalty oaths in order to function. We don’t need to peer into people’s souls to see if they truly believe (A or not(A)), or just assume it for practical purposes. We have enough trouble getting people to understand our ideas — if they also assent to them, that’s just an added bonus.
In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo had his Salviati character carefully demolish the arguments for Ptolemaic astronomy — only to concede, in the final pages, that Ptolemaic astronomy must obviously be true anyway, since the church said it was true. Mr. G, of course, was just trying to cover his ass. The point, though, is that his ploy didn’t work: the church understood as well as he did that the evidence mattered more than the conclusions, and therefore wisely arrested him. (I say “wisely” because the church was, of course, entirely correct to worry that a scientific revolution would erode its temporal power.)
To say that science is about backing up your claims with evidence doesn’t go far enough — it would be better to say that the evidence is the claim. So for example, if you happen to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, you’re more than welcome to “believe” the Hypothesis is nevertheless false, just as you’re welcome to write up your proof in encrusted boogers or lecture about it wearing a live gerbil as a hat. Indeed, you could do all these things and still not be the weirdest person to have solved a Clay Millennium Problem. Believing your proof works can certainly encourage other people to read it, but strictly speaking is no more necessary than the little QED box at the end.
The reason I’m harping on this is that, in my experience, laypeople consistently overestimate the role of belief in science. Thus the questions I constantly get asked: do I believe the many-worlds interpretation? Do I believe the anthropic principle? Do I believe string theory? Do I believe useful quantum computers will be built? Never what are the arguments for and against: always what do I believe?
To explain why “belief” questions often leave me cold, I can’t do better than to quote the great Rabbi Sagan.
I’m frequently asked, “Do you believe there’s extraterrestrial intelligence?” I give the standard arguments — there are a lot of places out there, the molecules of life are everywhere, I use the word billions, and so on. Then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it.
Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”
I say, “I just told you what I really think.”
“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”
But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.
In my view, science is fundamentally not about beliefs: it’s about results. Beliefs are relevant mostly as the heuristics that lead to results. So for example, it matters that David Deutsch believes the many-worlds interpretation because that’s what led him to quantum computing. It matters that Ed Witten believes string theory because that’s what led him to … well, all the mindblowing stuff it led him to. My beef with quantum computing skeptics has never been that their beliefs are false; rather, it’s that their beliefs almost never seem to lead them to new results.
I hope nobody reading this will mistake me for a woo-woo, wishy-washy, Kuhn-wielding epistemic terrorist. (Some kind of intellectual terrorist, sure, but not that kind.) Regular readers of this blog will aver that I do have beliefs, and plenty of them. In particular, I don’t merely believe evolution is good science; I also believe it’s true. But as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the reason evolution is good science is not that it’s true, but rather that it does nontrivial explanatory work. Even supposing creationism were true, it would still be too boring to qualify as science — as even certain creationists hunting for a thesis topic seem to agree.
Or anyway, that’s what I believe.