It is wonderful to see articles and essays explaining the basics of science, especially in reference to religion and superstition. This one, titled “I Want to Believe: What Skepticism Reveals about Science“, is written by Michael Shermer and appears in the latest issue of Scientific American. You are encouraged to go read the whole thing.
What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide… I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know. I believe that the truth is out there. But how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.
Science is a method, not a set of dogmatic beliefs. As Shermer explains, “Science begins with the null hypothesis, which assumes that the claim under investigation is not true until demonstrated otherwise. [...] The null hypothesis means that the burden of proof is on the person asserting a positive claim, not on the skeptics to disprove it.” Of course, as he points out above, many people choose to see evidence where none exist because they have an emotional drive to believe. Or they wedge the supernatural into scientific gaps, assuming that “if science cannot explain X, then [the supernatural] explanation for X is necessarily true.”
This is where the understanding of science gets a little murky. Shermer continues:
To be fair, not all claims are subject to laboratory experiments and statistical tests. Many historical and inferential sciences require nuanced analyses of data and a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that point to an unmistakable conclusion. Just as detectives employ the convergence of evidence technique to deduce who most likely committed a crime, scientists employ the method to determine the likeliest explanation for a particular phenomenon. Cosmologists reconstruct the history of the universe by integrating data from cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, spectroscopy, general relativity and quantum mechanics. [...] Once an inferential or historical science is well established through the accumulation of positive evidence, however, it is just as sound as a laboratory or experimental science.
This is why the Theory of Evolution is so compelling…although we cannot observe all the mechanics of evolution happening in real time, the mountain of positive, harmonized evidence over multiple domains of study allows for a high degree of confidence, especially since the theory allows for testable predictions. And yet, the null hypothesis is still out there, waiting…the moment we find a reliable fossil of a dinosaur with the remains of a homo sapiens in its belly, science will admit that it’s time to go back to the drawing board. But—and this is where many theists get lost—it is not up to science to disprove that that fossil exists, or that God exists in our knowledge gaps, or that invisible pink unicorns roam the forests. Until positive evidence is given, there is no reason, other than emotional desire, to consider them to be true.
Shermer sums it up nicely:
Which one you choose depends on your tolerance for ambiguity and how much you want to believe. For me, I remain in sublime awe of the great Unknown.