So give me something to believe

be⋅lieve /bɪˈliv/
verb, -lieved, -liev⋅ing.

    –verb (used without object)

  1. to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so: Only if one believes in something can one act purposefully.
    –verb (used with object)
  2. to have confidence or faith in the truth of (a positive assertion, story, etc.); give credence to.
  3. to have confidence in the assertions of (a person).
  4. to have a conviction that (a person or thing) is, has been, or will be engaged in a given action or involved in a given situation: The fugitive is believed to be headed for the Mexican border.
  5. to suppose or assume; understand (usually fol. by a noun clause): I believe that he has left town.

I caught the end of The Sky at Night last night. Just the end though, I missed almost all of it. Unfortunately it’s not on iPlayer — a pity, as it looked quite interesting, focussing on SETI and possible alien life. Only one thing marred it for me…

Chris Lintott was interviewing a woman (whose name I missed) involved in SETI about the possibility of alien life. As a closing question to his interview he asked a, not unreasonable, question about whether she thought there was life out there? Instead of giving a simple honest opinion, she gave a rather cumbersome response about how what she believes is irrelevant because belief is a word that belongs in religion and not science.

Now I’m sorry, but this obstinate anti-religious stance many scientists seem to wear as a badge of honour irks me enough (even if in some cases, it’s understandably borne of frustration), but to declare a word off limits because of possible connotations is simply ridiculous! I genuinely think it was unnecessary to raise the subject here. It’s not even like the word faith. To “have faith” certainly has religious connotations. For a scientist to be asked if he/she “has faith in extraterrestrial life”, fair enough, that would a misuse of a word. To ask what you believe is not. Given the statistical probabilities involved, and the incredible odds of a planet forming with life on it only once across the entire Universe — I believe there is probably extraterrestrial life out there. But I don’t place faith in it.

People out there can bicker amongst each other all they want, for all I care — but let’s please not deface the English language as a consequence of being dogmatic!

When all is said and done, I have a lot of respect for her and the science she does. But come on. Everyone needs to believe in something!

“One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out ‘Don’t you believe in anything?’
‘Yes’, I said. ‘I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.'”

— Isaac Asimov

Oh, and for the record, “dogma” has more religious connotations than “belief”.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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5 Responses to So give me something to believe

  1. Anonymous says:

    I might blog about it soon, but on the whole I suspect your audience is a little more scientifically orientated – my audience just likes good sunsets! It would be interesting to compare results one day though.

  2. invaderxan says:

    Now that certainly is an interesting question! Thanks for the suggestion — I’ll add it to my list of ‘interesting stuff to write about’. :)

  3. Anonymous says:

    I look forward to a few more articles about this! I find the subject fascinating.
    If you don’t mind me suggesting something, how about “Is the SETI a science?” or something along those lines? It’s an interesting question. In my own view, it isn’t, but nevertheless something that should be funded.

  4. invaderxan says:

    I guess I just find the whole skeptics vs religion things rather tiresome, especially when it doesn’t always seem to even be relevant or necessary. Raising the issue of religion certainly seemed irrelevant to the interview; less relevant than the word believe which, on watching a repeat of the episode, was not even used by Chris Lintott in the question. On the other hand, an opinion on the probability of extraterrestrial civillisations would have made for a much better end to the interview.
    By the by, the lady was Jill Tarter, of the SETI institute, and don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for her. Working at SETI, she’s probably used to having to fend off said kooks. :)
    All the same, I do see your point, and it is sadly necessary to safeguard against the nutcases (even journalists have told me this in the past. I think it boils down to the abuse that words like “believe” have had to endure. I guess one could argue that I believe in the English language. :P
    One use that springs to mind is NASA’s David Grinspoon (quoting from memory):

    “I believe there could be life there. I’m not saying I believe there is, but I believe it’s possible.”

    Actually, I’ve been meaning on writing a couple of articles based around the same subject he was talking about. Watch this space!
    …If you’ll pardon the pun. ;)

  5. Anonymous says:

    A very interesting read, I’m surprised there have been no comments.
    Having been involved in one or two scepticism-based organisations over the years, I am very careful with the phrase “I believe”. Nevertheless, I understand your point of view.
    Consider, though:
    “Do you believe in the death sentence?”. I certainly do, it would be silly for me to say otherwise. “Do you agree with the death sentence?” The answer is a resounding “no”.
    “Do you believe in extra-terrestrial life?”. My answer would be no. “Do you think there is extra-terrestrial life?”. My answer would be yes. “Do you believe in UFOs?”. Yes. “Do you believe that we are being visited by aliens?”. No. “Do you believe in flying saucers?”. No.
    All I’m trying to say is that you have to be careful with the phrase “I believe”. It can lead you into trouble!
    I haven’t seen the Sky at Night episode you watched, so can’t really comment on that myself, but suspect the lady being interviewed had similar thoughts to mine (I suspect I know who she is). If it’s what I think, she didn’t want to provide quotable material that the kooks could manipulate and possibly destroy her reputation and the project via insinuation.
    I might be completely wrong of course, but no matter, a very interesting read!
    PS. Feel free to delete my previous comments which seem to have been formatted by hell itself. Do I believe in hell…?

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