Some while ago I was a member of a science-oriented online group.  I noticed that many of the people in this group seemed to treat science as a sort of religion, rather than as an intellectual pursuit.  I especially noticed that there were many unkind comments directed against people who believed – or claimed to believe – that the Earth was flat.  Most of these comments were simply ridicule.  They did not offer any evidence to show that the Earth was spherical.

I commented on this.  I claimed that most of us would not be able to demonstrate to someone that the Earth is actually spherical, based solely on what we personally could offer as evidence.  I pointed out that we all had to take much of our scientific knowledge on faith.

The reaction to my comment was vehement but not surprising.  Hardly anyone addressed the points I raised.  Most went on about how there are photographs and travelers who have gone around the world, and so on.  All true, but not what one personally can demonstrate.

A large number of people just insulted me for being stupid, believing in a flat Earth, how I was ignorant, yadda-yadda-yadda.  They were insulting me as they insulted anyone else who believed in a flat Earth.  They failed to notice that I had clearly stated in my comment that I agreed that the Earth was spherical.

The vehement response was evidence of my claim – that many people in this group treated science as a religion or faith.  I call this “scientism,” following this definition:

excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.

My comment had struck at their religion.  Their reaction was mostly emotional and irrational.  I was an infidel and needed to be punished.  Or something.  My original point had gotten lost in the uproar.

That the Earth is spherical was known to the ancient Greeks.  Throughout much of history, educated people have known that the Earth was not flat.  Columbus did not prove that the Earth was round.  That was already known.  But I still could not personally demonstrate to someone that the Earth was spherical.  I couldn’t even demonstrate it to myself.

I have to accept this fact, without proof.  I’ve seen the photos and heard about people circumnavigating the Earth.  I’ve seen images taken from space; seen how ships seem to vanish from the bottom up, as they sail away over the horizon.  But I have to accept this on faith.

In fact, I have to accept most scientific facts on faith.  I don’t have the time or resources to perform all the experiments to verify the claims that are made.  I trust that others have already done this, that experiments have been confirmed.  Sometimes, as in physics class, I have seen certain facts demonstrated.  This gives me more confidence in those facts I can’t check.  But most of what I know about science, I have to accept without solid proof.  And that’s OK.

What I consider not OK is blindly accepting all science claims as true; and arrogantly ridiculing anyone who does not also accept these claims.  This, I believe, is a problem.

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