We must stop talking about facts in science as belief systems. It is said; all to often by educated or enlightened people in the media that they believe in climate change and the same rhetoric is often used for evolution. There is a problem with the public understanding of science and because of this lack of understanding, certain religious people have been allowed to use science (sic) as a tool for proselytising their faith to audiences that do not know better. To hear educated and enlightened people in the media say they believe in evolution or climate change; or they believe the earth is 4.54 billion years old is at best disappointing and at worst defeatist because we know these things to be facts. To say that you believe in evolution etc. gives those who do not understand a counter argument, a freedom of ignorance almost, it gives them the option to not believe; and this is part of the problem.
Scientists know that evolution is a fact and we use the term theory to mean a well-substantiated explanation of facts. The same can be said of climate change and the age of the earth for example. To hear someone say they believe in climate change reduces its importance and puts it on par with pseudo science and silly ideas like creationism, it gives people like creationists the idea that they can debate real science against made up ideas of how they think the universe works or was formed and this gives them the opportunity to invoke a god into the argument; it gives them the idea that there is a choice between what is real (science) and what is not (creationism).
As a scientist (Geologist) I take every opportunity to point out that science is not a belief system, once we know something and can prove this knowledge through experimentation, observation and rigorous peer review, we can eventually understand it to be true. We have to get away from the idea that science is a belief system we have to teach the idea that what we strive to find in science are facts about the way things work or do not work; not beliefs in how we think things work. And we have to help people understand the meaning of the word theory and its difference to hypothesis.
Geologists understand the age of the earth extremely well and it has taken years of observation and experimentation to prove as fact the ages of rocks either by radiometric dating, observation or a combination of both.
One does not even have to understand the science in order to understand the facts. Take for example the two pictures below, the pictures show the pattern of growth or sutures on the shells of two ammonites (a type of squid with a curled shell, similar to a nautilus). The first picture shows an ammonite suture from the Jurassic and as you can see the suture is fairly simple; as ammonites evolved the sutures from these ammonites became much more complex, look at the second picture, this shows an ammonite from the cretaceous; as you can see the suture is much more complex. The reason the ammonite shells became more complex was mainly for buoyancy control, those ammonites with simpler sutures were very strong whilst those with more complex sutures were relatively weaker. The ammonites with simpler sutures lived deeper in the water and could withstand higher pressures, those with complex sutures lived in shallower waters and were better swimmers, this shows that as environments changed the animals adapted to those changes or evolved.
We know the changes in the shells are a result of evolution from direct observation of the ammonites and the age of the rocks from which the fossils were found.
The fossilised tree rings in the picture below can illustrate another example that everyone can understand without knowing the science. This piece of fossilised wood was found on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic; even though it is 40 million years old the tree rings on the fossilised wood are clearly visible. During the early Cenozoic, the Palaeogene period (65 million years to 23 million years ago) the continents were very close to the positions they currently occupy, Ellesmere island is virtually in the same place it is now, high up in the northern hemisphere within the Arctic circle. This piece of fossilised wood shows something incredibly interesting, the tree shows widely spaced rings separated by very thin rings; this means two things: One is that the tree the fossilised wood came from had a very long annual growing season (summers of continuous daytime) shown by the thick rings with the thin rings representing a winter of darkness over a number of years. Two: the climate was very warm during the period that the tree was growing there and this shows that climate changes are indeed very real.growing. Fragments of an extinct turtle were also found along with the fossilised wood. We know where the continents were located during the Cenozoic from our knowledge of plate tectonics, we know that the fossilised wood is Palaeogene in age (around 40 million years old) and with this evidence we also know that the climate of the earth was very different, as we all know and can observe currently, it is cool in the Arctic, there are no tall trees currently
These are just two examples of facts, things that we can actually prove through the science of geology; we do not blindly accept that these things are true, there have been years of research and observation to prove that these things are true. We know that the Arctic has been very cold over the last 10,000 years; we know the last ice age was real, so the question has to be asked; how did this tree grow in the Arctic with summers of daylight and winters of total darkness before the ice age if the world was only made 6,000 years ago? The answer is simple and obvious to anyone that can ascertain facts from fantasy.
So lets change the rhetoric, let us all stop saying that we believe in climate change, that we believe in evolution, science should not be viewed as a belief system. We have to stop people like Ken Ham and his silly creationist museum debating belief against truth and we have to make sure we keep stupidity out of the science classroom, lets leave the next generation of children with a legacy that will help them move forward and evolve rather than stunt their education (after all, people like Ken Ham would prefer it if our children did not evolve). It would be grossly unfair and irresponsible to the next generation of children if we were to allow creationism into the classroom or indeed view science as a belief system that does not require proof. I believe god did it is never an acceptable answer and from now on should not be thought of as so.
Edwin Layzelle is an English exploration and mapping geologist based in Canada his work has taken him all around the world including the high Arctic in both Canada and Siberia and his published work includes dating diamonds using K-Ar isotopes and the halogen composition and evolution of the earth.
Written By: Edwin Layzelle