Faye Flam, "‘Belief’ in evolution? It may be the wrong word", Philadelphia Inquirer 6/27/2011:
When the contestants in the Miss USA pageant last week were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, many volunteered that they either "believed" or "didn't believe" in the concept.
"I don't believe in evolution," said Miss Alabama. "They should teach both sides since some people believe in evolution and some people believe in creation," said Miss Arizona. "It's something people believe in," said Miss Florida. "I believe in evolution … and I like to believe in, like, the big bang theory," said Miss California, who won the crown.
Faye quotes some people who think that talk about believing in things confuses science with faith. She also quotes some people on the other side, including me.
My contribution was to search the titles of scientific journal articles for uses of the idiom in question. I came up with a list of examples, out of which Faye quoted "Do we still believe in the dopamine hypothesis? New data bring new evidence"; "Three reasons not to believe in an autism epidemic"; and "Seven (and a half) reasons to believe in Mirror Matter: From neutrino puzzles to the inferred Dark matter in the Universe."
Something I didn't do was to check for frequent nominal collocates of believe in. The top of the frequency-sorted list from COCA (nouns that appear in the frame [believe] in [n*]) is
God miracles ghosts Jesus love Santa democracy reincarnation freedom abortion heaven evolution angels life hell marriage Christ things UFOs government destiny fate magic America luck family peace violence redemption coincidences justice people quotas prayer …
This list is dominated by religion (God, Jesus, reincarnation), politics (democracy, freedom, government), interpersonal abstraction (love, violence, family), and superstition (ghosts, magic, coincidences). Evolution, at number 12, is the only thing on the list that functions these days as a hypothesis subject to confirmation or disconfirmation.
Of course, this is simply based on counts of what people most frequently write or talk about believing (or not believing) in. And it's limited to immediately following nouns, whereas most scientific hypothesis are named by multi-word phrases like "the dopamine hypothesis", "the autism epidemic", and "mirror matter". Of course, "evolution" is just a familiar form of "the evolution of species", and there are plenty of religious and political beliefs that don't have common one-word names.
And if we look (say) at frequency-ranked instantiations of the pattern [believe] in the * [n*], the list is pretty much still dominated by religion, politics, social institutions, and superstitions, with the highest ranking scientific hypothesis being "the big bang" at no. 19:
the death penalty, the American dream, the holy spirit, the tooth fairy, the free market, the American system, the virgin birth, the jury system, the traditional family, the democratic process, the Easter bunny, the second amendment, the spirit world, the United Nations, the work ethic, the American people, the Bush doctrine, the Christian God, the big bang, the holy trinity, …
Faye followed up with this video:
Those who think that this spoof is unfair (and of course it is, somewhat) should watch the original.
In thinking about the role of belief in rational inquiry, it's useful to introduce Gerald Holton's distinction between "public science" and "private science", as explained for example in "On the Art of Scientific Imagination", Daedalus 125(2) 1996:
[W]e must wonder about the unreasonable effectiveness of science itself, especially in the early, nascent phase of an individual's research. One can call that phase "Private Science," before the results are cleaned up and, as Louis Pasteur put it, are made to look inevitable — that is, before they become science in that other sense, namely "Public Science," in which the profession's organized skepticism and other norms dominate. [...]
In a famous speech of 1918, Albert Einstein suggested that the elusive, additional element needed for high achievement in science is a "state of feeling" in the researcher, which he called "akin to that of the religious worshiper or of one who is in love," arising not from a deliberate decision or program but from a personal necessity. [..]
Peter Medawar put it this way, though a bit harshly: "It is of no use looking to scientific papers, for they not merely conceal but actively misrepresent the reasoning that goes into the work they describe… .Only unstudied evidence will do — and that means listening at the keyhole."
Holton doesn't mean to suggest that science is all a sham — the "public science" part, where "the profession's organized skepticism and other norms dominate", is essential to making the whole thing work out.
I admit that it's not easy to get these ideas across in elementary school, though.
Update — it occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare the list of collocates from the British National Corpus:
God, ghosts, things, miracles, Jesus, magic, love, marriage, Europe, fate, religion, death, freedom, Santa, evil, fairies, divorce, democracy, horoscopes, justice, life, reincarnation, sin, telepathy, war, angels, astrology, Arnold, …
Pretty much the same, mutatis mutandis — but without evolution, which is apparently not such a big issue in the British catechism.
I also feel that I owe our readers a list of LL posts on Wrathful Dispersion Theory:
"Wrathful Dispersion Theory", 12/2/2005
"The science and theology of global language change", 12/30/2007
"The comparative theology of linguistic diversity", 12/31/2007
"The origin of speeches: Wrathful Dispersion for real", 12/31/2007
"More on the theology of linguistic diversity", 1/1/2008