In 1941 Pope Pius XII declared Saint Albert to be the patron saint of Scientists. He even has a special feast day – November 15th if you’re interested – and he is revered as a doctor of the church. It’s an interesting choice and one which makes sense; Pius discovered the element Arsenic and believed firmly that Science ought to be united with religious belief.
If the choice was up to me (probably a good thing it’s not) I’d consider Saint Thomas the Apostle, pictured above, more commonly known as "doubting Thomas". Doubting Thomas was told of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and, according to the gospel of John, didn’t believe it - asking instead to see the evidence. Once the evidence was presented he switched from non-belief to belief. In other words, he needed to check before believing something remarkable.
Sometimes Thomas is criticised for his actions but I feel that's unfair. Whether you think the story is true or not, doubting Thomas is an icon of uncertainty. And for that reason I think he would have made a good Scientist.
We tend to think of doubt as a bad thing. Search the word doubt on Google and you'll return loads of hits about how doubt crushes dreams and holds you back. Very few Disney films feature the message "never have faith in yourself" and you won't hear a politician standing up in parliament and announcing “I am not certain of my policies. I don’t know precisely how they work and I am doubtful of my own approach to leadership.” The thought is so absurd it’s almost funny.
It’s understandable of course; doubt looks like weakness (especially in a leader) and we want to feel like people in charge know what they're talking about. Little children afraid of ghosts want their parents to tell them there are no such things as ghosts. They don’t want to hear “well, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any ghosts…but who knows? I mean there might be some under your bed right now."
If someone asks whether I believe in gravity, I answer “yes” obviously. But if someone asks me: are you absolutely certain gravity exists at every point in the universe? That’s a little different. I’ve not been to every point in the universe so the answer to the question is technically no. It would be arrogant of me to say I possessed such knowledge. It’s reasonable to assume gravity probably does exist everywhere until we know different, but we shouldn’t tie ourselves to a belief and label it unquestionable.
If you are 100% convinced something is true, you are 0% willing to being corrected. It's far better to be 99% confident than 100% certain because then you're open to the possibility you might be wrong. It's a more honest and more humble approach to acknowledge your own limitations.
To be clear, doubting yourself isn’t always the best way to live. In fact, making assumptions helped us survive our early development as a species. The human who doubts the lion’s footprint is the one who gets eaten.
So yes, in the world of everyday life it’s natural and even useful to trust. But when we’re taking the time to work things out in detail, when we’re studying the world critically, the best thing we can do is entertain the possibility we could make mistakes.
It comes back to what I said in my previous post about Science being a cycle. We have to recognise that a theory is simply our best guess and anything can topple it. Science thrives on a lack of certainty. It moves forward because it entertains the notion that “this theory is open to investigation…let’s check it before we believe it.”
Doubt is important to Science because it makes us humble, makes us listen to other people and stops us from getting lazy in our knowledge. If we don’t embrace doubt we won’t discover new things. We'll be convinced our view of reality is correct and we'll never leave the caves or discover the wheel.
I love science, let me tell you why.