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Science backs Santa Claus

I was asked today how, as a scientist, I can believe in Christmas and Santa Claus.

Christmas is almost here. Full of laughter and good cheer. Lots of snow and Christmas shows. It’s a wonderful time of year.

I am not a religious person but the spirit of the season is something I believe in. People are nicer. Old friends make contact. Families gather for the yuletide from far and wide – even if virtually. For me, the spirit of the season is what is important.

Beliefs are an interesting part of our society. I was asked today how, as a scientist, I can believe in Christmas and Santa Claus. After all science is about empirical evidence.

But science is also about beliefs, albeit a belief system based on experimentation and observations rather than, well, beliefs.

For example, it is pretty much impossible to discuss modern chemistry without a belief in atoms. This hasn’t always been the case. Up to the late 1800s, few scientists actually believed in the existence of atoms. For the most part, atoms were viewed as a simple bookkeeping exercise – a way to keep track of compounds.

That changed with a few key experiments for which the best explanation was the reality of atoms. And over the past 120 or so years, the evidence and consistency of the evidence has over and over confirmed the model as being both useful and correct. Atoms exist or, at the very least, all of chemistry is consistent with the existence of atoms.

So, we believe in atoms. They are a belief grounded in empirical evidence which anyone can test and verify.

The same goes for the anthropogenic origins of climate change. The evidence we have collected for the past 100 years is consistent with carbon dioxide emissions driving a changing climate. The mechanism by which this can happen is well grounded in rational, empirically derived beliefs.

The same goes for vaccines. We have been using vaccination as a public health measure for over 200 years. It works. It is effective. And when it comes to dealing with viruses, it is pretty much the only tool we have in the medical tool kit to address the issue.

And empirical evidence does fuel my belief in Santa Claus. After all, presents do appear at this time of year! Merry Christmas one and all!

Todd Whitcombe is a chemistry professor at UNBC.