Soon after I first met my Father-in-Law, Ted, I learned that one of his greatest pleasures in life was to ask a provocative question during a gathering of a thoughtful group of people and see what ensued. It was in these arenas that Ted challenged the people he loved to reveal and defend their most strongly held convictions. Stir the pot, he did.
In the last few years of his life, Ted’s ability to stir the pot was gradually quieted by the advancing symptoms of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a brain disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease. However, this condition did not stop Ted from occasionally handing me things to read to challenge my own thinking, especially in the realm of science and religion. For example, on an October 2014 Sunday afternoon, soon after we arrived at my In-Laws’ to watch the Denver Broncos on TV, Ted reached over from his brown Lazy Boy recliner and slid me a copy of America Magazine. America is a weekly magazine published by the Jesuits of the United States and “contains news and opinion about Roman Catholicism, and how it relates to American politics and cultural life.” Ted wanted my thoughts on an article titled Justified Reason: The Collaboration of Knowledge, Belief, and Faith, by astrophysicist, Adam Hincks.
In the article, Hincks argues that knowledge (in this case, that which we know from scientific consensus) versus belief and faith need not be mutually opposed. In fact, Hincks maintains that belief “is a crucial element in scientific research.” As an example, Hincks explains that “we (scientists) need to believe in the results that our colleagues produce.” Hincks describes his use of the term belief as aligned with the writings of St. Augustine, who described belief as “nothing other than to think with assent.” Thus, according to Hincks, regardless of whether the context is science or religion, to believe in something, a claim for example, involves nothing more than agreement and compliance (assent) after some sort of internal mental activity (thinking).
The definition of belief Hincks has chosen with which to make his argument is so over-simplified that, in connecting it to scientific thinking, he misrepresents how science itself works. Hincks also misrepresents how complex and contextual the concept of belief is.
Below, I will argue that Hincks, and others, including Presidential candidates, are careless and irresponsible when they lob the word belief into the arena of science such that it dilutes and weakens the scientific process and the immense knowledge we have accumulated by way of science.
What is Belief?
In a strictly religious context, and to zero in on Hincks’s Catholic foundation from which he argues, the online Catholic Encyclopedia defines belief as “that state of the mind by which it assents to propositions, not by reason of their intrinsic evidence, but because of authority.”
Immediately, this definition (“not by reason of their intrinsic evidence”) disqualifies belief as a way of thinking in science and contradicts Hincks’s argument altogether.
Moreover, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of belief includes the eight contexts summarized below. But heads up, the link is hard to get to and requires a library card # from your local library, so here is the abbreviated entry:
- Theol. (a) The trust that the believer places in God; the Christian virtue of faith.
- The mental action, condition, or habit of trusting to or having confidence in a person or thing; trust, dependence, reliance, confidence, faith.
- Theol. A formal statement of doctrines believed, a creed.
- Something believed; a proposition or set of propositions held to be true. In early usage esp.: a doctrine forming part of a religious system; a set of such doctrines, a religion. (b) Philos. A basic or ultimate principle or presupposition of knowledge; something innately believed, a primary intuition.
- (a) With of. Acceptance of the truth of a statement or the words of a speaker; acceptance of a supposed fact. Now rare. (b) With in. Acceptance or conviction of the existence or occurrence of something.
- With that. Acceptance that a statement, supposed fact, etc., is true; a religious, philosophical, or personal conviction; an opinion, a persuasion.
- Without construction: assent to a proposition, statement, or fact, esp. on the grounds of testimony or authority, or in the absence of proof or conclusive evidence. Also (chiefly Philos.): the way in which pure reason acknowledges objects existing beyond the reach of empirical evidence or logical proof.
- Confident anticipation, expectation; an instance of this.
Considering all eight definitions, only numbers 5 and 6 qualify (loosely) as what a scientific thinker likely means when he or she uses belief or believe in the context of a scientific claim: acceptance that a statement is true. But contrary to what Hincks argues, stating belief in a scientific fact, observation, or hypothesis is careless use of language by scientists, and most scientists, especially evolutionary biologists (more on this later), avoid the term altogether. To understand why scientific discourse should avoid the word belief, we can first turn to philosophy.
Belief versus Acceptance
The Stanford Encyclopedia Philosophy Archive has dedicated over 13,000 words to the questions, What does it mean to believe? and When and how are beliefs justified and qualify as knowledge? The entire entry is certainly a fascinating and worthwhile read, but most germane to the discussion here is the Encyclopedia’s passage on belief and acceptance. Here the author, University of California, Riverside, philosophy professor, Eric Schwitzgebel, makes the distinction that “acceptance is held to be more under the voluntary control of the subject than belief.”
Consider this example: You may see that a friend has leaned a ladder against a roof. She states that the ladder is safe to climb and you believe her. Thus, you have established a belief in the safe ladder claim. However, as you approach the ladder, your empirical nature takes over. Upon close inspection (i.e. data gathering) by considering what the ladder is made of, by pushing and pulling on the ladder, and by observing the surface upon which it is placed, you conclude that the ladder is far too wobbly and weak to climb and therefor no longer accept the claim that it is safe. In fact, the evidence available is grounds for rejecting the safe ladder claim outright. In this case, acceptance requires a voluntary investigation into a claim before we accept or reject it.
Science education researchers Louis Nadelson, from Boise State University, and Sherry Southerland, from Florida State University, explain this distinction between belief and acceptance in a recent article in the International Journal of Science Education. While their focus in the paper is to develop and analyze a tool to assess student acceptance of evolution, Nadelson and Southerland first establish a clear distinction between belief and acceptance that further explains the logic in the example above:
“Many educational researchers and in particular those investigating evolution education are careful to draw a distinction between a learners’ belief in a construct and their acceptance of that same construct (Nadelson, 2009; National Academy of Sciences, 1998; Sinatra et al., 2003; Smith, Siegel, & McInerney, 1995). Smith (1994) argues that belief implies the warrant for consideration of a construct is based on personal convictions, faith, feelings, opinions, and the degree of congruence with other belief systems. In contrast, acceptance of a construct is based on an examination of the validity of the knowledge supporting the construct, the plausibility of the construct for explaining phenomenon, persuasiveness of the construct, and fruitfulness or productivity of the empirical support for the construct.” (Nadelson and Southerland, 2012)
Indeed, “the plausibility of the construct for explaining phenomenon” and “productivity of the empirical support for the construct,” are key when employing scientific thinking to assess a claim.
Why Word Choice is Important in Science Discourse
Kevin Padian is a Vertebrate Paleontologist in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California at Berkeley (the same university where Eric Schwitzgebel recieved is Doctorate in Philosophy). In a 2013 article in the Journal of Evolution Education and Outreach, Padian argued that the sloppy treatment of scientific subjects by professional writers in science textbooks and other science media, and by teachers in science classrooms may have its origin in large part in the careless use of language by many scientists. This language of course includes–but is not limited to–belief and believe. Says Padian:
“[S]aying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith. Yet again, it is about the quality of the evidence: scientists accept their results as the best explanation of the problem that we have at present, but we recognize that our findings are subject to re-evaluation as new evidence comes to light. This is a problem because scientists themselves often use the word ‘believe’ when discussing their results! It is just sloppy diction: they would not say that their conclusions are a matter of faith, rather than of evidence. Instead of saying ‘many scientists believe’ or ‘some scientists think’, it is more productive to talk about the evidence.” (Padian, 2013)
Thus, a statement by a scientist about a well-tested hypothesis or a known scientific fact that is introduced with the words, “I believe that…,” can be falsely interpreted by a science skeptic or science denier as equivalent to saying, “I believe in magic.”
University of Chicago Evolutionary Geneticist, Jerry Coyne, in his 2015 book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, takes Padian’s argument a bit further. In addition to the fact that use of the terms belief and believe in science discourse and by scientists is sloppy and unproductive, Coyne maintains that faith, inferred by belief and believe, is simply dangerous in the context of science:
“[F]aith, as employed in religion (and in most other areas), is a danger to both science and society. The danger to science is in how faith warps the public understanding of science: by arguing, for instance, that science is based just as strongly on faith as religion; by claiming that revelation of the guidance of ancient books is just as reliable a guide to truth about our universe as are the tools of science; by thinking that an adequate explanation can be based on what is personally appealing rather than on what stands the test of empirical study.” (Coyne, 2015, pp. 225-226)
Nowhere is the blurring of science and faith more of a problem than in the scientific study of evolution as it relates to the biochemical origin of life and human origins from earlier forms of nonhuman life. Indeed, the constant attack on evolutionary theory by various versions of creationism, including a literal interpretation of Genesis in the Bible (biblical literalism) and the claims of intelligent design creationists, should be news to no one.
When Religion Rejects Science: Appealing to the Consequences
In the case of biblical literalism and its effect on acceptance of science, former Yale University Sociology graduate student, Esther Chan and Rice University Sociologist, Elaine Ecklund report the following in a recent paper published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion:
“Many studies suggest biblical literalism is the root cause of conflict between the authorities of the Bible and science. Scholars find that fundamentalists display less scientific literacy than the average American (Sherkat 2011), less confidence toward scientists (Evans 2013), as well as considerable opposition toward evolution (Berkman, Pacheco, and Plutzer 2008; Lienesch 2007; Scott 2004). Because those with literalist views of the Bible believe the Bible provides foundational knowledge and are less likely to be influenced by other sources (Darnell and Sherkat 1997; Ellison and Musick 1995; Greeley and Hout 2006), their views are often in conflict with scientific claims. Indeed, some scholars suggest that biblical literalism acts as a dominant cognitive schema that facilitates how one interprets the social world, including science (Bartkowski et al. 2012; Hempel and Bartkowski 2008; Hoffman and Bartkowski 2008; Ogland and Bartkowski 2014).” (Chan and Ecklund, 2016)
Biblical literalists can thus easily (and in their minds, rationally) reject scientific knowledge and make the statement, “I believe in the Bible’s account of creation as described in Genesis,” (i.e. supernatural causation) while following it with, “I don’t believe in evolution.” But neither the statement, “I don’t believe in evolution,” nor the statement, “I believe in evolution,” are at all useful or meaningful in a scientific context. Biologists and Co-Directors of the New England Center for the Public Understanding of Science at Roger Williams University, Guillermo Paz-y-Mino-C and Avelina Espinosa argue that by way of the Incompatibility Hypothesis, “Scientific rationalism and empiricism are incompatible with belief in supernatural causation. Belief disrupts, distorts, delays, or stops the comprehension and acceptance of scientific evidence.” Thus, neither statement about evolution belief (for OR against) is necessary given the weight of the evidence in favor of undirected, biological evolution. Paz-y-Mino-C and Espinosa, explain in their 2016 book, Measuring the Evolution Controversy, that given the overwhelming evidence that natural, biological evolution has occurred, “the reality of evolution is indisputable… all people in the world should accept it as fact.” However, the common coupling of the term believe with a person’s position on the validity of evolutionary theory makes it too easy for a person to weigh the consequences of accepting the fact of evolution against his or her beliefs. Philosophers call this reaction the appeal to the consequence: rejecting a claim of fact because its consequences are perceived to be undesirable. I’ve written about this phenomenon in my own book with Physicist, Matt Young, Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails). Here we explain:
“[I]t is a fallacy to reject evolution because you do not like its consequences (or what you think are its consequences). Evolution may or may not lead some people to disbelieve in God; that has nothing to do with its validity. In the same way, a false doctrine that leads people to believe in God is no more true for that consequence. In short, a claim of fact must be judged solely on its merits, not on your preference for its consequences. More to the point, evolution must be judged on its merits, even though it may lead some people to disbelieve in God.” (Young and Strode, 2009, p. 9)
Who We Are (Belief) vs. What We Know (Science)
When we appeal to the consequences, we are falling victims to a logical fallacy called motivated reasoning: we are basing our conclusions on what we hope to be true about the world (who we are) instead of the knowledge made available to us by way of scientific methodology (what we know). Yale University Law and Psychology Professor, Daniel Kahan, has written extensively about this conflict, especially in the context of national surveys of the public’s general scientific knowledge. The images below show several figures from a 2014 paper by Kahan that illustrate the conflict that motivated reasoning presents.
The figures show that, for example, when asked if it is true that humans evolved from earlier species, our answer is at the mercy of our belief system (who we are), regardless of scientific knowledge. But when asked what can be claimed by way of evolutionary theory (what we know), there is no consequence to a person’s belief system by answering correctly: “Yes, I have learned that evolutionary theory makes that claim.” The same is true with political affiliations (who we are) and what we are told to believe about global warming (or any other hot political topic) by peers, mentors, and political leaders.
Who we are is a powerful motivator. It is so powerful that too many well-informed citizens can comfortably respond, “Well, I don’t believe that,” when presented with, for example, the evidence for a human cause behind global warming, or really any scientific claim that challenges a firmly held belief or overarching belief system.
It is this reality that most likely prompted Hillary Clinton to emphatically pronounce, “I believe in science!” in her acceptance address on July 28th, 2016, during the Democratic National Convention. I cringed at this proclamation. I did not cringe because I think that Clinton literally means that she has faith (belief without evidence) in science. I cringed because by lobbing belief into the brief mention of climate change that followed, she really did not do justice to the massive body of evidence behind the facts of global warming and climate change and its human cause. While it was a commendable attempt to celebrate the power of science and what it can teach us about the natural world, Clinton’s statement failed to help close the door on science denial. I am hopeful that current and future politicians have and will carefully read some of the criticisms of aligning oneself with the power of science and its products by using a statement that begins with, “I believe…” As Kevin Padian argues above, “it is more productive to talk about the evidence.” Indeed, it is.
So, as scientists, do “we need to believe in the results that our colleagues produce[?]” The philosophers would likely say “no.” I would hope that all reasonable scientists would also say “no” and agree with Matt Young and me when we argue in Why Evolution Works (p. 188) that “science tests its hypotheses better than any other human endeavor. Scientists do their best to test (even falsify) their own hypotheses before they will accept them. Any belief, religious or other, that denies known scientific fact is seriously in need of reconsideration.” By “other” we can include even nonreligious beliefs that range from a belief that homeopathy works for treating human health conditions (it doesn’t) to a belief that vaccines cause autism (they don’t).
Is Faith Required for Scientific Inquiry?
Adam Hincks closes his article, Justified Reason: The Collaboration of Knowledge, Belief, and Faith, with a provocative claim that may in fact sit at the foundation of his motivation to marry religious thinking and reasoning with scientific thinking and reasoning:
“For human inquiry was never meant to be a purely human collaboration, but a collaboration with the mind of God. If we expel God from the intellectual life, we may find that reason itself soon withers.”
Hinck’s hypothesis that faith in the existence of the Christian God is required for true human inquiry to proceed and to keep reason from withering makes possible a critical prediction: Our most accomplished and decorated scientists, those that are members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and responsible for generating some of our most important new knowledge and understanding of the natural world, when asked, should claim to be religious and/or believe in a personal God.
The data suggest otherwise.
A survey of NAS scientists and their religious beliefs has been repeated three times since 1914. The latest survey was conducted by Pepperdine University History and Law Professor, Edward Larson, and author and journalist, Larry Witham, and published in the journal Nature in 1998. While the most recent data are now at least 20 years old, the trend is clear, that belief in a personal God by leading scientists has dropped from almost 28% in 1914 to 7% in 1998. The authors summarize their finding by stating that “among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total.”
Clearly, religious faith and belief was not required for our best scientists to use the methods of science and make a majority of our most important scientific discoveries over the last century. If this were true, we would see the opposite trend from what is revealed by Larson and Witham.
Belief in the Science Classroom
In closing, perhaps the most important period in a person’s life to learn about how science works is during his or her years of formal education. As I argue in an earlier post on this site, Getting Students to Think Like Scientists, the most important thing we can teach our students is how to think like scientists. As a science teacher, I encourage my students to leave the words belief and believe at the door and instead come to class with evidence-based arguments, to share what they know and how they know it. When it comes to belief in science and its contributions to knowledge, I explain to my students, for example, that I don’t believe in evolution or climate change or the published results of my colleagues and the scientists that have come before us. Instead, I trust in the process of science and its ability to generate our massive and growing body of credible knowledge. I trust that the necessary skeptical nature of hypothesis testing and the peer review process can and will produce what we know. I also trust that when the process breaks down, through unsubstantiated claims, or unrepeatable results, or fraud and self-serving dishonesty, the checks and balances and required replication of the scientific process will right this ship. I emphasize to my students that, when done correctly science tests its hypotheses better than any other human endeavor. These things I share with my students as I guide them through the fascinating, albeit imperfect, process of inquiry where they can accept or reject claims based on the weight of the evidence. No belief required.
Instead of loosely and carelessly claiming “I believe in science,” perhaps the best option is to simply say what we mean; to explain how we know what we know, because
Science is not belief, but the will to find out.
My Father-in-Law, Ted, died from PSP complications the day after we watched the Broncos win the Super Bowl together and the evening after teaching (yes, he was still teaching!) one more session of his course, Non-Profit Issues and Techniques, at the University of Denver. He also had a 25-year career as President and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation and wrote and published the book, Managing and Raising Money that is Not Your Own, because he couldn’t find an already written book good enough for his students. I hope Ted would have been pleased with this argument, regardless of whether or not he agreed. Thank you for always stirring the pot, Ted!
(1907). “Belief”, in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 29, 2016 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02408b.htm
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Chan, E., and E. H. Ecklund. (2016). Narrating and navigating authorities: Evangelical and mainline Protestant interpretations of the Bible and science. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55(1):54-69.
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Padian, K. (2013). Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media. Evolution Education and Outreach 6:1-13.
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Young, M., and P. K. Strode. (2009). Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails). Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.