Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

As I have been preparing for my last post on SciEd, I’ve reflected on why I became a science educator to begin with.  And I realize it’s because I strongly believe that knowledge is an important tool to improve our lives and it should be shared with others.  This is strange however, because even though I have this belief, I don’t believe in science. So why am I so passionate about something I don’t believe in?

Science and Belief

Science is how we describe the natural world, and if you search the web for “what is science,” three words tend to come up more often than others: observation, experiment, and evidence. Observations and experiments may not be perfect, even at the limits of our technologies, and interpretations may be flawed, but it’s the evidence that supports, or doesn’t, an argument that is the most important.  And we choose to either accept it, or not.

I wanted to get an on-the-spot response from a scientist, so I asked one of my colleagues at work, Dr. Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist, “You believe in evolution, right?”  I was surprised by how quickly she answered “I don’t believe in evolution – I accept the evidence for evolution.” The believing isn’t what makes evolution true or not, it’s that there is evidence that supports it.

Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and truth does not.  Illustration: Jonathon Rosen

Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and belief does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen

There are plenty of other scientists out there that don’t like the use of the word “believe.”  Kevin Padian, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an open-access article about science and evolution, entitled “Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media.” He states:

“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith.”

The closeness of belief to faith, belief in something without proof, seems to be a reason a number of scientists disapprove of the word.  It does tend to introduce religion, which describes the supernatural, something that science cannot accomplish.

Padian continues:

“…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 reevaluation as new evidence comes to light.”

This same sentiment of evolving understandings can be heard in Holly Dunsworth’s audio essay “I Am Evolution” on NPR’s This I Believe (ironically, I might add).

I reached out to Holly and she told me that there were a number of “science-minded” individuals who did not agree with her essay.  They “think that ‘to believe’ is different than ‘to know’ because ‘knowledge’ to many is based on facts and ‘belief’ is not, so the verbs knowing and believing are therefore different.”  Where I agree with this perspective, Holly disagrees.  But she goes on to say that just having the belief or knowledge is fine, no matter what word is used.  (New: Please read Holly’s response to this posting here.)

 

Teaching process of science, not belief in science

Science, as we know, is not just some body of facts.  It is a detailed process of observation, experiment, interpretation, review, and even a little bit of luck and chance.  And unlike a linear list of instructions, it is an ongoing, iterative process that can jump to any other step in the process, as illustrated at Berkley’s “Understanding Science” webpage.  This is how science should be, and usually is, taught.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for every teacher in every school out there to reproduce every experiment for their students to have a first hand account of the evidence.  This means that in almost all classrooms there is a degree of memorizing facts to understand particular concepts.  So to an extent you might say that the teachers and students need to have some faith in the publisher that those facts are real, and the other scientists who reviewed the research we also legitimate.

Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge.  Photo by Cameron Bennett

Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett

But we do manage to continue advancing despite of this.  Leaps and bounds in technologies and scientific research are made by building upon previously vetted and accepted research.  Every generation keeps learning newer technologies and up to date research earlier in their education.  Sometimes these new leaps and bounds may produce new evidence that causes us to reevaluate our previous findings.  But this is still a part of science, an ongoing and dynamic process that continues to bring new questions and answers.

So, no, I do not believe in science.  Maybe you could say I believe science.  But for sure, I accept the evidence produced through science and that its findings may some day change.

But what about you — do you believe in science?

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110 Responses to Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

  1. Pingback: Faith, knowledge, respect and science education | Small Pond Science

  2. Science is all about belief and students should all belief in it. Students should trust on the methods of science that produce the results.

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    • Marvin says:

      not to the atheists as they are afraid of uncertainty of a belief and have a lack in the trust department. They replaced the definition of faith into believe without evidence to deviate from the original definition of trust in the absence of proof which is something entirely different. Believe is the basis of any thinking process based on an observation. Without belief you would not start an experiment.
      Most scientists are unaware of the limitation of scientific experiments not to deliver a proof, but evidence for a possible explanation if you operate in an open system. The only proof you can create in science is to show an explanation to be wrong. So don’t feel ashamed if you “only believe” in science. Better to be aware of your limitations than thinking to be all knowing. Remember that those who think they are something only have given up to become something.

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      • Howard says:

        Marvin – your post might be worth replying to if it were intelligible. The grammar is so appalling that the meaning of most of it is impossible to discern.

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        • Marvin says:

          looks like you are one of those brights not knowing what they are doing. Either you believe you did not reply to my post or do you believe that your reply stating that my message is outside your intelligible capacity does not account for a reply. :-)

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      • PhotoDady says:

        You’re on the right track linking atheists to the degradation of sound science into mere beliefs systems. (Ironic isn’t it? Atheists being blamed for the fallacies in modern belief systems)
        The old arguments of determinism and causality (so thoroughly despised by most modern scientists and especially by atheists) always end up requiring a first cause. Since an atheist does not believe in a supreme being so too this belief eliminates the possibility for any explanation of a “first” cause. And thus falls any possibility of any absolute truth…

        And they always think that they are sooooo clever, but their arguments are ALWAYS circular, nonsensical, and demonstrably false…

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    • Howard says:

      “Science is all about belief”

      Are you just taking the pi$$ ? or can you be that idiotic ?

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  3. Matt Rowe says:

    You’re entire premise is nonsense.

    If you have to BELIEVE science, then it isn’t science.

    BELIEVE in what you want, the empirical facts of the Universe are what they are.

    M

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    • Marvin says:

      Considering that science is based on the belief that the universe is comprehensible and ordered by laws as also stated in theology.

      I guess you are also not aware that you cannot prove things in science apart from the proof that something is wrong. It is a problem of open systems. You can bring evidence for the predictive quality of your theory under the constraints of the experiment but that is not a proof. Otherwise you could not improve science.

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      • PhotoDady says:

        Sorry, but certain parts of the universe ARE comprehensible. Falsifiability and repeatability of experiments are absolute requirements in science. (two tenants of AGW alarmism that simply don’t pass the pseudoscience test)

        There has never been postulated any alternate theories to Newton’s Laws of motion, they certainly have never been proven “wrong.” So I should be able to surmise that you do not believe in gravity?

        The understanding of the totality of our universe may very well be beyond our capabilities, but if you trace the line all the way back to the first persons who asked these very first questions of our universe you will have arrived at the moment when we became human.

        So what was the first cause that forced those very questions upon us in the first place?

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  10. Rahul Ghose says:

    I totally agree that hands-on should be done by each and every student of science. Since that is the only way we convince our beliefs that a particular phenomenon is true, and hence science exists!

    As for me, I am a beilever of humanity. The human element.

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  11. Steven Kitchen says:

    I just dislike it when people try to mess around with the English language.
    Wikipedia defines belief as “the psychological state in which an individual holds a conjecture or premise to be true.”
    Does your psychological state hold a conjecture or premise to be true? If so, you believe it. Evidence strengthens your belief, it should not encourage you to disavow it.

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    • Howard says:

      I agree with you.

      The exchange of ideas and concepts among us humans depends on communicating those ideas and concepts using language. But it only works if the language is consistent. If it is consistent then when one person communicates to another, we can be sure that the same message is received. If it is not consistent, then it will lead to inevitable and persistent misunderstanding and confusion and the whole purpose of Science and our activities is wasted.

      It is evident that the author of this article has decided to use his own interpretation of the word, believe, and has then run away.

      We are left with a mess because of his behaviour. So either people agree on a new meaning of the word, or agree to stick with the traditional dictionary meaning of the word …….. or we just join the mess that he created.

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  12. Tom Hallahan says:

    After reading the article and all the replies, I believe I’ll have another drink.

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  15. Drew Ising says:

    I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned him yet, but this is something that Dr. Larry Scharmann (now at Florida State) has been advocating with preservice teachers for decades. His specific focus is on evolution, but he talks about the nature of science as a toolbox. As it doesn’t make sense to believe in hammers, it doesn’t make sense to believe in theories. They are amazingly useful tools, and people keep using them because they work and there isn’t a better option available. I’ve been using this with my students, and it has been very helpful.

    Good post, keep it up.

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  16. Axis II says:

    …”But the world is full of zanies and fools who don’t believe in sensible rules and won’t believe what sensible people say.. and because these daft and dewey eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes impossible things are happening every day!”

    This is the most entertainment I’ve had since I abandoned the wheel!
    Grazie to y’all!

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  17. Philip John says:

    “So to an extent you might say that the teachers and students need to have some faith in the publisher that those facts are real, and the other scientists who reviewed the research we also legitimate.”

    I would suggest that rather than faith (unquestioning belief) this is trust – in the scientific method, the scientists presenting the evidence, the peer-reviewed journals and the teachers passing on that knowledge.

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    • Howard says:

      Philip: Yet again demonstrating this author’s comprehensive failure to understand the language he is using.
      You are right in your post.

      IF these teachers were advised by someone they had never met, to use a new science course book self published by a friend of theirs, about which the teachers knew nothing, and they went ahead and did so ……. then one might say that those teachers were exercising ‘faith’ in those books and those people. Because they had no history, no basis for evidence that they were reliable or trustworthy.

      But these teachers are not exercising ‘faith’ in the books they are currently using because they have evidence for their choice. Those books are assessed by department authorities. They are published by recognised publishers with known and accepted reputations and written by known and recognised scientists.

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      • Photodady says:

        You have highlighted the crux of the current problem in science. Namely that “scientists” with idealistic social and political agendas who don’t practice their “science” vigorously can easily cherry-pick ” like minded “peers” to review their work.

        This results in many of todays widely accepted theories that simply don’t pass the basic tests for philosophical fallacies. (and very few who can or are willing to call them out for fear of retribution) In other words they produce nothing more valid than politically motivated pseudoscience.

        Whether those “scientists” are unconsciously self deceiving themselves or are intensionally lying to further their cause is a matter of open debate.

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        • Dr. Houser says:

          Your comment strikes me as surprisingly similar to conspiracy theorists. You seem to be suggesting that there is a major, global conspiracy to misrepresent existing data.

          The major problem with this contention is that the data is available for study. You don’t have to take any scientist’s word for it. If you think someone is being dishonest, double check.

          The nature of science is that every claim is tested by hundreds, or thousands of scientists all over the world; all trying to disprove every claim. There is nearly zero chance that a specific personal or political agenda can get through the gauntlet.

          The fact that you might be tempted to take advantage of the situation to promote your own agenda doesn’t mean that everyone is thus tempted. Generally, the nature of the scientific mind is such that we try to remove presuppositions before embarking onto any serious research.

          If you had read the post you replied to, you would have read that entire departments are responsible for determining the best texts to utilize. And in today’s society, everything in a book is transparent. Any student can verify any information presented through any number of means. And anyone teaching science will encourage this attitude in their students. The inclusion of a personal or political agenda is something right-wing, bible thumpers do.

          As for this apparent abundance of insufficiently supported theories, you will need to provide some citations. And please provide a brief synopsis for each theory outlining why you think it is insufficiently supported.

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          • Howard says:

            Dr. Houser – You clearly have never heard of the Texas Board of Education. You views on Scientific research are touchingly naive.

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          • Photodady says:

            Dr Houser, (Doogie?)

            Wow, how completely comical!

            You certainly can weave a web of silk and have included so many logical fallacies and false personal projections that I stopped counting them. You have certainly gave us all a perfect example of someone who has a definite belief in the faith of science with all of your colleagues assumed to be good actors. Another post here describes you as naive and this is a kind understatement. I can say with almost certainty that you are quite adept and practiced at the art of sophistry. But if you indeed are a practicing scientist then it comes as no surprise to me, your arguments are precisely what I have been describing here, thank you for the real time example I couldn’t have done it any better, thank you.

            From Ivory Tower to Straw Man and, predictably, strait off into Poisoning the Well by using Ad-Hominem attacks. Even if I were a “bible-thumper” or a “conspiracy theorist,” as you have incorrectly described me, it would not make one single bit of difference so long as I presented valid arguments. You also assert that “the data is available for study” when in fact this is most often not the case since there are usually non-disclosure agreements involved. For instance the IPCC does not allow access to any global warming data, algorithms, or code used in its reports, you must first accept a non-disclosure agreement and ONLY after you have passed their test for being a supporter of their theory, thats cherry-picking your peers as I have previously described.

            Yes I do have an agenda, and that is to promote PROPER science and to expose pseudoscience and its practitioners. If you were also a real scientist then you would also be very concerned about this degeneration of the sciences. Wow, you accept the belief, on blind faith mind you, that all textbooks are above suspicion, good grief, that attitude is not part of the problem it IS THE problem the author of this article was centering his article about.

            As for examples, just look at any social or political issue that relies on scientific theories, data, or reports and you will be inundated with examples. One easy theory to pick apart is Anthropogenic Global Warming, jee wiz I think that every single known philosophical fallacy has been used to prop up this anti-capitalist poor excuse for a wealth distribution ponzi-scheme called carbon credits.

            I think that it should be renamed to Anthropomorphic Global Warming since it is just as believable as any Disney cartoon.

            Good Luck, but please study your philosophy before you practice any more science.

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        • Howard says:

          Photodady – I am not sure I go along with your comment fully – but it is clear that today’s ‘peer review’ system is deeply flawed if not corrupted and establishment ideas are often favoured so much that other ideas are excluded from publishing.

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  19. Raymond Cannon says:

    Of course we believe in the findings of science because they are for the large part true! The earth is round and this can be proved by experiment – something that could be demonstrated to school children. This fact is not going to change. Neither will the essential facts of say the structure of chlorophyll and how the molecule functions. There will be advances in our understanding of such things and revisions of certain elements, but the vast edifice of scientific discoveries will – I believe! – remain relatively unchanged and permanent because science has revealed the truth about the universe and how it functions. That’s why I believe in science!

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  20. sarah bagley says:

    I actually think that you’ve slightly misinterpreted and misrepresented the quotations from Pobiner and Padian. You basically say that you don’t want to say you “believe” in science, because one only believes in fantasies and untruths for which you have to have faith. Because you know scientific fact to be the firm and evidence-based truth, it would devalue or undermine it to say that it’s just a “belief” – your knowledge is firmer and clearer than that.

    Pobiner and Padian, however, both said that as scientists, they are willing to believe the evidence, even when the evidence changes what they understand as “fact.” So, basically, their realities are entirely contingent on evidence: at the top (where they do experiments) they are very fluid and shifting, and at the foundations they are pretty solid but still could shift with the proper evidence. Belief, by contrast, and its corresponding faith, the way it’s almost always practiced now (i.e. not like Kierkegaard or his ilk, with a kind of faith that is always full of doubt), is a matter of total certainty. It doesn’t depend on evidence or much of anything else except the content of the belief – it’s usually quite tautological. So the world as defined by beliefs is really not fluid or shifting, it’s rock-solid and certain and clear all the way down. And because of this, the difference between knowledge and belief ends up like the old metaphor about the difference between the reeds and the oak tree in the wind. Like the world according to science, the reeds are able to shift and bow and bend, and so even with a very strong wind they don’t break. Like belief, the oak tree is able to perhaps bend a little bit at the surface, changing a bit of this or that, but if a really strong wind comes along it can’t bend at all and the whole thing just breaks.

    For you to say that you “believe” in science wouldn’t actually be implying it’s fantastic or uncertain or not factual – it’s the opposite. It’s to say that you would accept it as absolute fact with such singleminded certainty that you wouldn’t even believe the evidence if it asked you to revise your understanding of the world.

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  21. Seba says:

    There is some clear logic in this article but I also see an interesting omission. The writer states that “science is how we describe the natural world.”. Hidden in that statement is a “belief” that all things in the natural world have natural causes. This is a premise rathe than a finding. If it were a finding the premise would have to include non-natural possibilities which science is unwilling to do. So at the root of science (more specifically naturalism) is belief/premise which inserts itself into all subsequent findings.

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    • doc30 says:

      It is illogical to consider unnatural vs natural causes of events. If something interacts with anything in our universe, it is acting on the natural. Ergo, it must also be of natural origin. Supernatural origins and events have not been observed and are not testable. Just because something is unknown does not mean something outside of nature is involved. It would be like saying “aliens” when looking for an explanation for something not well understood.

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      • Sebastian says:

        I understand the dilemma that you are describing that “supernatural origins and events have not been observed and are not testable.” And I agree with it (although I prefer the term “transcendent” to supernatural). But what you have pointed out is that science is unable to detect “transcendent” origins since they are not observed or testable. This weakens the claim that science is “the” all encompassing vehicle for discovery, not strengthens it. This claim can only be made under the premise/belief that all things have natural causes, but I refer more to the confusion created when naturalism ( or scientific materialism) is treated as a finding and not a premise (not the methodology of science itself).

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        • fredG says:

          I cannot agree with that, or i misunderstood your point. Saying that some things may have un/super-natural cause(s), is The belief. Science is a tool to understand things, while religions aim at stopping the quest for understanding with its un-natural causes. While, science has been for centuries a good way to understand and predict, belief (or stopping at “unnatural” cause) has shown quite the opposite. So unless someone wants desperately to believe in supernatural, common experience shows we can understand a little further the causes of things if studied with a bit of methodology, and that’s the point of science.

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      • Sebastian says:

        @doc30- One more thought! If by “natural” you mean simply “what is” then I concede your point that it is illogical to consider unnatural vs natural causes. But if you mean by natural “that which occurs as a result of processes that are both observable and testable” then it is a different matter. I’m sorry for not asking what you meant by natural earlier.

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    • Whiteman says:

      I don’t think that belief as its been discussed here is hidden or implied by that statement. My understanding is that at the basis of science are two working hypotheses:

      1. The universe is ordered.
      2. We can understand it.

      However, science itself can negate these hypotheses so they aren’t beliefs.

      I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist so I would like for someone more knowledgeable to comment on this.

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      • Sebastian says:

        As a side note, there is some irony that the two working hypotheses that you’ve written-
        1. The universe is ordered.
        2. We can understand it.
        were arguments made from theology.

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  22. Al Garnier says:

    I believe in music! Science speaks for itself. Science does not require belief, it requires proof.

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  25. asdf says:

    A lot of you are missing the point. Stupid people rely on semantics to assert their (word removed) views. You have to explain to them why they are wrong as if they were three years old. This is a good post.

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    • Howard says:

      asdf – I would suggest to you that numerous excellent posts to this thread have comprehensively dismantled that opinion.

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  26. Steph says:

    @ Howard, I am glad you would take my Richard Dawkins reference as a compliment! I have a lot of respect for his scholarship. I also don’t want to derail the conversation too much from Adam’s post, and I agree entirely with your comments to him.

    My central point is that faith is an integral part of human experience, for better or worse. I’m not arguing for blind faith, which I would argue is generally harmful. I refer to faith as trust/confidence in something for which one does not have certain or first-hand evidence. I think it is necessary to employ this type of faith in order to build any sort of mental model of the world.

    Just a point of clarification – are you meaning to say that someone who argues they are not grateful for faith is a coward? Or the opposite? (Comment Removed)

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  27. john werneken says:

    Not just semantics.

    Science like war is too important to leave solely to the decisions of its leading practitioners, at least as far as accepting or supporting or enacting the findings or recommendations.

    In politics, complexity requires beliefs or one can have little impact. The things which people believe about science in general are important to how they view its results or its recommendations.

    I accept the evidence science provides, especially that evidence which has been subjected to scrutiny and dispute by equally qualified practitioners with differing vested interests. I’m not qualified personally to actually evaluate evolution or much of the evidence supporting that most illuminating theory, but I do accept evolution – I do ‘believe’ in it.

    Perhaps referencing Climate will make my view clear. I accept that climate changes, that people’s activities have and do and will cause changes, not necessarily changes that are to be desired.

    That does not mean that I accept the recommendations of scientists on it, in particular the recommendation that action is necessary without consideration of political and economic consequences of many of the suggested actions regarding limiting human-caused climate change.

    That’s because my BELIEF is that the over-all impact of either Climate changes or corrective action are more important than particular impacts of either on particular people, or on things other than people.

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  28. Steve says:

    You accept the facts, but you still have to believe the facts per:

    “…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 reevaluation as new evidence comes to light.”

    recognizing that they are subject to change demonstrates a belief in the current “fact”. cmon with the nitpicking now.

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  29. G. Adam says:

    All humans have beliefs. It is impossible to operate cognitively in the world without beliefs, since it is impossible to possess all information necessary to operate in the world. The scientist absolutely must believe that (1) the world is knowable and subject to evaluation, (2) that the data is applicable at different times and places [subject to the context of what is being evaluated]. Even the scientific method is a belief that such a methodology will produce the desired level of objectivity and results. None of these things can be established from first causes. You may argue that they are axiomatic, but they represent something that is believed to be a reasonable first premise on which to build a logical structure.

    Similarly, beliefs also are a cognitive shortcut we all use to determine what knowledge is worthy of examination and what can be discounted. We don’t evaluate every possibility, we immediately exclude possibilities that don’t fit into our individual belief systems when we assess an event. Belief is not about the supernatural, faith, etc. Belief is about how we have cognitively organized our view of the world so that we include those things that are part of our belief system and exclude those elements that aren’t. We may modify our belief systems when exposed to new evidence, or we may deny the evidence if the belief systems has a particular value to us. While many may presume this relates to religion, it applies just as readily to scientists as anyone else.

    “Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out,” said Max Planck, “science advances one funeral at a time.”

    Any scientist that claims that they are fully objective and only respond to the evidence is explicitly acting on their own belief.

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  30. Mabans says:

    The article fails just based on the simple premise that the author apparently doesn’t understand what belief is..

    be·lief
    biˈlēf/

    noun

    an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.

    If they accept the evidence for it, then they believe in evolution. There’s a difference between believing on faith and believing because of evidence.

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  31. Photodady says:

    Thanks, you seem to have a much more thorough understanding of what science is and what it is not. Strange that it is more accurate than much of the (word removed) that passes for science today published by so-called scientists, especially on the web and other so-called science blog sites.

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  32. In scientific articles, pretty often (but not always of course) when authors use the words “we believe…”, it means “we have no evidence for this but it must be true anyway”, i.e. tends to be indeed leaps of faith…

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  33. NAME CHANGED by Author says:

    This is nothing more than a word game. Just because someone “believes” in something doesn’t make it non-factual. I “believe” I will fall if I step off of a roof ledge. Am I wrong in believing that? Of course not, because it is fact, and proven by evidence. So when one says that they “believe” in science, can’t that just mean they “believe” that science can prove and provide facts? (Word removed) articles like this just perpetuate an age old debate that some people use to make themselves feel superior. What a waste of time.

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  34. Science is full of belief. All knowledge is derived from certain governing presuppositions. In other words, as I have noted before, each side of every issue that human beings debate ultimately has certain un-provable assumptions upon which they must eventually rely. (As Euclid so aptly demonstrated.) As the late philosopher, Dr. Greg Bahnsen, put it, “At the most fundamental level of everyone’s thinking and beliefs there are primary convictions about reality, man, the world, knowledge, truth, behavior, and such things. Convictions about which all other experience is organized, interpreted, and applied.”

    For example, strict (“faithful”) Darwinists MUST eventually rely upon such “beliefs” (or “presuppositions,” or “primary convictions,” or “postulates”). As C.S. Lewis put it, “[T]he very nature of explanation makes it impossible that we should even explain why matter has the properties it has. For, explanation, by its very nature, deals in a world of ‘ifs and ands.’ Every explanation takes the form ‘Since A, therefore B’ or ‘If C, then D.’ In order to explain any event you have to assume the universe as a going concern, a machine working in a particular way. Since this particular way of working is the basis of all explanation, it can never be itself explained. We can see no reason why it should not have worked in a different way.”

    Thus, we all have “faith” in something.

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  35. Howard says:

    I know some will say I am being pedantic in taking issue with Mr Blankenbicker on this issue – but in my view it is an important issue. Language. I believe Mr Blankenbicker has dug an unnecessary hole for himself in this regard and is wholly wrong in his over reaction to the use of this word.

    The word ‘Belief’ or ‘believe’ does in no way mean ‘accepting something without evidence’. It is not the same as ‘faith’. When I say “I believe evolution to be true” does not mean I accept it blindly, or accept it simply because other people tell me it is true.

    What matters is what comes after ‘believe’. If I say I believe in ‘god’, or ‘faith’, or ‘prayer’, or ‘fate’ ….. then Mr Blankenbicker is correct in asserting his view. I am placing my complete trust and acceptance in a vague and undefined and unevidenced statement.

    However if I say “I believe that the earth goes around the sun” or “I believe that the universe is infinite” ….. I am not assigning blind faith to that assertion. I am simply stating that I know it to be true.

    I believe in Science.

    Yes I do. I believe the Scientific method is by far the greatest invention of Man, and that the Scientific method is the path to true knowledge of ourselves, our environment and our universe. I believe it because I know what Science means and what the Scientific Method means.

    Trying to micro analyse this word is a fool errand and will only lead to yet more confusion in the whole discussion about science and faith.

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  36. Rik Blumenthal says:

    The author is engaged in a meaningless argument on semantics. Faith is belief regardless of evidence. Belief is simply making a choice between two ideas, theory A and theory B. A choice made to follow the evidence is the scientific choice, the the fundamental belief that the Universe follows certain laws (even ones we do not fully understand such as quantum mechanics) is still a belief. Just one consistent with observations.

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  37. Carlo says:

    Accepting the evidence also implies believing certain things (usually, in the integrity of fellow scientists, or in the fact that natural laws did not change since the last time the experiment was performed and so on and so forth).

    The idea that belief implies “a leap of faith” is as superficial as it is is widespread. Believing means taking a reasonable stand based on an imperfect set of evidences, for instance after havoing ruled out all other possibilities. Scientists do that all the time. Even religious beliefs involve accepting some set of evidence (e.g. about the historical facts that have been reported about Jesus etc., about the reliability of some eye witness etc).

    So, in my opinion the distinction is not especially useful. The real issue is what makes a belief reasonable, not “eliminating belief.”

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  38. Brandon says:

    I want to help you understand something about science, faith and religion. You said religion describes the supernatural; my religion does not do this. Please try to stereotype less. The goal of science is to obtain truth. God has said to seek out truth. Therefore the more truth we have the happier God is with us regardless where we get that truth. There is no conflict between God and science they have the same goals for us. Lastly faith, you may not realize that faith is an action verb. You exercrise faith every day. Faith is action caused by knowledge or believes, such as when you turn on a light in a dark room. There would be no improvement in our technology without faith in what we have learned.

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    • JackVS says:

      I almost never exercise faith. I exercise trust. Faith is the complete and total expectation of a result based on little to no previous direct evidence (ex. I have faith in good conquering evil). Trust is the expectation of a result directly based on evidence and past actions (ex. I trust I’ll pass the exam, because I’ve studied the material ).

      This is why faith is largely reserved for religion and the supernatural, while trust is earned and reserved for the physical/natural world.

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      • Steph says:

        Jack, I think you are splitting hairs…

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      • Howard says:

        JackVS – Correct.

        Faith is the antithesis, and abandonment, of everything that has gone in to making us human. Our millions of years of developing a miraculously, though not religiously so, powerful brain; our power for rational and deductive thinking; our amazing ability to analyse and deconstruct the universe around us.

        Faith is the ultimate insult to all of this.

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        • Steph says:

          Wow! That comment reads like a poem out of Richard Dawkins.

          Faith and rational thought are two adaptations to a world that has always posed many risks to the human species and its ancestors. Given that it is impossible for one person to empirically derive all knowledge, the maintenance of most beliefs and the mere decision to leave one’s house each day requires some degree of faith – or “trust” if you prefer.

          I guess we will see if one cognitive process ultimately proves more useful to the continuation of our species than the other. If the human proclivity toward faith were so useless we would eventually expect it to disappear.

          In the meanwhile, we are still physiologically hard-wired to think in both capacities. I personally am grateful for the ability to lean on faith when life is difficult and there’s no rational out. I think any person who would argue otherwise is either a liar, enjoys suffering, or has never known hardship.

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          • Howard says:

            “Wow! That comment reads like a poem out of Richard Dawkins.”

            THANK you !!

            “the mere decision to leave one’s house each day requires some degree of faith – or “trust” if you prefer.”

            Ehhh no it most certainly does not. It requires a reliance on evidence gathered that it is relatively safe and the risks are low and acceptable. There is no requirement for any kind of faith or trust.

            “If the human proclivity toward faith were so useless we would eventually expect it to disappear.”

            I haven’t seen anywhere that someone has claimed it is useless. Nice try, but it didn’t work.

            “In the meanwhile, we are still physiologically hard-wired to think in both capacities. I personally am grateful for the ability to lean on faith when life is difficult and there’s no rational out. I think any person who would argue otherwise is either a liar, enjoys suffering, or has never known hardship.”

            Or … is just a coward.

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        • Cory Gross says:

          I have never seen any god as jealous as the one you have made out of Reason.

          Speaking as a member of the human species, I am far, far greater than a mere robotic capacity for rational and deductive thinking. I am also capable of creative thinking, and aesthetic perception, and relational experience, and emotions and intuition and, yes, spirituality and mysticism. Faith, by the actual dictionary definition (Webster) as “a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty ; b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions” is one of my most humanizing and humane attributes.

          To deny any of these things would be to abandon what makes me human. My humanity is not reducible to any one or another attribute, and I would be impoverished by the attempt to reduce myself. It would be a self-imposed lobotomy that would deny me every pleasure of a poem by Coleridge or a kiss by my lover or the novelty of different people, cultures, religions and ways of life. The very fact that you consider views that differ from your own to be an insult to humanity is evidence of the fundamental inhumanity of your beliefs.

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    • Jim says:

      “You said religion describes the supernatural; my religion does not do this. ”
      Then you say:
      “God has said to seek out truth. Therefore the more truth we have the happier God is with us regardless where we get that truth.”

      You are explicitly describing the supernatural.

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    • Not_God says:

      My faith in a light bulb will never affect whether it turns on or not.

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    • Psych. says:

      Stating “religion describes the supernatural” is hardly an unfair stereotype. I’m curious about your religion and how it “does not” “describe the supernatural”. Furthermore, “faith” is a noun. You used it as a noun 5 times. Using faith to describe the reasonable expectation that closing an electrical circuit will turn on a light bulb is dishonest semantics.

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    • Rick says:

      Brandon, you claim that your religion does not describe the supernatural, and yet you go ahead and describe your “God”. You then suggest that religion (or “God”) and science have the same goals for us. Unless you believe that your god wants you to follow the scientific method (in which case you wouldn’t believe in this god), your statements are simply untrue and paradoxical.

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    • Riali says:

      Your argument is nonsensical; it’s merely a string of hazily defined hot button words. Faith is a noun. It is not a verb, let alone an action verb. Sure, we can say that we have “faith” that hydrogen and oxygen atoms are going to continue to stick together and provide the universe with water, or that electricity is going to continue to provide light, but in these cases the “faith” we have, based on a plethora of hard evidence, is very different from the “faith” in an ephemeral and inevident deity. The very fact that you need to exercise (there’s your “action verb”, by the way) your faith in said deity reinforces the point of the article, that accepting evidence is a completely different phenomenon than believing in the unprovable.

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  39. rtcdmc says:

    Ignoring the semantic paradox … a scientist is willing to be wrong. A scientist will accept the data, even as it falsifies the theory. A scientist is not interested in consensus. A scientist is not emotionally attached to the data. Science is a discovery process, not a faith system.

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  40. marvin says:

    and in slightly better spelling befor epeople get hung up about it :-)

    I do believe you are just afraid if believing as you think that it makes you vulnerable to the weakness of looking like not being in control or not . The greatest delusion of our time is the believing not to believe. It comes with the belief to be of superior intelligence compared to those who admit to belief in order to justify one’s own irrationality.

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  41. LJil says:

    Of course if the conditional assumptions of science are true, then evolution is true. But who proved those conditional assumptions?

    I don’t know anyone who doubts that animals evolve; I’ve never met anyone who doubts the existence of labradoodles. The actual dispute is whether and how human beings were created. If you start with naturalist or materialist assumptions, any argument you make is going to “prove” there is no God because it’s one of the assumptions you started with.

    And occam’s razor acts as an article of faith, as well. It is not true that occam’s razor is always correct.

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  42. Brian Rasquinha says:

    In my opinion, this article is splitting hairs in a relatively arbitrary way. You’re assigning definitions to “belief” and then arguing they don’t fit.

    Here’s what Google’s dictionary had to say:

    -An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
    -Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.

    Crucially, these definitions say nothing about factuality. (I’ll happily admit this set of definitions fits my particular mental definition, so perhaps there’s some confirmation bias going on.)

    Here’s what I think: If Dr. Pobiner states “I don’t believe in evolution – I accept the evidence for evolution,” then… what’s the difference?

    I guess there’s potentially a neat philosophical point: presume, for argument’s sake, that Dr. Pobiner begrudgingly accepts that the evidence for evolution despite having a knee-jerk skepticism to the whole concept? But practically, if she takes evolution to be the best model of the true system, and applies this model to questions and queries on the topic, then by the definitions above, yes, she believes it.

    Finally, the article makes a big deal about how being open to changing ideas is somehow special, and uses that reasoning to distinguish beliefs from other truths. I don’t see any reasons why beliefs (by definition) need be unassailable – in science (and yes, in religion, and in secular morality, etc) beliefs can and do shift for all sorts of people with all kinds of frequency. Having beliefs that change given new information, perspectives, or yes, evidence, doesn’t undermine the belief system – to me, I’d argue it’s an indicator that the belief system is healthy.

    If the discussion is more about the connotation of “belief” and “truth” as opposed to their definition, then you get into a whole other kettle of fish. Now, connotation is perhaps important for media reporting, but that’s a particular aspect of how we discuss these labels.

    So Adam, to be blunt: in my opinion, yes, you do believe in science, you’re just being pedantic with (unsourced) definitions.

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    • Hominid says:

      No, Brian – Adam has it right – you are the pedant and your argument is false.

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  43. Pingback: Faith, science, and truth | Elenkus

  44. One needs to be versed in epistemology and philosophy of science to properly understand the place of scientific claims. Simplified, I would put it like this:

    1. If there are any facts, they don’t come fully formed out of any of the sciences. Therefore, science alone never generates proofs of anything.

    2. Replicability of experimental results is insufficient for knowledge, but it does at least point to a regularity and pattern that demands explanation. This is what we should call “theory.”

    3. Some theories appear to be better fits to the known facts than others, but we should note the obvious circularity in this reasoning. If all facts are questionable, then obviously the fittedness of any theory is likewise questionable.

    4. Thus: There are no laws in science.

    At this point many people take a defensive stance if they identify with science, but this is unnecessary. The fact that science can’t yield Absolute Truth should bother no one who is steeped in the scientific method. Being bothered by this would point to a dogmatism that is simply unsuited for science, where all claims are open to critical analysis and refutation. So, “belief” in science would itself be unscientific.

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    • Hominid says:

      Your argument is false because it is based on the implied false premise that science seeks ‘truth.’ It doesn’t. It seeks to describe objective reality as accurately, i.e., with as high a level of predictability, as possible.

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      • Carlo says:

        Speak for yourself. I am a scientist, and I want to understand reality, which implies that I am looking for various forms of “truth.” Evolutionary theory, for instance, appears to be a “true” description of the natural world, even if it does not have any practical predictive value. Science is much bigger than “predictability.”

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    • Photodady says:

      1) Yes, but science makes sense out of discovered evidence, it is philosophy (epistemology) that handles the proofs. Science is a SUBORDINATE branch of epistemology.

      2) Replicability of an experiment provides one method of fallibility, absolutely necessary if any theory or experiment is to be considered scientific.

      3) Yup, ALL scientific theories rely on assumptions and the expectations that previous theories are true. There is NOTHING in science that is ever absolute.

      4) Scientific laws are simply a semantic tool that elevates a theory to a level that asserts that they have past the test of time and there are no other credible competing theories.

      To explain why there are so many “scientists” today who are in reality merely practicing pseudoscience, I would refer them to the psychology of Alfred Adler and the simple fact that power corrupts. The “superiority complex” that numerous scientists exhibit comes directly from Adler.

      Also the idealist sickness denies an absolute reality or truths. Thus they conflate mere opinions with truth and facts. If this were not so they would then be called realists.

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      • Photodady says:

        This is not to disparage idealism, I want an idealist to plan the itinerary of my cruise ship, but I demand that the captain of the ship to be a realist.

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      • Howard says:

        Photodady – While much of what you say is correct, especially about absolutism.

        However when you say “Scientific laws are simply a semantic tool that elevates a theory to a level that asserts that they have past the test of time and there are no other credible competing theories.” You are incorrect. Science does not indeed normally deal with Laws, Mathematics does. And there si no hierarchy as you suggest – take for example the Theory of Evolution.
        So generally speaking Laws and Accepted Theories are essentially the same thing, and are NEVER any more than one experiment or piece of confirmed evidence away from oblivion :-)

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        • Photodady says:

          Newton’s laws of gravity and motion?
          Planck’s Law?
          These are just a few of numerous scientific laws.

          Note that the theory of evolution is still just a theory. And you are absolutely correct, (pun intended) there is NOTHING that is absolute in science, including its accepted laws.

          It is also scientifically accepted that using laws in one’s theory does not require additional justification, however, using a lesser theory may require additional justification but only if the “peers” reviewing them require it.

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    • Howard says:

      Fabio – your attempt to reduce the topic to fundamentalist absolutism may satisfy your ego – but it doesn’t help anyone except fellow anally retentive epistemologists. No personal offence intended !

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  45. karelsf says:

    ‘Believe’ is a tricky word. I think scientists decide all the time what evidence to believe, in the same sense that members of a jury decide which witnesses to believe. In assessing scientific data, you have to ask “are the assumptions made valid? have adequate controls been performed? are the methods used reproducible? are these findings consistent with other previous findings?”. On the basis of those. you judge that some results are more likely to be true (without significant defects that invalidate the assumptions) than others.

    In this sense, scientists may or may not “believe in climate change” and to say this does not invalidate the scientific method. Rather, it could simply be a professional judgement of the likelihood that the assumptions and methods behind some data sets are better than others, and following that, that a given theory is more likely to be consistent with the reliable observations.

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    • Hominid says:

      You’re right that scientists are human and tend to believe stuff. But, SCIENCE is a process and it does NOT believe stuff – it constantly tests validity. So, it matters not whether scientists believe or not – science corrects them.

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  46. Excellent article, pointing out a distinction that too many people fail to understand.

    My only quibble is semantic. I would say the question, “Do you believe in science?” is rather silly when you take it literally. It’s pretty much like asking “Do you believe in chairs?” Science demonstrably exists; there are people out there doing it, and I doubt that even the most ardent creationist or flat earther would deny that. The question you are really asking in this essay is, Do you believe the things that are commonly stated as scientific “facts” – like the idea that every object we see is made up of molecules, which in turn are made up of atoms of the sort described in the period table of elements, etc.

    So yes, I believe in science, and while I ultimately wouldn’t say I believe there is such a thing as electrons, and that matter warps the shape of space, and that humans evolved from monkey-like creatures, I do believe that these ideas represent our best guesses at truth based on the preponderance of evidence available to us right now.

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    • Hominid says:

      Exactly! There are actually two different questions here.

      Question 1 – Do you ‘believe’ that knowledge acquired through the application of scientific methodology is certain? No bona fide scientist does. Science always doubts and questions.

      Question 2 – Do you ‘believe’ science is the most valid and reliable epistemological method? Scientists do and engineers do too implicitly whether they admit or not.

      Many nonscientists have begun to USE ‘science’ as an endorsement of their political ideologies and exhibit a religion-like worship of all ‘findings’ that claim to have been obtained ‘scientifically.’ One should not confuse such SCIENTISM with actual science.

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    • babaganusz says:

      i’m terribly fond of the “there is only one electron” concept – if only for what it could mean to communication & travel.

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  47. Pingback: Why I don’t believe in science…and...

  48. Cecilia Gonzalez says:

    Thank you!! This is how I used to teach my students and one of the reasons why I get grumpy when people say: “I believe climate change….; I believe GMOs are dangerous”. It is just annoying that science is taken as faith!

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    • Hominid says:

      When people ask me whether or not I ‘believe in evolution,’ I answer ‘I’m a scientist, therefore, I believe in nothing,’ then proceed to explain the weight of the evidence.

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      • Carlo says:

        Ridiculous! Don’t you believe yourself capable of weighting the evidence?

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        • Carlo says:

          Also, do you accept any conclusions from fellow scientists in fields in which you are not competent to weight the evidence yourself?
          If yes, you believe in them, which is, in fact, perfectly reasonable.

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      • Shecky R says:

        Hominid, you believe in what you call “evidence” and give it the weight you deem (or believe) appropriate, but you can’t truly know if that evidence is solid or real. Everything you’ve written here are your beliefs, no matter what they stem from or how objective you mistakenly think they are. You can view “science” as an abstract idealization if you wish, but “scientists” (and the practice of science) are/is chockfull of beliefs.

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  49. Janis says:

    No I do not. If you have to “believe” in it, it’s not science. “Belief” means “I will continue to think this whatever the evidence may be.”

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    • Steph says:

      This could turn into a novel, but just to botch a quick comment — I think we are disagreeing on the definition of “belief”. Academically, belief is a notion that is held to be true, whether it is true or not. Some beliefs are true – this is knowledge. So, scientists do believe that science is the most valid method to uncover reality, whether the popular connotation of “belief” agrees with them or not. Wish I could draw a Euler diagram here, but in the meanwhile, Wikipedia has some nice thoughts on the matter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belief .

      Epistemology and philosophy of science should be required classes for scientists and science educators!

      Specifically in response to Janis, some people are more resistant to changing their minds and less attuned to evidence-based reasoning, but people’s beliefs do change based on shifting evidence – both within science and without.

      ps: Hi Adam! It’s nice to see you blogging :)

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  50. Thank you so much for including me in this discussion, Adam.

    Here’s my overly sensitive reaction: http://ecodevoevo.blogspot.com/2013/09/lets-use-evidence-not-intuition.html

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  51. Cory Gross says:

    While I agree with the general idea of making sure that students understand that science is a methodology more than a thing, I would just point out that it’s only really atheists who define “faith” to mean “belief in something without proof” and essentially equate the term “belief” with “blind acceptance of falsehood.” Those definitions are a politicized usage of the terms.

    The definition of “faith” that most religious people, and certainly most Christians, would agree to is closer to ideas like “trust” and “love.” For example, definition 1 in Mirriam-Webster is “a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty ; b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions.” Definition 2 carries this over to religion: “a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.” You don’t get to the atheist definition until 2b, but even then, note what it categorizes “no proof” with: “b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition 1 is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” though they drop the ball a bit with definition 2: “strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.” The American Heritage Dictionary has it itemized rather well:

    1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
    2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See Synonyms at belief, trust.
    3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one’s supporters.
    4. often Faith Christianity The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.
    5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
    6. A set of principles or beliefs.

    So if one were to say that they believe in science, essentially they would be assenting to having a trust in the scientific method to deliver results that they believe to be reliable. Keeping in mind, of course, that the term “belief” in no way, shape or form implies that the subject of belief is false, unreliable, unjustifiable, without evidence, or believed in blindly (if you Google it, the first definition that pops up is “1. An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. 2. Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.”).

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    • Hominid says:

      Just try to convince a religionist that ‘spirituality’ is merely emotion.

      Dictionaries are understandably as loose as language. In science, essential terms (usage) must be PRECISELY DEFINED – only ONE MEANING ALLOWED!

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      • Cory Gross says:

        Why would I want to convince a “religionist” that spirituality is merely emotion when that isn’t what I said. All the terms used in the definition of “faith” are relational, not emotional per se. That said, emotion is the leaven in life’s loaf. Maslow noted the extreme fault… danger even… of trying to extend the objectivity required of science into any other human activity. Even if spirituality were merely emotion, that would still be a compliment.

        As for precise language in science, that is fine… for science. However, we’re not actually talking science here. We’re talking epistemology, which is a philosophical subject.

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  52. Shecky R says:

    yes, I ‘believe’ in science; I have ‘faith’ in science, and think/assume much of science is true/accurate… BUT I can never KNOW that that is the case; all “evidence” is itself ultimately subjective and based upon faith-based beliefs/assumptions (i.e. my belief that the moon exists is based on little more than my faith in perception and in certain verbal reports of others)– we can never get objectively outside our own myopic, built-in brain constraints to KNOW with certainty. In popular terms, we can’t know that we don’t merely exist as a “brain in a vat” or inside the computer matrix of a vastly superior being.

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  53. Szescstopni says:

    In an interview with Tiffany O’Callaghan in New Scientist J. Allan Hobson said:

    In the first two weeks of my psychiatry residency in 1960, I thought I’d see that my doubts about psychoanalysis had been mistaken. But it was just the opposite. I was told, “There must be something wrong with you if you’re asking all of these questions.” My chief suggested I really believed in science. I said, “That’s ridiculous. I don’t believe in science; science is our defence against belief.” Science is institutional scepticism. We need to ask these questions.

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    • Michael says:

      While discussing belief and faith and trust a few years ago, it was explained: ”Belief in (God) is like belief in seatbelts – No earthly good to you unless you use them.”
      Believing in science is not the aim.
      Believing that the scientific method will give us repeatable physical processes, which may be accepted as describing reality, is what motivates many curious minds.

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