“Accepting” vs. “Believing” When It Comes to Science

I don’t believe in human-induced climate change. I accept it. I’m not a scientist, but I have a deep appreciation for the knowledge the scientific process – and the scientists who use it – collectively produce. I also accept evolution by natural selection, the health benefits of vaccines, and the link between smoking and lung disease.

But when we talk about evolution, climate change, vaccines or other “controversial” issues – as the smoking link used to be — we often talk about them as matters of “belief.” This is misleading, especially on basic, settled, scientific questions. As Neil Degrasse Tyson put it, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

All too often, in news articles, Congressional floor speeches, opinion pieces and even in public polling, we express belief or disbelief in science rather than acceptance or rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence.

Here’s why that’s wrong:

Beliefs are for politics, not for science.

Some people believe the Affordable Care Act will save millions of lives. Others believe it is cripplingly expensive. Rarely, will any one person express both these beliefs simultaneously. There’s another phrase for beliefs in this context: political opinions. More aptly, they are political talking points.

Science is not an opinion or a set of talking points. It’s evidence carefully culled over time. When we talk about science as if it’s another thing we can choose to believe in or not, we frame it as a political issue rather than a reality issue.

Our beliefs lead us to accept and reject science

There’s a wealth of evidence from social science that our ideology and political beliefs affect how we view scientific evidence on “controversial” issues. Dan Kahan’s experiment-based research remains my favorite: If you favor individual freedom more than community responsibility, you’re probably going to be more skeptical about the scientific evidence showing that mandatory vaccinations are effective. If you’re happy with the distribution of wealth and power in society, you’re more likely to be skeptical about the scientific conclusion that large fossil fuel companies – and the successful people who run them – are warming our climate.

In sum, our beliefs can determine whether or not we accept or reject science, but our acceptance or rejection of science is not a belief in and of itself.

Science journalist Chris Mooney, in particular, recommends, that reporters become more conversant in the forces that lead political actors to accept and reject science.

Established science doesn’t change, beliefs do

At the most basic level, beliefs can be ephemeral and temporary. Scientific conclusions – the rock solid, replicated, triple-checked kind – are not. Our individual and collective beliefs about whether or not or how to deal with climate change will surely change over time. The fact that it’s happening and is largely due to human activities will not.

Let’s drop this “belief” business

More politicians should espouse their “acceptance” of science and their trust in the scientific method. Fewer politicians should affirm their “belief” in science in the same way they talk about their “belief” in a strong middle class or the genius of the Founding Fathers.

Journalists should write about politicians and ideologues who “reject” scientific conclusions rather than strike a note of false equivalence between competing camps of “belief” when it comes to science.

Finally, it would be interesting to see social scientists test this out a bit when they do polling. What happens when they ask people if they “accept” or “reject” scientific evidence rather than query them about their “beliefs” when it comes to these issues? Granted, it might be unfair to do this regularly, but I bet you’d find that more people would align themselves with reality when the question is posed this way.