“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.

7 thoughts on ““Accepting” vs. “Believing” When It Comes to Science”

  1. Speaking of ‘accepting the science’ rather than ‘believing the science’ is useful and clarifies an important distinction which is easy for people (especially politicians) to miss. I’m going to use your language from now on.

    To be clear though, the distinction is between two kinds of belief, not between belief and something else. The idea of dropping belief is just wishful thinking, and not helpful. The point is that there are different ways of believing things, not that belief is irrelevant to science.

    Getting philosophical about this, there is a spectrum for the basis of belief – at one end the basis for belief is wholly personal (subjective) and the other the basis for belief is wholly public (objective). The mistake politicians make is to treat personal basis for belief in the same way as public basis for belief. Belief (or acceptance) of science will always involve a combination of public and personal bases. It would be mistake to assume that one’s orientation to science is objective just because science itself aims to be objective.

    The marvellous thing about science is that you can make objective progress even if none of the actors involved are themselves objective. Scientific belief (or acceptance) is not nearly as objective as you seem to think, even if the science itself is.

    1. Thanks, Adam. Your points are right on. Admittedly, my “belief” in science probably runs a bit stronger than most. Indeed, in this sense, I’m thinking of the way we talk about “belief” in the context of day-to-day news reporting on scientific topics that have bearing in public policy. Your comments make me think of some projects aimed at bridging divides between scientific and religious points of view, where differing attitudes toward belief are often at the root of perceived conflicts. I’m also reminded of Carl Sagan’s THE VARIETIES OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERIENCE, in which gets at some of the “leaps of faith” scientists make in forming hypotheses, even as they use the tools of science to confirm or disconfirm them.

  2. Thanks, Aaron. I think this is an important point. When I speak to conservative audiences (an event I’m trying, with some difficulty, to make more common), I like to start by saying:

    I’m not going to tell you what to believe (who am I to tell you that?).
    I’m not going to tell you what is right or wrong (we all have our own values to inform this judgement).
    I am going to tell you, based on the scientific method, what is true.

    1. Good points. There are so many ways to address climate change that comport with people’s diverse political views, too. And there are so many solutions that actually enjoy broad political agreement — at least outside the Capitol Building — like energy efficiency, fuel economy, shifting subsidies for energy production, etc.

      1. Aaron, I remember you as a very young child. Your mom, uncles Joe & Matt, and your grandparents are the most wonderful people I have ever known. To the question of whether any or all hypotheses, subjected to “pure” scientific method, if such purity exists, can result in a believable conclusion, relies as much on researching the researcher, as the research of the subject matter. No man is an island, and therefore no man is without bias, and more poignantly, no man can avoid the clutches of subjectivity, and representative bias. The truest true, and the most factual fact is only sustainable until the truer truth, and more factual fact can supplant its predecessor. All belief requires a “leap of faith” because nothing remains the same. Change is the only constant. My best to you

  3. Excellent article! I’d like to add something, from an alternate perspective that seems to be missed. What climate skeptics (like me) are searching for is the actual non-politically motivated evidence for mankind’s casual link to climate change. It’s hard to sift through all of the enormous amount of noise generated on the topic, and as a person who values coming to my own conclusions I’m often shocked at how few sources actually explain this so-called rock solid evidence that man has caused the agreed upon change.

    The best sources I could find (in my admittedly limited searching today) seem to only discuss correlation, but do little (if anything) to establish causation. The sources I’ve seen so often resort to arguments from authority and argument from the majority, which is a big no-no.

    You’d think for such a “settled” hypothesis that the internet would be overflowing with detailed information about this proof that it’s man made, right? So I’m asking for help in finding this, and calling on you who wish to win the argument or convince others that all you really have to do is focus on providing this, and stay away from the logical fallacies.

    I saw solid reasoning and temperament here, so that’s why I’ve come to you. What say you?

    1. Hey, Josh,

      Your point about correlation and causation is a good one. In addition to the strong correlation between CO2 and temperature, there is also direct observational evidence related to human-induced, rather than natural, climate change, including specific patterns in atmospheric warming that are due to the build-up of human-caused CO2 emissions.

      Just like the link between smoking and lung disease, multiple lines of evidence give scientists confidence in their conclusion that climate change is human-induced. (On tobacco, for example, it’d be epidemiological studies and direct observations of lung tissues along with analysis of tobacco smoke. On climate, it’s the long-term and recent CO2 and temperature records along with satellite analysis of atmospheric warming and isotopic analysis of CO2, for example.)

      I think you’re right that there’s not a great resource that lays all this as succinctly or forthrightly as you’re looking for, at least not in the top Google results. In part, that’s because there are so many lines of evidence and I don’t think as many people link to comprehensive science assessments as they do to other, much shorter resources. (PDFs aren’t very link-friendly either.)

      Off hand, the most comprehensive reports on this come from the NOAA State of the Climate annual reports: http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/2013BAMSStateoftheClimate.1

      The team of scientist bloggers over at Skeptical Science have also done an admirable job highlighting much of this information, with links back to the literature: http://www.skepticalscience.com/its-not-us-advanced.htm

      The National Academy of Sciences also has an overview of this evidence in the first section of this booklet (based on a much longer series of reports): http://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/files/2012/06/19014_cvtx_R1.pdf

      What we do in response to all that science, of course, is based on our values as well as economics and politics. Hope this is helpful and thanks for your note.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *