Beliefs Got Nothing To Do With It

I’m not one of those people that gets super pissed every time some ignoramus spouts off about how global warming is a hoax, or the earth is only 6000 years old, or any other such silly thing. In my view, there always has been, and always will be, a subset of people who simply lack the capacity or the desire or the intelligence or whatever it is, to comprehend and/or accept basic facts about the universe and the world we live in. I simply acknowledge that and move on, I most definitely am not out pounding the pavement, evangelizing for the scientific worldview, no matter how many science journals or science based media outlets tell me I should be.

The vast majority of people like that will never be convinced to change no matter the strength of evidence presented or the merits of the arguments made. Concepts like evidence and rational discourse are simply foreign to them. These are in essence “scientific” concepts. You will never convince a science denier to change their mind using the ideas and concepts of the very thing they refuse to acknowledge to “prove” to them it is correct. Incidentally “prove/proof, to prove” these terms are science grounded concepts as well. If used in arguments they will have no effect on a science denier since they are like nonsense to him/her. You would have better luck blowing in their ears or sticking your tongue out. Would either of those activities/actions convince you to change your mind about something truly fundamental to yourself as a person? Of course not, those actions would be meaningless to you. This is exactly the situation the scientist faces when confronting the science denier.

With all of that as background it should be clear that I may not be the best person to get on his high horse about the methods used by people who do choose to stand up and defend science when attacked by the denialists. While I greatly admire them for their spirit and appreciate their willingness to fight, I often cringe more than I cheer as these public debates unfold. More often than not the topic of discussion quickly turns to belief. Fact deniers often frame their “arguments” against science or scientific concepts/facts in light of their belief systems (note: In this case I am not talking directly about their religious belief system though that is a related but somewhat different topic). For example, “I don’t believe in global warming or, I don’t believe the earth is 4.3 billion years old,” etc. For them that sort of statement is totally appropriate and acceptable. What is not appropriate or acceptable is for the scientist to react to these statements by saying things like “I do believe x” or “You may not believe y but the vast majority of scientists do, or all rational people believe z, etc.” Essentially they attempt to rebut the “non-believer” by countering with their own “beliefs” which are scientifically/factually based and thus obviously superior. By responding in this way they only act to legitimize the denier’s position. It implies that belief is in some way important or even a consideration for the scientist as well. That he holds the positions he does not because the are supported by the best available evidence and facts but because he believes them to be. In actuality no true scientist “believes” in anything or at least they should not. By this I do not mean to imply a scientist can have no beliefs about anything. They may have religious beliefs for example a(for the true scientist belief in God is really belief about God), or certain beliefs about morals, ethics, or values, basically anything that falls outside the purview of science. However within the realm of topics that can be said to be scientific, the true scientist accepts things that the evidence and facts support and does not accept/rejects things they do not. To put it another way, beliefs got nothing to do with it, nor should it.

I can already hear the objections so I will end by answering the most common. Evidence and facts are well and good, it sure sounds neat and tidy to simply accept the things they support, but how do I judge the correctness of the evidence and facts? Of course some facts will be evident to my senses and some evidence I can evaluate because I have expertise in that particular area but I’m no theoretical physicist, I have no other way to judge the correctness of Einstein’s equations or Heisenbergs uncertainty principle then to simply believe they are true and correct, and I choose to believe that because I believe in the genius of those men.

I don’t want to get to far afield and end up knee deep in a discussion about the philosophy of science so I will keep my response to that objection brief and succinct. You are correct that in areas of science in which you have little or no expertise you must rely on the expertise of others to provide the most accurate picture of reality. However, as much as say you have to or choose to believe them, you do not. You accept what they say as true because other experts in their fields have accepted it and because those other experts have recognized the genius within them. You would have no idea who Einstein or Heisenberg were, if it were not for the community of experts surrounding, criticizing, supporting, replicating, falsifying, judging, etc. their work. Your belief is not asked for or required because exactly as we described for areas of science in which you have personal expertise, beliefs got nothing to do with it.

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Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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