You Don’t Believe in Science

June 2, 2008 | By | 14 Replies More

You read that right! No reader of Dangerous Intersection, radical materialist or hard-bitten skeptic believes in science. To say otherwise is to give a false impression of what science actually is. Science is not something in which a person believes or does not believe. Science is not a belief system; it has no holy screeds or sacred tenets. It is merely a tool, a method of gleaning knowledge, and the language used in reference to it should reflect this.

What on earth am I ranting about? Well, it goes back a few years to the Discovery Institute, and spans all the way to the present with Ben Stein’s film Expelled. The intelligent design/evolution debate has become quite the pop topic, and hence, the endless battle of science vs. religion has come into everyday discussion as well. Everyday people in normal daily settings run through these issues, turning any public place into a potential battleground.

I’ve heard a lot of the less experienced science advocates say things about science that frankly aren’t accurate. While these people mean very well, they fail to frame their debates properly, and the content of the discussion suffers for it. Since science vs. religion has become as much a layman’s debate as an expert’s one, I think the time has come for those of us on the science side of things to agree on the language we should use.

I have no expertise in science, religion or philosophy, I have no refined understanding of the psychology of persuasion, and I am no orator. However, I still have the gall to make a few semantic suggestions for any person who plans to engage in a lengthy discussion on evolution, intelligent design, or the general clash between religion and science. My tips, and their justifications, are as follows:

  1. Don’t say you “believe in science”. As I described above, science as a concept does not deserve grouping or treatment as a “belief”. The term “belief” implies a personal decision and a leap of faith. Science serves as a tool and a method, and an advocate for science should try to distance science as far as possible from belief. Because beliefs have a personal basis, they all have the same value- that is, little to no value at all (in a debate, at least). Religious fundamentalists who do not take kindly to scientific evidence have an easier time brushing off scientific research and evidence if they can reduce all of science to a personal “belief”. Don’t let them.
  2. Don’t say you “believe in ______”; say that the evidence supports it. When it comes to a scientific issue, it doesn’t matter what you “believe” is true; what matters is the evidence in favor of it. Sure, you can say that you “believe” in germs, but what you probably mean is that the evidence in favor of germs is immense and well verified. It’s not just your fallible human opinion that germs are real; the research has led you to form this opinion. This point also works in the opposite case- don’t say you “don’t believe that vaccines cause autism” when you mean there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism. It is much easier for an anti-science wingnut to ignore your facts when they can frame facts as more innocuous, flighty “beliefs” and “opinons”. Not all issues are matters of opinion, particularly issues involving science.
  3. Don’t use the term “Darwinist”. One of the most frequent religious criticisms of science is that science, like religion, is a faith-based belief system. Many an anti-science type throws around the words “Evolutionist” and “Darwinist” to imply that those who support evolution are as blindly faithful as any Christian. When a pro-science, evolution-supporting speaker parrots back these terms, calling themselves “evolutionists”, the religion vs. science debate sounds like the clashing of two equally stubborn, equally ignorant extremists. In reality, Darwinists do not exist. All that exists are people who recognize the immense empirical support of natural selection, and nothing more. These people do not belong to some strange psuedoreligious sect known as “Evolutionism” or “Darwinism”, for these people have no allegiance to Darwin’s theory. If new evidence flew in the face of natural selection, true science-minded people would abandon the theory. Only the faithful stick by statements of fact for which no evidence exists. Accepting branding as a “Darwinist” sends the message that science is a religion of its own.
  4. Don’t allow opponents to confuse fact with opinion. It strikes me as worthwhile to remember this point in any debate. When two opponents pose two conflicting statements of fact, someone has their facts wrong. It may seem more civil to chalk up the disparity to differing “opinions”, but that totally neglects the reality: someone has their facts wrong! To debate effectively, the person with the right facts must call out the person with the wrong facts and hold them accountable. “That’s just your opinion” is a cop-out. Not all opinions deserve equal weight at all times. Letting a phony fact slide by only promotes lazy thinking and shoddy discourse.

I should point out: following all these tips will typically result in a less pleasant discussion than you might otherwise have. I suppose I should provide a corollary: choose your battles carefully. If you feel inclined to give your opponent wiggle room, so as to stay on friendly terms, you probably shouldn’t debate such testy topics with that person at all.

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Category: Communication, Culture, Current Events, Evolution, Language, Science

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (14)

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  1. Bill says:

    A pet peeve of mine, particularly directed to media outlets is referring to science as if it's an authoritative body. Things like "science says life begins at conception" or other similar statements really irk me, whether they are in favor of most current research or not, it tends to gloss over the real and continuing effort of scientists in attempting to determine the reality behind things.

  2. A.C. says:

    I completely agree! Thank you for a great post with some fine points I will definitely have to remember. The only thing I believe in is mankind and that humans can lead happy and good lives without having to rely on fairy tales to keep them in line.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Yes! But you yanked my next post out from under me. I was this close (index finger held about 4mm from thumb) to writing a post about belief versus understanding in our technological world. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to convert that 18th century metric distance into modern units of time and intention.

    So I'll wait a bit, and link back to this post when the time feels right.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I believe in the objective application of the scientic method. However, due to the incursion of politics and religion, much of what passes for good science is anything but.

    Good science requires constant skeptical review to keep it honest. Science provides a belief system that is based on a critical examination of the world as we can experience, measure and qualify data derived from it. As the data and methods of observation are refined , the model and belief may shift, hopefully toward more accurate ones.

    There are many people that tend to believe politics and religion based pop science, because they accept too easily oversimplified theories as the truth, when the authorities are themselves just the end of a long line of faux experts parroting each other. On many issues, I have noted this in comments on this site, which strives to promote critical thinking.

    Thank you Erika, for reminding us what it takes to stay objective in this world of pundits and soothsayers.

  5. Erika Price says:

    Bill- good point, I've heard people on all points of the science-accepting spectrum claim that science "tells" or "says" something.

    Another big criticism I hear a lot is that science constantly "changes its mind", or that decades of scientific research "was wrong" in light of some paradigm-shifting knowledge. People who don't understand the scientific method seem to think a shift in understanding belies a flaw in science itself. The reality, of course, is that science only needs time and rigor to shake all of the incorrect theories out of the woodwork. It's not science's fault, it's just human limitation that leads to faulty understanding.

    (That last bit comes up especially often in criticizing the social sciences, and claiming that they aren't, in fact, sciences. But that's a rant for another day.)

    Sorry I scooped you, Dan.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: Good ideas! I would put the following spin on idea #4. Don’t allow opponents of the scientific method to substitute opinions for facts.

    Huge numbers of people who criticize scientists are merely one good question away from showing themselves to be unqualified to render any opinions at all. They have no deep understanding how their claims could possibly be true. They offer ungrounded opinions as attacks on rigorous applications of the scientific method.

    A commonly-encountered example is the creationist who characterizes evolution as “a theory that says complex life forms have arisen randomly.” This characterization is completely false. Although new phenotypic traits might initially appear randomly, natural selection (the “weed” of the “breed and weed”) ruthlessly and rigorously filters them out whenever they fail to enhance fitness of a species. There is an unrelenting logic to natural selection; it is the opposite of randomness.

    Yet the media often gives know-nothing Creationists a free pass. Their “opinion,” that evolution is an entirely random process, is rarely questioned. They are no foundation for rendering opinions in the scientific arena. A short pop quiz will show them to be foolish, but the media so often fails to administer such a quiz.

    And that’s just one example. Opinions are substituted for facts everywhere one looks. One-day old zygotes are said to have “souls.” There is a practical way to burn coal cleanly. Homosexuality is said to be unnatural. Homeopathic medications work. Tarot cards and astrology are often said to offer us meaningful guidance. Facilitated communication was said to allow autistics to show their inner brilliance.

    And on and on. Each of these claims is one good question away from being shown to be foolish.

    Where people have no foundation to render scientific opinions, we should ignore their opinions and we should equally ignore their protests that they are being deprived of freedom of expression. If only the Media would have the guts to ignore nonsense. If only claims of pretend science consisting only of hope or speculation didn't so often make captivating stories . . .

  7. Erich V.; Dare we apply your rule to other situations?

    "Where people have no foundation to render religious opinions, we should ignore their opinions and we should equally ignore their protests that they are being deprived of freedom of expression."

    For some, that will appear to be "nonsense" because, supposedly, there are no religious "facts", only opinions. This is partially so because science debaters insist on measuring things that cannot be measured. The scientific method is limited to science, by definition.

    You could also castigate 'economic opinions' to obfuscate the perversity of a particular worldview. We all make economic decisions based on our personal measurements in daily transactions, and thus our personal model of the economic system is different from that presented by those who it actually serves. You don't need formal training to understand economics. This is only required when you become a purveyor of that agenda.

    Science is no more sacrosanct than any other human endeavor. I prefer to avoid multiple tyrannies of smucksperts.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Larry: I didn't say no one can have opinions on anything at all. What I hold is that whenever people stray beyond the evidence, we need to recognize this to be a problem.

    I do believe that there is a large and legitimate subject matter that science can study and upon which science can render legitimate opinions.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry writes: "…supposedly, there are no religious “facts”, only opinions."

    Well, yes, Larry, it should be self-evident that there are no religious "facts." Religion deals with three impenetrable questions: where did we come from, what happens to us after we die, and why are we here. These questions aren't subject to factual proof, only subjective belief.

  10. thewhiteblackbrowndw says:

    Once you cross the realm of things that are observable into things that cannot and will never be proven, you've made science a religion. Theoretical science is a religion, at least as far as I can tell.

    The proof of this is of course that very dogmatic religious response that this will generate, IE: "You don't understand Science!" "You're ignorant!"…

    There's no real way to prove that gravity holds the planets in an elliptical orbit around each other or around the sun. None.

    Noone really knows what electricity is.

    You can't infer from natural selection that given enough time and combination with mutations it will cause a theoretical ancestral

    organism that exists only in ones mind to turn into another

    theoretical organism that exists only in one's mind.

    You cannot tell the distance to the stars or determine their size or composition with any real certainty.

    There is no doubt whatsover in my mind that scientists are very intelligent people for the most part, but they could, at least in theory, use that intelligence to prove that the earth is a flat disc on the back of a turtle. If enough scientists hold this belief they will find evidence for it and they would be able to convince the world.

  11. Erika Price says:

    Dwarf: I'll make a correction: science isn't even about garnering knowledge, as I said in this post. It's about making predictions. Let's say that the believers in the Flying Spaghetti Monster were correct, and gravity isn't real; instead, we are pulled to the earth by invisible tentacles. Let's say that our current understanding of gravity, though hopelessly wrong, makes all the right predictions about how a body moving through space should behave in such a system. If our current understanding makes accurate, consistent predictions, the reality actually doesn't matter.

    So, science IS a way of understanding the world, but it is a flawed one in the sense that it only attempts to explain things that can be supported by evidence. The supernatural is thrown out- for me, that is not a big loss. But if you are less of an Ignostic than I am, perhaps you would rather know for sure whether or not there are magical tentacles, or heavenly beings.

  12. thewhiteblackbrowndw says:

    Well, reality matters to a lot of people. The heliocentric model of the solar system makes the same predictions that a geocentric model (or any model someone wants to come up with, really) makes so as long as those predictions are accurate, it doesn't really MATTER whether or not the earth goes around the sun? I'd like to think it matters…

  13. Dan Klarmann says:

    No geocentric model ever made acceptable (much less accurate) predictions about anything not already covered by its complex roster of observed exceptions. Retrograde motions were never adequately accounted for until a heliocentric model was accepted. Cometary paths were completely unpredictable until Newton applied his new math to the heliocentric model.

    Because heliocentrism predicted things that geocentrism couldn't, it became the accepted theory. Because it provides a basis for a simpler overall model of planetary motions, it was accepted quickly.

  14. Erika Price says:

    Dwarf: If I remember correctly, the geocentric model makes understanding and prediction of Neptune and Uranus' orbits totally impossible. Mercury too, I think. So it doesn't suffice as a scientific explanation. My astronomy is fuzzy, though, so I'd love if someone with a better grasp of the topic could illuminate this.

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