Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Can you believe in science?

Reading Sheril Kirshenbaum's posts on Framing Science as guest blogger over at The Intersection got me to thinking about the language of science. Actually, it's more the language used by media, politicians, and a large mass of the general public when talking about science or scientific ideas. I am in no way a scholar of linguistics, but have always been interested in words - their etymology, history, use, connotations, power to clarify, and power to bewilder and confuse. Words can have many meanings that often differ between people so we have to be careful of the words we choose when we want to convey specific meanings otherwise we run the risk of our audience inadvertently hearing the wrong message, whether explicitly or "between the lines".

The most obvious of this problem is the use of the word "theory" - as in "Evolution is just a theory". Coverage of the importance and misuse of this word has been beaten to death, so I won't go into it here. What I do want to go into however (regardless if it has been beaten to death, though to my knowledge it hasn't) is the use of the word "believe" as applied to science.

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This usage took center stage during the first Republican presidential candidate debate when the candidates were asked "Do you believe in evolution?" and three of them answered that they did not. While I understand what the question means and am horrified (though not surprised) by the response, I must take issue with the wording used.

By using the words "believe" and "evolution" together we are implicitly suggesting that evolution is based on belief and not on scientific facts. In fact I would argue that "believe" suggests the absence of facts. Isn't that what belief is? The acceptance of something sans empirical evidence? Or at best "believe" suggests a gut feeling or an opinion. The phrase "I believe in evolution" is easily translated as "In the absence of any tangible facts, it is my gut feeling that evolution is real". It is therefore just as easy for an anti-evolutionist to say "I don't believe in evolution". I think that the scientific community as a whole does a disservice whenever we use the phrase "I believe in [insert scientific principle]" when we mean "Scientific evidence has lead to the conclusion that [insert scientific principle] is at work". Belief suggests choice - you can choose whether or not to believe in something. But does anyone ever say "I believe in photosynthesis" or "I don't believe in redox reactions!"? (well, I'm sure there are a few crackpots out there, but you get my point).

Am I arguing semantics? Well, yes, but that's my point - words and their meanings are powerful and can define the argument. When it comes to science in general and evolution in particular, belief has nothing to do with it - or at the very least it doesn't have anything to to with its veracity.

The other night my mother-in-law cooked a "Turducken" (you know, a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey). My wife asked which type of meat she had on her plate and a variety of quips followed - "Poultry", "Some kind of fowl", "Something that had feathers", etc. I answered with "Something that descended from dinosaurs". Facetiously (I hope), she quipped back "Only if you believe in evolution" to which I said "Actually, they descended from dinosaurs whether or not you believe in evolution". Belief (or lack of it) doesn't change facts.

I think that we're playing into creationist's and IDist's hands when we make our stand and say "I believe in evolution!". We need to change the framing. So, I will go on record as saying I don't believe in evolution.

It's existence doesn't need me to.


cris said...

I am not one of your students in particular, but would like to say that I thank you for pointing this out. I could never feel "right" saying that I "believe" in evolution as scienec is not belief but knowledge. I try to explain this but come off sounding like an arrogant twit. I was trying to explain that when you are religious, you are required to turn off your logic, but again, that just sounds like arrogance. And when I say I don't believe in anything (tho I really really want to believe that people all have the same chance at being productive) then I come off as being lost and somethign to be pitied.
But this "Actually, they descended from dinosaurs whether or not you believe in evolution". covers it quite nicely. Thank YOU!!
May I use that in the future? :)

Anonymous said...

I tend to answer this question by saying something like, "Based on the evidence, I accept evolution as the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life we see on Earth."

Ed Darrell said...

Right! The Bible says the rain falls on the just and unjust equally. But the Bible thumpers (as opposed to Bible students, I suppose) understand that gravity holds to the ground the feet of those who "believe" in it just as it does those who refuse to.

Water flows downhill, everywhere. In that way, gravity acts as many wish their gods to act. So who is really making the appeal to follow divine law, the physicist who says the universe is 13 billion years old, or the creationist who insists otherwise?

I'd be more convinced of the faith of a politician if the politician came out for following the evidence, searching for and sticking to the truth, regardless what the scriptures say -- especially when reality goes contrary to scripture.

That would be how someone who believes in a god as the supreme creator would act, knowing that the natural phenomena are incontrovertibly the work and desire of the creator.

Heck, that just went over Brownback's head.

Keep up the good work.

Randy said...

The most obvious of this problem is the use of the word "theory" - as in "Evolution is just a theory"....
Am I arguing semantics? Well, yes, but that's my point - words and their meanings are powerful and can define the argument.

I have pretty much the same reaction to people who say "just semantics" as I do to those who say "just a theory." What, are we just supposed to ignore the semantics completely, because, well, it's semantics, then?

Jim Lemire said...

cris - by all means, use it!

randy - I agree - "it's just semantics" is OK when two views align with one another but folks are using different words for the same principle, but not when folks use the same word for different principles.

Laelaps said...

Great post; I think somewhere in the backwataters of my own blog the same sentiments are lurking about. I'm tired of the careless manner in which people use the term "theory" as well as (as you duly pointed out) "belief" in evolution. So many people have become so lazy with their language that it's no wonder people have a hard time understanding evolution for what it really is, and we definitely need more posts like this laying out the difference between observable reality and belief.

CuriousCat said...

Great post. Much needed clarification on things. When any one says "just a theory" I find myself thinking, "So is quantum mechanics, or newton's laws". A theory is that which captures all observed phenomena on the basis of the fewest and simplest assumptions and leads to testable predictions. Period. And "belief"? Belief in a theory is like saying "I believe in the washing machine" or the post man if you will...

Mike Haubrich said...

You know, it is a shortcut statement to say that one believes in evolution. It may not be accurate, but it will bring a point across. I believe in evolution, because it is demonstrated without equivocation, whether or not it is a theory. There are situations in which I would need to be more explicit and factual, but not in all situations.

Kay. Nuff said.