Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

Sep 6, 2013

As I have been preparing for my last post on SciEd, I’ve reflected on why I became a science educator to begin with.  And I realize it’s because I strongly believe that knowledge is an important tool to improve our lives and it should be shared with others.  This is strange however, because even though I have this belief, I don’t believe in science. So why am I so passionate about something I don’t believe in?


Science and Belief

Science is how we describe the natural world, and if you search the web for “what is science,” three words tend to come up more often than others: observation, experiment, and evidence. Observations and experiments may not be perfect, even at the limits of our technologies, and interpretations may be flawed, but it’s the evidence that supports, or doesn’t, an argument that is the most important.  And we choose to either accept it, or not.

I wanted to get an on-the-spot response from a scientist, so I asked one of my colleagues at work, Dr. Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist, “You believe in evolution, right?”  I was surprised by how quickly she answered “I don’t believe in evolution – I accept the evidence for evolution.” The believing isn’t what makes evolution true or not, it’s that there is evidence that supports it.

There are plenty of other scientists out there that don’t like the use of the word “believe.”  Kevin Padian, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an open-access article about science and evolution, entitled “Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media.” He states:

“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith.”

Written By: Adam Blankenbicker
continue to source article at blogs.plos.org

0 comments on “Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

  • 3
    crookedshoes says:

    The more shit you decide to believe in; the more likely you become to be wrong. How about this? “If it makes no sense, it is not true.”

    — With utmost respect for all that is quantum.



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  • 4
    Muljinn says:

    In reply to #3 by crookedshoes:

    The more shit you decide to believe in; the more likely you become to be wrong. How about this? “If it makes no sense, it is not true.”

    — With utmost respect for all that is quantum.

    Have to disagree with you on the making no sense = not true crookedshoes. I don’t understand therefore it’s false is just the argument from incredulity logic fallacy. For example, I don’t understand even half of Einstein’s relativity work, but that doesn’t mean it’s false and the experiments of hundreds of other people who do understand more than I, indicate quite strongly that the theory is correct.



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  • 5
    GeneJunkie says:

    This is such a stupid discussion that’s controlled by the religious that want to “prove” evolution is no better than the faith-based beliefs they have about the existence of god. They want everybody to think that “believe” means “faith” and that when you have a belief there can’t be any evidence supporting that belief. Why do sensible people let themselves get pushed in a corner by those people..?? Sometimes I get the idea that those religious people are smarter than non-believers in the way they accomplish in framing particular situations to their benefits.

    “Belief” is no more or less than thinking something is true and it has nothing to do with the amount of evidence you may have to support that belief. It all boils down to semantics. But if you believe something that means you think it’s true. The best test is to invert statements of which you think they are true. The positives may not be used all that often, but when you read the inverted statements you’ll see what mean.

    Suppose I say “I believe evolution is true” someone else might say “I don’t believe it, I accept the evidence”. The latter is silly. If you leave out the “I accept the evidence” part you are left with “I don’t believe in evolution”. But when you accept the evidence then you know there’s no way around evolution being a fact, so consequently there’s no way around believing evolution is true. What that lady in the article should have said is “I do believe in evolution, because I accept the evidence”.

    A weirder example would be “I believe I exist”. This is not something people would say on a daily basis as it sound somewhat awkward, but if you invert that statement to “I don’t believe I exist”, then you see how much value the first statement has, because not believing you exist yourself would get you sent straight to a mental hospital in an ambulance with flashing red and blue lights and sirens, maybe even escorted by the police and you end up in a strait-jacked drugged out of consciousness.

    Obviously it’s the religious bunch that gets the scientific community and its supporters twisting and turning in a semantic labyrinth from which they don’t seem to be able to find a way out. The religious bunch want the scientifically minded people to admit that evolution is on level ground with their beliefs which are void of evidence, or even have evidence to the contrary.

    The positive side of that is the fact that by trying to do this they do implicitly admit to having no evidence for their beliefs.

    But the scientific community and its supporters should not let the religious bunch hijack the word “belief” as if it is only preserved for purely faith-based beliefs for which there is no evidence at all.



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  • 6
    Alan4discussion says:

    It is a fair comment to say “I do not BELIEVE in evolution. I am confident in the thousands of examples of objective evidence which support it”!
    The article (if somewhat belabouring it), makes the point, that sloppy language leaves ambiguities which invite a false equivalence between evidenced science and “faith”.



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  • 7
    Stafford Gordon says:

    Rejection of the word ‘believe’ serves to clearly delineate between scientific methodology and discipline and religious blind faith; excellent article.



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  • 8
    rod-the-farmer says:

    I like the approach “Evolution is a fact. The theory part comes in when you want to describe how and why it happens.” Once you come up with a theory to explain evolution, then you can test that theory, by making predictions. If one of them works, then your theory is vindicated in that case. Multiple predictions that come true increase the possibility that your theory is a good one. Good recent example, tiktaalik.



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  • 9
    Chrysoprase says:

    One might also point out the difference between believe and believe in. I do believe the evidence of evolution, which is not the same as believing in evolution.
    The way this is constantly used seems to point to purposeful semantic equivocation.



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  • 10
    streuther says:

    To me this seems like a good “conscience raiser” to use. One can argue about weather my acceptance of evolution based on evidence can be called “belief” or not, without getting anywhere as it would be an argument about definition. However if somebody asks me in the future if I believe in evolution (or the theory of gravity for instance) answering as suggested in this article would be a good way to provoke discussion and would be remembered by questioner better than a simple “yes”
    Similarly, if somebody asks me if I believe in god, answering with something like “Due to a complete lack of evidence I am convinced that god does not exist, unless your definition of god is extremely vague” would be a more complete answer than just “no”



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  • 11
    SaganTheCat says:

    what i find unfortunate is the need to make such distinctions.

    in an ideal world a scientist could say they believe something but the constant assult from so many anti-science movements tends to be entirely semantic. language should, in my opinion, be a tool for sharing knowledge and understanding, but the fact that the religious have taken words like faith and belief and turned them into virtues that stand up against evidence.

    they have created a situation where what you hold to be fact is less important than how you came to hold it as a fact and in doing so tainted the word “believe”

    we all have beliefs. many we don’t test scientifically because we don’t have to, if we did we wouldn’t have evolved very far. I understand the need for this distinction and I make it myself constantly but just wish i didn’t have to.



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  • 12
    crookedshoes says:

    I like to place a marker in the front of the classroom and declare “this marker is black”. Do I need to “believe” in markers or black or that the marker is black??? No. Then I do not have to believe in any other fact. Belief is for things that are not facts. Much of belief requires suspension of reality (which human brains will gladly do).

    When you believe in something you don’t understand then you suffer….. (thank you Stevie Wonder)



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  • 13
    kenny77 says:

    It depends on the definition of belief :

    • You can believe something based on evidence ( I believe this is a table because it looks like a table, feels like a table ,etc… ) . We all have beliefs like this, because you can’t function without it.

    • You can believe something blindly ( regardless of the evidence , literally taking it ‘on faith’ ).

    In the first sense, a belief in science can just be : “the scientific process has proven time and again to improve our understanding of the world, so I believe this is the best way to do it ” . However, that doesn’t mean you just accept anything a scientist tells you.

    However, if you say : “it’s in a science paper, so it must be true” , that would be accepting it blindly/on faith.

    There is a problem that I struggle with though : We can’t examine everything for ourselves, because we don’t always understand the evidence ( quantum physics anyone ). So, I just have to accept it until it’s proven otherwise.



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  • 14
    Pauly01 says:

    Mmmm , I don’t get it , evidence may undeniably suggest or be consistent with a theory , so why not say I believe the evidence is consistent with this theory. You could also say the evidence is consistent with this theory. I personally see nothing wrong with saying ‘I believe’ , the correlation and causation argument , tells us that we must always be sceptical even when something seems consistent with our expectations. I think it is well possible that 2 differing theories can be satisfied by the same observations.



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  • 15
    ZedBee says:

    I don’t believe that gods don’t exist; the “truth” is there are 2971 of them (on my list).

    I don’t believe in WMDs; the “truth” is Iraq and Iran are stuffed with them.

    I don’t believe that there are such things as casino-banksters.

    I don’t believe that the prophets were telling porkies.

    I don’t believe the contributors here are real people.

    I don’t believe that there are dishonest politicians.

    I am only kidding.



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  • 16
    zengardener says:

    This is all well and good, but at some point you will have to ask yourself, “what do I believe?”.

    what is the difference between these statements? Are they really different if we substitute the word accept for believe?

    I believe that evolution is real.

    I believe in evolution.

    I believe the evidence for evolution.

    I believe the evidence for evolution is real.



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  • 17
    GeneJunkie says:

    In reply to #9 by Chrysoprase:

    One might also point out the difference between believe and believe in. I do believe the evidence of evolution, which is not the same as believing in evolution.
    The way this is constantly used seems to point to purposeful semantic equivocation.

    Why don’t you believe in evolution?



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  • 18
    GeneJunkie says:

    In reply to #12 by crookedshoes:

    I like to place a marker in the front of the classroom and declare “this marker is black”. Do I need to “believe” in markers or black or that the marker is black??? No. Then I do not have to believe in any other fact. Belief is for things that are not facts. Much of belief requires suspension o…

    Belief is for things you think are true. That’s the definition of “belief”. Let’s put it to the test I described in my initial post and invert the statement. When the marker is black (it’s been through a whole myriad of labs-tests) then it would be foolish to say “I believe the marker is not black”. That would mean you think it’s red, blue, green or whatever.



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  • 19
    crookedshoes says:

    I agree with your point but am not sure where it is going…

    Facts stand up all by themselves. Bullshit needs propping up. The bullshitter has to spin story after story to reinforce the bullshit. They have to have great memories to remember all the bullshit. Most of the time the bullshit leads to more bullshit….

    Oranges exist. There, it stands up all by itself. Bullshit needs scaffolding.

    In reply to #19 by GeneJunkie:

    In reply to #12 by crookedshoes:

    I like to place a marker in the front of the classroom and declare “this marker is black”. Do I need to “believe” in markers or black or that the marker is black??? No. Then I do not have to believe in any other fact. Belief is for things that are not facts. Mu…



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  • 20
    GeneJunkie says:

    In reply to #13 by kenny77:

    It depends on the definition of belief :

    You can believe something based on evidence ( I believe this is a table because it looks like a table, feels like a table ,etc… ) . We all have beliefs like this, because you can’t function without it.
    You can believe something blindly ( regardless of the…

    Your problem is that you may not be able to judge the evidence yourself. I can’t judge the evidence of a whole lot of things I believe to be true.They say the Earth revolves around the Sun, and yes, I do believe the Earth revolves around the Sun (just say “I don’t believe the Earth revolves around the Sun and then see how much you believe the Earth revolves around the Sun). But how can I personally determine that is true? As far as I can see it’s the other way around. But sometimes you must rely and trust – yes, have faith in – the people who can make such judgements and the methodologies they use to come to that determination.

    Personally I don’t believe in String Theory, because there’s hardly any evidence to support it. I think it’s not much more than a mathematical idea. I base that unbelief on what I read a about it in articles written by people who can judge it and over-all I think the evidence is not very compelling (as far as there is any). That unbelief may change when evidence in favour comes up, And if there is very compelling evidence evolution is not happening (ie. is not true) that would make me change my belief into an unbelief.

    You may believe the scientific method is the best way to make sense of the world around us that humanity has come up with so far. You can read about what the scientific method is. What comes out of the scientific method are results that may be strong evidence for some hypothesis or theory or not. In the end it’s up to you to weigh all the evidence, based on expert assessment. If you believe something (to be true) can be anywhere in between the spectrum with the extremes ‘unbelief” and “belief”. In the end that’s up to you where your marker ends up in the scale of belief spectrum.



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  • 21
    GeneJunkie says:

    In reply to #20 by crookedshoes:

    I agree with your point but am not sure where it is going…

    Facts stand up all by themselves. Bullshit needs propping up. The bullshitter has to spin story after story to reinforce the bullshit. They have to have great memories to remember all the bullshit. Most of the time the bullshit leads…

    I surely agree with you that bullshit needs scaffolding, but that’s not the point. The problem is that – as I described in my first post in this thread (#5) – that creationists and their ilk are hijacking the word “belief”. They try to semantically frame people into thinking that for something to believe something there is no evidence or that something can’t be factual, and obviously they are succeeding.

    You believe oranges exist. If you’d say “I don’t believe oranges exist” you’d get something very strange. It’s all about semantics and creationists shouldn’t be given the opportunity to redefine the meaning of the word “belief”.



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  • 22
    crookedshoes says:

    Yes, it comes down to certainty and confidence. As a scientist, I approach 100% certainty without ever actually having 100% certainty. I also approach 0% certainty without ever reaching zero. This is because new evidence can always strengthen or weaken my certainty. As we develop new measuring devices, our measurements become more accurate and there is always (in science) room to rethink your conclusions based on new information.

    Contrast this to religion where there is always 100% certainty and this makes the religious “pot committed” so that their paradigm can NEVER be wrong, even in the face of new evidence and information. This is what all the fighting is really about.



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  • 23
    Peter Grant says:

    I believe in the scientific method, I believe science works.

    To sort of steal a phrase from Terry Pratchett, even if gods did exist that would still be no reason to go around believing in them!



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  • 24
    kenny77 says:

    “Can you lift these weights”
    “I believe I can”

    This is a believe based on some evidence ( your own muscle strength , maybe you have done it before ) , but there is no actual certainty that you can do it this time. That’s why it’s a belief.

    Similarly, you ‘believe’ in evolution, based on the evidence. It allows you to get a consensus to work with.

    Money is also a good example of belief : you go to work because you believe you will get payed at the end of the month, and you believe those numbers on your account are actually worth something.
    You only believe it, because everyone else believes it. Otherwise it simply doesn’t work.

    In short : we all need to believe something in order to function ( trust is another example ) as human beings. But that belief usually works best when based on evidence, as this makes it possible to discard the believe when the evidence no longer holds.

    In reply to #19 by GeneJunkie:

    In reply to #12 by crookedshoes:

    I like to place a marker in the front of the classroom and declare “this marker is black”. Do I need to “believe” in markers or black or that the marker is black??? No. Then I do not have to believe in any other fact. Belief is for things that are not facts. Mu…



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  • 25
    GeneJunkie says:

    In reply to #23 by crookedshoes:

    This is what all the fighting is really about.

    True. This is, as I already said, a stupid discussion that shouldn’t be necessary if people wouldn’t let themselves frame into it. That’s a thumbs up for the creationists, they make lots of very intelligent people deny that they believe in something in which they actually believe and we end up with articles to which we’re responding here.



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  • 26
    crookedshoes says:

    Now I see your point. Well said… At first I wasn’t sure but your post (#22) clarified it for me. Good stuff!

    In reply to #26 by GeneJunkie:

    In reply to #23 by crookedshoes:

    This is what all the fighting is really about.

    True. This is, as I already said, a stupid discussion that shouldn’t be necessary if people wouldn’t let themselves frame into it. That’s a thumbs up for the creationists, they make lots of very intelligent people deny…



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  • 27
    mildcat says:

    Substitute the word understand for belief and you are almost ther. I understand the evidence for evolution. I do not understand the evidence for creationism.



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  • I presented my position on the “believe in Evolution” issue as used by Creationists in this recent discussion. There is a bigger (larger scope) question about what people mean when they use the term “science.” I always try to indicate if I mean “knowledge derived from scientific inquiry” or “the process of using the Scientific Method” or “the profession of doing science” or simply “knowledge backed by observation.” When talking to my missionary neighbor I often have to stop him when he calls things “science” (usually in a blaming context) that are actually part of either engineering or technology. Both of those are applications of knowledge that comes from doing science, but little effort is generally practiced by the news media to use terminology that makes that clear.

    I was pleased to watch Lawrence Krauss tell William Lane Craig that “Science is not a thing.” in their most recent ‘discussion.’



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  • 29
    mason.kelsey says:

    If philosophers and scientists could learn what negative connotations they are implying when they use the words “believe” or “belief”, that they are saying that a vision is as valid as a rock solid scientific theory, they would take an oath to NEVER use the word “believe” again except as an insult.



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  • 30
    Steven Kitchen says:

    In reply to #7 by Stafford Gordon:

    Rejection of the word ‘believe’ serves to clearly delineate between scientific methodology and discipline and religious blind faith; excellent article.

    But it is dishonest. You don’t change the meaning of a word by ‘rejecting’ it.
    When I click the word my Google Dictionary defines it as “Accept (something) as true”. We don’t get to choose what we believe.
    I don’t believe for a moment that Dr. Pobine doesn’t believe in evolution.
    But I’m open to changing my mind if I’m given contrary evidence. 😀



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  • Rubbish article. The word “believe” does not have to carry any implication of faith irrespective of evidence (that is but one sense of the word and I submit it requires very particular context to elicit).

    If someone asks you whether your computer will stop working if I drop it from the Golden Gate Bridge into the water below and you answer “I believe so,” you are most likely NOT invoking the sense of “faith in an assertion irrespective of evdience.” Right?

    You are using it in the most common sense of the word, the sense that you will notice if you were to Google “define:belief”. Here it is, for those of you who do not like opening browser tabs: “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.” Notice there is nothing there that implies what caused that acceptance, whether good evidence or bad evidence or no evidence or contradictory evidence or whatever!

    “I believe the theory of evolution to be mostly accurate based on the evidence” is NOT an improper or contradictory usage of the word “believe.” “I believe in evolution” may confuse people as to what sense of the word you are invoking because of the lack of context, so if you are so hilariously afraid of being misunderstood, provide the context rather than trying to avoid a simple word!

    Look, I understand the mental knee-jerk of trying to abandon terms that you feel are “polluted” by being miused or rhetorically abused. And in some environments you have to be careful of what words you use for that very reason. But in this case, if you avoid using the word “believe” because you now think it always implies “baseless faith” then you’re basically playing right into the hands of those who would try and paint scientists and secular thinkers into a corner with semantic tricks. You’ve fallen for the trick and now you’re spreading it like a virus. F-ing stop! Learn the senses of the word, their accepted usage, and invoke it as appropriate.

    GeneJunkie says it well in his/her comment, too.



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  • 32
    Steven Kitchen says:

    In reply to #6 by Alan4discussion:

    It is a fair comment to say “I do not BELIEVE in evolution. I am confident in the thousands of examples of objective evidence which support it”!
    The article (if somewhat belabouring it), makes the point, that sloppy language leaves ambiguities which invite a false equivalence between evidenced…

    It is sloppy language to misdescribe something just because you are afraid of creationist word games.



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  • 33
    mistermac says:

    Why do you want people to say that they believe the sun will rise in the east tomorrow? So that you can say that you believe in God? It is not the same thing and it never will be.



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