Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Et tu, Chief Scientist?

with 3 comments

Less than a fortnight ago, I wrote that those barracking for conventional scientific theories often maintain that science is not a matter of belief. Sorry guys, but assessing the probability of t (scientific truth) being T (absolute truth), is a matter of belief, as is anything that goes on in the mind regarding external evidence. But there is a difference between belief and true belief.

And then in a conversation with the Chief Scientist Ian Chubb on communicating science, with specific reference to climate science, The Conversation quotes him as saying:

“We scientists need to talk about evidence, and without being cornered into answering questions like ‘do you believe?’,” Professor Chubb said.

“I get asked that every day and every now and then I make a mistake and say yes or no…It’s not a belief, it’s an understanding and an encapsulation and interpretation of the evidence.”


Ian Chubb was speaking to the Royal Society of Victoria, which launched on August 30th a three-year program aimed at increasing the awareness of science among primary school children. And while I agree with most of what Ian Chubb says in his interview with The Conversation, the belief thing should be called for what it is – a full-blown fallacy.

Of course, our knowledge of belief, both scientifically and philosophically, and how it intersects with common understanding or “common sense” means this issue is not as simple as it might look. This is a point that needs straightforward communication in simple, reproducible terms. Chubb admits to making mistakes when asked, which shows he does not have a settled explanation that he can provide on cue. This does not bode well for the communication of science coming from Australia’s chief scientific advisor and suggests there is some work to be done.

First, let’s start with dictionary meanings from the Oxford online American English:

  1. an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists
  2. (belief in) trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something

And British and World English (thus implying American is not part of this world):

  1. an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
  2. (belief in) trust, faith, or confidence in (someone or something)

The British definition points out the role of proof, whereas the American depends on straightforward acceptance. But the former also says especially, which does not rule out belief with proof, but leans more to emphasis of usage.

Philosophical definitions of belief are more explicit:

Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.

This definition describes belief as a psychological state. Although we currently don’t understand the neuropsychology of belief in any depth, there is plenty of evidence to suggests there is little difference between in the psychological status of belief and justified belief. Subjectively, people subject to delusions have no way of telling they are not perceiving something real unless it is confirmed externally. A proposition can be explicit or implicit, in the same way that we don’t need to reconfirm every day that the big yellow thing in the sky is the sun, or is in fact, a star.

Knowledge and belief are also held to be different. Knowledge is external to individual belief because it can be verified independently. Insofar that knowledge can be justified as being scientific, then we can say that belief in a scientific proposition is scientific belief. Therefore, scientific belief is a type of belief, but it cleaves more to the philosophical position that relies on a premise, and forms a subset of belief known as justified belief.

Why is is this point so important? It’s because the Chief Scientist has just launched a campaign by the Royal Society of Victoria called “Science and my world”, aimed at primary aged school children. It’s because, if people and especially children are told that science is not belief, they are being told non-sense. If we cannot easily distinguish one psychological state of belief from another, then how are we to make sense between those states unless we have a way to test propositions to determine whether they are worthy of belief?

It is more important to teach children how to judge what to believe rather than not to believe. Research clearly shows that positive belief biases reasoned conclusions compared to belief-neutral reasoning1. Clearly, learning the latter is beneficial to aid sceptical thinking and to avoid conclusions that naturally confirm the proposition regardless of the evidence at hand. If common sense and philosophy can be lined up reasonably consistently, as they can for belief and scientific belief, where the latter relies on applying the scientific method via experiment or by drawing on scientific knowledge, then this makes more sense than trying to justify the acceptance of science as not qualifying as belief.

A clear hierarchy of statements about scientific belief are needed. They may go something like this:

  • Belief is the acceptance that something is true.
  • Scientific belief is the acceptance that something is true if the evidence supporting that proposition is consistent with the body of scientific knowledge. (Simple version: scientific belief is the acceptance of something supported by scientific evidence)
  • Scientific belief will change with new knowledge/evidence.

This doesn’t get around Weebls’ reasoning that “according to science, this is science“, but it does open the door to a useful dialogue in questioning how someone can decide the truth of a matter using the scientific method.

1. Goel, V. and Dolan, R.J. (2003) Explaining modulation of reasoning by belief. Cognition, 87, B11-B22.


3 Responses

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  1. Sounds pretty frustrating, especially coming from a Chief Scientist. Looking up his pedigree, http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/about/biography-2/, I would have thought that he would have known better.

    But upon closer inspection, it looks like he is cut from a more academic and government cloth. Seems like he has an entirely different lingo and expectation of his audience.

    But I do have a question, is it necessary to classify accepted scientific understanding as a belief? It seems that most schools have a hard enough time communicating the facts.


    September 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    • If people have no way of telling the difference in their subjective psychological state between believing in the tooth fairy on the one hand and that a feather and a brick will fall the same speed in a vacuum on the other, then it is the quality and source of that information that matters.

      Because we are social communicators, we take a great deal of notice of those within our in group and are less critical of what they say. In small social groups which is where humans have been for most of their evolution this makes sense. It’s hard to be a community of one if you happen to disagree with everyone else. In more complex social systems, different epistemologies for technology, science and art begin to develop.

      When culture depends on a large body of knowledge arrived at critically, then unexamined belief make less sense. For a long time there has been a move to teach philosophy to primary age school children that has fallen on deaf ears. Many of the questions little kids ask are philosophical. Why are we here? Why does this work that way? Looking critically at why we believe stuff, even from a very early age, is really important. To be insisting the science is not belief is missing the point – it’s a particular form of justified belief, a subset of overall belief.

      Roger Jones

      September 4, 2012 at 4:11 pm

  2. I understand your frustration Roger, not to acknowledge that science has it’s own believe system absolutely takes all the fun away.

    “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”
    Richard Feynman

    “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”
    John Lennon

    On an vaguely related topic, have you come across the ‘Climate Science as Culture War’ article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review?

    “When analyzing complex scientific information, people are “boundedly rational,” to use Nobel Memorial Prize economist Herbert Simon’s phrase; we are “cognitive misers,” according to UCLA psychologist Susan Fiske and Princeton University psychologist Shelley Taylor, with limited cognitive ability to fully investigate every issue we face. People everywhere employ ideological filters that reflect their identity, worldview, and belief systems. These filters are strongly influenced by group values, and we generally endorse the position that most directly reinforces the connection we have with others in our referent group—what Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan refers to as “cultural cognition.” In so doing, we cement our connection with our cultural groups and strengthen our definition of self. This tendency is driven by an innate desire to maintain a consistency in beliefs by giving greater weight to evidence and arguments that support preexisting beliefs, and by expending disproportionate energy trying to refute views or arguments that are contrary to those beliefs. Instead of investigating a complex issue, we often simply learn what our referent group believes and seek to integrate those beliefs with our own views.”

    I am intrigued to know what you think of the ‘Way Forward’ suggestions therein, how it fits with your experiences. Must say, miss the old Climate Clippings over on LP, were we used to flesh out issues, such as above, with vigorous debate.

    Cheers Ootz


    September 9, 2012 at 12:30 am

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