Et tu, Chief Scientist?
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:
- an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists
- (belief in) trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something
And British and World English (thus implying American is not part of this world):
- an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
- (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:
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.