In her July 28th, 2016, acceptance speech for Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton emphatically pronounced:
“I believe in science!” … I think she even pumped her fist.
But I cringed.
Now I didn’t cringe because I think that Clinton literally means that she has a belief in science. A belief without evidence for how and why science works. I cringed because by lobbing belief, indeed the whole belief concept, into her brief mention of climate change that followed, Clinton did no justice to the massive body of evidence and scientific consensus behind the reality of global warming and climate change, and its human cause.
My purpose here today is to argue that when influential people, from teachers to scientists to policy makers and world leaders, let belief wander into science, they weaken the knowledge we gain from science and the scientific consensus that backs up that knowledge. Simply put, Hillary Clinton had, at that moment, an amazing opportunity to help close the door on the epidemic of pseudoscientific thinking in general and science denial on climate change in particular… and at that moment, she failed.
We must improve at science communication.
Now, we could have an hours-long discussion with reasonable philosophers about what a belief is and what it means to believe in something, but I only have three-and-a-half more minutes.
Here’s the gist:
Belief… and faith live firmly in the realm of religion. Beliefs by definition are claims without evidence, but in science we trust the process and we accept or reject claims based on the weight of the evidence.
Stating belief in a scientific fact, observation, or hypothesis is a careless use of language by anyone, and even scientists themselves are guilty, and should avoid the term altogether.
It should be obvious that belief statements and science communication do not mix.
In 2013, Vertebrate Paleontologist, Kevin Padian, wrote:
“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith… This is a problem because scientists themselves often use the word ‘believe’ when discussing their results! It is just sloppy diction: they would not say that their conclusions are a matter of faith, rather than of evidence. Instead of saying ‘many scientists believe’ or ‘some scientists think’, it is more productive to talk about the evidence.”
So I argue here today that because we so casually use belief statements when the evidence is abundant, we the scientists, we the science educators, and we the science supporters and enthusiasts are in large part responsible for how easy it is for science denialists to to simply respond, “Well, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe in evolution or climate change or vaccinations.” When we fail at science communication by letting belief leak in, we make it possible for others to disregard scientific consensus altogether.
Belief statements about scientific facts may indeed be the gateway drug to science denial. And we the science communicators should not be the drug dealers.
Now, to be fair, beliefs by themselves are mostly harmless. But as Matt Young and I say in our book, Why Evolution Works, “when any belief, religious or otherwise, is in direct conflict with known scientific fact, that belief must be reconsidered.”
So as a science teacher, I don’t allow belief statements in my classroom. I work with my students to be skeptical of their own results and tentative with their claims, but also to accept or reject claims based on the weight of the evidence. And I ask them not to believe in scientific theories and the facts and laws that back them up, but to trust in the self-correcting, logical process that science is.
We should not have faith in science. Instead we should trust in the process of science and the knowledge it generates, and trust in the people doing the work.
So, to circle back to our politicians. Those of you out there who are writing and voting on critical science based policies that affect all of us, I don’t want to hear about what you believe. We need to hear about what you know and what you understand about scientific issues based on the weight of the evidence and your trust of scientific consensus. We need to know that it is your trust in science that drives your science-based decisions, not your beliefs. We the scientists and science educators will work to improve our science communications skills, but we need you to work alongside us to help the public understand what we know and how we know it.