Scholarship and the Language of Belief

Student assignments I’ve read this year seem to describe the conclusions of scholars as their “beliefs” about a subject much more frequently than I’ve noticed in the past.

I wonder whether other professors have noticed something similar, and if so, how you respond to the use of such language.

Personally, I think the appropriate language to use for what scholars offer is to speak of their conclusions. In some instances, of course, it may be that what we are presented even in a scholarly work are beliefs that were either predetermined before the investigation began or based on insufficient evidence. But the ideal in scholarly writing, as it is also in student assignments (at least in my classes), is to not merely offer “opinions” but to draw conclusions which, if not always the only possible conclusion given the available evidence, are at least compatible with the available evidence.

What do others think?

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  • mikew1584

    I use belief all the time. I don't use it in the sense of a mere opinion, like "it is my belief chocolate is the best", but as a genral descriptor of what one thinks is true. Generally there should be overlap between a scholars conclusions and beliefs, sine only a idiot would pay attention to the conclusions a scholar comes to is he doesn't believe them. conclusions is a bit more impersonal and abstract. studies of course cannot have beliefs only conclusions. but scholars have beliefs. To want to use conclusion instead of belief to describe those things a scholar has decided are true I think is an attempt to give our beliefs more objectivity. But all beliefs are based on an an individuals acceptance of an interpretation of their observations. Scholars and scientist just believe or concluded that there method works better than such other time honored methods as "thats what my daddy said, are you calling my daddy a liar?" and "Bible said it I believe it"It is mt belief that every ones belief should be based on a comparison of all available evidence. what we call personal opinions are understood to have only the observer as a subject. So my Belief concerning chocolate should be understood as personal, we all know I can't dictate how you feel about chocolate, but the statement was made by me recalling all the flavors I've had and which ones brought me the most joy. It is a true conclusion about me.

  • tacet

    An interesting phenomenon indeed!This semester, when I was helping undergrads edit their final theology papers, I noticed that most of them preferred the language of "I believe…" or "I think…" So, for example, "I believe that Paul is doing X here," or "I think the Gospel of Mark is about X." Each time I ran across this, I would make a note, and several of the students asked me what was wrong with this. My response was that there is nothing inherently wrong with saying you believe X or Y, but for a paper in which you're arguing a thesis (presumably), the language of "belief" or "think" sounds a bit wishy-washy. State your thesis as if it is true, and then back it up. Their response (which I think gets to the heart of the problem) was generally, "Well, my thesis is just what I think…I could be wrong, and who am I to claim that I have the RIGHT answer…everyone is entitled to their opinion." Perhaps a good name for this would be "Academic pluralism."

  • Mr. Hand

    I think you're absolutely right to draw the distinction between beliefs and conclusions. Why not have a discussion with students about that before waiting to see how bad their papers turn out? Writing suffers from lazy or unthinking use of terminology. Talking about a scholar's beliefs is a mistake. We don't have access to their beliefs because they do not write about them. We have access to their texts, in which are constructed their conclusions. The conclusion as it exists in the text is much different from the belief as it exists in the mind of the believer. I'm not interested in reading what scholars believe. I want to read the conclusions they have drawn by applying sound methodologies to properly gathered evidence. Students don't just need to be reminded of this–they must learn it well and have it drilled into their heads with deliberate repetition–if you don't want to keep reading unstable use of terminology.

  • Anonymous

    A "belief" might have any basis or no basis in fact and reason.A "conclusion" comes at the end of an argument, the validity of which I can assess.Your beliefs are of interest to me only insofar as I'm interested in you.Your conclusions are of interest to me insofar as I'm interested in, curious about, the world.The students' usage is a sign of creeping and insupportable, not to say menacing, subjectivism.

  • Doug Chaplin

    I find myself wondering whether this is general among your students for all scholars, or whether they use "belief" more frequently to refer to the conclusions of scholars they disagree with.

  • Bill

    How often do scholars really conclude… anything?