Can We Stop Getting Worked Up Over “Belief”?

Can We Stop Getting Worked Up Over “Belief”? July 30, 2016

Image by Galen Broaddus

Thursday night, Hillary Clinton made history by accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party for president, making her the first woman to be nominated for the office by a major party in US history.

But her acceptance speech also included a statement that has many of us rejoicing, if for no other reason than the stark contrast it provides: “I believe in science!”

Well, I say “rejoicing,” but in the midst of the praise (sometimes half-hearted) for Hillary Clinton elevating science and specifically climate change, there of course had to be some nitpicking over the way she did it. And of course, it had to be about the word “belief.”

This is not new or exclusive to Clinton. It’s also not, as it might seem at times, an example of simple folk wisdom for atheists and skeptics but is seriously argued for by scientists and science educators (among others). For just one example, Kevin Padian, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has proposed that “believe” not be used when discussing the acceptance of evolution.

Perhaps there’s a pragmatic argument for avoiding that in textbooks and science writing. Still, there’s a sense in which I think that opposition to blindly dogmatic belief has caused us to overcorrect on our language use.

The reality is that “belief” can — and in most cases does — simply mean, as the Oxford American Dictionary states in the above image, “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.” This is a propositional attitude, the intellectual assent to a claim. I believe that the sky is (under average circumstances on Earth) blue. I believe that 2+2=4. I believe that Jill Stein panders to anti-vaxers. I believe that governments should maintain a neutral stance toward religion or non-religion. I believe that my wife loves me.

Now, in these examples, the propositions are not of equivalent evidentiary or epistemic value. Some are necessary and some contingent. Some are wholly factual in nature and some reliant on the acceptance of underlying value claims. But they are all propositions that I hold to be true.

But that propositional usage isn’t the only one. The OAD also mentions “trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.”

This distinction — believe-that vs believe-in — is an important one, but even more to the point, neither of these usages has to do strictly with religion, dogma, or uncritical acceptance.

I don’t mind people making pragmatic judgments about whether or not they will use the word “belief” to refer to an idea they hold to be true based on reasoned judgment and evidence. But it isn’t wrong to say “I believe in evolution” or “I believe that climate change is real and caused by humans” or even the blanket “I believe in science.”

Nor should we be criticizing Hillary Clinton for saying that she believes in science because what that tells us about her is that she trusts science enough as a process — and scientists enough as a community devoted to discovering more about our natural world — to listen to them, and when she listens, that matters.

And I too believe in science. I believe in it because it has a proven track record and because it has mechanisms intended to eliminate or mitigate the kinds of human biases that have hindered our ability to accurately understand our universe. It’s not an uncritical trust and it’s not an irrevocable trust, but it is trust nonetheless.

Science is not merely a set of propositions to be accepted. It’s a process that works, and while it does not represent the entirely of human knowledge, it’s worth trusting in, however provisionally or tentatively.

So please, for the love of all that is good, can we stop getting worked up over “belief” already?


Image via Galen Broaddus

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