Recently, Adam Blankenbicker asked me to contribute my thoughts for a post he was preparing on "believing in science." Here it is.
This is an important discussion for many reasons. And I have lots of opinions. Sometimes they're so strong I get to read them on NPR! Sometimes they're so strong that my teeth squeak when I hear a teacher quoted as saying, "I’m here to show you the evidence. If you want to believe the evidence when we’re done, that’s up to you." This kinda kills me just a tiny bit and I have to remind myself that quotes like these are plucked out of a much richer context that's omitted entirely.
But I actually hesitated on whether to respond to Adam's invitation to comment for his post because I'm writing a book right now that turns out to be hugely relevant to this knowledge/science/belief issue and (this is the kicker) it's relevant only because of the immense evidence-based, scientific journey that led me write [sick] up to this issue.
In other words, I hesitated to respond to Adam's email because I am uncomfortable with describing my present state-of-mind on this issue without first leading a person through the steps it took to get me there. The evidence! And those steps are about 60,000 words high and counting...
Regardless, I couldn't resist writing back to him. I knew mine probably wouldn't be the answer that he or at least most of his readers would warm to, but I just had to attempt to get across my discovery (yes, that's what it feels like!) that belief and knowledge aren't so distinct (or maybe aren't distinct period). I saw my response as sort of like a little test to see how it would float out there...
And it kinda sunk.
Let me show you...
Here's just the meat of the email with what I was asked to respond to:
If you have a few minutes, could you provide me some of your thoughts?Here's my klunky response (given some new punctuation for clarity here):
Why shouldn't I say "I believe in science"? What should I say instead to express the idea that I accept science? As a process or just a "thing".
I'll answer your question as if you were told by someone else (not me) that "you shouldn't say 'I believe in science'" and that after they told you that, you came to me for help in understanding why they said that.Here's how my response was presented in the post:
...Maybe because science isn't an entity, it's a perspective. It's also a process that's part of that perspective to arrive at knowledge that fits into that perspective. My This I Believe essay is about the difference between "believing in" something and "believing" something. And all I'd have to say about that is in that essay already.
Not all science-minded folks liked my essay because many think that "to believe" is different than "to know" because "knowledge" to many is based on facts and "belief" is not, so the verbs knowing and believing are therefore different. I don't agree. Even if some things can be distinguished as belief vs. knowledge, the possession of those things is believing/knowing for both the wrong (or completely evidence free) beliefs and the beliefs based on facts. Both can be just as real for the person who holds them so what's the difference? And when you think about all the "knowledge" that's passe and that's been overturned during the history of science, and when you do some serious reading about history and cross-cultural beliefs and knowledge, it's easier and easier to accept that these distinctions we make as scientists are cultural just like any other tribe's when they're describing their own system versus another.
I reached out to Holly and she told me that there were a number of “science-minded” individuals who did not agree with her essay. They “think that ‘to believe’ is different than ‘to know’ because ‘knowledge’ to many is based on facts and ‘belief’ is not, so the verbs knowing and believing are therefore different.” Where I agree with this perspective, Holly disagrees. But she goes on to say that just having the belief or knowledge is fine, not matter what word is used.The delicate issues I tried to briefly convey are not included in my quote. Those parts that he says he disagrees with (the parts I italicized in my email up there) are not included and are poorly paraphrased.
Basically, my quote is plucked out of a much richer context that's omitted entirely!
Am I crazy for posting this? Probably a little. But it's an issue I care very very deeply about...and more now than ever with this journey that I've taken while writing my book. I may be too sensitive, but I've had my mind blown by evidence this summer and it's led me to see knowing/believing and knowledge/science/belief in new ways. As my mind is all exploded right now, I'm not exactly composed about these things--not that I was ever very composed about much in the first place.