Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Let's use evidence (not intuition, semantics, politics, or dogma) to navigate 'belief,' 'knowledge,' and 'science.'



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?
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".
Here's my klunky response (given some new punctuation for clarity here):
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.

...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.
Here's how my response was presented in the post:
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.

29 comments:

Holly Dunsworth said...

This is just evidence to support the hypothesis that I will need to lay out the evidence in order for my "discovery" to float.

Ken Weiss said...

I may not grasp all the subtleties here, but to me 'evidence' is in the eye of the assessor. Is the direct experience of communicating with God evidence that God exists? Who decides?

Was medicine not always 'evidence based'? Is the phrase just a euphemism for standardized, enforced interpretation of some particular set of research reports that have received the imprimatur of, say, NIH?

Sociologists of science have been pointing out routinely for decades by now that the purported objectivity of evidence is often less than accurate and, as importantly, that what is taken to count as evidence, not just whether something was accurately measured, is subjective.

Holly Dunsworth said...

There is evidence out there in the world of people and throughout history that knowledge and belief are more similar than we scientists like to believe.

Holly Dunsworth said...

And if I'm not getting anything at all across but the strong indication that I might have gone off the deep end... I'll take it. Right, Oprah's Book Club?

Hollis said...

but some beliefs are based simply on faith, do they then differ from knowledge? (though I suppose some would claim faith-based beliefs to be knowledge)

ducky said...

I don't think you are crazy. I think Adam's perspective is overly simplistic. We need some anthropologists over here - to me this seems like well-trodden territory in cross-cultural literature! Most beliefs in the world are backed by evidence and reasoning. It's the strength of the evidence and reasoning that varies.

Also wanted to comment that I enjoyed your typo in paragraph 3 and new notation style! hehehe.

Ken Weiss said...

I think that any ideology, religious, political, or scientific is predatory: it wants to dominate its society. The proponents have reasons to argue that their ideology is 'true'.

Science is the most directly empirical ideology. It dreams of being purely objective and of objectivity being a clear (and hence the right) unambiguous criterion.

We've seen that there is some truth in ideologies: socialism was good for many people; capitalism is good for many people; Catholocism, Buddhism,and Islam provide, explanation, solace and motivation for many people.

Science provides material results which improve life, and explain things, for many people.

All are belief systems.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks!! (And "typo?" ... no way.. intentional pun all the way!)

ducky said...

I meant to put typo in quotes but it escaped me!

Holly Dunsworth said...

...as if sans comic...

Holly Dunsworth said...

Something I've been enjoying saying lately: "If it was so easy to reason your way to see another worldview we'd have more huggable atheists."

Jim Wood said...

Holly, one of the most important things I learned as a grad student was something a biochemist said to me in casual conversation: "The most fundamental principle in science is -- nobody knows nuthin'." Evidence is, of course, centrally important to science, but evidence is slippery and filled with problems (e.g. confounding, measurement error, selection bias, etc.). It seems to me that the position adopted by most scientists -- namely "What I believe is evidence-based and therefore 'secure' knowledge, utterly different from the garbage YOU believe" -- is sheer arrogance. As you point out, a great deal of the scientific "knowledge" that accumulated over the years has had to be jettisoned. This is not to say that science doesn't provide some really useful ways to learn about (certain aspects of) reality. But science doesn't produce truth. Yes, science is different from philosophy and religion, but I agree with you that the difference isn't as absolute as many would have it.

Ken Weiss said...

Jim's comments are right on. There is a difference between understanding the material world from the point of view of finding ways to engineer it (build things, make planes fly, destroy mosquitos), and the deepest truths about causation.

Those truths are elusive more than we like to believe, just as you and Jim and others have said.

I think that a sad fact about anthropology is the damage done by 'post-modernism' (or whatever term you wish to use).

Unfortunately, to me, rather than having the appropriate kinds of critiques against both the arrogance and the societal abuses that can come from a technologically centered worldview, post-modernism was a destructive scorched-earth ideology of its own.

The appropriate parts of its message were lost, and the inappropriate parts too deeply absorbed by many in our profession.

I would go further, and you both would probably agree, that a healthy skepticism might do a lot of good in advancing our understanding of what we can really know with confidence, by keeping us from adopting too much dogmatism of our own.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks for all these comments (and tweets). I had no idea whether this post would make any sense (hence all my references to crazy) given how I didn't explain myself because I've got a whole book in the works for that! So glad to see it was thought-provoking as-is.

Jim Wood said...

It has always seem to me that a rigorous "bounded skepticism" (as opposed to the nihilistic, politically-driven skepticism of, say, climate-change deniers) ought to be an essential part of every scientist's mindset. "Nobody knows nuthin'" should be the scientist's mantra. Leave absolute truth to the beneficiaries of revealed religion -- and, okay, maybe mathematicians.

Jim Wood said...

I should have said "as opposed to the nihilistic, politically-driven skepticism of, say, climate-change deniers AND POST-MODERNISTS!!"

Holly Dunsworth said...

Great way to put it. It's really difficult for many of us, especially students, to distinguish skepticism from post-modernism or science-denial and even fringe and conspiracy stuff. I think this is why so many people think it's a sort of intellectualism to favor alien explanations for the Nazca lines, for example.

Ken Weiss said...

It's a challenge. We start students out in science by teaching things like the area of triangles, momentum, lever arms, and simple chemical reactions. Those are for practical purposes 'true'.

So when and how do we teach science more circumspectly? Do we say evolution is true, but we don't know all the facts about it, or do we say (as creationists would perhaps argue) that evolution 'might' be true? How, at early ages, to we teach science as imperfect exploration for approximate understanding, rather than to determine the 'true' laws of Nature?

sarah bagley said...

I've been doing a lot of thinking on this issue lately too, and I have some reactions to this discussion. I totally agree with you that it's wrong to say that knowing and believing differ because knowing is more "real" and based on facts, and believing is more "fake" and based on something unreal or untrue. But instead of actually being equal, I think it's totally the opposite. It's hard to wrap one's mind around because it's so counter-intuitive - we think of beliefs in the same category as untruths or fantasies, and knowledge in the same category of truth or fact. But actually, the way people believe beliefs depends far more on certainty and the willingness to hold fast to the belief no matter what, and the way people know knowledge depends much more on uncertainty and contingency - the readiness to change our minds if new evidence comes to light. People with strong beliefs, then, would actually live in a MORE solid, seemingly "fact" based world than people with scientific knowledge. Beliefs are not equally as "real" to believers as facts are to scientists - they are actually MORE real, because scientists' perspective depends on the idea that at any moment their knowledge could become "wrong," and then they'd be ready to switch to a new reality.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I agree in many ways. But there are two points from my perspective that make it difficult to agree 100%: (A) non-scientific or non-evidence-based beliefs are also malleable during a person's life, even without conversion to a knew labeled religion, and (B) It's not clear that scientists are more malleable in the grand scheme of things than others.

MinnieShoof said...

I first wanna say that I enjoy the image you chose as a reflection of the way you and your quote were handled by nested author.

I can appreciate the rich (irony would be the wrong word, wouldn't it?) of a man who wants to say that 'knowledge' is separate from 'belief' by saying he knows someone like yourself is wrong because he and his fellows believe it is so. I mean, maybe if he'd've cited a dictionary entry pointing out the two words' differences or something it wouldn't be such a hilarious turn. I don't think he'd appreciate an English (by the way, do I have to point out he's being very narrow in his scope? ok, the words in English might have a crowbar or they might not, but what about the other major languages?) major coming in and doing his job, so I can't see why he's being so prickly (or touchy-feely) about doing what boils down to vocabulary words for 2nd graders? It's basically an enclosed system that comes back to just bite him on the butt for being so narrow minded about it.

To me, and I channel the Great Poet - if I catn't find the word to fit the context, I'll just make it up - or, in this case, I'll just shoe-horn this word in where it doesn't belong because it is cultural belief that the word here applies, to me, this is just ironic.

Jim Wood said...

Sarah, I think what you've written is a lovely statement of how things ought to be, but an imperfect description of how things really are. The principled uncertainty and contingency you speak of is precisely what I meant by "Nobody knows nuthin'" in my earlier comments. Alas, I've known all too many scientists who believe what they believe with religious certainty and are willing to do (purely intellectual?) battle for their beliefs. Of course, many of them have ended up embarrassed when their beliefs are rudely overthrown!

sarah bagley said...

Oh, sure - I completely agree with both of you. I was using the words "believers" and "scientists" because they were the ones in play, not because I actually think they are the best way to make that distinction. I think, for example, of Kierkegaard's doubtful mode of faith, or of Nietzsche's discussion of the "ascetic ideal" that dominates much of both religion and science in "The Genealogy of Morals." My biggest point is that even though it's not split down the fault line between religion/"belief" and science, there are two different ways of interacting with knowledge in the world, one based on certainty and the other based on doubt and contingency. Saying that believing and knowing are effectively the same things comes dangerously close to eliding that difference - or at least being unwilling to engage with that discussion. The reason I say "dangerously" is that I think it's an incredibly consequential distinction right now in the American political world, especially because people whose mode of knowing skews towards certainty also tend not to be able to tolerate people they cannot understand. Although it's an important discussion to have, I think that trying to show that believing and knowing are the same thing because many scientists believe and many people of faith know is actually beside the point. Admitting that there is a distinction and that it's very consequential for how we engage with the world, whether nominally "believers" or "scientists," is I think ultimately a much better use of mental effort, if "better" is determined by the quality of life of people affected by these mindsets.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I do not at all agree that mental effort should be used to elucidate quality of life differences between believers and scientists.

Holly Dunsworth said...

How are there more comments on a post where I didn't explain myself than for most of my others, all of which where I at least attempted to explain myself? Have I been doing this blogging thing all wrong? ;)

Hez-MAT said...

I will say that I beleive in science, or atleast certain aspects of it. I will tell you why. I only have the option to beleive in science because i can not honestly say in many instances that I know the evidence is true. There is two reasons for this, 1 is I have never conducted the experiments to proov the science myself or seen it done and I have not got the mental capasity to understand the science of the experiments anyway. So I only have the option to believe or to not believe or to have faith that what a scientist says is true. If I cannot say I believe or have faith then all I have left is that I dont believe.....and it would be stupid to not believe what much more intelligent people than I have said to be proven as true. I believe E=MC2 but I dont know it does, because I have never done the equation, and i doubt i could if I tried. Or is science only for those people who can know the truth and not merely believe it.

Ken Weiss said...

The problem is that the evidence is often not clear and assumptions or various subjective criteria are used in developing and analyzing it. That doesn't make it wrong, but it is often not definitive and often (especially these days, perhaps) presented in more of an advocacy than reporting way. But it's often true that a non-specialist has no way to know whether or to what extent to believe what is said. This is not about scientists lying, which being human some of them do, but about what a person decides to accept as good evidence.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I believe what my plumber says and have a plumber because I don't know the trade. I'm sure this is true for many people. Yet does believing a plumber ever spark a borderline existential debate like believing "science" does? I think not. Well why's that?

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'll offer a guess: Plumbers don't tell us we're going to die and there's no proof of heaven or god (or need of those hypotheses).