Stop writing “scientists believe”

March 7, 2016

This one is for journalists and other popularizers of science. I see a lot of people writing that “scientists believe” this or that, when talking about hadrons or hadrosaurs or other phenomena grounded in evidence.

Pet peeve: believing is what people do in the absence of evidence, or despite evidence. Scientists often have to infer, estimate, and even speculate, but all of those activities are grounded in evidence and reason, not belief.1

In addition to doing science, scientists may also believe in the proper, spiritual sense, in which case you are free to explain what certain individual scientists believe. But that’s not how the word “believe” is used most of the time when it comes up in science stories.

So stop it. It’s lazy, and it’s damaging, because it gives (some) people the impression that scientists are clueless buffoons who make stuff up out of the whole cloth in a cynical bid to keep their jobs. Given that we have an entire political party pushing that view and trying to defund science and education at every turn, we don’t need that caricature promoted any further.

Even if you don’t accept that argument, it’s still bad writing. Good writing explains why people think as they do. So do that instead. In addition to the aforementioned “infer”, “estimate”, and “speculate”, you can use “surmise”, “reason”, “predict”, or – if you must – “think”. “Scientists have found” would be better still.

Best of all would be if the “scientists X” clause was preceded by, “Based on this evidence” (which you’ve just explained in the previous sentences), so readers can connect cause (evidence) and effect (scientists think) – which is what science is mostly about in the first place.

 

 

1. I realize that I am grossly oversimplifying – evidence, reason, and belief can interact in complicated ways in both spiritual and scientific spheres. But my purpose here is fixing poor word choice, not exploring that interaction.

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40 Responses to “Stop writing “scientists believe””

  1. Halbred Says:

    You ask the impossible, but I agree.

  2. George Says:

    I hate to be the one to pop the bubble on this writer’s “pet peeve” but the fact of the matter is that the word “believe” is becoming increasingly more appropriate in today’s “science”.

    To wit: when they speak of ‘strings’, ‘multiverses’, ‘extraterrestrial civilizations’ and ‘abiogenesis’ there is more “belief” involved than anything else. There certainly isn’t any “evidence” for these things. Many notable scientists have criticized string theory and multiverses as being “more philosophy than science”.

    Then the writer makes the cardinal and common sin of applying a double-standard when he writes: “Scientists often have to infer, estimate, and even speculate, but all of those activities are grounded in evidence and reason, not belief.”

    Why does the writer presume that scientists have a monopoly on evidence and reason? Believe me, they do not. Worse yet, the writer wants to distance scientists from pure belief sans evidence. At best, the writer is being naive on this point.

    In short, scientists do indeed “believe” in a great many things and, as noted above, the quantity and quality of those beliefs is increasing at a fast pace.

  3. Lee Says:

    Did you forget that there are “basic beliefs” that cannot be proven? E.g. that you are not he only person in the universe and that everything around you is jaust a kind of dream (Solipsism)? Or can you prove that yesterday did really exist and you are not a Boltzman brain that did .according to quantum physics- pop into existence just a second before now with all the “fake” memories you “believe” to remember, but were never there? Must you not believe that the universe is rational in order to do any science at all? I am science professor for over 20 years and “believe” me, every scientific statement has a workload of more or less “hidden” beliefs that cannot be proven. So the word “scientist believe” is more that appropriate…

  4. vjtorley Says:

    Your definition of belief as an opinion held in the absence of evidence is quixotic. Even religious people typically attempt to bolster their faith by appealing to what they consider to be evidence. In any case, the word “believe” is usually used as a transitive verb. When used in this way, here is how Merriam-Webster defines it:

    1 a: to consider to be true or honest
    b: to accept the word or evidence of
    2: to hold as an opinion : suppose

    According to “Scientific American,” 97 percent of scientists believe climate change is caused by humans. (See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-determine-the-scientific-consensus-on-global-warming/ ) Or is that statement a misuse of language too?

    If you’re going to criticize a standard reference dictionary and a leading science journal for their use of the term “believe,” then I would respectfully suggest you are being a wee bit pedantic.

  5. Jordan Says:

    Whle I appreciate the gist of the post, most dictionaries I’ve consulted define “belief” as “accepting something as true” (or some variation thereof). It strikes me this can be done with or without evidence. If “belief” was restricted to mean that without evidence, terms like “blind belief” would be tautologous.

  6. Andrew Stuck Says:

    So what if the dictionary defines the word “belief” in a certain way? The vast majority of people also misuse the word “ironic” in a way that doesn’t conform to its dictionary definition. Matt’s point is about how the public at large sees scientists, and when the average Joe sees the word “believe”, he thinks “Oh, that scientist’s guess is just as good as mine.” I agree that the reputation of science is damaged precisely by this misunderstanding of the word by the general public. Or have you never read the language used by climate change deniers and anti-evolutionists?

  7. Lee Says:

    Good comments, so far :-)
    I want to add: Does one “believe” that 2+2=4? In a way, yes, since the proof of 2+2=4 presumes (by faith!) the validity of certain axioms (like the law of non-contradiction, that cannot be proved and therefore must be believed).
    But even when separating axioms (i.e. pure believed truths) from the “rest”, there are necessary and contingent truths. Both are absolute truths (i.e. independent of space and time), but the former cannot be “not true”, while the latter could be at least logically possibly false (though it is in fact true).
    In other words: if necessarily or contingently true- in both cases one must “believe” in the validity of logic.
    And – Newton “believed” the hidden assumptions that time and space were absolute. Only with these assumptions could he gain his equations, still taught in schools. But they are false in the strict sense, as Einstein showed. In this sense Newton „believed“ that his equations are true, but they were not. This is –as the former commentators already pointed out- a good justification for saying “scientists believe…”.
    And by the way: Doesn’t the author of the upper article “believe” that he is right? Did he give any proof of his opinions? I guess not.

  8. Jordan Says:

    I hear you, Andrew. But I don’t think the solution to peoples’ misuse of the word “belief” is to simply say “so what?” and let them continue using the word in the wrong way. The solution is to correct people and point out that beliefs can be held on reasonable grounds, too.
    I’m certainly aware of the language used by climate change deniers and anti-evolutionists. To wit, I’m aware of the way they misuse the word “theory”, and of the rightful backlash they receive from those wanting to imbue the word with its proper meaning. This is no different.

  9. Manabu Sakamoto Says:

    I don’t think all this pedantic argument here on the precise definition of the word “believe” adds to the overall discussion of its misuse in the popular media.
    As Andrew Stuuck’s already mentioned, an average reader will not be aware of the precise definition of the word. Using “scientists” and “believe” in the same sentence has the potential danger of allowing people to mistake how scientists conduct research or present their findings. For instance, it’s easy for a lay reader to come out thinking that scientists deduce some new understanding (“belief”) from a new piece of information, but in reality scientist will have made observations, collected data, analysed said data (statistically), wrote a paper about it, which went through peer review, and then gets published. The process is not simply, we believe in this new idea because we found a new piece of information, but rather a more thorough and methodical one with as much objective analyses and interpretation as possible.
    I think Matt Wedel wanted to illustrate this point, so attacking him on misunderstanding the precise definition of the word “Believe” achieves nothing of value.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    George: Why does the writer presume that scientists have a monopoly on evidence and reason?

    Ah, you seem to have missed the footnote. Please go back and read it.

    And thank you, Andrew Stuck and Manabu Sakamoto, for actually getting the point of the post! It’s not about the OED definition of ‘believe’, it’s about it’s actually used informally by most people, and the fact that it’s a terrible choice for science writers and other journalists trying to explain why scientists think they way they do about science. I should have foreseen it would serve as a halting problem for trivial point-scorers.

  11. Frosted Flake Says:

    Interesting discussion. If I may loose a rodent?

    Thomas Townsend Brown conducted experiments examining the electrical manipulation of gravity. And produced interesting data. Which “no one” believes. Recently a pair of what are believed to be black holes collided and apparently converted 3 solar masses of black hole into gravitational energy. Which would seem to be a natural repetition of T.T. Browns experiments.

    So, apparently, ‘scientists’ know how to convert energy (mass) into gravity. But do any of them believe it? And what is the key difference if they did?

    This falls under the rubric of ‘the cult of the excluded data’

    Thoughts?

  12. Jordan Says:

    But Manabu, how can we claim that a word is being misused in the popular media if we don’t first concern ourselves with the “pendantic” matter of what the word means? If it can mean anything we want it to, then we can hardly accuse others of misusing it!
    The point that myself and others are making is that the word “believe” is misused in this very post (with all due respect to Matt), nevermind the popular media. That’s not an insignificant matter in a blog post titled Stop Writing “Scientists Believe”! (It’s also not a personal “attack” on Matt.)
    Having said all that, I agree wholeheartedly with Matt’s point that other, more descriptive terms could be used in lieu of “believe”. But it isn’t wrong for the media to say “Scientists believe X” if the word is used in the traditional/established sense of meaning “something accepted as true.”
    Anyways, I won’t belabour the point. I’ll bow out.

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    vjtorley: According to “Scientific American,” 97 percent of scientists believe climate change is caused by humans. (See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-determine-the-scientific-consensus-on-global-warming/ ) Or is that statement a misuse of language too?

    Yes, of course it is! Any of the alternatives I proposed in the post would have been better, especially if they’d been prefaced by, “Based on a boatload of evidence”.

    But bless your heart for attempting to deploy the argument from authority – you’ve made my point beautifully!

  14. Manabu Sakamoto Says:

    Jordan,
    So, perhaps, “misuse” may not be the right word, but perhaps, more like a “loaded” word?

    I think in this current climate (i.e. anti-intellectualism, science-scepticism, climate change denial, etc.), there is a clear and present danger of potential wording that can enforce that climate, thus “loaded” may be more appropriate? Would that work?

  15. William Miller Says:

    I think the problem is that “believe” is used in two different ways
    – “hold as a matter of faith”
    – stronger than “suppose” or “speculate” but weaker than “know”

  16. Katwoman Says:

    Not a scientist here, but I am in total agreement with the author for one simple reason: I have often been asked whether I believe in evolution.

    I always respond that I do not believe in evolution, because evolution is not a belief system – it is the scientific explanation for the origins of life as backed up by over a century of research and testing in every field of biology.

    But the simple wording “Do you believe in evolution?” reveals that people treat that aspect of science as more questionable than others, and therein lies the problem. No one ever asks me if I believe in gravity or thermodynamics or nuclear fusion, but evolution and global warming? That’s just a conspiracy that PhDs keep up to feel smarter than everyone else.

    The way we word things matters. Belief is a fantastic term to use when discussing and debating various philosophies, but science requires a higher standard than the personal conviction of an individual, and the language we use when we talk about it should reflect that standard.

  17. David Marjanović Says:

    Did you forget that there are “basic beliefs” that cannot be proven?

    You don’t actually need to hold any of those just to do science. It may seem pointless if you don’t, but it’s still easily possible.

    I, for one, know full well I can’t prove that I’m not the solipsist, for example. Solipsism is really, really unparsimonious, but that’s not a proof. So what! I accept that, therefore, I can’t know anything with metaphysical certainty. I live with this just fine.

    Some people apparently can’t. I know of two regionally famous people who, at some point in their life, went all “but you CAN’T just ‘believe in nothing’! You HAVE to hold SOMETHING as absolute truth, so you can build on it, because otherwise you’re adrift and lost!” …No, you really don’t have to. :-|

    (One of those people, BTW, went on to become a bishop. Neither of them became a scientist, or tried to become a scientist.)

    Must you not believe that the universe is rational in order to do any science at all?

    That observed reality is consistent enough to contain predictable patterns isn’t an axiom, it’s an observed fact.

    Whether observed reality is truth is a different question. It might not be; it might be a figment of my imagination (solipsism), in which case it’s an observed fact that my imagination is remarkably consistent (quite unlike my dreams), or it might all just be fake memories (Last-Tuesdayism/Last-Thursdayism), in which case it’s an observed fact that the creator’s trickery is highly consistent. If so, science explores my imagination or the creator’s ways rather than the truth; but it’s still science, and it’s still feasible. :-)

    To wit: when they speak of ‘strings’, ‘multiverses’, ‘extraterrestrial civilizations’ and ‘abiogenesis’ there is more “belief” involved than anything else. There certainly isn’t any “evidence” for these things. Many notable scientists have criticized string theory and multiverses as being “more philosophy than science”.

    Hold on for just a second.

    1) Why do you make scientists as a whole responsible for string theory? String theory is controversial among physicists because it’s untestable by (at least) the currently available means. Much the same holds for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
    2) What scientists speak of extraterrestrial civilizations? ~:-|
    3) You seem to believe that life is somehow magic and can only come about by a miracle. There’s no evidence for that. :-) It’s all just chemistry; where “life” begins is a matter of definition. I can’t find the paper I’m thinking about right now, but I’ll post a link later today; that should be a good starting point.

    Why does the writer presume that scientists have a monopoly on evidence and reason?

    I can’t actually find that claim anywhere in the OP.

  18. George Says:

    No, I did *not* miss the footnote. I’ve been involved in these types of discussions for decades and have learned to recognize certain tones and insinuations. Specifically, he wrote: “Pet peeve: believing is what people do in the absence of evidence, or despite evidence. Scientists often have to infer, estimate, and even speculate, but all of those activities are grounded in evidence and reason, not belief.”

    Is that not insinuating – if not directly stating – that all of those activities that scientists do are “grounded on evidence and reason” (aka, “hard facts”), rather than on [“blind”] beliefs?

    My post purposed to correct the writer on that point. Scientists are *people* and like all people they are guided far more often by their beliefs than most of them would be willing to confess in public. The commonly-held view of scientists as “purely objective, calculating automatons whose views are based on pure facts” is a myth for little children. And increasingly so we are witnessing beliefs sans evidence encroaching true science.

    I provided four examples of how *beliefs* have infiltrated the realm of science. There are many others such as “global warming” and the “Evolutionary Paradigm”. Can’t be any clearer than that.

  19. David Marjanović Says:

    Oh, sorry, I should have refreshed before posting… I had only seen the first 6 comments… and I overlooked this:

    If you’re going to criticize a standard reference dictionary and a leading science journal for their use of the term “believe,”

    I’m really surprised you think Scientific American is a science journal, leading or not! It’s a popular magazine which presents findings from actual science journals to the general public. Original research papers, peer-reviewed or not, are not published there.

    Onward:

    And – Newton “believed” the hidden assumptions that time and space were absolute.

    That’s not a good way to put it. He postulated these “assumptions” explicitly and defined them carefully; I’m strongly reminded of “assume a spherical cow”. He probably ended up believing them because the calculations based on them fit the observations so well, and likely because they also fit his expectations; but it’s not like he postulated them out of the blue.

    Thomas Townsend Brown conducted experiments examining the electrical manipulation of gravity. And produced interesting data. Which “no one” believes. Recently a pair of what are believed to be black holes collided and apparently converted 3 solar masses of black hole into gravitational energy. Which would seem to be a natural repetition of T.T. Browns experiments.

    How so, when there’s no electricity involved in the collisions of black holes?

    Anyway, the Wikipedia article on Brown states: “Scientists who witnessed the demonstrations of Brown’s devices have been skeptical, and have attributed the noticed motive force to the more well understood phenomenon of ionic drift or ‘ion wind’ [link] from the air particles, some of which still remained even when Brown put his device inside a vacuum chamber.” In short, Brown’s interpretations of the observations was not the most parsimonious one.

    The Wikipedia article on “electrogravitics”, linked from there, goes further. Read it, the section I’m linking to is short.

    science requires a higher standard than the personal conviction of an individual, and the language we use when we talk about it should reflect that standard.

    Well said.

    Is that not insinuating – if not directly stating – that all of those activities that scientists do are “grounded on evidence and reason” (aka, “hard facts”), rather than on [“blind”] beliefs?

    If so, how does that mean that the activities of nobody else are “grounded on evidence and reason”???

    There are many others such as “global warming” and the “Evolutionary Paradigm”.

    :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D

    Read more.

  20. Matt Wedel Says:

    George: Is that not insinuating – if not directly stating – that all of those activities that scientists do are “grounded on evidence and reason” (aka, “hard facts”), rather than on [“blind”] beliefs?

    No, it’s not insinuating that at all. I was perfectly explicit in the post that scientists don’t spend all of their time doing science – see the paragraph on scientists who hold spiritual beliefs – and that evidence and reason are not exclusive to science – see the footnote.

    If you disagree with me, that’s one thing, but making up a straw man that is flatly contradicted what I actually wrote and then parading it around is just feeble.

    I provided four examples of how *beliefs* have infiltrated the realm of science. There are many others such as “global warming” and the “Evolutionary Paradigm”. Can’t be any clearer than that.

    Oh, please. I don’t “believe” in global warming or in evolution. I accept that they have happened and are happening based on mountains of evidence laboriously compiled by other scientists (and, in the case of evolution, by myself). If you want to pretend that all of that evidence does not exist, or that I can’t draw any conclusions from it because I didn’t collect it myself, you are welcome to that delusion – but none of the rest of us are compelled to accept it or treat it seriously.

  21. Frosted Flake Says:

    David Marjanović

    I hesitate to respond to a provocation this petty. But, succinctly, electricity is a form of energy, and the gravitational wave observation seems to show gravity being produced not by the presence of mass, but by the conversion of mass to energy. Thus, the the assumption gravity is an intrinsic property of matter is thrown into very serious doubt.

  22. Mike Taylor Says:

    George says:

    Scientists are *people* and like all people they are guided far more often by their beliefs than most of them would be willing to confess in public. The commonly-held view of scientists as “purely objective, calculating automatons whose views are based on pure facts” is a myth for little children.

    This is very important. In one sense, George is very right: scientists are people, and are prone to all the same errors as people. But the point about scientists is that they are doing science, and as I’ve written before science is precisely a formalised system for helping us to mitigate these biases. Scientists are just as fallible in their reasoning as anyone else; but they’re working in a framework that constantly pushes them to guard against that fallibility, and take it into account.

  23. George Says:

    Sorry but I don’t engage in straw men or similar dishonest tactics. So then, let’s all agree to cease the “pet peeve” nonsense – is that okay with you? Scientists are every bit subject to being based on “beliefs” – often times *blind* beliefs – as any other group in society. Discard the childish myth of scientists as some sort of “intellects whom we can trust because of their superior, fact-based objectivity”.

    As for your *beliefs* in global warming and the Evolutionary Paradigm, you have just proven my case in spades. You first *believe* and then you practice *selective* data gathering in support of your beliefs. Perhaps you are unaware of the vast mountains of evidence that do NOT support your beliefs? Perhaps you are unaware of the scandals of data fabrication and contra-evidence censorship (e.g., the infamous global warming emails/documents of years back – all of which were quietly and quickly swept under the rug) that have occurred in order to strengthen the case for your chosen beliefs?

    Yes, you do base yourself on “evidence” – “evidence” that is biased and arbitrarily selected in order to support your beliefs. Any other “evidence” is discarded or ignored. You’re going to have to try much harder, Matt.

  24. David Marjanović Says:

    I hesitate to respond to a provocation this petty.

    Oh, I’m sorry – no provocation was intended!

    the conversion of mass to energy

    Mass is already a form of energy. You’re of course right that electrical energy can, for example, be converted into mass; that’s what a collider does (by way of kinetic energy). But the amount of energy needed to create as much mass as Brown needed to explain the effects he observed is way, way more than what Brown actually put in. Specifically, it’s mc², and c² is a really large factor.

    Mass distorts spacetime. Moving masses create moving distortions in spacetime; that’s what a gravitational wave is. Only the very largest ones of those are measurable; what Brown had at his disposal was many orders of magnitude below that.

  25. David Marjanović Says:

    the infamous global warming emails/documents of years back

    Read more about those, too. There’s a lot you are unaware of.

  26. George Says:

    “Scientists are just as fallible in their reasoning as anyone else; but they’re working in a framework that constantly pushes them to guard against that fallibility, and take it into account.”

    And in an *ideal* world that is precisely what we would be getting. Unfortunately we are nowhere near being in an ideal world. One example is the latest barrage of papers that have had to be withdrawn after finding fraud, data fabrication, etc. This occurs even after the papers went through peer review and it occurs at the highest levels of journals and publishers.

    The framework you speak of is only as good as the people that follow it. Mind you, I’m not asking that the baby gets tossed out with the dirty water. Only that there is far too much faith placed in a system that is chock-full of ‘holes’. It all goes back to the naive myth of scientists as a sort of “superior class”.

  27. Matt Wedel Says:

    It all goes back to the naive myth of scientists as a sort of “superior class”.

    The only one pushing that naive myth around here is you.

    Sorry but I don’t engage in straw men or similar dishonest tactics.

    Yes, yes you do! Exhibit A:

    As for your *beliefs* in global warming and the Evolutionary Paradigm, you have just proven my case in spades. You first *believe* and then you practice *selective* data gathering in support of your beliefs.

    Okay, I like feeding the occasional science-denying troll as much as the next person, but we’re not compelled to rent out our comment section to liars with no talking points beyond the standard creationist bullcrap.

    Please be sure to wipe the spittle off your keyboard. You’re done here.

  28. Frosted Flake Says:

    David Marjanović

    I think I see the problem. We are talking about different things. It may be you didn’t notice the event in question. so, to look it up I googled “LIGO missing mass.” This is from the top result.

    Quote
    “The black holes had masses of 36 and 29 times the mass of the Sun before they merged. After they merged they created a single black hole with a mass of 62 times that of the Sun. You may notice those masses don’t add up right; there’s 3 solar masses missing. That mass didn’t just disappear! It was converted into energy: the energy of the gravitational waves themselves. And the amount of energy is staggering: This single event released as much energy as the Sun does in 15 trillion years.”
    David Plait, author, Bad Astonomy, Slate.

    slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2016/02/11/gravitational_waves_finally_detected_at_ligo.html

    It’s not that the mass was moving. It is that the mass was converted to energy. AND… the energy was gravity. If this turns out to be true, this is a natural example of a gravity engine. The sci-fi fantasists favorite. But if you cock your ear it is hard to detect the uproar that should exist because of the observation.

    My theory : no one believes it.

  29. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    Well that was a fun comment section to read. Might I approach from the other direction and dispute Matt’s claim ““Scientists have found” would be better still.”

    That implies that whatever thing the scientist is describing is the actual truth that they discovered, as opposed to a hypothesis to explain the data. While plenty of hypotheses are so strongly evidenced that they might as well be truths (e.g. birds are dinosaurs), we all know of numerous hypotheses that were later abandoned based on further research. This ties into Matt’s public perception angle because the public is less likely to believe scientists if they notice what one scientist found to be true is not what another found to be true.

  30. Manabu Sakamoto Says:

    I provided four examples of how *beliefs* have infiltrated the realm of science. There are many others such as “global warming” and the “Evolutionary Paradigm”. Can’t be any clearer than that.

    Oh, OK…I think it’s pretty clear from this comment that George is a troll. Can we stop engaging with him?

  31. Manabu Sakamoto Says:

    Sorry, didn’t notice Matt Wedel pretty much condemning him…

  32. Allen Hazen Says:

    Dictionaries are HOPELESS: useful at giving hints to the meaning of an unfamiliar word, but the hints generally don’t amount to a definition in any logical sense. (I’ve taught undergraduate philosophy courses, and had to warn students that starting an essay on, say, what knowledge is by quoting a dictionary definition of “now” is NOT the way to go!) But on the matron what “believe” means, I’d rather go with the dictionary than with Matt’s suggestion that it signifies opinions held without or in spite of evidence.

    Ideally, the question of what it means (in current colloquial usage) would be settled by reference to a corpus of recorded conversation or writing and a statistical analysis. I don’t have that! But I can report that in MY subculture — that of logically minded philosophers interested in logic, epistemology, and the theoretical end of psychology — “believe” is the generic verb for accepting, or opining, or claiming to know, or thinking (in those contexts where the word “think” is followed by “that”). It can be evidence less, but the discussion among my colleagues is about the varying degrees to which belief IS linked to evidence. Take Bayesian statistics as an example: it’s a theory about degrees of partial BELIEFan about how, rationally, degrees of belief should change in response to evidence. Or decision theory, which is about how actions should be chosen on the basis of the agent’s desires and “beliefs”.

    Colloquially lots of other words are used (“think” maybe the most generically used), and “believe” is to some degree specialized for use in describing religious belief. But people thinking about the theoretical aspects need a generic term, and the specialists who study a variety of relevant fields use “believe” for it.

  33. Allen Hazen Says:

    Short version of preceding rant. Somebody (news media, public figure, colleague…) makes statement you wonder about. You ask me “Do you believe that?” and then follow up with “Why?” to ask for my evidence (and find out if I really have any).
    I find the choice of the word “believe” in that dialogue perfectly natural. To the degree that you find it natural, you are like me in thinking of “believe” as generic, and not as implying lack of evidence.

  34. Mike Taylor Says:

    Gotta say, I am with Allen and Mickey on this one. I don’t think that singling out “believe” for special opprobrium really improves matters. And if anything, “believes” is probably a more helpful term than most of the alternatives — because it honestly conveys some degree of uncertainty, whereas “scientists have found” suggests that the matter is now closed.

    Certainly “(some) scientists believe” seems like the appropriate formulation for something like the Toroceratops hypothesis, which remains contested.

  35. Matt Wedel Says:

    And yet, of all the verbs commonly placed after “scientists”, only “believe” carries an inadvertent spiritual connotation. Which makes it a poor choice – arguably the poorest choice – compared to the alternatives. If we need to signal a lack of certainty, “infer”, “provisionally accept”, and even the leaden “think” will all get the job done, with less potential for misunderstanding.

  36. Mike Taylor Says:

    “Think” is fine, yes. I can’t see “infer”, or especially “provisionally accept” making it into the mainstream press.

  37. Allen Hazen Says:

    It may be that many people sense a suggestion of religion when they hear the word “believe.” (I remember a book by one of my undergraduate teachers, published in the early 1970s, entitled “Mind and Belief”. It’s all philosophy of mind or maybe philosophy of science: about the way psychological concepts work. But the author felt a need to lead off with a disclaimer, that the book did NOT address issues in the philosophy of religion.)
    What I CAN report is that people working in logic and epistemology and decision theory DON’T hear it that way: for them it is the generic term I described above.

    I’ve thought about this problem (e.g. when trying to compose lectures that students will understand). I think “think” may be the best general alternative but (i) it has a few problems of its own (like a suggestion of ongoing conscious mental activity: President Obama certainly believes/thinks that he was born in Hawaii, but unlike some of his obsessive opponents, he probably doesn’t “think about” this consciously every hour of the waking day) and (ii) it’s sometimes harder to work into sentences of certain stylistic registers.

  38. Allen Hazen Says:

    (But for a journalistic report of scientific, um, opinion, probably “Scientists think that …” will work most of the time. Modified to “Most scientists think that…” if there is still some reasonable discussion of the issue, and “Virtually all scientists think that…” if you want to allow for the occasional nut-case…)


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  40. Syamsu Says:

    The problem is that evolution scientists deny the fact that freedom is real, and reject subjectivity as wrong.

    They create the intellectual climate of opinion where there is no other recourse for people but to equate opinion with fact, because true opinion is not allowed anymore, only facts are allowed.

    So if evolution scientists accepted as fact that freedom is real, and then described the origins of organisms in terms of the decisions by which they came to, accepted that the spiritual domain chooses which way the material domain turns out, then the problem would solved.


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