Why I Don’t “Believe” in “Science”
Science isn’t about “belief.” It’s about facts, evidence, theories, experiments.
For some years now, one of the left’s favorite tropes has been the phrase “I believe in science.” Elizabeth Warren stated it recently in a pretty typical form: “I believe in science. And anyone who doesn’t has no business making decisions about our environment.” This was in response to news that scientists who are skeptical of global warming might be allowed to have a voice in shaping public policy.
So what Warren really means by saying “I believe in science” is “I believe in global warming.”
But we owe it to Andrew Yang—a Democratic presidential candidate who just managed to qualify for the televised primary debates by getting more than 65,000 individual campaign contributions—for stating this trope in such a comical form that it gives the game away:
“My father has a Ph.D. in physics,” he said. “I believe in science.”
This prompted some well-deserved mockery along the lines of, “My father was a cartoonist. I believe in Daffy Duck.” More important, it captures a lot of what annoys the rest of us about the “I believe in science” crowd. It reduces a serious intellectual issue—a whole worldview and method of thought—to a signifier of social group identity.
Some people may use “I believe in science” as vague shorthand for confidence in the ability of the scientific method to achieve valid results, or maybe for the view that the universe is governed by natural laws which are discoverable through observation and reasoning.
But the way most people use it today—especially in a political context—is pretty much the opposite. They use it as a way of declaring belief in a proposition which is outside their knowledge and which they do not understand.
There are a lot of people these days who like things that sound science-y, but have little patience for actual science. These are the kind of people who gush when Elon Musk tells them he’s going to put a million people on Mars but seem less excited about discussions of cosmic-ray shielding, or solar wind, or hydrogen escape, or all the reasons why Mars is a dead planet.
They prefer the imagery of “science” to the more prosaic reality. In my experience, “I believe in science” is just a shorthand way of admitting, “I have a degree in the humanities.”
The problem is the word “belief.” Science isn’t about “belief.” It’s about facts, evidence, theories, experiments. You don’t say, “I believe in thermodynamics.” You understand its laws and the evidence for them, or you don’t. “Belief” doesn’t really enter into it.
So as a proper formulation, saying “I understand science” would be a start. “I understand the science on this issue” would be better. That implies that you have engaged in a first-hand study of the specific scientific questions involved in, say, global warming, which would give you the basis to support a conclusion. If you don’t understand the basis for your conclusion and instead have to accept it as a “belief,” then you don’t really know it, and you certainly are in no position to lecture others about how they must believe it, too.
Because science is about evidence, this also means that it carries no “authority.” The motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba—”on no one’s word”—which is intended to capture the “determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”
That’s the opposite of what “I believe in science” is intended to convey. “I believe in science” is meant to use the reputation of “science” in general to give authority to one specific scientific claim in particular, shielding it from questioning or skepticism.