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Is “holding a belief” unscientific?

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Over at Watts Up With That?, Willis Eschenbach has written an interesting post entitled Some people claim, that there’s a human to blame …, regarding whether humans are responsible for the sharp rise in CO2 levels after 1850. He is upfront about his own personal view:

Let me preface this by saying that I do think that the recent increase in CO2 levels is due to human activities.

The strongest evidence for this view comes from the historical record, as it reveals an “excellent agreement between the eight different ice cores, including the different methods and different analysts for two of the cores.” Not only that, but there is also “excellent agreement between the ice cores and the Mauna Loa data,” which suggests that it “represents a good estimate of the historical background CO2 record,” although the possibility that the agreement is due to coincidence, conspiracy or simple error cannot be totally excluded. Willis Eschenbach then argues:

So if you are going to believe that this is not a result of human activities, it would help to answer the question of what else might have that effect. It is not necessary to provide an alternative hypothesis if you disbelieve that humans are the cause … but it would help your case.

A very sensible point. But what caught my eye was a comment by a reader who calls himself “Darkinbad the Brightdayler” (June 7, 2010 at 1:05 a.m.; the third response from the top), who objected to the word “believe” in the paragraph just cited:

I’m not comfortable with the use of the words “Believe” or “Disbelieve” in a scientific context. These words are more appropriate to discussions about religion and concepts which are not open to a process of proof.

To pull them into a scientific debate is to allow participants to think and respond in a less rigorous way than they ought.

So let me get this straight: holding a belief is unscientific? To my mind, that’s topsy-turvy thinking. Take away beliefs, and you destroy science.

Now, I’d like to be as fair as possible to Darkinbad the Brightdayler, so let me play devil’s advocate here. First, one might argue that science should be a completely dispassionate enterprise. If this is correct, then “scientific belief” is an oxymoron: scientists cannot test a hypothesis dispassionately if they believe in it, because believing that a hypothesis is true goes hand-in-hand with having a conviction that it is true. Disbelief is equally fatal to scientific objectivity, for the same reason.

On the other hand, once a hypothesis has been successfully validated by scientific testing, talk of “belief” or “disbelief” becomes even less relevant. For there is no need to believe something, once it has been demonstrated.

But if this account of science is correct, then we might reasonably ask: who needs scientists? For we could easily imagine a computer of the future, programmed to (i) randomly generate explanatory hypotheses for any surprising new data it encounters; (ii) test these hypotheses in accordance with standard scientific procedures; and (iii) update its data banks with those hypotheses that are validated by scientific testing. And if such a computer was able to maintain continuous electronic contact with an army of nanobots whose job it was to comb the world for new and unexpected phenomena, it would become the Ultimate Repository of scientific knowledge.

Right off the top of my head, I can think of at least three good reasons why this proposal wouldn’t work, however. First, even the random generation of a set of rival explanatory hypotheses presupposes the existence of a fixed number of parameters, whose value is allowed to vary. Let’s suppose there are N parameters. These parameters can then be used to generate a range of possible hypotheses, in N dimensions, which can be tested against each other. At the same time, however, the parameters limit the scope of the scientific investigation. So the larger question of how the parameters are chosen is one which requires a great deal of critical thinking – which is hardly the sort of thing that computers tend to excel at.

Second, standard scientific procedures are not etched in stone; they change over time, which means they need to be continually re-evaluated. How? It might seem that the best way for scientists to figure out what a good procedure is, is simply to do what they normally do: go out into the field and look at nature. However, the mere act of looking at nature cannot tell us how we should investigate nature. Observations, per se, don’t generate prescriptions. The question of what constitutes a good procedure for evaluating scientific hypotheses about the natural world is one which transcends the natural world itself. To answer that kind of question requires “out-of-the-box” critical thinking – thinking which is capable of scrutinizing each and every one of our cherished scientific concepts – and our meta-scientific concepts, as well – and rejecting them, if they do not withstand scrutiny. Human beings are the only beings in the cosmos, as far as we know, who are capable of this kind of thinking.

Third, critical thinking is needed to decide what counts as successful validation of a scientific hypothesis – and whether the definition of “validation” needs to be revised in the future.

You may ask: what’s the connection between critical thinking and belief? Simply this: someone who is capable of thinking critically is open to persuasion, which in turn produces conviction – a very Aristotelian point, by the way. For an entity that lacks a capacity for critical thinking cannot be persuaded of anything; hence it cannot properly be said to believe anything.

To recap: Darkinbad the Brightdayler’s belief-free model of science has the absurd entailment that humans (and other belief-holding entities) are not required to carry out the scientific enterprise; whereas I have argued for the view that without beings who are capable of holding beliefs, science could never proceed in the first place, as there would be no-one capable of defining what good science is.

However, Darkinbad the Brightdayler might respond: even if we grant that at any given time in history, the scientific enterprise necessarily presupposes the holding of certain beliefs about what “good science” is, these beliefs are not scientific beliefs. They are meta-scientific. We can kick them upstairs, as it were. Real scientists don’t worry about their beliefs while they’re doing their work; they just get on with testing their hypotheses and weeding out the bad ones.

But this is clearly inadequate as a model of what science is all about. To explain why, I’d like to illustrate with an example: Dr. Roy Spencer’s critique of the case for dangerous man-made global warming. Dr. Spencer contends that a confusion between forcing and feedback (loosely speaking, cause and effect) when observing cloud behavior has led to the illusion of a sensitive climate system; whereas satellite observations, he maintains, suggest that our climate system is insensitive to CO2 changes.

Obviously, I am in no position to comment on Dr. Spencer’s current hypothesis, that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is behind much of the global warming which has occurred during the past 100 years. The point I wish to make here is that Dr. Spencer is clearly wearing his “critical thinking” cap while he does his science, and I applaud him for doing so. He is not just testing hypotheses; he is also thinking critically about them. To begin with, he is questioning the assumptions underlying a hypothesis which is currently in vogue (dangerous man-made global warming). Additionally, he is dealing with meta-scientific questions, while doing his science: what is the cause, and what is the effect, and how do we sort them out for climate systems? On top of that, he is asking what an observation which apparently confirms that hypothesis actually proves – could some other model account for the same observation, for instance? Finally, Dr. Spencer has constructed models suggesting that long-term climate changes can be caused by short-term random cloud variations, arguing that natural cycles could account for the warming observed in the past 50 years, and further contending that satellite observations, properly interpreted, point to our climate system being rather insensitive to atmospheric CO2 changes. Clearly, Dr. Spencer has an “alternative model” of how the Earth’s climate might work, and I think that it is fair to say that he tentatively believes in his model, but at the same time, he is fair-minded enough to acknowledge that the IPCC’s global warming hypothesis is a “plausible” one.

Whether Dr. Spencer is right or not, this is the kind of thinking we need for science to move forward as an enterprise. Dispassionate hypothesis-testing, by itself, will get us nowhere. Beliefs, far from discouraging scientific rigor, actually encourage it, for they can serve to sharpen scientists’ thinking whenever they engage in scientific debate. An encounter with scientists who hold opposing beliefs can force experts in a field to re-examine their cherished assumptions. It can also force them to “flesh out” their models in response to critical queries by other scientists.

I’d like to make one final observation in passing. I find it odd that Darkinbad the Brightdayler has suggested that beliefs are best relegated to “discussions about religion and concepts which are not open to a process of proof.” Darkinbad must surely realize that science does not deal in proofs; only mathematics does that. Since nothing in science is absolutely certain, the use of the term “belief” in a scientific context is perfectly apposite.

Darkinbad the Brightdayler’s post has had an unintended but beneficial result: it has generated a discussion about the nature of science itself – a discussion which my readers will hopefully continue, and apply to the Intelligent Design debate. For that, I would like to thank Darkinbad.

Willis Eschenbach has proposed some excellent Rules for Discussion at the end of his post, which I shall reproduce below, without further comment.


1. Numbers trump assertions. If you don’t provide numbers, you won’t get much traction.

2. Ad hominems are meaningless. Saying that some scientist is funded by big oil, or is a member of Greenpeace, or is a geologist rather than an atmospheric physicist, is meaningless. What is important is whether what they say is true or not. Focus on the claims and their veracity, not on the sources of the claims. Sources mean nothing.

3. Appeals to authority are equally meaningless. Who cares what the 12-member Board of the National Academy of Sciences says? Science isn’t run by a vote … thank goodness.

4. Make your cites specific. “The IPCC says …” is useless. “Chapter 7 of the IPCC AR4 says …” is useless. Cite us chapter and verse, specify page and paragraph. I don’t want to have to dig through an entire paper or an IPCC chapter to guess at which one line you are talking about.

5. QUOTE WHAT YOU DISAGREE WITH!!! I can’t stress this enough. Far too often, people attack something that another person hasn’t said. Quote their words, the exact words you think are mistaken, so we can all see if you have understood what they are saying.

6. NO PERSONAL ATTACKS!!! Repeat after me. No personal attacks. No “only a fool would believe …”. No “Are you crazy?”. No speculation about a person’s motives. No “deniers”, no “warmists”, no “econazis”, none of the above. Play nice.

vjtorley wrote:
Now, I’d like to be as fair as possible to Darkinbad the Brightdayler, so let me play devil’s advocate here. First, one might argue that science should be a completely dispassionate enterprise.
I would suggest that "being as fair as possible" would include presenting more than one, narrow interpretation of Darkibad's comment. To be specific, we could easily interpret Darkinbad's comment as a suggestion that not all "beliefs" are equal and the manner the term was used in the referenced paragraph seemed ambiguous. For example, one might suggest that a claim of positive belief represents acceptance that a statement is a valid description of reality. But studies suggest that some specific kinds of beliefs, such as those regarding statements about religious claims, are more associated with areas in the brain that govern emotion, self-representation and cognitive conflict than others. See The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief I'd note that this represents one of the first studies in this area, so the results reflect only a small step in understanding the difference between various forms of belief. Also, there were additional responses to Darkinbad's comment in which smiler concerns were raised, yet were much less ambiguous. Mr. Lynn wrote:
I agree, but many, many folks, including scientists, use “I believe” to mean, inter alia, “I think,” “I suppose,” “In my opinion,” “I am more or less convinced,” etc., etc. Some time ago I suggested to Willis that he eschew the terms “believe” and “belief,” in favor of more specific language, but he dismissed the idea.
In this context, It's unclear how more specific language suggested above limits science to mere rote observation. And if such a computer was able to maintain continuous electronic contact with an army of nanobots whose job it was to comb the world for new and unexpected phenomena, it would become the Ultimate Repository of scientific knowledge. Here, and in the rest of your OP, you seem to be presenting an argument against an instrumentalist approach to science, rather than being passionate about discovering new things. For example, we could replace your army of nano-bots with an oracle-like device that could tell you the result of any experiment you could describe, yet remain silent in regards to an explanation of why said results occurred. Certainly, such an device would be useful, but it's value would be limited. For example, we could feed it the design of a space ship to determine how it would perform in the real world. However, we would need to design the space ship in the first place. Our designs would represent the acceptance of specific explanations behind various phenomena, such as gravity, propulsion, structural integrity, the means by which human beings continue to survive in our environment, etc. Furthermore, while the oracle could tell us if the ship would explode on the pad when launched, it would not explain the reason why the explosion would occur or how to change the design to prevent it. So, again, I'd suggest the problem you're trying to describe is not a lack of "belief" but explanation-less theories. More specifically, this seems to call into question "what is knowledge?" veilsofmaya
vjtorley - really good post. aqeels
Allen MacNeill: Thanks for the advice in the final paragraph. Good to know we've only got a century or so of catching up to do, to get up to scratch. That's achievable, I think. Your remark that "[t]he dispute between evolutionary biologists and ID supporters is, as far as I can tell, a dispute about metaphysical assumptions" and "not directly amenable to empirical verification or falsification," is effectively a concession that the case for Intelligent Design does not rest on any scientifically flawed assumptions. I'll take that as a compliment to our side. bornagain77: Thanks for the video links. I'll peruse them at my leisure. vjtorley
MacNeil, very likely good advice. Unfortunately, the task is made much harder today due to the colossus that modern science has become, full of entrenched, and yes, political interests. You do know right that there was no government funding of science until the middle of the 20th century right? tragic mishap
So now science is a political game?
Um, what do you expect when it's funded almost entirely by the government? tragic mishap
MacNeil the only thing that is "not directly amenable to empirical verification or falsification." is the religion of neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism has not even passed this simple test: For a broad outline of the "Fitness test", required to be passed to show a violation of the principle of Genetic Entropy, please see the following video and articles: Is Antibiotic Resistance evidence for evolution? - "The Fitness Test" - video http://www.metacafe.com/watch/3995248 Testing the Biological Fitness of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria - 2008 http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/aid/v2/n1/darwin-at-drugstore Thank Goodness the NCSE Is Wrong: Fitness Costs Are Important to Evolutionary Microbiology Excerpt: it (an antibiotic resistant bacterium) reproduces slower than it did before it was changed. This effect is widely recognized, and is called the fitness cost of antibiotic resistance. It is the existence of these costs and other examples of the limits of evolution that call into question the neo-Darwinian story of macroevolution. http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/03/thank_goodness_the_ncse_is_wro.html List Of Degraded Molecular Abilities Of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria: http://www.trueorigin.org/bacteria01.asp Whereas on the other hand Dr. Behe has clearly pointed out it is very easy to falsify ID: Michael Behe on Falsifying Intelligent Design http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8jXXJN4o_A And as Dr. Meyer has clearly pointed out ID has a superior basis for inference to best explanation: (Shoot I'm producing more Information right now than material processes have ever been observed generating) Stephen C. Meyer - The Scientific Basis For Intelligent Design http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4104651 Yet despite dramatic failures of neo-Darwinism against empirical validation, and predictive power, it clings to pseudo-legitimacy because of the silver tongue priesthood who sit enthroned in the towers of academia. Towers of academia that were erected by the Christian forefathers of this nation and you have the audacity to say that evidence does not matter in this case but all that matters is only "who you know" so as to achieve a seat. That is NOT science MacNeill and I don't see how you can even stand saying something so shallow of integrity. Well I have my own favored predictions MacNeill: One from Stephen Meyer paraphrase: Neo-Darwinism will not be able to survive the information revolution of the 21st century. and one from Max Planck "A new scientific truth does not establish itself by its enemies being convinced and expressing their change of opinion, but rather by its enemies gradually dying out and the younger generation being taught the truth from the beginning." Skillet:: Awake and Alive http://vimeo.com/9309408 bornagain77
So now science is a political game? Phaedros
The idea that scientists have shared metaphysical assumptions about reality is an old one. My old friend and mentor, Edwin Arthur "Ned" Burtt wrote about this almost a century ago. His most famous book, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science almost single-handedly founded the "modern" school of science and technology studies (and inspired Thomas Kuhn via Alexandre Koyre). In his later years, Ned stated that he believed that nature was so complex and multifarious that it is humanly impossible to formulate, much less test all possible hypotheses. Therefore, everyone (including all scientists) make metaphysical assumptions that reduce the number of possible hypotheses to something that can be reasonably tested. Ergo, of course scientists have "beliefs" that guide their science, if by "beliefs" one means "underlying metaphysical assumptions according to which one formulates and tests one's hypotheses". The dispute between evolutionary biologists and ID supporters is, as far as I can tell, a dispute about metaphysical assumptions, and is therefore not directly amenable to empirical verification or falsification. ID is therefore in a position roughly equivalent to that of evolutionary biology in the late 19th century: an "upstart" discipline with lots of ambition but very little political clout in the scientific community. What T. H. Huxley and his contemporaries did was to establish themselves as the core of the "new" science, by publishing a flood of new empirical research, getting themselves and their friends appointed to university faculties, and establishing academic departments in their newly minted disciplines. Until ID does this, it will remain a footnote to the history of science and a cautionary tale to those who aspire to recognition without doing the hard work by which such recognition is earned. Allen_MacNeill
Haha, I noticed that post and that particular comment struck me as strange too. Science itself may or may not require belief but I know for certain that scientific progress requires belief. What scientist without believing he is pursuing a better yet unseen new theory would leave the comforts of the old paradigm? tragic mishap
The belief that holding a belief is not scientific is also a belief. CannuckianYankee
PS In case my above post wasn't clear on how it applies to the thought experiment, you would need to bias the hypothesis space your science machine explored (or bias the search method), or else you would only be able to infer what happened in situations identical to the ones you has already seen. You wouldn't be able to find general laws from a limited number of observations. For that, you need bias in either your hypothesis space or your search method. Atom
vj, Interesting thought experiment about your hypothesis machine. One interesting result from machine learning is that having a machine capable of representing every and any concept hypothesis without limitation (in other words, one that is bias-free), means it cannot generalize beyond the examples it has seen thus far. In other words, we need bias to do induction. Tom Mitchell proved this, and his result can be found here: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi= This result is somewhat surprising, because we'd assume that a full hypothesis space capable of expressing any concept would be preferable to one that can only represent a limited number of concepts. But this is not the case. Bias-free learning becomes rote memorization and is useless for generalizing beyond test examples. We need beliefs, hunches, and biases in order to be able to find accurate hypotheses capable of generalizing beyond experience. Atom Atom

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