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“I Believe in Science” Versus “Nullius in Verba

I believe in science

A U.S. political figure invited a great deal of satire the other day with a tweet bragging that, “My father has a PhD in physics. I believe in science.” It was pointed out to him that graduate degrees are not inherited by offspring. Or to put it another way, the statement is a non sequitur. So what if your father has a PhD in physics? My father was a dentist, but my children still have cavities.

The “I BELIEVE IN SCIENCE” meme is all over the place. Note the photo above from the March for Science where a dog has been outfitted with a sign, “I’M ONE SMART PUPPY. I BELIEVE IN SCIENCE.” In the background, a lady wears a tee-shirt, “SCIENCE IS REAL,” which amounts to the same thing, as does another meme, “I lOVE SCIENCE,” or if you prefer to spice it up with a vulgarism, “I F****** LOVE SCIENCE.”

A Social Signifier

Don’t miss Robert Tracinski’s terrific post from yesterday, “Why I Don’t ‘Believe’ in ‘Science,’” explaining what this statement actually conveys. For those who trumpet it, it’s “a signifier of social group identity,” “a way of declaring belief in a proposition which is outside their knowledge and which they do not understand.” And which they’re not all that interested in understanding. Excerpt:

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.”

The competing ways of thinking, “I believe in science” versus “Nullius in verba” or “On no one’s word,” capture the heart of the debate about intelligent design. The Royal Society’s motto could also be loosely translated as “Take nobody’s word for it.” A lot of people in our present culture aren’t interested in understanding the science, but would simply have you accept the passing “consensus” as “fact.” Yet as Tracinski points out, the “consensus” has a history of getting things wrong.

Passive or Active

On the other side are scientists like Michael Behe, and plenty of others, who insist it’s not only possible but commendable to invest the effort and reach your own independent judgement. As Behe put it here: 

Darwin’s theory invokes technical details, but it and modern extensions of it are, at bottom, simply chains of reasoning. Thus any rational person who does some technical homework — who informs himself of what Darwinian biologists and their critics have said — is perfectly able to come to his own conclusions.

Professor Behe’s new book, Darwin Devolves, is at the cutting edge of an effort to give the public the tools to think rationally and independently about evolution. So too is Stephen Meyer’s recent interview with Ben Shapiro on the Sunday Special. So too are the amazing cost-free Summer Seminars in Intelligent Design for university students, here in Seattle in July, that we’ve been talking this week because the application deadline is just days away. 

Savor the irony: Turning off your critical intellect makes you a “smart puppy.” On the question of biological origins, everyone’s choice is whether to be intellectually passive (“I believe in science”) or active (“Nullius in verba”). It comes down to that.

H/t: Denyse O’Leary.

Photo credit: scattered1, via Flickr.