Mike the Mad Biologist

Science: Trust Versus Belief

Matt Stoller at MyDD.com comments on Andrew Sullivan’s and Robert Samuelson’s apologetics for global warming:

This is rich. The rush to war was premised on the assumption that the judgment of the Bush administration (and Sullivan) was superior to that of professional weapons inspectors like Hans Blix. This turned out to be false. Now, the foot-dragging on global warming is premised on the assumption that the judgment of the Bush administration (and Sullivan) is superior to that of the global scientific community.

As usual, this is an issue of judgment and trust. Put Sullivan and Samuelson down as apologists for global warming, those willing to justify inaction so that they can feel, at the end of he day, smugly superior. In other words, if you like the the people who brought you the war in Iraq, you’ll love inaction on climate change.

This gives me an excuse to dig into the Mad Biologist’s archives and give you the following post about trust versus belief (originally published Nov. 4, 2005):

A couple days ago I was invited to give a lecture at UNH. While I was there, I was talking with a colleague about the whole creationism/ID ‘controversy.’ Like many conversations, it meandered towards global warming (an aside: it is striking that, regardless of personal ideology or if the scientist is in government or academia, evolution and global warming are ‘flash-point’ issues for virtually every scientist I meet, regardless of the scientist’s discipline. I’ll have more to say about that in another post.)

Anyway, back to global warming. I pointed out to my colleague that most biologists ‘believe’ that global warming is happening. Now, I put believe in scare quotes for these reasons:

  1. I’m really not competent to rigorously assess the evidence. Like most biologists, my training in climatology is very limited. I’m selling myself short, because in the distant past I was a marine ecologist, and had some limited exposure to climatology. Nonetheless, I essentially take climatologists’ at the word: I believe them. However…
  2. I’m fairly confident that with adequate training, I could rigorously evaluate the claims of global warming. In my own discipline, I’ve managed to master a field that requires abstract mathematical thought, computational skills, etc. With adequate training, I probably could become an expert in climatology, such that I could truly evaluate those claims in great detail-and the devil in science is always in the details. Training does not mean reading a couple newspaper articles, and a press release by the Discovery Institute. Training means immersing yourself in the primary scientific literature, talking to experts, and actually using the tools that professionals use. I bring this up because…
  3. My ‘belief’ in climatologists is not based in ‘faith’, but trust. I trust that climatologists use similar scientific methods, principles, and evaluation structures to those that I use in biology. As I said in #2, it is not beyond my reach to assess the claims of climatology, even if I currently lack the skills to do so. However, I’m kinda busy, and I find biology more interesting, so I will take their word as scientists. When the overwhelming number of climatologists claim, along with professional society after professional society, that global warming is real, and that there is a significant human effect, I trust their professional judgement. Most scientists who are not biologists trust the overwhelming evidence for the theories of common descent and evolution (even if it’s been so long since they had to think about evolution that they don’t remember all or most of the evidence).

So why do I raise this? In the popular press, particularly the NY Times, stories are too often reported as if there is an equivalence in the ‘belief’ of IDiots and scientists (happily, there are exceptions). These two types of beliefs are not equivalent. However, when portrayed as similar types of ‘beliefs’, the whole debate then becomes transmogrified into dueling religions (and that jackass Richard Dawkins does not help matters).

We need to make it clear that we trust the scientific process, and that this trust is not based in faith but reason, experience, and observation.


  1. #1 John McKay
    July 6, 2006

    About a month ago, I made essentialy the same point in, but in a different context:

    Science is a method testing certain beliefs to prove them beyond reasonable level of doubt. For a proof to be accepted as valid in science, it must be reproducible and available to all. Sisson argues that most of us never perform the acts of scientific proof and that the believers of science are also depending on their faith in the truthfulness of their authorities: “they endorse evolution because they have chosen to give unquestioning deference to science experts, it may be appropriate to treat their position as simply another religious position.” The first part is true, but the second part is not. Scientific faith is not the same as religious faith.

    Religious faith is not merely belief without proof, it is belief without the possibility of proof. Scientific faith by a lay person might be no more than belief without proof, but the possibility of proof is always there. I haven’t performed every experiment to prove every scientific theory I believe, but I’ve performed enough of them to have faith in the scientific method….

    A better for word for scientific faith is “trust”; I trust scientific authorities. I know that they are human and subject to all that that entails. Science is subject to mistakes and fraud, but the requirement that proof be reproducible means that mistakes and fraud will be exposed and corrected over time. Religion doesn’t have a self-correcting mechanism. The religious must depend on blind faith in the infallibility and honesty of their authorities.

    Great minds think in the same gutter, or something like that.