Matters of Fact versus Matters of Belief

Thursday, May 20, 2010
I read an article the other day in the New Scientist, called "Living in Denial: Why Sensible People Deny the Truth." The author makes some excellent points regarding how denialism is the most natural thing in the world for humanity, and actually looking at the world with a critical frame of mind requires work, and lots of it. The basic hypothesis was that people deny the findings of science because to accept them would relinquish a level of control that makes them uncomfortable.

An extremely thought-provoking article, and I recommend it.

And I was thinking about it the other night while lying awake with no hope of recapturing sleep, and this quote from Pat Moynihan came to mind:
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
I realize I have a low tolerance for the woo and denialism - faith healing, homeopathy, dowsing, young earth creationism, climate science denialism, chiropractic - all of it drives me up the wall, because from my point of view, it seems so very ignorant. Willfully ignorant, in fact. And yet, people who choose to live their lives based on faith don't bother me. People who choose to believe in psychic phenomena don't bother me. I don't agree with their point of view - but they don't bother me.

What bothers me is when people attempt to confuse issues of belief with issues of fact. Issues of fact are those that can be settled by the scientific method. Issues of belief are those that can't. Seems simple enough, but I'm constantly amazed by the number of people who confuse this very simple rule of thumb in preference for what they FEEL. Here are some examples:

FACT: Vaccines do not cause autism. We know this is a fact because numerous scientific studies have proven it to be so.

BELIEF: Vaccines cause autism. We know this is a belief because when the evidence is presented, it consists of "mommy instinct" and logical fallacy, which does not meet the litmus test for the scientific method.

FACT: Evolution, or something very much like it, is the mechanism by which life developed on this planet. We know this is a fact because research and experimentation has proven it to be so.

BELIEF: Creationism, or Intelligent Design, or God Did It, is the mechanism by which life developed on this planet. We know this is belief because the hypothesis is based on religious dogma, which is by definition unfalsifiable. The scientific method does not support the hypothesis.

Conversely, I believe science and rationalism should keep its nose out of metaphysical hypotheses that cannot be falsified. I have no issue with the study of religion, and although I don't share the viewpoint of people of faith, I see value in learning about it. Like so:
BELIEF: God is real, and cares about each and every one of us.

FACT: There is no fact - the hypothesis is unfalsifiable, and as long as those who believe the hypothesis do not try to confuse their belief with FACT, there is no problem.
So what gets my goat about manufactured controversies such as vaccines or evolution is the deniers' predilection for attempting to confuse their BELIEF with FACT, and getting everyone else to do the same. The facts of a hypothesis have no correlation to a specific individual's (or group of individuals') emotional investment in the outcome - reality is king. If your point of view is so all-fired defensible, the logical shenanigans used by the anti-vaxers and the Intelligent Design crowd aren't necessary. Simply defend your position using the tools of the scientific method, and let the best hypotheses win.

I once had a devout friend ask me if I would change my mind about evolution and a creator God if I was confronted with irrefutable evidence that was contrary to the accepted scientific point of view. My response? "Of course." That's science, and to quote XKCD, it works, bitches.

1 comments:

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

The wonderful thing about this country is that people can believe what they want.

Want to believe that the earth is flat, that the sun revolves around it? Knock yourself out -- the people who wrote the Bible believed both of those things, along with a lot of other nonsense -- but that right is protected here in the good ol' U.S. of A.

Want to make that nonsense law?

That's where the trouble starts.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of people here who want to turn their particular belief in their Imaginary Friend into a legal system.

I, also, have no problem with people believing what they want.

Here's hoping we can keep that Wall of Separation in good repair.