Belief in the Scientific Method

Belief is essential. The “faith community” sees this as axiom, and as creationists and other fundamentalists enjoy pointing out, science folks are just people who “believe” in science. But there is a great difference between belief in a statement as a ‘fact’ and belief in a method for adapting. Absolutely, belief is the underlying form of the designs with which one behaves in the world, the question is: must there be one way to do a thing or are there reliable and neutral methods to test many conceivable ways so that our understandings and actions adapt continuously to the changing conditions of reality.

Of course, it is not so simple. All processes and events occur in a context – often called environment.

It is not the goal of our historical time to adapt to the conditions that surround us, but to change them. This is long human practice and the slowly accumulated changes to our environment are the reason that we are in the trouble we are in, but we are now being told that we must adapt to the holey ad hoc structures that make claims of “reality” solely because it is what we are supposed to believe.

There is no reason to ‘believe in’ the accepted structures of our time, like economic growth; no reason to believe in Christianity, private property, Islam, American Exceptionalism, progress or hundreds other things, but there is reason to believe in physical “laws”, evolutionary and adaptive process and scientific method. We believe in “facts” as a matter of convenience; we adopt processes because they work. This is one of the oldest and most well worn paths in the human experience.

Experimentation v. authority has been a tension for the whole of human existence; and experimentation began formally winning with the enlightenment. The assumption (belief) that statements could be true and complete, and the property of those with special powers or superior connections (like with a God), began to weaken as people actually looked, measured and theorized. But humans often continue following the old habit and believing in science ‘fact’ when what we need to believe in is science method.

This is not to say that there should be no inhibiting force to rein in and ‘govern’ experimentation. There should; it is called the scientific method and requires that a consensus of experts (authorities) agree based on repeated experimental results comporting with theoretical foundations. This means that ‘facts’ will always be in a state of change, but that the Method can be usefully relied on to bring those ‘facts’ closer and closer, more adaptively useful, to an ultimately unknowable reality. And even the method itself is subject to adaptive changes as the processes uncover better ways to perform its function.

Designs for behavior may or not comport with the best understandings of the moment supplied by a soundly based adaptive process. We see this all the time: * I am better off eating broccoli, free range eggs (and then just the albumen) and high quality sardines. But I like lasagna, beer, ice cream and pie. * Waste chemicals from my small business damage the environment, but it costs so much to dispose of them properly (if that is even possible) that I dump them secretly. * Increasing population and consumption is clearly endangering the ecological stabilities that support and allow the present ecological structures of the earth, but I am benefiting in this moment from the economic growth that is driven by increasing consumption and can’t imagine life without those benefits.

Belief in ‘facts’ is dangerous, potentially dramatically so. Einstein couldn’t ‘believe in’ quantum mechanics because he didn’t believe that the underlying principle of physical order could be probabilistic, even as the experimental data piled higher and higher. Alan Greenspan believed in economic theories that had been come to by ‘echo chamber’ research and Randian philosophy unfounded in human behavioral studies; he liked them like I like ice cream. And at the greatest and most depressing extreme, Henry Paulson (and now Tim Geithner), pathologically, believed in his own righteousness and self-importance, and so was the front man for an on going monumental theft bringing damage and destruction to millions of people all over the earth.

A deeper belief in the adaptive processes of the scientific method could have led Einstein closer to the truth, could have caused Greenspan to question his certainties and moderate his actions and, perhaps, could have caused Paulson to be diagnosed as dangerously sociopathic before he found his way to the highest eyries of power.

It should be obvious that we are in a terrible situation: billions of people, thousands of ‘fact-based’ belief systems and almost none of them naturally supporting of adaptive process-based systems. Yet, we all must become method-based and not ‘fact’ based; we must all become scientists, adopting process-based belief systems just as we have, over time, all become literate. There was, for a long time, a prejudice against being literate with letters and numbers, just as today being scientifically literate is considered geeky. As long as we continue arguing over beliefs as ‘facts,’ there is no hope for resolution: there are endless years of squabbling over facts. If people have mutual respect for the process, divergence in fact only supplies material for adaptation, not reason to compete for truth as an absolute.

And there is little time, perhaps a generation. I can only guess at the thinking of the economic and political elites, whether they support an enslaved world or an enlightened one, though I have serious doubts that the necessary changes in education and media are high on their agendas. But as helpful as it would be to have the elites fully engaged in the next salutary steps toward a ecologically sustaining future, they are not required if enough of the rest of us are willing to do the necessary work and to take them on when required.

Ralph Nader has recently made the argument, in a work of fiction, that the economic elite can save us – and it is certainly true if they were to seriously devote themselves and their resources to the problems detailed by sound scientific research, that many seemingly intractable problems could be solved, but it is more likely that they will obstruct the changes that are needed since most of the solutions contain the lessening of their power, their wealth and their entitlement. The more amorphous masses will have to lead the way. In this direction lies more suffering, closer brushes with oblivion and other dangers, but it may be the only way.

Becoming evermore depressingly clear is, based on a vast evidence base that the world’s leaders have seemingly chosen not to believe in, that maintaining our present human habits will so damage ecological and biophysical systems that many present ecological structures will collapse with drastic consequences for human social and economic order. A process-based belief system would examine the data, evaluate it on its merits and develop actions corresponding to the greatest weight of the evidence. Focusing on whether the ‘facts’ benefit one political party or another is the sort of madness that comes from belief in propositions over process.

We need to believe in the process of the scientific method, ((This has to be an unapologetic sustaining of a method for selecting the most veridical options to be the ‘facts’ with which we inform our actions. A common current model for discord, that of looking for equality in all positions, is silly, fundamentally unscientific and flagrantly non-adaptive.)) but first we need to be well versed in its functioning. We, a significant part of humanity, must make this process the basis for our actions. The old ways of believing in Men and Gods and their proclamations must give way to adaptive systems of change based on the processes of discovery that have led us so well in our material quests. This is no more than adaptation explicitly within the consciousness domain: we have no more time or space to do it in the old ways; they have brought us far, both in understanding and knowledge… and to the brink of destruction.

Just as reading and writing were once new, suspicious, seen as largely unimportant and seemingly for only a few, yet fueled the greatest changes in human societies; so today the broad epistemological and social designs of science must be poised to be both tool and primary system of belief for any successful future.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 5th, 2009 at 11:15am #

    The words we use to think with may alter our feelings for better or worse.
    So, to use the word “belief”, as pious people do, to label how scientists evaluate their work and findings or how they find any of their findings is a distort of reality.

    I self use the word “belief” as guess. And guessing by anyone i welcome as long as the guesser is fully aware that s/he’s believing, assuming, or conjecturing.
    The prevailing attitude just ab everywhere appears that most people stifle free speech; including, conjecturing.

    For most pious people- when it comes to piousness- vitally important guessing cannot exist; thus, lack an important tool of thinking.
    It can be likened onto a person cutting an arm off because such person may think one arm is enough.

    I do not think that most scienists use the word belief as supplant for words theorising, assuming, thinking, feeling, hunching, postulating, et al and which church had prohibited from use.

    “Belief” must at one time had its proper symbolic value: I don’t know, but i guess or believe that the deer is still around the pond or ‘gods’ somewhenwhere in first, second….. or ninth ‘heaven’ or nowhere. tnx

  2. Christophe said on November 5th, 2009 at 3:06pm #

    Most of what the “average” person takes as scientific fact is not based on one’s own empirical undertaking. Rather, as with other articles of faith, much of what is seen as hard scientific fact is itself accepted as true by the those who postulate and theorize. Most people believe in the laws of gravity, even if all the theoretics are lost on most. In short, much of the “collective” scientific facts are taken as such because of the faith and regard held for science and its practitioners, and not by personal discovery. Faith in science also leads so many times to the embracing of pseudo-science, since science is-ideally speaking- morally neutral and as such, makes no distinctions between the empirical and the contrived and fallacious.

  3. lichen said on November 5th, 2009 at 3:41pm #

    Yes, the scientific method as an adaptive process should be adopted, and the ideology/dogma, academic, conventional, institutionalized view of ‘science’ as something that encapsulates rather a certain point of view–a right wing one that nuclear energy, massive pollution, GM foods, and new weapons are generally accepted as good, and any new ideas, anything left wing or that otherwise doesn’t come from the mainstream media, political class, or academically tenured is “not science.” We must not, further, allow such scientismists to claim that they are the only ones qualified to speak about human reality–that social sciences and philosophy are somehow overturned by the conservative academic sphere and their backwards talk of genes, etc.

  4. za said on November 17th, 2009 at 7:13pm #

    I wonder if it’s true that experimentation won out over authority mainly because science allows one to predict future events. Because we understood motion according to Newtons laws, we could then demonstrate to church-going folks that our theories worked. We could predict what that ball would do when it hit the other ball. we could say that a boulder and a pea would fall at the same rate, because we tested our hypotheses with experiments, and then codified behavior with mathematics.

    Authority’s power ended here. They could not predict future material events. Of course they feared this loss of power over their followers, and so called scientists “magicians” “witches” or “devils.” Anything to discredit them in the eyes of their followers.

    Science has always won out for reality-based humans. Those who choose to deny what their senses witness will not bow to that truth if it contradicts what they believe to be true, which was told to them by the authorities. Because that would be heresy or blasphemy, and they could be excommunicated, which means sent to Hell for eternity, basically.