All of us have certain beliefs that we maintain strongly. Sometimes those beliefs seem so self-evident that it comes as a surprise when we discover that other individuals whom we consider to be like-minded have an opposed point of view. Those kinds of differences surface from time to time among those of us who belong to the Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club, even though in general we are all pretty similar, and compatible, in terms of our basic worldviews. I think most of us would probably label ourselves, to a greater or lessor degree, as being liberal rather than conservative, and left-of-center in terms of political ideology.
Three topics about which I have been surprised to discover that some individuals in our group have beliefs seemingly different from my own are Climate Change, Evolution, and the interpretation of events that took place on September 11, 2001. It is not my intent in this essay to proselytize for my own beliefs regarding these topics. However, I do want to discuss the various ways we humans formulate and justify our beliefs in general, and apply those principles to my own beliefs.
Based on Personal Experiences
Our overall belief systems are influenced by familial, societal, and cultural surroundings. For example, the statistical odds of an individual having religious beliefs compatible with Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity are vastly different for an individual born and raised in India, Saudi Arabia, or Mississippi. However, these influences are too complex to be explained by simple casual chains — Specific beliefs might stem from an affirmation of, or a reaction against, the circumstances of our upbringing, or some combination of both.
Similarly, as adults our belief systems are related to the communities in which we live. The odds of being a Trump supporter for example are much different for someone living in a rural community in the South or Midwest than they are for someone living in a large city in the Northeast or the West Coast. Some of this is likely the result of self-segregation into communities of like-minded individuals when we are given choices about where to live and work. Additionally, our own beliefs often tend to drift into increasing conformity with those of the individuals we spend substantial amounts of time interacting with. That old adage imparted to us by our mothers probably holds — Be careful about what friends you keep.
With the advent of the internet and mass media radio and cable channels, physical proximity is now relatively less important in this regard. Our belief systems and values are increasingly influenced by virtual communities. Viewers spending substantial amounts of time watching Fox News on cable, listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, or interacting with Alt-Right internet sites are likely to have belief systems that diverge more and more over time from viewers watching MSNBC, listening to Progressive Talk Radio, or interacting with liberal leaning websites. This fact came as a surprise to most political scientists who expected that having access to a wide variety of perspectives would lead to individuals developing less polarizing views. Instead, what has been discovered is that all of us tend to initially self-select media and internet outlets that are generally compatible with our own beliefs, and then over time drift more and more into conformance with the views expressed in those isolated virtual communities. We should probably update mother’s advice, Be careful which virtual communities you isolate yourself in.
Based on Sensory Inputs
There is an iconic figure described in the bible, Doubting Thomas, who refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected until he could see, hear, and touch the living body. This is an approach all of us use frequently when trying to justify our specific beliefs. We make an appeal to what we have experienced with our own sense organs.
Shortly after 9/11 I watched a forum sponsored by the 9/11 Truth Movement on C-span. One of the speakers made arguments about why he believed the collapses of the twin towers and adjacent building 7 could not have been caused by impacts from the airplanes. The evidence he presented for this belief was an analysis of what he had seen with his own eyes while watching videos of the events taken on the day of the event.
Of course appeals to the senses can cut both ways. Senator Jim Inhoffee, an adamant denier of global warming, once brought a snowball onto the senate floor to demonstrate that, despite scientists’ claims of global warming, it was in fact unseasonably cold outside. On the other side of the issue, Senator Brian Schatz recently remarked following the destruction produced by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, “Even if you don’t believe liberals, even if you don’t believe scientists, you can believe your own eyes.”
Based on Reasoning
Logical arguments and other forms of cognitive analyses are frequently employed to justify beliefs. A classic example is an argument about why the scientific theory of evolution is inadequate to explain how our eyeballs developed. The eyeball has two separate components, made up of different kinds of tissue. The front of the eye has the cornea and lens that form an image at the back of the eye. The back of the eye has the retina that reacts to this image and sends the results up the optic nerve to the brain. It would serve no functional purpose to evolve the optical components of the eye if there was no retina to respond to it. Likewise, it would serve no purpose to evolve a retina if there was no image to respond to. Thus, it is argued, the eyeball that needs to evolve both of these separate components before it can perform an adaptive function could never have developed based on natural selection. This argument is used to justify a belief in divine intervention as an alternative to evolution.
The Scientific Method
Scientists have beliefs the same as everyone else, many of which are derived from unspecified familial, societal, and cultural sources. However scientists have learned not to trust either of the above mentioned methods for justifying their beliefs. Research in the academic discipline of psychology over the past few decades has amply demonstrated the folly of trusting in the infallibility of our sense experiences or our cognitive reasoning. Instead, scientists have developed a set of procedures, the scientific method, that are designed specifically to evaluate certain kinds of assertions. And in cases where a scientist’s beliefs are in conflict with the outcomes of scientific experiments, science takes priority.
Let me give a personal example. Research in psychology in recent years has demonstrated unequivocally that many (probably most) of our earliest precious childhood memories are false memories. As a person, I have many childhood memories that seem both precious and real to me. If you were to ask me what I “believe” deep down in my heart somewhere, I would have to respond that I think my memories are accurate. However, if you ask me what I “accept as being true as a scientist”, I have to admit that my memories are probably false ones. This specific example reflects the principle that holds true for all serious scientists — assertions of facts are evaluated based on the outcomes of scientific experiments, NOT based on what the scientist believes or wishes to be true.
The scientific method has many procedures built into it that are designed specifically to try to minimize the influence of a scientist’s beliefs or biases on the outcomes of experiments. A detailed description of these procedures is beyond the scope of this essay, but a few of the most important are the requirement that studies be carried out “blind” (double blind when human subjects are involved), requirements for peer review and publication before results are accepted, statistical procedures to establish probabilities that results were due to chance, and the requirement that results need to be able to be replicated independently by other scientists.
A major limitation of the scientific method is that it can only be used to evaluate certain kinds of assertions — ones that involve cause and effect relationships between physical entities. Other kinds of assertions fall outside the scope of science. For example, beliefs such as “God exists”, or “my behavior is ethically the right thing to do”, or “blue is the most beautiful color” can not be evaluated within the scientific method.
Assertions involving 1) Whether or not human activities in the form of releasing carbon into the atmosphere are significant factors affecting global climate change; 2) Whether the question of how animal species, including Homo sapiens, came into being can be explained solely within the scientific theory of evolution or whether these events can only be explained by positing additional unknown outside influences (e.g., divine intervention); 3) Whether established scientific engineering principles are sufficient to explain how the twin towers and building 7 collapsed after the observed collisions with airplanes, or whether these events can only be explained by positing additional influences (e.g. explosives planted in the buildings ahead of time):
These are all assertions that are amenable to being tested by scientific methods. The results are in and the overwhelming scientific consensus is: human activities involving putting carbon into the atmosphere are a significant contributor to observed climate change; The theory of evolution is sufficient, on its own, to account for how animal species formed; The collapse of the twin towers and building 7 on 9/11 can be explained by a series of causal reactions that took place as a result of the airline collisions — there is no need to posit additional factors to account for what was observed.
As a scientist, I accept the scientific consensus. That does not mean I think everyone else should be compelled/cajoled/proselytized into believing the scientific consensus regarding these issues. My only purpose here is to explain the bases for my own beliefs.
There are at least three caveats regarding the scientific consensus.
First, scientific conclusions are always provisional, along the lines of — given everything we know to date, this particular scientific theory or set of scientific principles is sufficient to account for all of the observed facts. However, if new facts or new scientific principles are discovered tomorrow, scientists will re-evaluate this consensus. In public debates this puts scientists at a decided disadvantage when going against “know-it-all” ideologues whose positions never waiver. I suppose we might be better off if scientists acted the same way, e.g. never wavering from the known fact that the earth is flat — but for some reason I can not see the value in that proposition.
Second, not everyone agrees that results obtained using scientific methods take precedence over all other methods for evaluating assertions. Some would assert that given a conflict between the conclusions reached by science and religion or between science and various other kinds of theories (e.g., conspiracy theories), the scientific method ought not be given any more weight than any other method. And, of course that assertion itself is not one that falls within the domain of questions that can be evaluated with the scientific method. Only if one is a “believer” in science (as I admittedly am) is one compelled to accept conclusions reached using the scientific method.
Third is the possibility that most/all scientists are too ignorant to understand their own results and/or corrupt and have purposefully mislead the public about the actual outcomes of the scientific experiments that have been performed in order to make the results conform to their own biases. It is certainly the case that there are individual cases where scientists made up data, or deliberately misinterpreted results, or engaged in other kinds of fraudulent behavior. However, on these three issues I am discussing in this essay, there is a consensus among the vast majority of scientists over the entire world. As a scientist who spent my entire career interacting with other scientists from around the world, I personally find assertion(s) that the worldwide society of scientists, when they have reached a consensus, are unbelievable because they are too ignorant to understand their own results and/or corrupt and deliberately misrepresenting their own results, to be too ludicrous to even try to respond to.
In the previous section I discussed the fact that some reject the scientific approach in favor of religious or other non-scientific belief systems. In this final section I want to make mention of a small number of individuals who take a different, somewhat convoluted approach to try to validate beliefs. These individuals purport to be using scientific methods to validate their beliefs, but their scientific conclusions are different from those of the consensus of mainstream scientists. A small number of these individuals are sincere contrarians. However, many are promoters of pseudoscience, akin to snake oil salesmen of the old west. They use jargon and charts and graphs that to the non-scientist layperson appear to be scientific, but when evaluated by an actual knowledgeable scientist are revealed to be anything but. They lurk on the internet, on cable news shows, on talk radio, on the shelves of book stores, and at lectures to the gullible. The message proselytized by these individuals is that not only is the belief system of the audience correct, it is validated by science! Not mainstream science where all the practitioners are too ignorant to understand their own results and/or corrupt and trying to mislead you, but by unique scientific (sic) methods that only I, the pseudoscientist, understand.
My reaction to these claims — Buyer beware!