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Belief and scepticism: creating nonsense by mislabelling scientists and deniers

There’s science, and there’s opinion: Hippocrates knew what he was talking about. mira66/Flickr

In my first year biology lectures I have a ritual that my students seem to enjoy. I put a quote of the day up on the overhead projector; something for the students to reflect on while they find their seats and I warm up the lectern. Although I choose quotes relevant to the topic de jour, I do not usually comment on them.

But yesterday, as I was preparing to deliver a lecture on the evidence for evolution, I looked at the day’s quote and found myself embarking on an involuntary rant. Typically, my students remembered the rant and forgot the lecture. Worryingly, they may not have been able to tell the difference. Hopefully, it did them no harm. You can be the judge, as I replicate my rant here.

“There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.” – Hippocrates

Hippocrates’ quote about science and opinion reminded me why I did not watch the recent TV show called I can change your mind about climate change, although I have heard a lot about it.

I cannot bear to watch or read anything that labels the proponents of these debates as sceptics and believers. The misuse of these words creates enough confusion to overpower any substantive points that might be made in the process.
The way these words - sceptics and believers – are used in discussing climate change, just drives me nuts. As Hippocrates says, one is science and the other opinion, but when these words are linked to climate change, their meaning is opposite to their definitions. This is sneaky, underhanded obfuscation.

Sceptics, as portrayed in the media circus, are completely mislabelled. Those who deny actual evidence cannot be called sceptics. They begin by believing in the rightness of their cause, and then cherry pick their facts. No true sceptic would develop an argument based on bias alone.
Scientists are the true sceptics. They begin with doubt, rather than beginning with belief. They ask themselves, “What kind of data could I collect that would prove to me that an idea I think is right is actually wrong?”

Scientists ask rigorous questions, test assumptions and scrutinise each other’s logic. Yet when 97% of scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activities, they are labelled “believers”.

This is a deeply misleading word for the scientists involved, and it is offensive to true believers as well. I am aware that teaching evolution often causes conflict for students whose families think this branch of biology is opposed to a belief in God, but I do not expect my students to deny themselves a spiritual connection to the universe. Doing our best to love the earth, each other or ourselves does not preclude a sensible approach to knowledge.

Indeed, true scepticism is healthy. It allows a person to begin from doubt and move toward something. Scepticism is about moving toward certainty by testing one’s own assumptions. It is about knowledge; the realm of the mind.

True belief can also be healthy. It allows a person to begin from a private experience or emotion and move toward the unknown. Belief often involves a leap of faith because evidence is not available. It is about transcendence; the realm of the spirit.

Climate change deniers are neither sceptics nor believers. They do not believe in anything, other than their own opinions. Because they try to argue about the evidence, they pretend to be sceptics, but they are not. Their scholarship is insufficient, their doubt is selective, and their arguments are flawed.

Saying that facts are not true does not make you a sceptic. The outcome of research is not a matter of opinion. Deniers of scientific evidence are not sceptics, they merely sow the seeds of doubt. Scientists are not people who believe, they simply seek to know. They want to remove doubt from the equation.

I am happy to engage in scientific debate. I am even happy to talk about personal belief systems. But I am not happy to continue to see words twisted and labels misused to muddy the debate about climate change, by people who are neither sceptics nor believers.

Yesterday morning it was part of my job to tell my students that evolution is a fact.There are mountains of evidence for it, some of which I summarised. But I had to explain that evolution is also a theory, because it is understood using theoretical constructs and paradigms that are constantly tested.

Over 150 years since Darwin, scientists continue to learn about evolution by debunking every new idea about the details.

Now, that’s scepticism for you.

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