Science and ‘belief’

On Lateline this month (see here) Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb talked about the changes to climate change issues under the new government. At the end of the interview he compared science with ‘belief’ apparently thinking that science does not involve belief and that ‘belief’ is not about evidence. Polite as he is, that’s a power play that (perhaps not consciously) entrenches science as the only form of serious thinking. It seems that the way he expresses himself, he would be reluctant to use the word ‘belief’ or ‘believe’ with respect to anything scientific. Here’s an excerpt followed by a hypothetical continuation of the interview:

EMMA ALBERICI: Is it helpful to the debate to paint climate change science as a quasi-religion with believers and nonbelievers?

IAN CHUBB: Well, Emma, there are believers and nonbelievers, I suppose. Personally I’m not a believer, I just look at evidence and I see where the balance of the evidence is going. I think one of the unfortunate things in this area is that it’s turned out to be a sort of belief, you know, do you believe in or do you not believe in. I don’t subscribe to that view of belief. I think that it’s important that we put all of the evidence that we can gather on the table. Some of it will be strongly on one side of the argument, there may well be stuff strongly on the other side of an argument. It’s always like that in science. And scientists will work out what the balance of probabilities are.

And I think that when we understand that we are talking about the balance of probabilities, we put that evidence out there, we argue that point, people can then turn that into a belief system if they want to. But I don’t think scientists do. I think scientists base their argument on evidence rigorously analysed, hotly debated, allowing for as many sides of the argument as you can that are legitimate and legitimately put forward, based on evidence, and they draw some conclusions from it on the balance of probabilities.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We do that for most of the things in our lives. We work out the balance of probability when we get on an aeroplane or when we cross the road. It’s our life and science is based on evidence designed to increase the level of probability that allows us to draw certain conclusions from which we can make, take certain actions. And I think that’s the important part of it. And I don’t think about this as, you know, “I believe”. I mean, what would that tell you? I mean, it doesn’t tell you very much. It just is a waste of your time and mine for me to do that, quite frankly. I think that it’s much better for me to say: I think the evidence is heading in this particular direction and if you want to know about it I’ll get as much of it to you as I possibly can.

Now let’s continue the conversation hypothetically…

HYPO: So, can I ask if you believe that climate change is occurring?

IAN CHUBB: Yes, of course I do.

HYPO: So you do have beliefs

IAN CHUBB: Well, no. I don’t believe that climate change is occurring, I think it is.

HYPO: Oh, so thinking something isn’t believing something?

IAN CHUBB: That’s right. Thinking involves evidence while believing is blind, without evidence.

HYPO: And by evidence you mean scientifically accepted evidence?

IAN CHUBB: Yes that’s right.

HYPO: So, let me get this clear; you don’t believe anything but you think lots of things are true as long as they are based on scientific evidence.

IAN CHUBB: Yes, that’s right.

The hypothetical could continue, but let’s cut it short. It seems to me that perhaps what is going on here is that the chief scientist is fearful of using the ‘belief’ word, not because it is inappropriate, not for the sake of careful expression, but for politically and secularly correct reasons. He’s fighting the unmentioned menaces of both climate deniers and religious believers and putting them in the same bag. Only science is the way to truth. More could be said but essays need to be marked…

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