What we believe in

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Faye Flam, "‘Belief’ in evolution? It may be the wrong word", Philadelphia Inquirer 6/27/2011:

When the contestants in the Miss USA pageant last week were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, many volunteered that they either "believed" or "didn't believe" in the concept.

"I don't believe in evolution," said Miss Alabama. "They should teach both sides since some people believe in evolution and some people believe in creation," said Miss Arizona. "It's something people believe in," said Miss Florida. "I believe in evolution … and I like to believe in, like, the big bang theory," said Miss California, who won the crown.

Faye quotes some people who think that talk about believing in things confuses science with faith. She also quotes some people on the other side, including me.

My contribution was to search the titles of scientific journal articles for uses of the idiom in question. I came up with a list of examples, out of which Faye quoted "Do we still believe in the dopamine hypothesis? New data bring new evidence"; "Three reasons not to believe in an autism epidemic"; and "Seven (and a half) reasons to believe in Mirror Matter: From neutrino puzzles to the inferred Dark matter in the Universe."

Something I didn't do was to check for frequent nominal collocates of believe in. The top of the frequency-sorted list from COCA (nouns that appear in the frame [believe] in [n*]) is

God miracles ghosts Jesus love Santa democracy reincarnation freedom abortion heaven evolution angels life hell marriage Christ things UFOs government destiny fate magic America luck family peace violence redemption coincidences justice people quotas prayer …

This list is dominated by religion (God, Jesus, reincarnation), politics (democracy, freedom, government), interpersonal abstraction (love, violence, family), and superstition (ghosts, magic, coincidences).  Evolution, at number 12, is the only thing on the list that functions these days as a hypothesis subject to confirmation or disconfirmation.

Of course, this is simply based on counts of what people most frequently write or talk about believing (or not believing) in. And it's limited to immediately following nouns, whereas most scientific hypothesis are named by multi-word phrases like "the dopamine hypothesis", "the autism epidemic", and "mirror matter". Of course, "evolution" is just a familiar form of "the evolution of species", and there are plenty of religious and political beliefs that don't have common one-word names.

And if we look (say) at frequency-ranked instantiations of the pattern [believe] in the * [n*], the list is pretty much still dominated by religion, politics, social institutions, and superstitions, with the highest ranking scientific hypothesis being "the big bang" at no. 19:

the death penalty, the American dream, the holy spirit, the tooth fairy, the free market, the American system, the virgin birth, the jury system, the traditional family, the democratic process, the Easter bunny, the second amendment, the spirit world, the United Nations, the work ethic, the American people, the Bush doctrine, the Christian God, the big bang, the holy trinity, …

Faye followed up with this video:

Those who think that this spoof is unfair (and of course it is, somewhat) should watch the original.

In thinking about the role of belief in rational inquiry, it's useful to introduce Gerald Holton's distinction between "public science" and "private science", as explained for example in "On the Art of Scientific Imagination", Daedalus 125(2) 1996:

[W]e must wonder about the unreasonable effectiveness of science itself, especially in the early, nascent phase of an individual's research. One can call that phase "Private Science," before the results are cleaned up and, as Louis Pasteur put it, are made to look inevitable — that is, before they become science in that other sense, namely "Public Science," in which the profession's organized skepticism and other norms dominate. […]

In a famous speech of 1918, Albert Einstein suggested that the elusive, additional element needed for high achievement in science is a "state of feeling" in the researcher, which he called "akin to that of the religious worshiper or of one who is in love," arising not from a deliberate decision or program but from a personal necessity. [..]

Peter Medawar put it this way, though a bit harshly: "It is of no use looking to scientific papers, for they not merely conceal but actively misrepresent the reasoning that goes into the work they describe… .Only unstudied evidence will do — and that means listening at the keyhole."

Holton doesn't mean to suggest that science is all a sham — the "public science" part, where "the profession's organized skepticism and other norms dominate", is essential to making the whole thing work out.

I admit that it's not easy to get these ideas across in elementary school, though.

Update — it occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare the list of collocates from the British National Corpus:

God, ghosts, things, miracles, Jesus, magic, love, marriage, Europe, fate, religion, death, freedom, Santa, evil, fairies, divorce, democracy, horoscopes, justice, life, reincarnation, sin, telepathy, war, angels, astrology, Arnold, …

Pretty much the same, mutatis mutandis — but without evolution, which is apparently not such a big issue in the British catechism.

I also feel that I owe our readers a list of LL posts on Wrathful Dispersion Theory:

"Wrathful Dispersion Theory", 12/2/2005
"The science and theology of global language change", 12/30/2007
"The comparative theology of linguistic diversity", 12/31/2007
"The origin of speeches: Wrathful Dispersion for real", 12/31/2007
"More on the theology of linguistic diversity", 1/1/2008


  1. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 8:25 am

    This is funny, but, like the beauty pageants it satirizes, it perpetuates the stereotype of dumb beautiful women. It would be nice to see a similar bit on politicians who don't "believe" in climate change or who advocate teaching creationism. Many of those people are middle-aged white men of varying degrees of attractiveness. And unlike the beauty queens, the politicians have power to impose their "beliefs" about science on the rest of us.

  2. Dw said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    "Arnold" ??

  3. Brett R said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    Here's the list if you search for nouns that follow within four words of [believe] in, and you group by lemmas: power, thing, people, heart, right, love, government, miracle, ghost, value, Jesus, freedom, system, Santa, life, democracy, death, family, possibility, god, principle, work, spirit, truth, claus, future, dream, reincarnation, existence.

  4. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    The practice of science is 95% about believing things.

    You believe your search scripts didn't have a bug, don't you?

    [(myl) Point of personal privilege here: I'm confident that nearly all of my programs, like everyone else's, have one or more bugs. I take various precautions to try to reduce the number of bugs, and I generally test programs on fake data to make sure that the results are what they should be, and I watch for anomalies that might be a clue to remaining problems. As a result, I'm usually fairly confident that any residual bugs (or "features") are not crucially affecting outputs that I cite.

    I also believe, as a matter of principle, that scientists (and engineers) ought to publish their raw data, in almost every case, so that others can check their results using programs with a different random set of bugs (and more important, using different concepts and goals).]

    And in a lab, we believe that the instrument we just calibrated is still delivering valid readings. We believe that out colleagues have not tampered with our reagents overnight. We trust what colleagues say about the samples they send us. We believe truckloads of stuff in textbooks and handbooks and instructions and published methods that we don't have time to check out. We believe tons of stuff, all the time.

    The scepticism involved in doing science is highly focused and structured to tell us something about one hypothesis at a time. Though a lot of working scientists aren't very good at that, either, and need to be kept in check by reviewers, their colleagues in discussions down the pub, and conference talk audiences.

    And scientists are tremendously optimistic about how well the language they use expresses hypotheses and evidence.

    Which hypothesis we choose to test next and how is a supreme matter of belief, of hunches, of trained intuition if such a thing is possible (but all scientists behave as though it is).

    I don't see why belief should be seen as an opposite of science at all.

  5. Don Sample said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    Part of the problem is that asking if someone "believes in X" can be a very vague question. I've seen a few surveys where I was asked if I "believed in U.F.O.s"

    On the one hand I want to answer that "Yes, I believe that people see Unidentified Flying Objects all the time. I've seen a few myself." On the other hand I think that it is extremely unlikely that any of those UFOs I've seen, or anyone else has seen, are extraterrestrial spaceships.

    [(myl) This is true; but in the case under discussion, the contestants were not asked whether they believed in evolution. Rather, they were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools.]

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    Did I miss something, or did the article not tell us what verb the anti-believers thought should be used instead? "I don't *believe* in plate tectonics; I X in plate tectonics." What's the recommendation for X?

  7. Damien Hall said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    No, evolution and whether or not to 'believe in it' isn't such a big issue over here: we don't have nearly as many religious fundamentalists here, and those that we do have certainly aren't numerous or powerful enough to actually have an effect on society at large. No-one in national politics here (maybe not even anyone in local politics) would come out in public and say that they thought that evolution was just one theory among many and that others should be given equal consideration: they would be laughed out of the room.

    However, that's not to say that people in general are not aware that some others do debate the issue as if it were a scientific one. My particular example here is schoolchildren. I have just taken part in I'm A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here! – an online balloon-debate between academic and private-sector scientists on the one hand and 13-18-year-olds on the other. The students interacted with the scientists in IM chats and by sending them questions to be answered on the IAS website. Whether or not to believe in evolution was a reasonably-frequent topic, especially (IIRC) with the Catholic school that was in my group of schools, but I think that, by the time they left school, these students would be firmly of the opinion that evolution is real; at their young age they were testing the waters, as they should, but I believe that the Catholic Church's official line is that evolution is real, so, if this Catholic school is following that line, as they presumably are, the students will not come out as fundamentalists. (Also, the UK National Curriculum, which state schools are obliged to follow and many private schools follow of their own volition, teaches only evolution as a science and probably mentions other beliefs in Religious Education.)

    Here are some examples of the written questions and answers on this topic:

    'How did scientists know the big bang actually created the Earth?'
    'Can scientists be religious or do you have to believe one or the other?'
    'If the big bang started the world why does the bible say God did? '

  8. J.P. Rahn said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    @ Ben Hemmens,

    There's a distinct difference in saying "I believe X" and "I believe 'in' X." One is a post-scientific statement, the other is not.

  9. Tim Martin said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    @J.W: For evolution, the alternative is usually "accept."

  10. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    I don't see why belief should be seen as an opposite of science at all.

    Because in common language, belief is closer to "holding an opinion" and, often in this context (not the trivial context of "I believe I left my keys at in the car") also in conjunction with a nuance involving something like "can't be proven" and "not an empirical matter".

    We don't say that we "believe there is no Santa Claus", we say that we know there is no Santa Claus.

    In common language (again, in this context) "believing something" is simultaneously somehow managing to affirm a lesser standard of intellectual rigor and yet not necessarily a lesser degree of truth. Indeed, in the even more narrowed context of these contested issues, it implies a greater degree of truth…but specifically a non-intellectual truth. It is a "higher truth", something not directly available to intellect but available to intuition, emotion, and spirit.

    It is, or very nearly is, faith. The only reason many people don't use the word faith in this context is because of things relating to social identity and the convention that faith is used in explicitly positive assertions in religious contexts such as "I have faith that God created Man" and not in negative, non-religious assertions such as "I believe that humans did not come from 'monkeys'".

    If one is trained in science and/or the western skeptical, empirical tradition, one is likely to prefer believe to know with regard to scientific matters for the obvious reasons. But this is a technical use of believe which is distinct from the usage in the example, "I don't believe in evolution". For those who aren't really trained to think and speak in these careful, skeptically-oriented ways, using the word believe to affirm evolution is, in contrast, understood to correspond to its use by those who deny it. It implicitly makes this into a disagreement on a matter of faith, not fact.

    That's why this usage in non-technical public discourse is problematic.

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    I consider "believe in" and "believe" to be significantly different concepts. I don't believe in the theory of evolution, but I do believe the theory. That is, the theory of evolution is not an entity which may or may not exist, but rather a concept whose principles are either believable or not. Likewise, I may not believe in the god of Abraham, but I believe some of the things that he is supposed to have said are true.

  12. Tim Martin said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    Faye quotes some people who think that talk about believing in things confuses science with faith. She also quotes some people on the other side, including me.

    So wait, Dr. Liberman *are you on the other side,* or not? It seems like your further research on collocations has shown pretty convincingly that "believe in" almost always refers to things that are based on opinion or claims that cannot be scientifically substantiated. That's why "I don't believe in gravity" sounds so ridiculous.

    [(myl) Faye's original question to me was

    … about the way people – in the general public anyway – refer to evolution as something you either “believe in” or “don’t believe in.” It strikes me as odd, somehow, compared to other areas of science, where things are either accepted, assumed or questioned but not often “believed in” …

    and my first reaction was to ask whether or not working scientists talk and write about "believing in" hypothesized entities or relationships or explanations. The answer, clearly, is that they do use this language, even in the formal literature, and (I believe) even more in informal discussion.

    My second reaction was to bring up Holton's distinction, and to argue that believing in things is really part of "private science", with some linguistic leakage into the "public science" arena. My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that this is pretty much as it should be; but it's hard to explain this idea to people who are not familiar with the norms of public science, AKA the Anglo-Austrian Tribunal of Revolutionary Empirical Justice and its stochastic descendants.]

  13. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:18 am

    The problem here is that "believe" is dangerously polysemous. In one context it can mean "I am confident that Claim X is true despite a complete lack of empirical evidence supporting Claim X." In another context it might mean something like "I am confident that Claim X is true because a preponderance of empirical evidence supports Claim X and virtually no evidence that might falsify Claim X has been gathered despite repeated attempts to do so."

    The consequence is that those who are poorly educated about scientific habits of mind may fail to distinguish the intent of a statement like "I believe wearing a magnet on my wrist will improve my stamina" from the intent of a statement like "I believe the likelihood of extremophiles existing in the interior of Enceladus warrants the expense of landing a drilling apparatus there."

    This is not an ontological issue. It's partly a nomenclature issue, partly an education issue. At this time (and perhaps for all time) English lacks a pair of common idioms that would help readers/listeners to distinguish between what really are different kinds of believing. Even more nuanced terms like "speculate" do not help the uneducated. Yet they are the ones who steer public opinion and, all too often, create public policy.

  14. MattF said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    Again, 'belief' is a elusive concept and looking at corpora conflates all the meanings. Do you believe that 'grass is green' or that 'the sky is blue'? Paleontologists say that evolution is simply a fact more or less on that level. Do you believe in it? Well, yes.

  15. Alex Brotman said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    "The practice of science is 95% about believing things."

    How did you come about that number? Sources?

    "I don't see why belief should be seen as an opposite of science at all."

    All of your examples are of human error, not science.

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    The two meanings of the phrase believe in are captured by an old joke: “Do you believe in infant baptism?” “I have to, I’ve seen it.”

    I use the phrase with either of these meanings, and I feel comfortable in doing so. With one meaning, I believe in ball lightning: that is, I believe that ball lightning exists. With the other meaning, I do not believe in capital punishment: that is, I believe that capital punishment is morally wrong. Sometimes I use the phrase with both meanings simultaneously. I believe in God: that is, I believe that God exists, and I trust Him.

  17. David L said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    I once got a rebuke from a reader for writing in a magazine article something to the effect that many physicists believe string theory will allow unification of gravity and quantum mechanics. Belief has no place in science! this reader sternly instructed me. But in this case, 'believe' seems like just the right word. No one has shown that string theory will succeed in its aims; it's a hypothesis — one that many physicists believe in but are in no position to prove. You might say that many physicists speculate that string theory etc etc, but to a lot of scientists that sounds too iffy, as if were just a crazy guess.

    As SMJ says, belief can mean a range of things. I believe I will try the liver and onions for lunch…

  18. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    Just to add that in my personal experience when I deliberately use know in place of believe with regard to these contested issues (evolution, Big Bang, global warming, etc) in conversation with those who "don't believe" these things, I almost always get a very forceful, even offended, response—a response asserting that it's just not possible for me to "know" these things are true.

    In the case of global warming, this is presumably merely an assertion that there is, as of yet, insufficient evidence to "know". But in the case of the first two, it's often explicitly argued that it is in principle impossible to know the truth of these things. This the result of a considerable failure, in my opinion, in science education. If we're not able to convince students that it's possible to know truths which are distant in space and time, then in some way I think we've failed at teaching both what science is and how it works.

    As an aside, I was just recently involved in an online argument with someone who confidently asserted that nothing at all within the domain of social science can ever be "known" or proven to be true; that all social sciences are not truly empirical and that social scientists are merely aping the methods of real science in their futile attempts to be real scientists. This wasn't a cultural criticism, it was an essentialist philosophical criticism: that the objects of study of the social scientists are simply immune to scientific investigation. I mention this because this is pretty much the same sort of intuitive qualitative assertion that's behind many choices to disbelieve in evolution or the Big Bang or similar. I do think these are usually ex post facto rationalizations, but they are nevertheless expressions of a latent intuitive certainty about what can and cannot be known that it is very difficult for people to self-examine in any way.

  19. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    I don't think the difference between believing X and believing in X is watertight. Believing in something can mean believing it is true or exists or being of the opinion that it is good, or the right thing to do in a particular situation.

    My figure that scientists spend 95% of their time believing things is based on my original career as a biochemist in research, which lasted about 13 years. I'd say it's a very modest estimate. I've met many scientists who believed in their own pet ideas/agendas with a fanaticism that any religious fundamentalist could envy. This doesn't invalidate science, though, because science is not only what individual scientists do, but also a social activity in which people test each other's ideas in a particular way..

    "All of your examples are of human error, not science."
    1. Ah, but science is full of human error. In fact, you could say that ALL science is human error, just with a bit of a system (fairly shaky at times) to sort out which errors we prefer for the moment.
    2. No science would be possible without a generous use of assumptions (aka beliefs). And my experience is that for every assumption I know I'm making, my experimental system will find a way of revealing a few that I didn't realize I was making. If I'm alert, that is.

  20. Svafa said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    I think 'believe' or even 'faith' may be the best term in this situation. Based on my own observation, in common practice, evolution is treated more as a matter of faith than as one of scientific fact. While in academia, especially the scientific fields, it may be more a matter of research and study and experiment, in the practice of the lay populace belief in evolution (or an alternative) is attributed more to training and cultural standards. This extends further even than cosmology, to the belief in medicine for one example.

    Again, this is based on my own observation, and so is as liable to be in error as myself. I'm reminded of a statement made by Chesterton, "It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all."

  21. Meanings: “Believe In…” | The Observatory said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    […] or "I believe in the democratic process….?"  Mark Liberman at Language Log argues this may lead more to confusion than to clarity. Mostly we use the phrase "I believe […]

  22. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    "whether working scientists do or do not talk and write about "believing in" …. they do use this language, even in the formal literature, and (I believe) even more in informal discussion."

    Oh yes and they use much more colorful language about it than just "believing". It would be fun to analyze the daily conversations in a working lab (and also in the nearest pub). The work my be coolly rational, the language certainly isn't.

    If your definition of public science is published science I can agree with it partly. However, to some extent the language used in papers may express exactly the same attitudes / evaluations of hypotheses and beliefs about what is or will turn out to be true as are expressed in everyday discussions in the lab or over a few pints; they are just put in a different code.

  23. KevinM said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    Like the old joke: "Believe in infant baptism? I've seen it with my own eyes!"
    And with that, I believe I'll have a drink.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    I don't see why "accept" is superior to "believe", in terms of implying something that isn't an equally subjective act of volition. It may mean no more than "I'm not going to pick a fight about it." It is certainly clear that 99%+ of the general population that "accepts" evolution or plate tectonics or what have you has not independently evaluated a bunch of evidence with the technical background necessary to do so competently. They have adopted simplifying heuristics, which are generally either: a) defer to what appears to be the consensus of some relevant group of specialists; or b) defer to whatever publicly-expressed opinion will appropriately signal the individual's particular class/cultural/social-status affiliations or aspirations. Simplifying heuristics are necessary to get through the day, and a) is usually a good bet, except of course when it isn't. I think that one of the great challenges for generalists (a/k/a all of us outside our own specialties) in our time is figuring out when a particular situation may be one of the minority of cases in which the apparent consensus of specialists may in fact be seriously mistaken.

  25. Tim Martin said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    @myl: I wonder, though, how often in the scientific literature you would find researchers indicating their own, or another's, support for a matter of fact using language such as "I believe in neutrinos" or "Davis believes in gravity."

    None of your examples are of this type, and my (admittedly fallible) intuition tells me that the above is not language that people use to describe belief in things that are matters of fact. And, if you will, note that it is this usage specifically that Faye was asking about – as opposed to the much broader question you answered, which was whether scientists use the phrase "believe in" in any type of construction to talk about their hypotheses.

    I know that objective data is important in testing these things, and I admit to having none. But I would submit the above as a hypothesis for further testing – one that comports with, apparently, a number of people's intuitions about how religious people who deny science talk differently about facts than the rest of us.

  26. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    @J.W. Brewer: I agree, except that if you look at the history of science, I suspect the apparent consensus of specialists has actually been mistaken in the majority of cases. I'm not sure there's a good heuristic for individuals to decide whether an apparent consensus represents a real consensus, let alone whether a real consensus is correct.

  27. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    "I don't see why "accept" is superior to "believe", in terms of implying something that isn't an equally subjective act of volition." This is more or less my position, but it's hard to come up with a better single word to get across something along the lines of "I think x is the best explanation of the evidence currently available". It's supposed to get across the distinction between faith regardless of evidence (associated with "believe") and contingent but empirically derived confidence. It doesn't do so very satisfactorily.

  28. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    A while ago there was a discussion here about 'most', in which it became clear that there were two communities of speakers using 'most' in quite different ways, and that, so far as one could tell, these communities were not separated on ethnic or regional lines, but were totally intermingled. Cases where one use of 'most' is appropriate overlap with cases where the other is appropriate enough of the time that the difference doesn't become apparent immediately. I suspect something similar is true of many words, and it looks as if 'believe' is one of them.

    It's clear that for many people 'believe' actually implies an absence of certainty or of proof. However, even for those who don't understand the term that way, it's likely that it would more often be used in such cases, for Gricean reasons. Why say 'I believe that the world is round' when you can just say 'The world is round'? So only in rather special cases would people actually use 'believe' of things like that.

  29. Elizabeth Braun said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    Given the grossly UNscientific nature of the unproven *theory* of evolution, I think it really should be recognised as being down to belief and there should be no linguistic argument about it! Squads of people refuse to look at the evidence objectively and draw sound conclusions, doing so completely on the basis of prejudice (i.e. they want evolution to be true and therefore will accept no alternative, regardless of what the evidence clearly points to). That is monstrously unscientific!

    Yes, believing in evolution is totally a matter of faith and it takes a great deal more faith to believe in than it does to accept the overwhelming evidence of intelligent design and huge numbers of species appearing suddenly in the fossil record pointing towards the work of a creator (as some senior scientists have realised now….). As it's seen as being 'uneducated' and 'unscientific' to reject the theory though, it could also very possibly be why the beauty pageant was won by the lady who came down on the side of 'science'.

  30. Svafa said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 11:40 am


    While your contribution is surely appreciated, this is not a blog for debate on the truth or falsehood of evolution or creation. The subject matter to be discussed here is language, in this case the specific use of the word "believe" and its variants. You do mention why you think "believe" is appropriate in this context, but the majority of your contribution is an argument against evolution, which is off-topic.

    I, and am fairly certain many of the others here, would prefer not to see this derailed into an argument over the veridicality of one worldview over another, even if we agree with your assessment. At least not as it pertains to cosmology; now a worldview on diction and grammar is another matter, I imagine…

    This to say, while your points are valid, this may not be the best place to voice them. A site dedicated to evolution, creation, or the comparison thereof may be better suited to your argument.

  31. joel said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    Well said, svafa. One reason it is hard to talk about how language is deployed in these situations is that there are a number of parties who have a large personal stake in them. It's tempting to say "well, the reason they say X is that they just don't get it." I'm guilty of this too, rather than trying to better understand how and why the discourse moves the way it does.

    It does seem like recent popular books which pit "science" against "religion" have, in a way, posited a scenario in which one can either "believe in" "science" or "believe in" "religion". All those terms seem problematic to me, but they also seem to be circulating quite a bit. It could be that popularizers of certain views of science are purposefully appropriating the language of Christian fundamentalism in order to undermine it, as it were.

  32. Jonathan said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    The best song. IMO, in the new musical The Book of Mormon is: "I Believe," which plays off several meanings of belief– a sample:

    I believe that Satan has a hold of you
    I believe that the Lord, God, has sent me here
    And I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!
    You can be a Mormon..
    A Mormon who just believes!

  33. Albert Vogler said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    I once had a professor of genetics who referred to the (scientific) literature as "the mythology".

  34. richard howland-bolton said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    Elizabeth Braun (possibly inadvertently) brings up a related point with her use of emphasized or scare-quoted "*theory*". She would appear to be using it as opponents of science often do for evolution (though I suspect not for gravity), and I wonder if there is a relationship between various uses of 'theory' and the uses of 'belief' that's being discussed here.

  35. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    @richard howland-bolton: It would be hard to use it that way for gravity, since that is usually termed a Natural Law (a directly observed phenomenon) rather than a Theory (an explanation that accounts for observed phenomena). A better example might be the Theory of Relativity (Special or General, take your pick).

  36. richard howland-bolton said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    @Ran You are probably right. I was trying to think of a good popular example to use.

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    The famous "I believe . . ." soliloquy delivered by Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) in Bull Durham http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBfdl6hNZ9k starts with parallel "I believe in X, Y, Z, etc. . ." but switches around in the middle to various alternative contructions like "I believe that X," "I believe there ought to be Y," or simple "I believe Z." Anyone who has a theory about a systematic semantic difference between "believe" and "believe in" might want to test it against this dataset.

    Ran Ari-Gur: the problem, of course, is that for most complicated issues there is more than one conceivable answer, so the seductive heuristic "pick the answer the current expert consensus hasn't picked because the current expert consensus will likely prove in time to have been incorrect" doesn't get you very far.

  38. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    Er, make that "more than two conceivable answers."

  39. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    "It could be that popularizers of certain views of science are purposefully appropriating the language of Christian fundamentalism in order to undermine it, as it were."

    I think the language of science and fundamentalism have been intertwined from the very beginning, since fundamentalism (which is just 100 years old round about now) is a very modern reaction to science and in particular adopted a way of "literally" interpreting parts of the bible that was rather new and swept away even a moderate level of appreciation of the age, context and literary genre of the Genesis texts.

  40. “Believe in evolution” « Strongly Stated said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    […] Via Language Log: A Philadelphia Inquirer article questioning whether "Do you believe in evolution?" (asked of Miss USA contestants) is the right question to be asking. "I have attempted, largely through spurring on from several colleagues . . . to never use the word belief in talks," said Arizona State University physicist and writer Lawrence Krauss. […]

  41. KeithB said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    No, gravity is the perfect example. There is the *fact* of gravity: apples fall from trees. Then there is the theory of gravity: Is it caused by a warpage of space? The exchange of gravitons?

    Just the same there is the fact of evolution: that alleles change over time and the theory of evolution that this is due to random variation + natural selection or due to genetic drift.

    These sorts of questions are discussed all the time on Scienceblogs.

  42. Boris said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    Isn't it true that it is impossible to prove most things in science in a watertight way? Unlike, say, geometry (and other branches of mathematics), in which things can only be proven because we start with postulates that are true by definition (as in we defined it, therefore it's true), all scientific theories are simply assumptions that fit all available evidence. As such, it is only possible to disprove a theory, not to prove it, and in some disciplines you cannot even do that (archaeology comes to mind). So, by definition, all beliefs about scientific truths are just that, beliefs. That does not mean that these theories have no value, or even that they are false. It just means you cannot "know" a scientific theory to be true.

  43. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Oh, definitely. But sometimes the alternative to "believing that the apparent consensus is right" is simply "doubting whether it is right", not "believing it is wrong", let alone "believing that some specific alternative is right". To be a global warming denialist, for example, you don't have to believe specifically that the climate isn't changing; you just have to doubt the apparent consensus view of catastrophically increasing temperatures on a global scale over large time-ranges due to recent human causes. Or, for that matter — since global warming is not just a scientific issue but a political one — you can doubt that we're still capable of preventing it, since if we're not, that would make the scientific issue academic from a political standpoint. And I'm not just speaking hypothetically here: I know that many or most global warming denialists are ambivalent among multiple of these viewpoints, and that many of them will happily make statements along the lines of, "there's just not enough evidence yet", as though there were still the possibility of further evidence coming along and convincing them.

    In the case of evolution, those who don't believe in evolution usually have a fairly specific alternative belief, because that alternative belief is the very reason they don't believe in evolution; but I don't think that's the usual case.

  44. KeithB said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    For more perspective on these issues, I would suggest soliciting a guest post by someone like John Wilkins:

    He is a philospher of science and has written much on this topic.

  45. Svafa said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    @KeithB: I wrote you a nice, long response, but it was terribly off-topic so I scrapped it. In summary, I don't think gravity is the best example, a workable one certainly, but not the best. My reasons had to do with the complexity of the two theories, their ease of observance, and that we have not clearly defined evolution here. The latter is possibly most important were we to debate the merits of evolution, as I could accept your description of evolution (alleles change over time) on the basis of microevolution while still agreeing with Elizabeth Braun concerning macroevolution.

    @Boris: I agree completely, and what you describe is why I can agree with Elizabeth Braun above when she states, "believing in evolution is totally a matter of faith". To this end I had previously quoted Chesterton in this thread: "It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." But at some point we must draw the line, otherwise we're stuck wondering if reality isn't simply a dream, and even "cogito, ergo sum" assumes some amount of faith.

    I fear I have wandered off… to bring myself back to task while addressing Boris' observation, I see no issue with a statement like "I believe in gravity". I wouldn't be surprised if I previously used that exact statement. This doesn't necessarily mean that I find the theory of gravity lacking, which seems to be implied in the subject article. Instead, I would argue that their use of "believe" implies an investment in the subject. That is, more than simply accepting a thing as true, actively treating it as true. Often I think this investment implied in belief is assumed to be uninformed, which is a terrible assumption to make.

    @Ran Ari-Gur: I would definitely fit into the global warming denialist camp that doubts whether the apparent consensus is right. Or, well, the current consensus is actually more accurate than the "scare" from years back when I was more adamantly denialist- back before they changed to calling it global climate change…

    I would say I'm more on the doubt side of evolution in the grand scheme as well. I have a hard time swallowing macroevolution, but I wouldn't rule it out as a possiblity entirely. Microevolution is something I can experience on a personal basis though, and so much easier to accept. However, I'm not convinced that the one necessitates the other, which is where most arguments/proofs for macroevolution seem to find their basis. This strikes me as some form of a false cause or hasty generalization; an educated attempt perhaps, but I don't believe we have enough evidence on the level of species-to-species evolution.

  46. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

    @Boris — It gets even worse. The Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel proved in 1931 that any mathematical theory necessarily contains statements that are not provable within that theory. In its full logical treatment, Gödel's proof gets very complicated and you shouldn't let it interfere with your common sense. As usual, Wikipedia has the full treatment.

  47. David Fried said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

    By now this may seem off-topic, but I just wanted to point out that by and large the responses of the Miss USA contestants to the question "Should evolution be taught in schools?" demonstrated their social intelligence, not their scientific ignorance. In the context of the contest and the probable biases of the judges, vacuous balance, with a nod to the prevalence of sincere fundamentalist opposition, was the only "correct" answer. "Evolution is a scientific fact; natural selection is as well-established a theory as any in science; and all of modern biology and medicine take evolution as a starting point' was the guaranteed contest-losing response. I should note, in fairness, that I could not possibly listen to all 14 minutes of the video, but I'll bet no one was stupid enough to say that.

  48. Belief and evolution | Evolving Thoughts said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

    […] note: Language Log also discusses this, philologically… This entry was posted in Epistemology, Evolution, Philosophy. Bookmark the […]

  49. J. Goard said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 12:34 am

    It seems to me (i.e. I believe) that, in the English-speaking world, the ambiguity of "believe in" has become integral to the elaborate con that is religion. As far as the vitality and fertility of a church is concerned, the fact that "belief in" a truth claim can be readily confused with (and thus evoke the various emotions associated with) the social solidarity of "belief in" one's child, sports team or political cause, is not a bug but rather a feature. The f$%^ing aggravating bit about how "you might not believe in God, but He believes in you" highlights my point — if you can trick someone into imagining a slight against a nonexistent referent and then associating disbelief with such a slight, then you can get in your hook of making belief per se a moral act toward another entity, rather than (as it actually is) a precondition of moral or immoral action.

  50. [links] Link salad eats badly, lives to regret it | jlake.com said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 7:09 am

    […] What we believe in — Language Log on the linguistics of belief. Or, as I say from time to time, just because you believe it doesn't mean it's true. […]

  51. Diane said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 7:32 am

    Off topic, but still linguistic, so…

    Elizabeth Braun wrote "squads of people…" I had always heard this expression as "scads of people," with "scads" being a slang term meaning "a lot" (rarely used in the circles I travel in). Anyone else use this expression? Is this an eggcorn?

  52. The Ridger said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    Indeed, "believe" is a very tricky word. I remember a reporter saying, roughly, "The Amish don't believe in helicopters and cell phones, but these children's lives were saved by them today."

    In one sense, rubbish. The Amish certainly know helicopters exist. What they do is "reject the use of" them. (Which, by the way, is one reason saying "I don't believe in God" can bring back the response of "why do you hate him?" or "you just want to live the way you feel like it" – some believers interpret "don't believe in" in that "reject the use of" sense.) People who don't believe in drinking or premarital sex or capital punishment are *rejecting* not denying the existence of those things.

    "Believe" is a word I won't use in any serious conversation. It's too open to misunderstandings – perfectly valid ones, given its polysemy.

  53. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    "Believe" is a word I won't use in any serious conversation. It's too open to misunderstandings – perfectly valid ones, given its polysemy.

    This seems wise to me and likely very good advice to others.

  54. Rodger C said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    "I think the language of science and fundamentalism have been intertwined from the very beginning, since fundamentalism (which is just 100 years old round about now) is a very modern reaction to science and in particular adopted a way of "literally" interpreting parts of the bible that was rather new and swept away even a moderate level of appreciation of the age, context and literary genre of the Genesis texts."

    Exactly. As a child of nonobservant Protestant parents who sent me to a Baptist Sunday school to learn the stories while also buying me plastic dinosaur sets, I've been thinking about all this for quite a long time.

  55. Rodger C said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    To address the point: In my lexicon I suppose I "believe in" evolution since I'm not a biologist, but I strongly think it to be a fact.

  56. Thursday Links/Notes « TuneBlog said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    […] Log highlights belief that extends beyond religion. Here the topic is evolution, but I have noticed this phenomenon in […]

  57. jan said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    "I don't think evolution should be taught because it's not true and it contradicts the Bible and it's just a theory."

    I wonder how many would agree with the following?

    "I don't think the story of Little Red Riding Hood should be taught because it's not true. The same goes for the writings of Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc. They weren't writing true stories either."

    "I don't think Greek mythology, or any non-Western literature, should be taught because it's not true and it contradicts the Bible."

    "I don't think anthropology and sociology should be taught because a lot of that is just theory."

  58. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    ""Believe" is a word I won't use in any serious conversation. It's too open to misunderstandings – perfectly valid ones, given its polysemy."

    Well, that seems to me to be a lousy argument for not using a word; if we were to eliminate all the polysemic words from our vocabulary, the language would look a lot different. So would most other languages. We should face up to the fact that we LIKE polysemy.

    Believe isn't an evil word. We all believe lots of things; all we have to cope with is that we believe different things in different ways, for different reasons. Many things we believe intuitively; many because they are all we have heard about some subject that we haven't had time to look into; many because somebody with an air or reliability told us about them (e.g. whatever I believe about linguistics is due in large part to the sweetly reasonable tone of the LL contributors), some, because we have done some empirical investigation of an observational nature, and a very few things because we have done some controlled experiments on them. And then there are some things which we believe in a more emotional or aspirational way because we feel they have truth embedded in them which we have not been able to extract into a simple and explicit form (maybe what we perceive in a religion or a piece of music or a work of literature or some other work of art).

    It's not the fault of the word believe that it doesn't distinguish between all these, it's our own silly fault for not talking articulately about its different varieties. All the word does is express that we assent to something as being true or good. The rest is up to us.

  59. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

    Ben Hemmens: But I don't think this is the kind of polysemy that people are talking about. The point is that for some people 'belief' includes all these things, while for others it has a more restrictive sense that excludes some of them. For instance, you say 'some [things we believe], because we have done some empirical investigation of an observational nature, and a very few things because we have done some controlled experiments on them.' That's how I use the word too. But for many people, it seems, you don't believe these things, because 'belief' implies an absence of evidence.

    I agree, though, that we shouldn't stop using the word. If we refused to use any words that had this sort of problem, we would have to stop using a lot of important words, including, as I mentioned earlier, 'most'.

  60. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    Well, I found out the hard way that some of the evidence is always wrong. In real science, you're always deciding to ignore a detail or two (judiciously, perhaps, and with a good excuse). Otherwise you'd never get a paper finished.

    The fact that I consider all scientific hypotheses, even the ones I have decent evidence for, to be provisional, is also another reason why I don't feel inclined to say in know something (rather than believing it) just because I have some evidence.

    If I remember correctly, Popper said we have to learn to live with uncertainty. That doesn't come easy to our poor monkey brains, and it may have been one of the wisest things he said.

  61. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    What strikes me on further reflection is that what was perhaps going on in the initial article (in which myl was quoted as provider of actual usage data tending to undermine someone's claim) is that this is a sort of Applied Prescriptivism or Strategic Peevery. Maybe I'm reading between the lines too cynically, but the notion seems to be that if the anti-anti-evolution faction could just somehow coordinate their language usage and refrain from certain ordinary-language usages of "believe" and/or pester/bully their opponents into doing the same (in the interests of "logic" or "clarity" or "avoiding ambiguity" or some such BS that prescriptivists are always going on about), their faction's side in the political/cultural/social struggle would somehow be advantaged. Sort of like those "framing" or "message discipline" situations in which you notice all of a sudden that all the people in favor of the repeal of the estate tax are calling it the "death tax," as if they'd been cc'd on some memo.

  62. Pedro said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

    Saying "I believe in evolution" is like saying "I believe in breathing" or "I believe in gravity". Evolution is a fact. There are theories about how evolution work, which is a different matter entirely.

  63. Steve T said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

    @Diane, unlikely. Here is the etymological reference dating to 1869: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=scads&searchmode=none

  64. Steve T said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    J.W. Brewer said:
    "Did I miss something, or did the article not tell us what verb the anti-believers thought should be used instead? "I don't *believe* in plate tectonics; I X in plate tectonics." What's the recommendation for X?"

    I would say: "I agree with plate tectonics" or "I understand plate tectonics". There was another comment referencing an article on string theory. I think the best phrasing of that sentence would have used 'agree'. i.e. (paraphrased): Many scientist agree that string theory …

  65. John Cowan said,

    July 1, 2011 @ 1:44 am

    I suspect that most beliefs are of the kind that Keith M. Ellis calls trivial, and what is more, most of them are true: we believe that if we turn this corner, our house will be visible, and so it is.

    But infant baptism is indeed a matter of faith, because it is a matter of the interpretation of what happens. You cannot be forced to accept it merely because you observe it: you may see a child being dunked or sprinkled, but if you are a Baptist or Anabaptist, you will not see baptism occurring.

    Dan Lufkin: Not any mathematical theory, only specific kinds of mathematical theories. The theory of real numbers, for example, is complete in Goedel's sense.

  66. army1987 said,

    July 1, 2011 @ 7:43 am

    I'd go with:

    believe in X: 1) be of the opinion that X exists/occurred; 2) (rhetorically) be of the opinion that X is good.

    believe X: be of the opinion that what X says is true.

    (Hence, in ‘normal’ speech, I'd say I believe in evolution, I believe the theory of evolution.) I don't think it's ambiguous wrt the strength/origin/falsifiability of the opinion, merely unspecific about it (though in the right context it may pragmatically implicate ‘I'm not 100% sure’), and I'd consider I don't believe it's true, I know it's true to be what CGEL calls metalinguistic negation (as in It's not good, it's excellent).

    know X: 1) be 100% sure that X is true (as in I know there exist infinitely many prime numbers); 1') believe that the possibility that X is false is not worth worrying about (as in I know it rained yesterday — which would be false if Russel's five-minute hypothesis were true).
    The reason why I used 1' and not 2 is that I consider it a completely unremarkable example of approximation without which talking about the physical world would be impossible, such as saying that my wallet is black even if it doesn't absorb exactly 100% of the light that shines of it.

  67. Tweets for week ending 2011-07-02 | SaysDave.com said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    […] we believe in http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3225 […]

  68. Ray Dillinger said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    The question asked was whether the contestants thought that evolution should be taught in schools. I was annoyed with the contestants for answering in terms of whether they personally believed in evolution. To my mind, that is the answer to a different question, and evasive at best in terms of the question asked. Now I'm bewildered by linguistic professionals apparently making the same evasion.

    Isn't it possible to fervently believe in a thing, as my grandfather believed in God and the biblical creation story, while simultaneously recognizing, as my grandfather did, that there is and can be no proof for these things and therefore believing, as he did, that it ought not be taught in secular schools ?

    I can still hear him talking about it…. "These are articles of faith. Proof denies faith, for God's faith is faith for its own sake. Schools are for the teaching of things that can be proven, and churches for the teaching of things which must be taken on faith."

    [(myl) Which "linguistic professionals" are you talking about? With the exception of a few errant (and non-professional) comments, the discussion here has been about usage of the idiom "believe in", not about school curriculum.]

  69. C Murdock said,

    July 3, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

    I for one am sick and tired of the government forcing belief in Arnold on our schoolchildren. We need to teach the controversy between Arnold and not-Arnold, and then let the children decide what to believe.

  70. BK said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 2:34 am

    Formally at least, scientists do not use either "believe" or "fact". Any result in science (including well-established ones like evolution) remains open to falsification; currently accepted "theories" are simply the best explanation available that fits the observations.

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