I was corresponding with friend, someone who has done really great science education research, about the related challenges of teaching evolution & climate science to high school students.
Defending what I've called the "disentanglement principle"-- the obligation of those who are responsible for promoting comprehension of science to create an environment in which free, reasoning people don’t have to choose between knowing what’s known and being who they are-- I stated that I viewed "the whole concept of 'believing' [as] so absurd . . . ."
He smartly challenged me on this:
I must admit, however, that I do not find the concept of believing to be absurd. I for example, believe that I have been married to the same women since I was XX years old. I also believe that I have XX children. I also believe that the best theory to explain modern day species diversity is Darwin's evolution theory. I do not believe the alternative theory called creationism. Lastly, I believe that the Earth is warming due largely to human caused CO2 emissions. These beliefs are the product of my experience and a careful consideration of the alternatives, their predictions, and a comparison of those prediction and the evidence. This is not a matter of who I am ( for example it matters not whether I am a man or a women, straight or gay, black or white) as much as it is a matter of my understanding of how one comes to a belief in a rational way, and my willingness to not make up my mind, not to form a belief, until all steps of that rational way have been completed to the extent that no reasonable doubt remains regarding the validity of the alternative explanations that have been advanced.
His response made me realize that I've been doing a poor job in recent attempts to explain why it seems to me that "belief in" evolution & global warming is the wrong focus for imparting and assessing knowledge of those subjects.
I don't think the following reply completely fixes the problem, but here is what I wrote back:
I believe you are right!
In fact, I generally believe it is very confused and confusing for people to say "X is not a matter of belief; it's a fact ....," something that for some reason seems to strike people as an important point to make in debates about politically controversial matters of science.
Scientists "believe" things based on evidence, as you say, and presumably view "facts" as merely propositions that happen to be worthy of belief at the moment based on the best available evidence.
I expressed myself imprecisely, although it might be the case that even when I clarify you'll disagree. That would be interesting to me & certainly something I'd want to hear and reflect on.
What I meant to refer to as "absurd" was the position that treats as an object of science education students' affirmation of "belief in" a fact that has been transformed by cultural status competition into nothing more than an emblem of affiliation.
That's so in the case of affirmation of "belief in" evolution. To my surprise, actually, I am close to concluding that exactly the same is true at this point of affirmation of "belief in" global warming.
Saying one "disbelieves" those things, in contrast, is an indicator (not a perfect one, of course) of having a certain cultural identity or style-- one that turns out to be unconnected to a person's capacity to learn anything.
So those who say that one can gauge anything about the quality of science instruction in the US from the %'s of people who say that they "believe in" evolution or climate change are, in my view, seriously mistaken.
Or so I believe--very strongly-- based on my current assessment of the best evidence, which includes [a set of extremely important studies] of the the effective teaching of evolution to kids who "don't believe" it. I'd be hard pressed to identify a book or an article much less a paragraph that conveyed as much to me about the communication of scientific knowledge as this one:
[E]very teacher who has addressed the issue of special creation and evolution in the classroom already knows that highly religious students are not likely to change their belief in special creation as a consequence of relative brief lessons on evolution. Our suggestion is that it is best not to try to [change students’ beliefs], not directly at least. Rather, our experience and results suggest to us that a more prudent plan would be to utilize instruction time, much as we did, to explore the alternatives, their predicted consequences, and the evidence in a hypothetico-deductive way in an effort to provoke argumentation and the use of reflective thought. Thus, the primary aims of the lesson should not be to convince students of one belief or another, but, instead, to help students (a) gain a better understanding of how scientists compare alternative hypotheses, their predicated consequences, and the evidence to arrive at belief and (b) acquire skill in the use of this important reasoning pattern—a pattern that appears to be necessary for independent learning and critical thought.
Maybe you now have a better sense of what I meant to call "absurd," but now it occurs to me too that "absurd" really doesn't capture the sentiment I meant to express.
It makes me sad to think that some curious student might not get the benefit of knowing what is known to science about the natural history of our (and other) species because his or her teacher made the understandable mistake of tying that benefit to a gesture the only meaning of which for that student in that setting would be a renunciation of his or her identity.
It makes me angry to think that some curious person might be denied the benefit of knowing what's known by science precisely because an "educator" or "science communicator" who does recognize that affirmation of "belief in" evolution signifies identity & not knowledge nevertheless feels that he or she is entitled to exactract this gesture of self-denigration as an appropriate fee for assisting someone else to learn.
Such a stance is itself a form of sectarianism that is both illiberal and inimical to dissemination of scientific knowledge.
I have seen that there are teachers who know the importance of disentangling the opportunity to learn from the necessity to choose sides in a mean cultural status struggle, but who don't know how to do that yet for climate science education. They want to figure out how to do it; and they of course know that the way to figure it out is to resort to the very forms of disciplined observation, measurement, and inference that are the signatures of science.
I know they will succeed. And I hope other science communication professionals will pay attention and learn something from them.