Words Better than “Believe”

I wrote last week about how innappropriate it is to use the word believe when talking about science.

It was then raised with me over twitter, what words might we be better to use?

I was a bit snarky in saying that creationists deny evolution, but I do think this is the word to use in this case. You can be a climate change denier, an evolution denier, or a vaccine denier. All of these have scientific evidence to support them. Maybe it would be a bit harsh and dogmatic-sounding to use these in conversation, so it is better to use positive words to describe your own postion.

I think it does get a bit fuzzier for the positive, but as was mentioned in the comments in my original post, “accept” is probably the best word to use. If you are talking to anybody about science, try to say that you understand and accept that there is strong scientific evidence to support [XYZ] as a scientific fact, rather than that you believe in [XYZ].

But I think there could be better words to use– any suggestions? Leave a comment.

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.


  1. May 24, 2011 at 12:06 am —

    Hi Lauren,

    So I take your point that believe has all sorts of problematic meanings and connotations that we don’t wish to invoke when we discuss the things we feel or know to be true. Nonetheless, it seems to me that coming from the philosophy of science, believe is exactly the word we want. We believe certain things about the universe because we expect the universe to act as if those things are indeed the case, and I think it actually makes our point stronger because so many anti-science folks say they believe things and then don’t act in accordance with those beliefs (referring here to mind-states of a certain type), and I think it’s good to point out the differences between those folks and those who actually act as if incorrect things are true. There’s a kind of intellectual honesty gauntlet that believe puts down which I find valuable.


  2. May 25, 2011 at 5:38 am —

    “There’s a kind of intellectual honesty gauntlet that believe puts down which I find valuable.”

    I 100% agree with you that we have to have some honesty about the fact that science is ever-changing as we add more knowledge to the pool, and all that jazz. I also think scientists and the like are quick to acknowledge our shortcomings and biases etc.

    And I do think that science does acknowledge the fact that we can’t be *absolutely* sure, but all of our observations thus far lead us to XYZ conclusion, in its language by using the word Theory to describe Evolution (and gravity…).

    But then I also think that language is one place where we *can* make a very clear distinction between science and superstition with very little effort. And in my original post I quoted the definition of believe “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof”. So, I remain unconvinced that believe is the right word, although I don’t really know what would be better (which is why I am asking).

    “I think it actually makes our point stronger because so many anti-science folks say they believe things and then don’t act in accordance with those beliefs”
    I am not sure! I like this idea very much, but then if we are too free with our language this gives the anti-science folks an easy foot-hold, say for example with the common creationist claim of “Evolution is just a Theory”. Which is true, of course, but they are mixing up conversational and scientific meanings of the word. So we don’t want them to have too easy a way at getting digs in.

    Also, in my experience, by saying that Atheists “believe” in Evolution it is like making it an alternative in the eyes of religious people, i.e. You believe in God or you believe in Evolution, and both of them require faith. I don’t know about you, but Evolution is more of a consequence of my world-view, not the thing it stems from whereas a Christian might start from the premise “God created the earth”, then work up from there (well, I don’t know, speculating here, but most religious beliefs fail under the notion that the universe does not require a creator, but I am not bothered if something turns out to be mistaken, I just adjust).

    That got a bit rambly at the end, so I am definitely interested in further comments because I am well open to being corrected.

  3. May 25, 2011 at 5:45 am —

    Augh, sorry that is terrible to read, it did have paragraph spacings but they got lost.

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