We have a little argument going on in one of the pointless poll threads. The question being asked is, “Do you believe in the Big Bang?” Some people are indignant (and correct!) and protesting that their views on scientific matters are not a matter of opinion, but of impartial assessment of the evidence; these views are independent of personal belief, and are also held provisionally, subject to revision in the face of better evidence.
These people are also being infuriatingly pedantic, and are expressing an attitude that interferes with the communication of ideas. Don’t sputter out a bunch of reservations and refuse to answer, state a general position and then drill down into the details and qualifications. Pound this into your heads, and stop boring people with irrelevant musings that only detract from the central point.
Here’s an example. Imagine you’re at a party with a bunch of normal people, not the kinds of nerds who hang out in Pharyngula comment threads. Ordinary people, drinking beer, talking about sports and the weather, and one of them has heard that you’re kind of an egghead, so they ask a simple question in terms that they understand (just like the phrasing in that poll), and they ask it in a tone that suggests they have doubts, but they’re willing to talk with you about it. They ask something like, “Do you believe evolution is true?”
How are you going to answer it? Remember, your goal is to engage this person in conversation and start a discussion about something other than the local football team.
Here’s what I would propose. Remember, the first sentence is important; if you’re too tedious they’re going to tune you out and start thinking about the hot neighbor standing back behind your shoulder.
Yes, I believe evolution is true.
I consider it the best explanation of the origin and diversity of life on earth,
and it is backed by an immense body of evidence. Strictly speaking,
it is not a matter of belief, but a recognition of the knowledge
of qualified experts and a familiarity with the research
that has been done in the field; I would also
add that science does not deal in absolute
truth, but strives for approximations,
and is always willing to discard old
ideas if better explanations
with better evidence
Do you have evidence for an alternative theory?
Notice: one paragraph with an unambiguous declaration. The essential reservations are in there because scientists tend to be cautious about this stuff, but you aren’t hiding it, you’re just answering the question plainly. You also open up the possibility for further discussion along lines that you would find acceptable — maybe they’ll ask about this intelligent design stuff they keep hearing about, and you can lead it to talk about whether there is actually evidence there.
That’s the way to do it.
Now, what do we get from the true pedants? Here’s a possibility.
Science does not deal in belief or truth.
I hold certain scientific principles to be provisionally valid because
I have extensive knowledge of the fields involved, but I am also
aware of the fine details that are subjects of controversy
and criticism. You should rephrase your question to
be more accommodating to serious scientific and
philosophical principles, because I simply
cannot answer it honestly. It is a bad
question. If you had asked
whether I accepted the
evidence for the
then I would probably answer you in the affirmative.
Wait a minute, what? The question asked wasn’t answered, except in a very waffly way at the end of this irrelevant drone! You weren’t asked about the nature of “belief” or “truth”, you were asked about your stance on a scientific theory. You’ve lost your audience, unless this party happens to be stocked with faculty from the local university philosophy department.
If not, you’ve now left the indelible impression that scientists can’t give a straight answer, they don’t believe their own ideas are true, and that the subject of evolution is something scientists weasel away from.
So stop it. Straight talk first, nuance second. OK?