Beliefs Are For Churches
I’m still learning how to do the whole social media thing in the age of Facespace, Tweetybox, Snapcrap, all those newfangled things.1 Despite my occasional Luddite tendencies, I can definitely say that Twitter has enriched my professional life over the last year and a half. The community of scientists on Twitter are by and large very supportive, are great resources for technical and professional expertise and advice, and, maybe most importantly, are willing to engage in spirited discussion. It was a recent discussion that brought up an idea that I’ve had stuck in my craw for quite awhile.
The Medical Scientist Training Program at Vanderbilt (@VanderbiltMSTP) has been doing a really good job lately of promoting their students on Twitter, and the students have been doing a fantastic job of taking science discussion and promotion into the Twittersphere. After a recent journal club, several of the current MSTP students took to Twitter to continue their discussion of the paper presented. Brad Reinfeld (@BReinfeld), one of the program’s rockstars (figuratively and literally – he plays southpaw bass for a rock band made up of tumor immunologists called The Checkpoints) and I had the following exchange:
I hesitated before tweeting, as I didn’t want to cross the line between “possible teachable moment” and “being a grumpy old churl”. Brad, of course, had great points/questions and hit the ball right back with grace. Great discussion of the paper continued, but as I’ve thought about it over the last week, it’s the idea of “belief” in science that’s stuck in my craw.
We’ve all had the experience of seeing scientific data and the associated discussion and thinking, or hearing someone say, “I just don’t believe that” or “I just don’t buy it.” What we usually mean by this is something to the effect of “I think there are big pieces missing from this story” or “I don’t think the conclusions are supported by the data” or “That doesn’t jive with what I think I know and have seen previously” or “I’m not sure these experiments aren’t technically flawed” or some other thing like that. We think that we’re summarizing these potentially legitimate critiques by saying “I don’t believe it” and getting on with our day. NBD, right? Purpose of communication is served.
Except I haven’t been able to leave this alone. Consider the connotations of “believe” or “beliefs”. Beliefs are opinions that are held (often tightly and dearly) that don’t necessarily require the support of facts or data. In fact, beliefs sometimes transcend the need for or existence of data. The definitive non-existence of Santa Claus can neither be proven nor disproven, but that doesn’t really have much to do with believing in Santa Claus or his recommendations for living a virtuous life. The existence of Santa Claus and belief in him are simply not questions appropriate for science.2 They’re not data-driven issues.
So what? So we scientists can be a little sloppy with our terminology? Again, NBD, right? I’m not so sure of that. See, saying “I believe” or “I don’t believe” means that you’ve moved the discussion to a place where data can’t really go. It’s a conversation stopper in science. Once you believe or don’t, you’re not ready to be convinced by data. If you say you just don’t buy it, then no experimental evidence I can show you will change your thinking. We’re done. If you’re my reviewer, we’re really done, because how can I possibly respond to that? (I think “belief” used as a switch to beat scientists is cut from the same tree as the switches of “novelty” and “impact”, as all reside outside the realm of data.)
To my way of thinking, if a critique isn’t specific and supported with data or reasoned argument, it’s not a critique. At least, it’s not a critique appropriate for scientific discourse. Belief is fine for non-scientific modes of inquiry, but we’re supposed to be about the power of conclusions drawn from logically constructed experiments and analyses. Sometimes those conclusions will fly in the face of treasured dogma, at least if we’re doing science correctly. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, but if you’re not prepared for the evidence to be extraordinary, and nothing will overcome your cherished beliefs, then get out of the way, because you’re not doing science.
Okay, lemme dial it back a bit. My point to Dr.-To-Be Reinfeld was that he was on the right track in my opinion, but that I wanted him, and all of us, to refine our critiques by stepping out from behind the unassailable shield of belief, so that we could find out in the light of data and reason if our critiques have merit. He did exactly that, and perfectly, and his critiques definitely have merit. I was forced to take my own advice very recently, in regards to the PLoS Biology paper about mitochondria running at 50C. My immediate response was, “What?! I don’t buy that for a second!” When I paused to think about why I was having this reaction, and to remind myself that beliefs are for churches, I refined my critiques so that I had some data to back up what I was feeling. I still have problems with that paper, but they’re rooted in information, not just my whining. Also, I can definitely be proven wrong, and very well might be.
So, challenge yourself to get rid of “believe” and its partners from your scientific lexicon. You might find that your reviews are much more solid, specific, helpful, and maybe even more cordial. If it will help, I can start bringing a buzzer to seminars and buzzing anyone who offers belief-based non-critiques. Seriously, I’ll do it… for you, for us, for science!
1I made a joke about BBSs the other day while talking with a group of students, and when I got crickets instead of chuckles, I said, “Y’know… bulletin board systems”. When the blank looks on their faces completely didn’t change, I laughed it off, changed the subject, and died a little inside. So, yeah, that’s where I’m at.
2See what I didn’t do there?