Thursday, October 16, 2008

And I Believe...

I've been hearing and reading a lot of people stating that "I believe x is true" or "I believe y is false" lately (especially in relation to political arguments), and I have to admit a bit of frustration. Belief is the purview of religious faith, or conjecture, or wishful thinking. You might believe that angels exist, or you might believe that your sister ate the last cupcake, or you might believe that it will rain tomorrow. None of these things is demonstrably true. I believe that it will be cold tonight and I believe that my dog really does have some sort of mental power that causes me to open the biscuit bin.

In that usage, I have no problem with it. Believe or don't believe in those instances and everyone knows what you mean: you wish/hope that angels exist, you want it to be true that your sister ate the cupcake, you wish that it will rain tomorrow. I want it to be cold tonight, I love cold weather, and I suspect that I am extremely well-trained by my dogs to fetch things for them.

Why does this come up? During the debate last night, John McCain stated that he would "fight for the line-item veto" as a way of eliminating ear-marks and the much-maligned pork in the budget. He obviously wasn't paying attention when the Supreme Court rejected the line-item veto as unconstitutional. He believes that it could be constitutional, that it is constitutional, but that the previous legislation was "flawed".

Sorry, that doesn't fly. This has already gone to the SC and it's not constitutional. That's fact. No belief required or allowed.

You don't get to "believe" contrary to facts. You might not like them, and you might wish that they weren't true, but that doesn't change the objective facts out there that simply are. Saying that you "believe something to be true/false" when there is objective evidence that it is true or false is just wishful thinking. Your belief in that case is unnecessary and can be absolutely wrong.

The Holocaust, Global warming, evolution, the age of the earth, (all things I've heard recently as "I don't believe in...") these things are not really up for the application of belief. Saying you "don't believe in global warming" or "don't believe in evolution" simply marks you as someone who is uninformed. We might not know the reason things happen, or what specific causes exist, but the facts are not in question. For example, do we know that human beings have caused global warming? Do we know exactly why or how a common ancestor behaved? No, but that doesn't change that facts, and it's frustrating to discuss any of these topics with someone who shoves their "belief" up front as if it is proof against all logic and reason. "I don't believe the holocaust actually occured, " I was reading this week. Huh? When the voluninous evidence for this event was presented, it was hand-waved away, with "oh, that's all fabricated". As the conversation got more heated, the initial poster suddenly started copmlaining that we weren't "respecting his belief". It was almost surreal. That sort of belief does not deserve respect, it deserved derision, not just because Holocaust-denial is considered anti-semitism of the highest order, but because that much-vaunted belief is contrary to reality and flat-out wrong.

For many, "I believe" is a shorthand for a lot of things. I have used believe in relation to Global Warming - as in, "I don't believe that humans are solely responsible for the rise in global temperature" when what I really mean is "Based on what I know, and the studies that I have read, there are many things that could be responsible for the effects, not just humans". It's sloppy wording, really.

But what I'm seeing a lot of lately is someone announcing "they believe X" and then getting all offended and pissy when you dare to question that belief.

The world is rarely black and white, so we all equivocate to some extent to avoid having to state with authority something which we don't know for certain. But I'm going to be far more careful of my use of "believe", or at least I will try to. It's picking nits, really, I know that. We all know what people mean when they say this; we don't equate "I believe the line-item veto is constitutional" with "I believe in unicorns". Or at least we shouldn't.

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