Last week, we heard in the news about a shocking admission from the execs at the National Football League in the USA that they may finally admit to believing that there is a link between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that is well known to be caused by repeated trauma to the head, such as from concussions. The reason that I find that news headline to be shocking is not because there was an admission of the link, but rather because the NFL was able to deny the existence of that link up until now by simply choosing not to believe that one was there.
A little closer to home, the news over the past few days has contained stories of email conversations among the top brass at the NHL that would show them debating the merits of fighting in hockey by exchanging their beliefs over whether or not repeated concussions during one’s life may lead to mental illness, brain injury or addictions later on. As if these corporate jocks have any knowledge of the medical information required to understand this concept well enough to be qualified to decide upon it. When the medical experts have made pronouncements on this issue, they unambiguously say that getting punched in the head repeatedly over one’s career is very likely to cause brain damage of one kind or another.
How is it that scientific specialists, like the medical researchers in these previous examples, are so easily discounted as being irrelevant in the face of someone else’s belief in something else? This ability to whimsically discount science in favour of a more convenient belief is not restricted to sporting organizations. In fact, we well know that it can be observed at a larger scale, both geographically and destructively speaking, in the anti-scientific dismissal of climate change. How many times have you heard of an online poll or a talk-show pundit that asks whether or not we should believe in climate change? Unfortunately for those pollsters, brain injuries and climate change are real, whether you believe in them or not.
The thing is that the medical knowledge of brain injuries or the vast expanses of knowledge on the earth and its climate are not based on beliefs at all, but rather on thousands upon thousands of accumulated and inter-supportive facts that have not been able to be falsified. These notions form the basis of the scientific method, which is simply a process of seeking to observe and describe the universe and to explain its properties and behaviour. Incidentally, it is also the most reliable and robust tool that we have found to date that allows us to work out fact from fiction in the natural world.
One of the most pervasive problems in society today is the mistaken equivalence of a specialist’s knowledge and understanding of facts with a non-specialist’s beliefs in something else. Belief and knowledge are incompatible with one another and only one of those two is a reliable way of understanding truth. ‘So what?’, we may ask. Perhaps, I may be seen to be an academic fuddy-duddy arguing about semantics and that we should just let people live and let live, each with their own thoughts and beliefs. Well no, I say. It is a problem that has real consequences on people, such as those ex-hockey enforcers dying from brain damage or the millions of people already being affected by runaway global warming.
On a very basic level, this important issue often hinges on the flawed equivalence of the nature of beliefs vs. knowledge in society. These two terms are so dissimilar to one another that they are more like opposites than synonyms. This acknowledgement alone would go a long way to guiding society progress towards an improved health, safety and prosperity of its people. As a starting point, it may be helpful to examine the meaning and usefulness of each of these two words as concepts.
Belief is the acceptance that something is true through the acts of trust, faith or confidence. There is no requirement for evidence in order to believe in something, making it a useful option for simplifying otherwise difficult concepts to absurdity or for dismissing inconvenient truths to irrelevance. Knowledge, on the other hand, is the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. The key word in that sentence is ‘understanding’, because to truly know something, one must be able describe what, how and why it is what it is… and this requires the use of facts as evidence.
Obviously the only reliable path towards an understanding of something is by knowing it, which requires understanding it and knowing so, in some kind of mutually-supportive conceptual symbiosis. There is no place or need for belief in this context. In fact, beliefs are useless in generating knowledge because they offer no power to explain anything.
Historically, belief has been used as a means by which to attempt to explain the unknown, arguing such baseless statements as the earth is flat or that humans didn’t evolve but instead magically appeared through divine intervention. In many ways, belief continues to have significant influence today. However, over time our scientific advances have allowed us to replace most beliefs of things with knowledge of things, eventually making faith and belief entirely unnecessary.
Furthermore, when knowledge is not currently available due to a lack in our understanding of something, there is no shame in admitting that we don’t know it. It certainly is a more noble approach than to invent a belief-based explanation for which we have no supporting evidence. In fact, the ability to acknowledge what we do not know is arguably the most important component to having knowledge. Socrates famously pondered the nature of knowledge by stating that it may only come with an admission that one must know that they do not know what they do not know, or something along those lines.
Perhaps it was paraphrased more effectively by then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when justifying the attack on a country, despite the lack of evidence that it may actually have posed a threat, when he said that “there are known knowns, there are things we know we know; there are known unknowns, that is to say there are things we know that we do not know; but there are also unknown unknowns, the ones that we don’t know that we don’t know”.
I couldn’t agree more with Rummy! However, the solution to the conundrum of both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns is not to invent a friendly fact that may likely be untrue (and often is). The right thing to do is to say that we don’t know but will try to find out. This is the only honest path to the truth and one that is built into the scientific method of knowledge building.
Whenever someone asks me what I may believe about something or other, I always answer that I don’t believe anything at all; I either know something or I don’t. That fact also applies to everyone else as well, believe it or not! Personally, I like to think that Yoda would have said it best: “Know or do not know, there is no belief”.
Adam Oliver Brown, Ph.D.