SCALES OF BELIEF
© Anthony G Williams
I wrote this article several years before placing it on my website. I have decided to shift it from the 'Miscellaneous' to the 'Speculative Fiction' section because it features in Scales (although the title similarity is a coincidence!).
What do we mean by "belief"? We may believe that the Earth is a spheroid, or that it is flat (does the Flat Earth Society still exist?) but clearly, these beliefs are very different; one is backed by overwhelming evidence in its favour, the other contradicted with equal strength by that same evidence. This thought was prompted by the decision in some states of the USA to accord equal status to the teaching of creationism and Darwinism, on the grounds (if I understand it correctly) that both are unproven hypotheses and are therefore equally valid. In considering issues like this, it might be helpful to have some mechanism for classifying beliefs in order to clarify their relative validity.
The simplest approach would be a numerical scale running, for example, from plus five for beliefs which are based on incontrovertible, demonstrable fact - the spheroid Earth - to minus five for the flat-earthers. The midpoint – proposition zero – would indicate a belief for which there is no evidence one way or the other and which may be inherently unprovable, such as the existence of God.
On such a scale, plus four would represent a belief backed by massive evidence, but for which there is a rival explanation which cannot be completely disproved. Conversely, minus four indicates a proposition which cannot be disproved, despite there being overwhelming evidence in favour of an alternative explanation (scores for conflicting beliefs will frequently be mirrored in this way). This applies quite well to the creationist debate. The cumulative mass of evidence from many areas of research that life, the Universe and all that have developed over a huge period of time is strong enough to score plus four; the belief that all of this was created in six days about six thousand years ago is therefore clearly a minus four proposition.
Darwin's theory of evolution is well evidenced and generally accepted. However, the status of natural selection as the sole driving force for evolution is still challenged by some scientists who fully accept that evolution occurred but dispute the relative importance of the mechanisms involved. Darwinism therefore scores plus three.
Plus two beliefs would be those for which there is some evidence but not yet enough to make a generally accepted case (perhaps the significance for evolution of catastrophe theory?). Plus one would refer to beliefs for which there is no evidence, but which seem very likely on the basis of probability (e.g. the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe).
Creationism, approached in a different way, might score rather better. That the Universe started by a rapid expansion from a single point many billions of years ago, although disputed until recently, is now securely enough established to score plus three. How and why that occurred is anybody's guess. A proposition that God started it all off, ensuring that the original conditions were such as to lead to the Universe as we know it, is as likely or unlikely as anything else, and therefore scores zero.
Minus one beliefs are those for which there is no direct or indirect evidence for or against, but appear unlikely on the basis of our understanding at this time (e.g. a belief that humanity is the only intelligent life in the Universe). Minus two would involve an idea under attack from some evidence but not yet completely dismissed (this could encompass much of parapsychology), while minus three beliefs would be those which have been disproved by solid, generally accepted evidence (e.g. the "steady state" theory of the Universe).
Assessing minus scores can be tricky because it is often difficult to disprove notions, however absurd, so some decisions may involve judgement on the basis of other knowledge. For example, supporters of astrology might argue that while there is no scientific evidence to support it, there is none to disprove it either, so it should score no worse than minus one. However, the idea that the (notional) position of planets at birth can influence the nature and future of an individual is so contrary to our understanding of life, the Universe etc that astrology should be given a much lower score, probably minus four.
There is similarly no clear evidence concerning the widely-held belief that the Earth is regularly visited by alien spaceships. The probability that intelligent technically-minded life has developed somewhere else in the Universe may be put at plus one given the vast number of star systems (although it could be extremely infrequent even on life-bearing planets; after all, it took hundreds of millions of years for complex animals to develop such intelligence on Earth and that seems to have occurred only by chance). That such beings visit Earth is far less likely given our knowledge of the immense distances involved and the practical limitation on faster than light travel (which must be a plus four probability – sorry, Trekkies!). All of this adds up to a belief in alien visitations scoring around minus two.
The position of particular beliefs in this scale might change in the light of scientific discoveries. Until recently, there was no evidence for the existence of planetary systems around other stars, so that belief could score no higher than plus one. Astronomical research in recent years has sent this proposition marching up the scale. Two centuries ago, the notion that people could cross the Atlantic at supersonic speed would have been firmly rated as minus four.
A "scale of belief" of this kind could be a useful yardstick to place against the hotch-potch of increasingly strange notions which grip sections of the population as traditional religious beliefs fragment. It will not, of course, convince true believers that they are wrong, but it might lend a sense of proportion to debates about the relative validity, or at least probability, of different beliefs.