Beyond Belief

No, this isn’t a statement about religion or spirituality, it’s a statement about how to communicate astronomy to the public, but more importantly how *not* to communicate astronomy to the public.

In the September 2008 issue of  “Communicating Astronomy to the Public” astrophysicist Wallace Tucker tackles the too-frequent use of the word ‘believe’.    You can read his opinion piece online here [PDF].

I admit that I am guilty of using this word too often: i.e., “Astronomers believe there are as many as three black holes lurking in the Andromeda galaxy.”  Here are the problems: It communicates an unwarranted uncertainty, and it borders on the definition of ‘faith’.   Tucker points out that the word is used as shorthand for “Based on the evidence at hand, this is what most scientists think is going on, and there is no good evidence to indicate  otherwise.”  This is the same kind of disconnect that surrounds the word ‘theory’: In scientific circles it means something completely different than it means to the public.

I’ve often used ‘think’ for the same kind of shorthand, and while it removes the ‘faith’ aspect, it still communicates an unwarranted uncertainty.   It is far better to use something like   “The evidence indicates…” rather than ‘believe’ or ‘think’.

Precision is essential in preventing confusion.

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