Know, Understand, Believe

by Beth Knittle on January 1, 2013

I have this thing about words.  Words have meaning and though these meanings change over time, words are essential in conveying ideas. I also tend to approach information from the perspective of a scientist looking over data and evidence. In a recent workshop (for non- educators) Critical Thinking and the Development of a Theory, we explored how theories change over time with new technologies, information and experiences.  We looked over several theories from plate tectonics to climate change.  Those conversations have me thinking about the words; know, understand and believe.

I was explaining the evidence related to the 1974 Time Magazine article Another Ice age? and the 1975 article in Newsweek The Cooling World.  At the time the earth was in a cooling pattern and there was much speculation on global cooling and a coming ice age.  Though the participants were all teens or adults at the time none remembered this and could not believe it was a real idea. We looked over a variety of scientific studies and data available at the time. Many said how could anyone believe it. The purpose was not to judge the conclusions made but to look at how the data could lead to the conclusions made at the time.  We then went through some of the date used to support the ideas of global warming, climate change and back to global cooling.

The whole point of the exercise was to think critically, analyze and evaluate data and ask tough questions challenging the conclusions drawn and generate questions for further study.  The participants had a hard time with this in the discussion of how climate change theories have developed over time.  As we went through the data and showed how conclusion were drawn one of the participants said to me” I can’t believe you can believe this malarky.”  I never expressed my view on any of the theories discussed.  This idea of belief was not brought up during the discussion of plate tectonics, germ theory or Copernicus’s sun centered solar system. Apparently climate change was such a sensitive topic that the application of critical thinking skills and analysis could not be applied.

In theory development we start with what we know; our observations, data, discrete bits of information and investigation. From theses bits of knowledge we try to understand; make meaning of how they relate to each other. We develop a theory that explains and predicts based on what we know and understand.

Belief relates to opinion and faith. Opinion is not necessarily based on measurable knowledge.

What I observed in these participants was that they equated understanding and belief as one in the same.  To me an educated person can speak from a variety of perspectives, understanding how these perspectives came to be and provide supporting evidence and knowledge related to them.  I understand how early astronomers developed a sun centered view of the universe, but that does not mean I believe it.

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