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Don’t say “believe”. Say “accept”.

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I’m usually not one to argue semantics anymore—in fact, I really have come around to hating nit-picking semantic quarrels that people get into that end up distracting from the real issues. Not that I think semantics are always irrelevant! Misleading terms like “pro-life” can and do alter the battle dramatically, and should be replaced with more accurate terms like “anti-choice”. When the wrong term can lead to genuine misunderstanding, I think it’s important to say something. Which is why I want to nit pick this one little thing that Bill Wolff said on “Rachel Maddow” in an otherwise excellent and informative segment:

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The one little thing is the word “believe”, as in “people who ‘believe’ in global warming”. I would like, if at all possible, to declare a moratorium on using the word “believe” to describe what people do in relationship to scientifically sound theories backed up by oodles of evidence. I’d prefer the word “accept”, which more accurately conveys what’s going on. Something is true, full stop. If it’s true, then people either accept it or deny it. But they don’t “believe” in it, which is a word we tend to use more to describe people’s relationships to untrue or at least unprovable things, or to values.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

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*My beloved grandmother is dead. When I get the news, my shoulders fold and I start crying. Am I accepting her death or believing in her death?

*I’m debating with someone on whether or not abortion should be legal. Do I accept or believe that abortion should be legal?

*Someone giving me directions says to turn left at the light and then the location is on my right. Do I accept these directions, or do I believe them?

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*Do small children accept Santa Claus or believe in Santa Claus?

I could go on all day, but you get the idea. “Believe” spikes the sentence to suggest the thing that is believed or not believed is really up for debate by reality-based people. Global warming is not, nor is the theory of evolution—these things are simply true. Since they’re true, you either accept the science or you deny it. Deny is the word we use when someone refuses to agree with the facts. So, say my boyfriend dumps me and I refuse to accept that it’s over. I am in denial. Global warming denialists are just that, in denial.

It’s true that there are many cases where “accept” and “believe” are interchangable. I’m not denying that. (See what I did there?) But I think in a situation like the one we’re dealing with now, where huge percentages of the public simply refuse to accept reality, then we can’t afford to use ambiguous language that allows for people to think their denial is more justifiable than it really is. For laymen like myself and most Americans, the distance between global warming theory and fact is so thin as to be irrelevant; it’s basically a fact. We either accept or deny reality. And we should use language that reflects this.


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