Why Intellectual Responsibility is Important

I have now been unfriended by two facebook friends immediately after saying ‘If you don’t have solid evidence, it’s prudent suspend judgement.’ One was family. I had no idea it was such an inflammatory statement.

Many more have likely unfriended me unnoticed simply by reading my comments. Many more still have likely unfollowed me, uninterested in hearing views so counter their own. I feel I should try to concisely explain why I so often wade into debates, knowingly at a detriment to my relationship with those I’m debating with. I wanted to put into words what drives me to this madness. Explain the way my mind thinks about these matters.

As an aside, I have a few other writings that speak of many of the same things.

If we had perfect knowledge of the world, everyone should agree on nearly everything, in theory. If we had access to the same facts, we’d have no reason to disagree as facts should inform our opinions. Obviously, we don’t have this. We must constantly seek to learn the truth. However, falseness is everywhere – often spread by those who know its duplicity. I am of the opinion that there is probably more that is false in our society than that which is true and genuine. How can we tell apart fact from fiction?

We can, of course, fact check. Many times this is fairly simple to do with today’s technology. Sometimes it’s a bit harder, but it is always worth doing with hot topics where people have motives to believe something else. The reasons that they have those motivations is the primary enemy of truth: human bias. You want to believe what you wish to be true. Because it’s a more appealing/comforting worldview (ie: all of religion), because of the sunk-cost fallacy (ie: you feel you’ve already invested too much of yourself to change now – change which would be admitting you wasted time/energy/intellect), perhaps you’re simply afraid of change of the status quo (often the oldest generations within a society), those you admire or had guardianship over you taught you (ie: parental indoctrination or your favorite celebrities handing down religion/politics) or maybe simply because you like believing something that few people believe because it makes you feel unique, special, and like you’re privy to exclusive information the rest of us don’t have (ie: the majority of conspiracy theorists), among a host of other possible reasons.

There has never been a better tool for discerning the truth than the scientific process. The reason for this is largely because it attempts to do away completely with the influence of bias. This is what makes it so effective. You don’t get to believe what you wish to be true if there is no supporting evidence. You believe whatever the data shows beyond reasonable doubt. There are many things I wish to be true and many things I wish weren’t. I don’t, however, get to call myself rational if I ignore the facts and believe or not to my whim.

If I discover hard evidence of something I don’t like, I accept it. I adjust my views accordingly. If a new experiment or new data otherwise shows up that makes what I previously believed less likely or proven wrong, I adjust my views accordingly. If you spout nonsense that is easily or even with difficulty proven false, I likewise adjust my views of you accordingly. If you pretend certainty in something that we cannot prove true or false at the current time and that there is no hard evidence to support, my view of you will justifiably be that you have limited credibility. If you have no problem pretending you are certain when it is apparent that you cannot be, how often are you likely to do it elsewhere in your life? You are proving that bias holds sway over your beliefs and opinions. Trust takes a long time to build between two people, but you lose most the moment your behavior reaches here. In those moments, you prove your goal is not to find truth, but to believe what you wish. Why, then, should anybody consider you trustworthy, even outside of politics or controversial topics?

I take this personally – perhaps more than most people, I admit – but I have my reasons. I believe that if there was more uniformity of knowledge in the world, there would be less conflict. For instance, if Americans knew Muslim culture in the Middle East and if they knew ours more intimately, I think there would be less hate. One of the most eye-opening experiences for me was to read a blog of an Iraqi during the war when I was 15-16. The media painted them as turban wearing savages who all wanted America destroyed. The blog owner was a dentist. His posts chronicled his challenges. Bombing close to his work that shattered the windows. Friends and family missing, never seen again. Getting stopped by aggressive and xenophobic American soldiers at a checkpoint while trying to make it to get Visas so he could emigrate to Texas. Breathlessly sprinting home from work to see if his wife and baby were okay after an explosion rocked his house.

But many Americans don’t have this insight. I imagine people would be less excitable about blowing them up if they knew they were like us. Instead of a small portion of our population being turban-wearing ultra religious conservatives who wish death on us, we have a small portion of red-hat-wearing ultra religious conservatives who wish death on them. Honestly, not that much of a change. Neither reflect the area demographics as a whole or indeed, a majority. If more knew this, there would be likely be much less death.

And this is the heart of it. If we could at least agree on the facts, it wouldn’t be so hard to enact change that would benefit not only millions in our country, but billions around the world. Global welfare would increase. As a utilitarian, the decision to hold up truth as our most important keystone is paramount.

Therefore, when you are false, you are an enemy of positive change. When you use sophistry, you are an agent of atrocities. When you fall prey to bias, as is so easy to do, you are still contributing to the destruction of the welfare of humanity in my eyes. I don’t care how small or insignificant your diatribe or what it proposes is. Every time you do it outside of your own head, you are empowering others to follow suit. If you think you’re clever and people won’t realize what you’re doing, you’re mostly wrong. It’s almost always transparent, but if those who see agree with what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter. You’re simply showing them that it’s the norm to use falsity to justify believing or at least, espousing, what you wish, thereby increasing the chances that they will do the same down the road.

Nobody will ever be free of bias, but attempting to limit it as much as possible is of supreme importance. It is the driving force behind so many of the worlds falsity which leads to disagreements, and hence, most conflict. You actively hamper the wellbeing of the world, literally, when you engage in this behavior. Thus, I will insert myself into any debate where this is showcased. My slowly declining retinue of friends and supportive family members is worth defending my utilitarian ideals and I lose no sleep over it.

033018 update:

I have tried to write this essay so many times, as I believe it to be one of the most important. I tried to approach it with previous writings, but I never fully got there, I think. The idea is so simple and clear in my head, but when I get excited and pull up my Google doc, the words don’t come. Or, rather, words come, but always skirt the edges – never pierce the center.

Every civilization in history has been shown to be wrong about one or more concepts. Some small, some very large with hugely detrimental cascading effects.

Likewise, everyone you have ever known and likely thousands you don’t but have seen or heard or read have thought many things that turned out to be false.

You, yourself, have been proven wrong on many occasions in your life. It happens all the time. Again, sometimes large, sometimes small. Perhaps not as often as it used to, but it still does.

Why, then, would we ever elect to feign confidence in any idea without evidence? And, knowing how powerful bias has been and how often it has led ourselves and billions of other people astray in the past, why wouldn’t we require that evidence to be heavily scrutinized? Our emotions, heavily scrutinized. Our motivations and biases? Why would anything but that suffice?

I say ‘feigned’ confidence, though much of the time we truly believe we are right – we just have the hubris and audacity to assert ‘This time it’s different. This time I’m actually sure.’ as though that belief changes anything. If you don’t have proof, then you aren’t certain. Stop pretending you are.

This is why my crusade against conspiracy theorists exists. Much like religion, they might actually be right. There is usually no existing, available proof otherwise. They don’t, however, have good evidence for their argument. It is nearly always from a blog, YouTube video, tabloid, or from nut radio shows like Alex Jones, who is a talking tabloid. The evidence provided is never scrutinized in the slightest – merely accepted. The story they come up with is shaped to make the supposed evidence fit – not the other way around. When contradictions arise, they are explained away by changing the story to avoid them, or by blatantly ignoring them or calling them false. They have already proven to those watching that they don’t consider the veracity of a claim important to them, so when they disregard the new information, they reveal their motivations do not stem from the seeking of truth, but something else. What that is, I’m not sure.

If you are truly interested in truth, you must only presume to know the truth when you can be reasonably sure you have proof or hard evidence. Anything less and you are just as ignorant as every civilization who has come before us, and you state through your actions that you are fine with us remaining ignorant – never breaking the cycle. Forever stuck in darkness. If that is who you are, then you are my enemy.

040118 *update* – 
The weatherman outlook.

I’ve had a thought. We should all be weathermen.

The weatherman makes the best possible educated guesses based on the information they currently have. They could very well be wrong, but you are a fool if you don’t take their words to mind. Not only do they have access to the most information, they know the best ways to interpret that data.

That being said, even they refrain from certainty, and give us a percentage chance for rain several days from now with the full understanding that this may change. They have absolutely no egg on their faces if it rains when they had, 4 days earlier, only given it a 10% chance. When the date got closer and they got more information, their forecast changed to fit the new data. It is the perfect metaphor for science.

It is also a perfect analogy or perhaps simply a strong correlation, that the people who don’t understand science are exactly like the people who think the weatherman ‘messed up’ when it ends up raining. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard people complain that the weatherman is an idiot due to circumstances such as that. The reality is that they believed exactly what they should have believed at the exact times they did. Also, in this case, the detractors simply don’t understand probabilities. 10% isn’t a guarantee it won’t happen.

To make it perfectly clear: if the meteorologist had predicted rain 4 days before it happened, they would have been wrong to do so, even though it ended up happening. The data they had access to at that point wouldn’t have justified a higher confidence in rain. It would have suggested a 10% chance. What I think many people are guilty of in this scenario is hindsight bias. Only after the outcome do they think something along the lines of, “You should have known all along, you fools!”. No, they shouldn’t have. That’s not what the data suggested. If a weatherman made the confident early prediction of rain in this case, and then it rained, they should still be fired unless they can show good evidence of why their belief was justified at the time. If they can’t, then they have shown they gamble with truth. When someone plays roulette at the casino, it doesn’t retroactively cease being a guess if they win.

A problem arises with media sensationalism. When sciences puts out a study that suggests there may be a correlation between, say, chocolate and good sleep, it is analogous to the weatherman’s ‘chance for weather’. However, we are still a week away within the metaphor. Peer review hasn’t been done. This is the only study thus far. The headlines you see the next day: “Science shows chocolate can cure insomnia”. Those who read too lazily, don’t understand science, or both, suddenly have absolute, undeserved confidence in the theory. And when peer review is done in this hypothetical, a new headline is published: “Scientists wrong. Chocolate CAUSES insomnia.” or whatever.

They were falsely accused, at least by insinuation if not explicitly, that they were positive of their result, and then made out to be fools who were wrong. They were not wrong in their original hypothetical study. They were presenting data and suggested there was a non-zero percent chance, based on the observed data, that this was correct. They pointedly didn’t claim certainty. Nonsense like this erodes trust in science from those who don’t understand the process, but the scientists did nothing wrong.

We need to be more like weathermen. Use all the data we have to come up with the most educated guess we can, but also be very cognizant of the fact that we may very well be wrong, partially or completely. We may need to update our beliefs to conform with the newest data. If we know enough about the material and relevant information, we will be able to estimate the approximate confidence we should have in that educated guess. Take heed: that confidence should almost never be full, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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