What happens when scientific investigation gives us a conclusion we do not like, for example: prayer does not physically heal anyone (or else makes things worse for the patient being prayed for), homeopathy’s only effect is to pay a charlatan, and “Mother” Earth is finding smarter ways to kill us? What happens when evidence conclusively shows that what we thought is precisely or almost the opposite of what is true? Do we load our guns of conformity, light the canons of outrage, and march on?
Despite our wishes, reality cannot be hidden by our desires or hopes but will reassert itself in the teeth of our aspirations: floods will drown, diseases will kill, people will oppress others. In order for us to deal most effectively with the world, we ought to see the world as it really is: naked and screaming, not silenced and dressed in our dreams. If we don’t measure when the next flood will hit, don’t use effective and tested treatments against diseases, don’t act against violence, we will continue to be prisoners, instead of actors, of our expectations. We therefore must tackle ideas head-on, clearly and without preconceptions, in order to deal most effectively with them – no matter how taboo the subject or conclusions of our inquiry. This is the very nature of scientific investigation.
We ought, therefore, to follow conclusions and evidence wherever they lead, trampling offence and outrage in the process - since learning how the world operates, to do good for others, is more important than mere outrage. As the history of women, gay and racial equality teaches us, for example, the ideas which could end up helping the most people could very well be the ones dismissed as offensive, outrageous or anathema. When, in 1847, physician Ignaz Semmelweis suggested hand-washing for his colleagues, he was met with scorn, since his colleagues refused to believe they were responsible for killing their patients.
Ideas should not be dismissed because they are outrageous but because they lack coherence, evidence or argumentative power, like homeopathy’s or prayer’s medical benefits. Having a clearer picture of the world means engaging with ideas that one finds offensive. And the most effective way to do this is with science. Before rushing in with rather boring philosophical charges of epistemology and so on, I equate the conclusions of science with the nature of reality. Whatever label you wish to give me is irrelevant to the fact that we’ve almost eradicated smallpox, that leaping off a skyscraper consistently results in death, and that withholding air results in unconsciousness. Science is not merely “lab-coat” science, with attractive young people in lab-coats poking at petri dishes. “Science” or “scientific investigation” is a way of approaching the world; one that encourages us to look at many arguments, be self-critical as well as cognisant of evidence, and be willing – despite our own interests – to accept the conclusions reached, with all arguments and evidence at hand. We “do” science when we recognise blankets warm us better than ice-buckets, for example.
The measures of rigid scientific investigation (both of the lab-coat and broad approach I’m describing) are merely applied, consistent common-sense, with the blinkers of personal investment and predispositions removed - indeed the absence of these cognitive biases, according to Maria Konnikova, is exactly what makes the fictional Sherlock Holmes such a powerful thinker. Conclusions, then, are reached despite what we wish.
[S]cience is “uncommon sense”… because it requires us to override our natural propensities toward confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out evidence consistent with our hypotheses and to deny, dismiss, or distort evidence that is not), naïve realism (the erroneous belief that the world is exactly as we see it), and allied biases. Without scientific thinking tools as safeguards against these errors, even educated people can be fooled.
We might wish, say, that the death penalty was an effective reducer of crime. Most of us, including myself, wish that alternative medicine worked. But, we cannot simply wish these to be true: we must analyse crime stats and the efficacy of alternative treatments. We use scientific investigation to confirm that the effects are brought about by suspected causes – and, furthermore, if we can bring about the effects through implementing those suspected causes. In this structure, what we want to be true is irrelevant to what is true.
The problem with resting our aspirations on mere wishes is that wishes, like dreams, dissolve when we open our eyes. Wishes are destroyed by how the world is. Our wants don’t come about through assertion but through our alignment with reality. People don’t grow wings, breathe underwater and live forever – we build aeroplanes, use scuba diving suits and battle diseases with medicine. These work because they work with our understanding of science, or are aligned to our understanding of reality.
The purpose of this blog is to engage with ideas that appear, at best, mildly offensive or, at worst, worthy of prosecution. Just what do the data and counter-arguments say about the impact of legalising drugs or prostitution? What is a more effective measure of combating crime: the death penalty or life sentence? Why should we oppose the use of drones in warfare? What are the limits of free expression in a society with diverse belief-systems? Figuring this out will not come about through an assertion of our desires or beliefs but through dispassionate engagement with the facts of the case.
So: What should we do when the science tells us something we don’t like? I will be arguing we must always accede to the science, since it means acceding to our best conception of reality. This won’t happen, nor does providing arguments and evidence change most people’s minds. Change is slow, but for now, we can at least build firm foundations upon which to support our convictions. Nor does acceding to the science mean immediate change of, say, social policy, but at least we set up change - instead of unjustified maintenance of a bad idea, like "the war on drugs" - as our goal.
We are fallible, but we want to be right. But we no more make something right, true or good through assertion than grow wings because we're fond of birds. For both accurate knowledge and flight, the best way for us to achieve them is through critical reflection, evidence and proper argumentation. That is the importance of scientific thinking in a nutshell: to not only provide us with a picture of the world, but let us soar through it as well.
With this in mind, this blog will attempt to defend and advocate critical thinking in all spheres - especially in those areas and those ideas we find most fearful, wrong, or taboo.
Next week, I’ll be looking at whether there’s an argument to be made for legalising child pornography.
Some introductory readings:
‘Is Incest Wrong?’ in Think Tank
‘Is Necrophilia Wrong?’ in Think Tank
‘Mirthless Moralisers vs. Free Speech’ in Think Tank
Follow me on Twitter (for fatwas or friendships): @tauriqmoosa
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