Telling fact from fiction: a rationalist’s job
by André Luzardo
We are bombarded with misleading or even downright false “facts” all the time. These can range from a sensationalist headline, to the claims of quacks and charlatans or even to more serious absurdities proposed by policy makers. In many cases those “facts” come dressed in what appears to be scientific language. In an age where science has largely won the battle against superstition and religious dogma, it is not surprising to find those who wish to use it to lend credibility to their dodgy claims. But we give them an easy time, for it seems that even in our post-enlightenment era we still haven’t fully embraced science’s main tenet: we should not believe, or make anyone else believe, any proposition for which there is no evidence whatever. This simple yet profoundly radical statement was first made by Bertrand Russell in 1928 but the idea behind it is much older. It forms the basis of a broader way of thinking called rationalism out of which science itself emerged. It turns out this type of thinking is all we need if we wish to minimize the risk of being misled. So let us consider in more detail what it means to be a rationalist.
It means having high regard for truth. If something is true then rationalists should believe it, if it is not then they shouldn’t. But truth can only be achieved in mathematics; in any other areas the best we can do is to hold an opinion (or theory) with the same degree of certainty as its evidence can afford. If the truth of a claim is not known then we should be honest and confess ignorance. Believing a falsehood because it is comforting, convenient or even morally beneficial may be tempting at first, but to a rationalist this would amount to intellectual cowardice.
It means allowing evidence to be the source of your opinions. This of course raises the question, what is evidence? It consists of the type of thing that would persuade a scientist to favour one theory over another, or that would convince a jury of the guilt of a defendant. This immediately invalidates opinions based solely on authority, revelation, popular wisdom and newspaper headlines. An opinion should be put to test. Wherever possible you should try to do the testing yourself. If you cannot then seek the consensus among those who did, like science specialists.
It means being sceptical. Not the kind of radical scepticism that denies the possibility of any knowledge whatsoever for that would be self-contradictory; radical sceptics would also have to doubt their own scepticism. What is meant is the kind of sceptical attitude that prevents one from holding any opinion with absolute certainty and that treats with suspicion those who fail to do so. It means accepting that even your most deep convictions can be wrong.
And of course it means possessing an irresistible urge to debunk nonsense. Take homeopathy, for example. To this date, and in spite of many tests, no evidence has been presented in support of its claims and there is nothing to suggest there ever will be. Homeopathic remedies are just water, nothing else, prepared according to a magical ritual of extreme dilution. And yet, to the delight of rationalist comedians, many countries in the world pay huge sums of taxpayers’ money to include homeopathy among the treatments available in the public health system.
Not only homeopaths would have a hard time in a more rational world, but also acupuncturists, chiropractors, creationists, nutritionists, clairvoyants, AIDS and climate change deniers and all other purveyors of nonsense. Once people start demanding evidence for everything the world of politics might also benefit from the rationalist treatment. Policies could start to be chosen based on their evidence and not on the wise opinion of politicians and lobby groups. Like the issue of criminalization of drugs, which despite all the money that has been spent enforcing it shows no sign of slowing drug trafficking or addiction, whereas in countries like Portugal where drugs were decriminalized drug addiction and HIV cases fell significantly. Or even the problem of extreme poverty, where evidence shows that simply empowering women with good education and easy access to contraceptives, including abortion, can be an effective solution.
What about morality? On one side we have religious heads trying to convince us the values written on their holy books are all we will ever need. On the other we have godless libertarians who claim morality is an inherently relative concept and so will have nothing to do with it. But we could also just view morality in terms of well-being and then use science to find out how we can maximize it. That is exactly the rational take that Sam Harris brought to this discussion recently. This idea is not new but it is only now that we might have the tools to do it properly.
If all this made sense to you, welcome aboard, you too are a rationalist. But now please do get to work, there is a lot of bullshit around.
André Luzardo is a PhD student at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme and can be found in the blogosphere at this address [in Portuguese].