Again With The Evidence Fetishism

Again With The Evidence Fetishism November 8, 2018

Evidence—the word that we love to use even though it means nothing.

Francisco Mejia Uribe recently wrote an article in the thought-provoking online magazine Aeon called “Believing without evidence is always morally wrong.”

I don’t want to Poison the Well right off the bat, but the fact that the author is an executive director at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong makes my skeptic alarm go off loudly. The day I take advice from a Goldman Sachs exec concerning ethical behavior is the day you can just load old Shem onto the ice floe and say goodbye, okay?

Catching Up With Reality

Anyhow, Uribe quotes British mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford as saying that, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Just in case you’re wondering why we should consider something true just because W.K. Clifford asserted it in 1877, Uribe would have you know that Clifford’s bon mot is no exaggeration:

I cannot think of anyone whose ideas are more relevant for our interconnected, AI-driven, digital age. This might seem strange given that we are talking about a Victorian Briton whose most famous philosophical work is an essay [written] nearly 150 years ago. However, reality has caught up with Clifford. His once seemingly exaggerated claim that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’ is no longer hyperbole but a technical reality.

The very notion that Uribe can’t think of anyone whose ideas are more relevant to today’s concerns should be a huge red flag. No thinker or writer he can name has ideas about knowledge, identity, communication or power that are more relevant to people in 2018 than a mathematician whose quotable quote panders to the presumption of the average com-box ebbidunce?

Beliefs About Beliefs

Things don’t get any less messy when Uribe starts talking about how beliefs affect behavior, in a way that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever heard Sam Harris’s standup routine on the same riff:

[O]ur beliefs influence our actions. Everyone would agree that our behaviour is shaped by what we take to be true about the world – which is to say, by what we believe. If I believe that it is raining outside, I’ll bring an umbrella. If I believe taxis don’t take credit cards, I make sure I have some cash before jumping into one. And if I believe that stealing is wrong, then I will pay for my goods before leaving the store. What we believe is then of tremendous practical importance. False beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival. If the singer R Kelly genuinely believed the words of his song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (1996), I can guarantee you he would not be around by now.

The problem here is that there’s a huge difference between believing it’s raining and believing stealing is wrong. Uribe doesn’t appear to be able to distinguish between beliefs about natural phenomena, society, or ethics; he even implies that people should only sing song lyrics that reflect verifiable claims about reality. Does he really think that all of these different kinds of beliefs are supportable by evidence in the exact same way?

Uribe gets truly silly when he asserts that every single one of our beliefs has potentially momentous consequences:

In a world in which just about everyone’s beliefs are instantly shareable, at minimal cost, to a global audience, every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential in the way Clifford imagined. If you still believe this is an exaggeration, think about how beliefs fashioned in a cave in Afghanistan lead to acts that ended lives in New York, Paris and London. Or consider how influential the ramblings pouring through your social media feeds have become in your very own daily behaviour.

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but here Uribe seems to be saying that beliefs without sufficient evidence are what cause terror attacks. This ignores so much cultural, political and socioeconomic context that it’s absurd. It’s like blaming the murder rate on inaccurate beliefs about where bullets and knife points belong.

The simplistic nature of Uribe’s thesis isn’t even its worst aspect. As freethinkers, we should react with real suspicion when someone starts making judgments not about how other people behave, but what they believe. It implies that we can demand that others discard what they believe and adopt a new set of beliefs, namely the set we affirm. That’s a completely impractical model of how to deal with cultural conflict, one that emphasizes imposing conformity of opinion over exploring opportunities for mutual understanding. Would we be receptive to anyone asserting that we need to change our beliefs?

Where’s the Evidence?

Though he talks a lot about evidence, nowhere does Uribe specify what he means by the term in any of the examples of beliefs he mentions. Does he mean hard data? Expert opinion? A coherent process of reasoning? This seems like a glaring omission indeed.

It’s a pretty straightforward matter to present evidence of whether it’s raining; once we get into territory where we’re discussing things like property, ethics, harm, and values, matters get a lot more complicated. I generally agree that stealing is wrong, but I only have evidence to back up the belief in the form of an extremely value-laden process of reasoning.

As I always say, evidence has just become an axiomatic expression that can mean whatever we want it to mean. If it appears to support what I believe, it’s evidence; if it supports what you believe, then it’s not evidence.

As far as Uribe’s example of terror attacks resulting from bad beliefs, I’ve said it plenty of times before: we don’t just want people to have rational, evidence-based reasons for committing mass murder. I’m pretty sure it’s the mass murder that we find objectionable. Condemning terror plots on the grounds of their evidentiary basis, rather than the damage they do in society, is missing the point egregiously.

What do you think? Should we have evidence for every single belief we affirm? Is the same kind of evidence appropriate in all instances?

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  • “Evidence—the word that we love to use even though it means nothing.”

    That’s a pretty strong statement. Sometimes evidence has to have meaning in terms of how we act or do things. For example, engineers need data to design things like cell phones and airplanes. They rely on knowledge, much or most of which is supported by at least some evidence.

    Caution about taking ethics advice from Goldman Sachs is a point well-taken. For the most part, Mr. Uribe does not appear to know what he is talking about. Sounds a bit like one of those misguided materialists, logical positivists or something like that.

    Clifford’s assertion that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” is a bit over the top. Lost of people, probably most, frequently believe all sorts of things with or without empirical evidence or pristine logic. How can one call all of it wrong? What’s right and wrong has been debated for millennia and that little spat still isn’t resolved. Probably never will be.

    Should we have evidence for every single belief we affirm? Nah, not for everything, but on the other hand, evidence for beliefs that affect others, e.g., in politics or medical science, seems a reasonable thing to ask. The evidence could be empirical data and/or logic-based conclusions.

    Is the same kind of evidence appropriate in all instances? Heck no. What constitutes evidence for beliefs in religion might not be seen as evidence by others. No harm, no foul. But again, if the lives or well-being of others is at stake, then some sort of evidence or reasoned thinking seems a reasonable ask.

  • Illithid

    “Evidence” is just facts that support a proposition, or some such. The frequent mention of a place called “Los Angeles” on TV is evidence that the place exists, though I’ve never been there. My sensory impressions are evidence for an external reality. Reason, applied to the body of available evidence, is also important.

    “…here Uribe seems to be saying that beliefs without sufficient evidence are what cause terror attacks.”

    Doesn’t look like he said that’s the only cause. But consider whether we’d have quite the mess we have in the Middle East if some people didn’t believe that the Creator of the Universe ceded a certain mediocre patch of land to their ancestors in perpetuity. Or whether we’d have as many suicide bombers if some people didn’t believe that they’d wake up in Paradise.

    “Would we be receptive to anyone asserting that we need to change our beliefs?”

    Yes, if they can give good reason. I’ve changed my beliefs numerous times, and I enjoy having my thoughts challenged. At best, I learn something new. At worst, I have a good discussion… or the smug feeling of superiority I get from debating a fool. For the record, I’ve never thought you a fool, Shem, even when we’ve disagreed.

    My belief that stealing is (generally) wrong is based on evidence and on moral reasoning which I think is correct. If someone has what they think is a better argument, I’ll consider it. Evidence against my position is still evidence, and it can and has made me change my mind. I’m not perfectly rational, of course, but I try. And yes, I strive to believe only that for which I have evidence and good reason. Point out a belief that I hold without evidentiary support, and I’ll stop holding it.

  • Doesn’t look like he said that’s the only cause. But consider whether we’d have quite the mess we have in the Middle East if some people didn’t believe that the Creator of the Universe ceded a certain mediocre patch of land to their ancestores in perpetuity. Or whether we’d have as many suicide bombers if some people didn’t believe that they’d wake up in Paradise.

    It sure seemed to me like he was saying that the beliefs “fashioned in a cave in Afghanistan” were the cause of terror attacks. I’m not disputing that there’s a lot of religious BS involved in the way young men are radicalized in the Middle East. What I’m saying is that we have to take into consideration plenty of things that were fashioned outside the cave in Afghanistan too: the historical development of these organizations, the shifting political rivalries and alignments, and the cultural meaning of manhood and martyrdom in the Middle East.

    Incidentally, the pioneers of the suicide bomber tactic were the Tamil Tigers, secular terrorists in Sri Lanka who weren’t motivated by fantasies of martyrdom.

    My belief that stealing is (generally) wrong is based on evidence and on moral reasoning which I think is correct.

    I agree. But evidence in this matter is different than that in a jury trial, right?

  • Kevin K

    What’s the alternative? Making shit up as you go along?

    Of course, it’s long been noted by people more quote-worthy than me that the level of evidence one should expect depends on the claim being made.

    We’re out of milk. I’m going to the store. I would expect that the person saying this is accurately reporting the contents of the fridge and is, in fact, going to the store. Which will be verified by checking the fridge later on to see that indeed a fresh carton of milk is in there.

    I was missing for three days because I was abducted and anal probed by aliens. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    Just a little rambling screed that’s probably coherent on the matter (if not, I blame painkillers — I just had a tooth pulled).

    I find the people who scream the loudest for “evidence” are just going to bend the evidence to fit their preconceived notion, anyway. Like, I’m reminded of a debt I had with a particular Nazi goat over on A Tippling Philosopher. He was making the claim that race dictated intelligence scores, and I was trying to hammer home that race does not exist. So to prove me wrong, he linked to a paper showing that Africans and folks indigenous to the African continent had a higher degree of genetic diversity than the rest of the world. He saw in that study — a legit study from the looks of it — proof of his racist system. What I saw, after close examination and a personal “eureka” moment, was a study that essentially broke the world into two broad groups: Africans and not-Africans. Then I realized that Western Europeans and Central Asians had more genetic homogeneity than someone from the Bantu peoples and someone from the Niger-Congo region, but a Niger-Congo and Bantu person are considered the same “race” but a Western European and Central Asian are not?

    That was the point when I realize that evidence didn’t settle debates. Evidence is good to have, but statistics, numbers, and the like — if you have strong preconceived notions of the world, they’re very easy to twist into your own thoughts. He saw a study that confirmed what he believed. And while right-wingers misinterpreting studies is basically a genre all its own these days, they aren’t the only ones. A lot of so-called “science fans” on the Internet today have no idea what science actually looks like or how it actually works.

    And this is without getting into the “logic only” crew.

    Personally, I think that we should demand for evidence in the case of extreme claims, and in places where evidence would make a difference and is worth debate. But otherwise — and this is especially true in the case of political beliefs, which is where you see calls for evidence the most — we need to realize that our political beliefs usually stems from a set of first principles that can neither be proven nor disproved. In my case, they’re anchored in my moral and ethical outlook, which is something entirely subjective. Sure, I can show examples where my system can help people — for instance, my support for a universal healthcare system — but it’s also true that I can also point to instances where they’d require a trade-off from somewhere else in the economy. The best example of this is globalism and global capitalism: it has never been a better time to be a human being in all of human history. Never. We live longer, we eat more, we lead more interconnected lives, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. Global capitalism uplifted millions from poverty in developing nations.

    But it’s also true that it comes at a sustainability cost, and that said “uplifting” hasn’t always been very pleasant. It’s also true the system is not remotely ethical, and prone to frequent abuse.

    Trade-offs. And evidence can’t help you determine if trade-offs are worth while, only a moral or ethical system can do that.

  • Illithid

    I’ll agree that there are secular motivations for terrorism. There might be offenses egregious enough to make me fly a plane into a building. I’ll also agree that there are multiple kinds of evidence, which apply differently to various questions. For stealing, I’d be citing reasoned speculation that acceptance of property rights promotes a flourishing society, of the kind that I and most people would prefer.

    If I’m hungry enough, though, priorities shift. My belly overrides your bank account. Which since I assume that applies to others as well, leads to other ideas about what type of society to promote. Morality gets complex, but it’s all based (for me) on facts and reason.

    Actually, my belly might override your life, if I’m really starving. I’m not neccessarily a nice person. Fortunately for everyone around me, I have much more convenient means available to stay alive. Speaking of which, time to go to work.

  • Illithid

    Evidence doesn’t settle debates with people whose thinking isn’t evidence-based. No argument there.

  • Personally, I think that we should demand for evidence in the case of extreme claims, and in places where evidence would make a difference and is worth debate. But otherwise — and this is especially true in the case of political beliefs, which is where you see calls for evidence the most — we need to realize that our political beliefs usually stems from a set of first principles that can neither be proven nor disproved.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I hope it’s obvious I was overstating the case saying that evidence means nothing. What I’m saying is that data isn’t the most relevant aspect of these political and religious debates. As you point out, we’ve got to see the data points in the context of our opponents’ value system. Factoid wars are never not futile.

    That said, even when the subject at hand is scientific—evolution, global warming, vaccination, take your pick—we think we’re debating about facts when we’re really dealing with people’s ideas about society, ethics, and authority. The big problem with these debates is that we have so many factoids literally at our fingertips that we never run out and have to confront the real bones of contention.

    Hope the dental pain subsides soon!

  • Is the same kind of evidence appropriate in all instances? Heck no. What constitutes evidence for beliefs in religion might not be seen as evidence by others. No harm, no foul. But again, if the lives or well-being of others is at stake, then some sort of evidence or reasoned thinking seems a reasonable ask.

    Right. The very problem with Uribe’s insistence is the one that plagues our thinking about beliefs and discourse: plenty of beliefs require specific and empirical kinds of evidence, some beliefs have more to do with values than facts, and some beliefs derive wholly from feelings of fear, powerlessness, or resentment. If we think all beliefs should be grounded in empirical fact, then we’re either trying to exclude and invalidate beliefs we don’t hold from the public sphere, or we’re just trying to exempt ourselves from taking people seriously unless they think exactly the way we do.

  • chemical

    From Shem:

    It implies that we can demand that others discard what they believe and adopt a new set of beliefs, namely the set we affirm. That’s a completely impractical model of how to deal with cultural conflict, one that emphasizes imposing conformity of opinion over exploring opportunities for mutual understanding. Would we be receptive to anyone asserting that we need to change our beliefs?

    I have some ideas about this that I’ve been working on for a while and this is what I’ve noticed. This is going to sound a little bizarre, but stay with me on it.

    When people argue, whether they’re left or right wing, religious or atheist, they argue The Facts. When someone else does not agree with The Facts, that is because that person is not aware of The Facts and they need to tell that person what The Facts are. I had a eureka moment when I asked “Where do The Facts come from?” The answer is simple: The Facts come from The Method, which is how people make a judgement call on ideas. When I type something in a comment, it is not The Facts. It is an idea, even if I think it’s The Facts. You read it, it goes through The Method, and it either becomes The Facts, or maybe Lies, Nonsense, Fake News, or any other truth assessment. But that assessment depends on The Method.

    Now here’s the trick: The liberal atheist Method is wildly different from the conservative, religious Method. The conservative religious method is actually quite a pleasant place. Facts can live there in harmony, and new Facts can get in if they play nice with the other Facts currently residing in The Method. The important characteristic for living in this Method is cooperation.

    In stark contrast is the liberal, atheist Method. This is not a pleasant place. This Method resembles the conservative, religious Method, if you dropped a nuclear warhead on it, and armies fought and died over the ashes until there was a mountain of bones. On top of that there are roving bands of marauders, armed to the teeth, just itching to massacre anyone weaker than they are. Only the toughest apex predators and most hardened soldiers survive in this Method.

    So when you type out an idea and a conservative reads it, they end up rejecting it because they realize that if they let the idea into The Method, it’s going to go on a murder spree and kill half the things there and make a throne out of the skulls and rule everything else with an iron fist, which is just rude. The things that come out of the liberal atheist Method are scary. Because strength and killer instinct aren’t keys to the conservative Method, things that come out of there get torn apart instantly in the liberal Method.

    My point with this analogy is that you can’t argue The Facts with someone who disagrees with you. You need to argue The Method. This all happens behind the scenes and rarely gets argued (though Shem has been arguing it frequently more recently). If you change The Method, then The Facts will follow.

  • the level of evidence one should expect depends on the claim being made.

    I’m just making the point that the word evidence is a lot more vague than it should be, considering how crucial it is to debunkers and how immoral Uribe seems to think beliefs without evidence are.

    In a jury trial or a science experiment, we can come to a pretty solid consensus on the type of data we expect. But when we’re talking about beliefs about things like ethics, politics, responsibility, and justice, data alone doesn’t ground these beliefs. If we’re talking about a coherent process of value-laden reasoning, then just about everyone has evidence for their beliefs; if we disagree with them, it’s probably because our values don’t line up. Shouting “That’s not evidence!” isn’t a sign of parsimony, it’s just showing a preference for our own language games rather than those of other people.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    That’s actually not the point. “Evidence” is accepted and filtered through a person’s moral and ethical paradigm. They think that their thinking is evidence based, and to a certain degree it usually is. It’s just they twist the evidence to match their preconceived notions — i.e., motivated reasoning in action.

    For instance, if a person comes along and says “I don’t give a fuck about people, I only care about myself” all the evidence in the world about the utility of national healthcare systems and a welfare state won’t change them. Their moral paradigm is not only purely self-oriented, it’s also stupendously short-sighted and, frankly, shitty. They’ll hone in on all the ways that the universal healthcare system will hurt them: increased taxes, maybe, or perhaps longer waiting times for elective surgeries because more people are getting necessary surgeries, and they’ll completely ignore the ways in which it helps because they do not care that it helps.

    And folks on the left do this sometimes, too. Consider how many people hate genetically modified food because they associate it with Monsanto. The science is sound, and Monsanto is, honestly, a far cry from the worst company in the world as far as business practices go — Coca Cola is probably worse, since Coca Cola has used militias in response to unionization attempts — but the left hones in Monsanto and uses their distaste for Monsanto to attack gene modded food. I can totally understand where Monsanto and food companies comes from resisting labeling laws: there isn’t any reason to label a food as GM or not. It’s not like there are people who are sensitive to GM foods that I’m aware of, so it isn’t a health thing. It’s purely ideological, and doing so will hurt sales — which is probably what at least some of the proponents of these labeling laws want to do. Monsanto is terrible by virtue of being a company, but if we’re going to label things, let’s make a label about the horrible conditions that the food was produced in. That way you can feel shitty about purchasing this product and taking part in a system that monetizes slave labor — good on you. That’ll probably spur more change than some silly label designed to hurt the sales of food companies for some retrogressive, technophobic reason that accomplishes no change, hurts a major source of food for the developing world, and doesn’t change the shitty working conditions of these people — but allows you to ignore it so you can virtue signal about how organic you are. But at the same time, the thinking is logical and evidence-based because there is some gray areas where genetically modified food might not be helpful, and it’s certainly true the monoculture farming does not help soil quality. But folks grab this evidence and twist it to achieve whatever their conclusions happen to be, which are usually built around their own ethical system.

    This is what I mean: the evidence is in that genetic engineering isn’t harmful, or if it is, it’s on a very limited scale and as a result, some uninformed person who knows just enough to be dangerous grabs it and runs with it, and manages to convince a number of uninformed people that they know what they’re talking about. If I need another example, there’s the anti-vaxx movement. They have plenty of “evidence” — I’ve seen them cite plenty of studies that leave open the possibility the vaccinations might be slightly harmful for a small number people and then blow those conclusions up to match their own way of thinking. As far as they’re concerned, their thinking is absolutely evidence-based. And that’s the problem.

    Because they’re interpreting evidence through their own moral spectrum. This is what I mean when I say “the evidence is objective, but the people interpreting it are not.” This is also why science so desperately needs to be peer-reviewed; the more different subjective opinions we have converging on the same idea, the closer I think we are to the truth.

  • My point with this analogy is that you can’t argue The Facts with someone who disagrees with you. You need to argue The Method.

    I like this approach. It’s not that I think there’s never a time when it’s possible to argue facts. But the vast majority of these debates are intractable because the participants are talking past each other in exactly the way you describe.

    I certainly think atheists and religious people alike can be threatened by their opponents’ ideas. Maybe they’re offended by our irreverence, but we’re affronted by their authoritarianism. If we’re just going to refuse to play one another’s language game, then we’ll never be able to communicate.

  • chemical

    A while back, I put a right wing blog on my reading list — the one I chose was Susan Wright, who’s a staunch conservative but is also a Never Trumper. Recently I got into a slap fight with one of the commenters over there about an article over the billboard that kind of makes Trump look like Jesus (basically a picture of Trump with a bible quote “The Word made flesh…”). Hemant covered it on FA, too.

    The commenters said it was un-Christian; I said Christianity had nothing to do with it, on the basis of Christians believe X, Y, and Z. The commenters disagreed, although mostly agreeing with my list, also said Christians have [positive characteristic X], [positive characteristic Y], etc. Stuff like personal accountability, being kind, etc. that Trump isn’t. That’s when I realized that when talking to these people, when I say “I’m not Christian” I’m also saying “I won’t hold myself accountable”, “I’m not kind”, etc., since to them, being a practicing Christian means having these positive attributes. I realized arguing about what Christians believe is arguing The Facts, which makes me seem like a smug jerk considering I don’t even pretend to be a Christian.

    So rather than do that, I decided to work on understanding The Method, instead. It does have a certain logic to it — I don’t necessarily agree with it because I think the ideas are weak, but we’ll get ourselves in trouble if we think there is no Method at all.

  • Illithid

    Well, I agree with essentially all of this, particularly the GMO and anti-vax nonsense. Critical thinking skills are really what’s needed, and those are hard to develop. I know I’m still working on it.

  • LastManOnEarth

    “We’re out of milk. I’m going to the store.”

    In some sense you are demanding as much evidence for this as for the alien abduction. The difference is that you already possess abundant, reliable, personally validated evidence for the claim in the form of all the things you know about milk, stores, people’s desires etc.

    That’s the difference between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” claims. The claim would become less ordinary if you were all lactose intolerant or you had just stocked the fridge or your partner had a restraining order at the Piggly Wiggly.

  • abb3w

    Uribe seems overbroad in the generalization. For one thing, there’s the Münchhausen trilemma.

    For another, some propositions are so abstract that they are irrelevant to what is ordinarily considered “evidence”; mathematical theorems aren’t dependent on evidence, but merely on the consequent implications from whatever axioms are initially asserted. (I suppose the set of implications could be considered “evidence” if one includes the sense of “coherent process of reasoning”. However, I think that maintaining the distinction between howsoever-subjective evidence as opposed to reasoning about that evidence can help avoid certain forms of pernicious equivocation, particularly in theological debate. For example, “I believe the flying spaghetti monster exists” becomes a point of evidence, thus justifying that belief — albeit circularly.)

    And that’s without getting to how Uribe’s assertion is morally prescriptive; and as a moral proposition, may not be derived without reliance on some belief (perhaps taken axiomatically) that does not rely on evidence. Cue Hume on the is/ought problem.

    Should we have evidence for every single belief we affirm?

    Well, some beliefs are effectively prior to evidence — for example, the question of whether or not evidence has any pattern or not. (This may be answered either way without loss of consistency, albeit with absurdity in the Refutation.)

    Is the same kind of evidence appropriate in all instances?

    I think the phrase “kind of evidence” seems to involve a distinction whose importance can only be established by previously inferring patterns of evidence. However, some evidence may be less informative on some questions than others. As a highly artificial example: consider a very long row of boxes, with sequential integer numbers on them. Opening a bunch, you find a pattern that odd number boxes have red balls in them, and even number boxes have green balls in them; and find that some green boxes have two green balls, but never two consecutive even numbered boxes both having two balls. In such scenario, if you go jogging a few miles down the row to consider box number 2N, the pattern indicates the contents of boxes 2N-1 and 2N+1 will be uninformative to establishing whether or not box 2N has a second ball in it, but the contents of boxes 2N+2 and 2N-2 may be illuminating.

  • abb3w

    For instance, if a person comes along and says “I don’t give a fuck about people, I only care about myself” all the evidence in the world about the utility of national healthcare systems and a welfare state won’t change them.

    Well, in part, this may be in part because they don’t accept the basis for the metric of utility — or, alternately, don’t think they ought to prefer greater aggregate social utility. And while that may make them evil, that doesn’t make their reasoning wrong.

    They’ll hone in on all the ways that the universal healthcare system will hurt them

    …which gets trickier.
    First, it may well be that under whatever distorted metric they use, the harms may outweigh the benefit.
    Alternately, it may be that they have a preferred moral conclusion, and focus on the perceived harms so they feel less need to change their minds and work out the moral consequences.
    Alternately, it may be that they have a preferred moral conclusion, and infer “harms” that must be there — whether or not they are. (“Inferred justification”).

    In the first case, it’s not empirically wrong, merely morally vile from the perspective of others. In the other cases, however, it’s taking presumptions on how the world “ought” to be and inferring how it “is” — which in the final case leads to empirically incorrect inferences.

  • abb3w

    some beliefs derive wholly from feelings of fear, powerlessness, or resentment

    I think even most of those have some iota of anchoring in evidence; as generally, the object of fear/resentment has some similarity to some entity that empirically exists. That said, I find Hume’s observations about ‘is” versus “ought” type claims seem helpful to identifying where implicit assumptions are being slipped in.

    If we think all beliefs should be grounded in empirical fact, then we’re either trying to exclude and invalidate beliefs we don’t hold from the public sphere, or we’re just trying to exempt ourselves from taking people seriously unless they think exactly the way we do.

    Somewhat. Some of it, however, may be attempting to ensure all parties to the discussion are relying on compatible underlying axioms. If BillyBob’s moral beliefs ultimately rest entirely on the proposition “eating more cheese is better than eating less cheese”, for most people who do not share that basis the reduced potential for mutual understanding, persuasion, and other manner of communication would seem to tend to reduce the expected perceived benefit relative to the effort involved, such that they won’t bother for long.

    So, perhaps not so much “exactly” as “usefully close enough to”.

  • frishy

    A. Faith is belief without evidence, therefore, Atheists and Deists agree – “No Reason for God”

    B. It is easy to PROVE the judeo-xtian-islamo god cannot exist. In two different ways…
    1. It would have to work faster than light, and nothing can do that in this Universe.
    2. Before the big bang, there was no space, time, energy, matter. If ‘god’ is an entity, it has thoughts, and, information needs physical medium upon which to be coded (whether it is sound waves, or DNA, or light, information has to have a physical medium.) Before the big bang there was no medium upon which thoughts could exist.

    If someone says “supernatural” as an explanation (for anything) I’m afraid we don’t share enough reality to engage in a discussion.

    C. Just for fun

    “Have no other gods before me” is the first commandment of god according to the old testament.
    1. The Mono-God admits there are others!
    2. I go with the command LITERALLY, and have NO gods before I’d have god…

    In the course of my studies, “belief in higher powers” is an inevitable result of our Nature, Nurture, and Language. But that’s another article I need to write…

  • Edward Silha

    Shem wrote: Uribe can’t think of anyone whose ideas are more relevant to today’s concerns
    This seems like nit-picking. He is using a common expression that is often meant to identify some person that has expressed an idea with which the author agrees, not as an absolute ranking of experts on the topic.

    Shem wrote: he even implies that people should only sing song lyrics that reflect verifiable claims about reality.
    My reading of his comment was that the lyrics to the song were not meant as assertion of reality (either by the author or the listener or Uribie).

    Shem wrote: I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but here Uribe seems to be saying that beliefs without sufficient evidence are what cause terror attacks.
    In spite of your denial, you are putting words in his mouth. The whole thrust of the Uribie article is that a single false belief may not result in injustice or catastrophe, but each false belief reinforces other false beliefs. The 9/11 perpetrators did not act on a single false belief, but on a conglomeration of false beliefs.

    Shem wrote: Would we be receptive to anyone asserting that we need to change our beliefs?
    Damned straight I would if the person provided solid evidence.
    Furthermore, nothing in the Uribie article suggests imposing beliefs on anyone.

    Shem wrote: Condemning terror plots on the grounds of their evidentiary basis, rather than the damage they do in society, is missing the point egregiously.
    Cart before the donkey! With the exception of living in a authoritarian regime where the only leverage for change might be violence, terrorist actions are almost always based on false beliefs and faulty reasoning. Whether it was 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, the events were the result of some set of false beliefs and faulty reasoning.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson
    “There’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know. The only shame is pretending you know all the answers.”

    A single false belief seldom results in catastrophe. The thrust of the Uribie article was that each false belief makes it easier to accept another false belief and that a conglomeration of false beliefs often leads to unhelpful or harmful results.

  • Illithid

    I like this a lot! Which makes me instantly suspicious of it. Which, in turn, validates it. Hmm.

  • Illithid

    Although I’m an atheist, I’d dispute that your arguments in 2 prove the Abrahamic god can’t exist. If that entity did exist as described, it’s not necessarily subject to physics as we know it. The arguments also assume that our knowledge of physics is complete.

    Note that I agree this entity can’t exist as described, because its purported attributes are contradictory.

    ETA: I also find the so-called first commandment amusing, as it implies that other gods exist, and also that one could obey it by worshipping several gods but keeping YHWH primary among them.

  • Edward Silha

    What has culture to do with accepting the scientific evidence that climate change is caused by human activity?

    Any action taken in response to that evidence may be (is) affected by culture. However, accepting the fact that climate change is caused by human activity is cultural only to the extent that some choose to ignore or deny the scientific evidence because they do not like any of the possible solutions. The same is true for evolution and vaccinations.

    Someone on the roof of a tall building who does not want to walk down flights of steps in a building that has no elevator might be decide to deny the fact of gravity and step off the edge of the roof. The result of this false belief is that he removes himself from the gene pool. The problem with denying climate change and vaccination science is that the result is likely to cause harm to others.

  • frishy

    Uh, “not necessarily subject to physics as we know it” seems supernatural or “extra-natural” to me, or, name something else not subject to physics as we know it?

  • Edward, welcome to Driven To Abstraction!

    I don’t know whether you’ve gotten the gist of my argument here, but throughout the posts on this channel I characterize the Appeal to Evidence as another brand of logical fallacy, a bad-faith attempt to shut down debate or claim victory rather than engage with one’s opponent in a sincere way. Please understand that I’m not denying the validity of global warming, the fact that species evolve, or that vaccines are safe and effective. I’m trying to encourage more open and empathetic avenues of discourse about things like creationism, climate change denial, and anti-vaxx sentiment. These matters might adopt the distinguishing marks of legitimate scientific constructs, but that’s just rhetorical camouflage. What’s really at play here are ideas about authority, power, and truth.

    If that seems unforgivably folkloric and postmodern to you, I apologize. But there’s only about a million places online where you can play the Lacka Ebbidence game with your virtual foes, and I try to curate this space more for discussions about what these debates mean on a cultural and socioeconomic level.

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson
    “There’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know. The only shame is pretending you know all the answers.”

    Far be it from me to dispute anything a pop-culture poobah says, but could it be we’re exempting ourselves from that statement? Is presumption warranted as long as we’re using science-words?

  • Edward Silha

    Are you dismissing the content of the quote? Do you disagree with the content?
    This post seems to be nothing more than applying a term with negative inferences to the author.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “Should we have evidence for every single belief we affirm? ”

    You can affirm to believe whatever you want to. But if you want others to accept your affirmed belief as valid you need to present evidence to prove it.

  • And do we have evidence in the form of scientific data for every single belief we affirm?

  • I didn’t dismiss the quote. I was asking whether we can live up to its approach to knowledge. Do we know all the answers?

  • Edward Silha

    For a discussion to take place between two persons, there must be some agreed upon base which is the ground work for the discussion (e.g., language). If one participant denies scientific facts (accepted by nearly all scientist) because they are not compatible with his world view, there is no basis for a discussion about science. I doubt that there is even room for discussion about method give the person accepts only positions of authorities that support his world view.

    Authority:
    A person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert.

    There is no basis for a discussion with a young earth creationist who rejects the statements of the National Academy of Sciences (and nearly every other organization of professional scientists worldwide) because those statements are not compatible with his world view. There is no basis for discussion with a person dismisses scientific facts because the only solution will entail government intervention (i.e., taxes or regulation).

    Power –
    I do not understand why you believe that power is a factor in a discussion of issues that can be decided on the basis of verifiable facts.

    Truth – That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality
    Beside mathematical truths (facts), the best decisions about the physical things is a scientific consensus. About social and political issues, there are many examples throughout history and contemporarily on which we can infer the result of a particular course (e.g., universal health care as implemented in other countries).

    Shem wrote: These matters might adopt the distinguishing marks of legitimate scientific constructs, but that’s just rhetorical camouflage. What’s really at play here are ideas about authority, power, and truth.

    I am not sure of your referent. Climate change, evolution, the age of the earth, vaccinations and much more are legitimate scientific topics. I fail to see how citing scientific consensus is camouflage.

  • Edward Silha

    Affirming a belief based only on your world view is a risky way to live. Believing that your god will protect you regardless of your actions may lead you to cross busy streets without obeying traffic laws or observing oncoming traffic.

  • I’m not making any claims about gods. I’m wondering whether we reject god-explanations because of evidence, or whether we simply prefer explanations that have science words.

  • Edward Silha

    I prefer explanations that are based on things that can be measured. If it cannot be measured (even quantitatively) then there is no basis for belief.
    My previous comment was no particularly about god but about believing something because you want to rather than because it is the logical conclusion.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    Who said the evidence had to be in the form of scientific data? I didn’t.

    Who said you have to have evidence for ANY belief you affirm? I didn’t.

    What I said was : You can affirm to believe whatever you want to. But if you want others to accept your affirmed belief as valid you need to present evidence to prove it.

  • Illithid

    Well, yes, the Abrahamic god is described as being supernatural, and therefore would not be limited by our understanding of physics.

    Again, I am an atheist. I don’t think that being exists. I just don’t think the particular argument you make is sound.

  • Edward Silha

    Accepting a belief base solely on an apparent pattern is risky. Without being able to explain the pattern based on some physical property may lead to unpleasant surprises.

  • As always, it depends on whether we’re conducting a science experiment or whether we’re talking about what constitutes a good society. When there are values and political opinions involved, measurements won’t be quite as crucial.

    And I think we affirm the vast majority of our beliefs simply according to our worldview. I’ve never seen the vast majority of data that supports what we believe about the physical universe or natural history, and probably wouldn’t understand most of it even if I had. I just assume scientists oughta know, and I’m flattering myself that that makes me a rational member of modernity.

    Furthermore, I think evidence fetishism is just a rhetorical ploy in our debates with religious folks. We don’t want to admit that religion is about community, authority and tradition, so we pretend that religious statements are literal claims about the world.

    It’s not delusional believers against rational nonbelievers. It’s just people playing the language games they prefer.

  • Like I said, you don’t seem to understand the approach I’m taking here.

    I’m not disputing what the scientific consensus is on these matters, or denying its validity.

    What I’m disputing is that conspiracists can be battled with facts and evidence, or bludgeoned into submission with the authority of science.

    These matters have political, economic, and cultural elements that can’t be reduced to bad data. Facts and evidence don’t have magical powers to make suspicion, resentment, or vested interests disappear.

  • Please, folks, there’s only about a million other places online where you can demolish arguments for The Big G. Nobody here is religious, and nobody cares. Check out The Shem Commandments and keep that nonsense in some low-hanging fruit orchard elsewhere.

  • Clifford’s assertion that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” is a bit over the top.

    It should be noted that the essay from which the assertion comes does not exist in isolation, but rather should be understood as Clifford’s side in the debate with William James over the ethical peculiarities of different standards for believing. His essay, “The Ethics of Belief” really should be read alongside James’ essay “The Will to Believe” to realize that the polemic nature of the text is in part due to an intended opposition.

  • Edward Silha

    Tyson’s quote implies that someone who claims to “know all the answers” is a fool or a liar. Do you disagree?

  • Edward Silha

    There is much on which atheists and the religious can agree (e.g., justice, fairness, compassion). I do not attempt to convince the religious to discard their beliefs because I cannot offer them something as enticing as the hope for eternal life (i.e., I do not wage “Holy Wars” against the beliefs of the religious).

    However, I do respond when the religious attempt to impose their religious beliefs on others through law and policy. I will respond when the religious attempt to have creation taught in science class, promote prayer by staff in schools, deny the need to address climate change because their god would not let man significantly damage the earth, to allocate tax revenue to support their religion and other such policies.

    I live in Texas where a member of the state board of education once said “Somebody’s gotta stand up to the experts” when attempting to include language in the educational standards questioning the theory of evolution and the science of climate change. The 2012 Republican platform contained the following statement about education: “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar …”

    Shem wrote: whether we’re talking about what constitutes a good society. When there are values and political opinions involved, measurements won’t be quite as crucial. … evidence fetishism is just a rhetorical ploy in our debates with religious folks.

    Are you implying that the facts about climate science are not crucial to the policies that we adopt or the facts about vaccination are not crucial to our public health or the policy of evidence practice is not crucial to modern medicine? There are opinions and politics involved in these choices but ignoring the facts in any of these areas can only lead to harm. Politics and opinion should not be allowed to overrule facts. Some people do fight “holy wars”, but basing public policy on reliable scientific research is no an “evidence fetishism”.

    I may have given you the wrong impression and am posting this to make my position clear. I am retired but my career was as an engineer. Good engineers seldom have all the facts necessary to create a perfect result and often make approximations that are not perfect but only good enough. However, the probability of making a good decision is lowered when reliable facts are ignored.

  • No I don’t. I was saying we seem to think it’s okay to pretend to know that all the answers have science words.

    Do you disagree?

  • Are you implying that the facts about climate science are not crucial to the policies that we adopt or the facts about vaccination are not crucial to our public health or the policy of evidence practice is not crucial to modern medicine?

    Where did I ever say that? Please engage with what I’m saying, rather than constructing some unwieldy Bizarro-world parody of my viewpoint, okay?

    What I’m saying is that I don’t believe that the facts are the real basis of the dispute. If you think science denial is at the root of climate change denial, then you should probably think twice about calling anyone else delusional. The opposition to climate change is based on the corporate need to continue making profit from environmentally unsound practices. These corporate polluters can control the regulatory process with their influence in government, and their think-tanks can disseminate propaganda that makes their opposition seem legitimate.

    Are you seriously telling me that the petroleum industry is “anti science”? That their denial derives from a mistrust of the scientific method and not vested interests?

    There are opinions and politics involved in these choices but ignoring the facts in any of these areas can only lead to harm. Politics and opinion should not be allowed to overrule facts. Some people do fight “holy wars”, but basing public policy on reliable scientific research is no an “evidence fetishism”.

    You’re still completely ignoring what I’m saying here. There are other considerations than the scientific data in any of these controversies.

    I don’t dispute the scientific facts of evolution, molecules-to-modern-species. We can both complain that religion shouldn’t be taught in science class. However, in a democratic society, how much influence should the community have in its schools’ curricula? Should we just decree exactly what schools are allowed to teach, and use the word science as a magic incantation to dispel any dissent?

    I don’t dispute the efficacy and safety of vaccines. We should be able to expect that people vaccinate their kids to maintain our herd immunity. However, how far can we go in a democratic society to do that? If we don’t want to have to forcibly vaccinate people, we should formulate ways to persuade them to vaccinate. Are the scientific facts alone going to magically persuade them to abandon their anxieties?

    I just think we shouldn’t be imposing beliefs or policies on people, and brandishing the authority of science like it’s a scepter that’s supposed to make people submit. Science operates in a society of agents with wildly diverse aims and interests. If we’re supposed to be the reasonable ones, let’s be reasonable.

  • Edward Silha

    I do not disagree and have not suggested so. The laws (policies) against murder, theft, slander and similar policies are based on a world view that is part of most cultures as is some version of the Golden Rule. My only argument is that when there are applicable facts, they should not be ignored (dismissed) because they conflict with someone’s world view. Although we generally agree that murder is unacceptable, there is evidence on which to base the policies adopted to reduce the number of murders.
    Thirty-thee percent (down from forty-five a few years ago) of the public have a world view based on a young earth creation story. This group continues to lobby for educational standards to include the teaching of creation in science classes and when that fails, teaching that there are serious questions about the core (not the details) of evolutionary science and the age of the earth. This world view dismisses accepted science. This is a case where there is evidence that should not be ignored.

  • Thirty-three percent (down from forty-five a few years ago) of the public have a world view based on a young earth creation story. This group continues to lobby for educational standards to include the teaching of creation in science classes and when that fails, teaching that there are serious questions about the core (not the details) of evolutionary science and the age of the earth. This world view dismisses accepted science. This is a case where there is evidence that should not be ignored.

    Well, the facts and evidence supporting evolution have been public knowledge for over a century. I don’t consider this a scientific disagreement. What you’re dealing with is cultural differences on matters of origins, authority, and tradition. Has presenting evidence and heaping scorn on these people made creationism go away? What do you call doing the exact same thing over and over, but expecting a different outcome?

    What the creationism matter boils down to is each group of people is playing a language game where they have the rhetorical advantage, and unless we formulate a game whose rules are neutral, we’re not going to come to any understanding.

  • Edward Silha

    I am not heaping scorn on anyone. I am saying that some groups dismiss facts that conflict with their world view. If they wish to retain their world view, I will not attempt to change their mind. However, I will object to their attempts to incorporate their unique religious beliefs in policy and law.
    I see this as a shrinking issue. Modern education (especially post high school) along with the availability of information has been responsible for the decline in the belief of young earth creationism.

  • Edward Silha

    Shem wrote: The opposition to climate change is based on the corporate need to continue making profit from environmentally unsound practices.

    Yes, along with the political leaders that repeat such propaganda so they can remain in power, the portion of the public that relies strictly on ideology to elect such leaders and those that choose to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus because accepting it would necessitate solutions that they oppose based on ideology. It is futile to attempt to convince a person that dismisses accepted scientific evidence based on a world view as there is no common basis for the discussion.
    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Isaac Asimov

    Shem wrote: Should we just decree exactly what schools are allowed to teach, and use the word science as a magic incantation to dispel any dissent?

    Schools are a critical part of the nation’s foundation. They provide a common set of knowledge necessary to knit us into a well-functioning society. I do not oppose local control but there is a balance that must be and has been struck. The courts have decided that creationism cannot be taught as part of a science curriculum, that the staff in a school cannot lead or participate in religious practices during an official school event and that a school cannot promote any one religion or favor religion over non-religion. The need to prepare students for college has forced school districts to adopt curriculum standards compatible with college instruction (forcing some common standards across nearly all schools).

    Shem wrote: If we don’t want to have to forcibly vaccinate people, we should formulate ways to persuade them to vaccinate. Are the scientific facts alone going to magically persuade them to abandon their anxieties?

    Persuasion is the preferred approach. However, there are those who will never be persuaded without being penalized in some fashion. Many school districts require children to be vaccinated before beginning classes. A common thread in philosophy is to avoid where possible doing harm to others. An unvaccinated child can infect other children (doing harm to others even to the point of causing the death of an immune deficient school mate or the mate’s sibilling).

    Shem wrote: I just think we shouldn’t be imposing beliefs or policies on people, and brandishing the authority of science like it’s a scepter that’s supposed to make people submit.

    What about taxes to provide public services to protect health and safety?
    What about speed limits and other traffic laws?
    What about licensing doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc?
    What about parents that are charged with neglect or worse because their world view prohibits providing professional medical attention to an sick child.

    There are regulations based on the common facets of the world views in our nation (e.g., murder is prohibited). Others are based on common sense and experience (traffic laws). Many are based mostly on scientific facts (e.g., building codes, water treatment, waste disposal).
    I have no desire to impose my beliefs on others. My only argument is that when there is compelling scientific evidence supporting the public need for some policy, the evidence must influence the policy and the unique beliefs of any particular religion should no be made law.

  • Edward Silha

    Shem wrote: The opposition to climate change is based on the corporate need to continue making profit from environmentally unsound practices.

    Yes, along with the political leaders that repeat such propaganda so they can remain in power, the portion of the public that relies strictly on ideology to elect such leaders and those that choose to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus because accepting it would necessitate solutions that they oppose based on ideology. It is futile to attempt to convince a person that dismisses accepted scientific evidence based on a world view as there is no common basis for the discussion.
    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Isaac Asimov

    Shem wrote: Should we just decree exactly what schools are allowed to teach, and use the word science as a magic incantation to dispel any dissent?

    Schools are a critical part of the nation’s foundation. They provide a common set of knowledge necessary to knit us into a well-functioning society. I do not oppose local control but there is a balance that must be and has been struck. The courts have decided that creationism cannot be taught as part of a science curriculum, that the staff in a school cannot lead or participate in religious practices during an official school event and that a school cannot promote any one religion or favor religion over non-religion. The need to prepare students for college has forced school districts to adopt curriculum standards compatible with college instruction (forcing some common standards across nearly all schools).

    Shem wrote: If we don’t want to have to forcibly vaccinate people, we should formulate ways to persuade them to vaccinate. Are the scientific facts alone going to magically persuade them to abandon their anxieties?

    Persuasion is the preferred approach. However, there are those who will never be persuaded without being penalized in some fashion. Many school districts require children to be vaccinated before beginning classes. A common thread in philosophy is to avoid where possible doing harm to others. An unvaccinated child can infect other children (doing harm to others even to the point of causing the death of an immune deficient school mate or the mate’s sibilling).

    Shem wrote: I just think we shouldn’t be imposing beliefs or policies on people, and brandishing the authority of science like it’s a scepter that’s supposed to make people submit.

    What about taxes to provide public services to protect health and safety?
    What about speed limits and other traffic laws?
    What about licensing doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc?
    What about parents that are charged with neglect or worse because their world view prohibits providing professional medical attention to an sick child.

    There are regulations based on the common facets of the world views in our nation (e.g., murder is prohibited). Others are based on common sense and experience (traffic laws). Many are based mostly on scientific facts (e.g., building codes, water treatment, waste disposal).
    I have no desire to impose my beliefs on others. My only argument is that when there is compelling scientific evidence supporting the public need for some policy, the evidence must influence the policy.

  • islandbrewer

    And now I want a skull throne. Thanks for that.

  • I’ve been banging my head against the wall here, and I guess I’m just not getting through. Every time I see that Asimov quote about anti-intellectualism, it’s invariably being used by someone who doesn’t want to think too hard about the things he believes.

    The irony at least amuses me that someone responding to a post about evidence fetishism defines evidence as the be-all and end-all of every social issue, a set of incontrovertible truths floating around in the ether somewhere, unsullied by any human or cultural influence, to which we all must submit for the good of planet Earth, and which has the magic power to guide public policy independent of human interpretation or political viewpoint.

    And before you accuse me of deliberately misinterpreting your posts, do me a favor and try—just try—to describe my perspective briefly in your own words. What is it you think I’ve been saying this whole time?

  • abb3w

    Accepting a belief base solely on an apparent pattern is risky. Without being able to explain the pattern based on some physical property may lead to unpleasant surprises.

    True, there is some risk; but some iota of risk seems fundamentally inherent to empirical inference.

    On the other hand, what most people usually think of as “physical properties” are (at best) themselves patterns of evidence. Cue Feynman on Inertia….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjm8JeDKvdc

  • Edward Silha

    My understanding of the thrust of the comments of Shem:

    1. Facts are not the most important considerations when discussing policies and issues.
    2. Citing evidence is a rhetorical gimmick in debates with religious folks.
    3. Atheists do not understand that religion is about community.
    4. Claims by the religious are literal claims about reality.
    5. Claiming that the religious are delusional will cause people to not listen.
    6. Science should not be used to impose our beliefs or policies on others.
    7. You feel that I (athiests?) believe that science can and should be used to solve every social problem.
    8. Atheists are not capable of suspending a decision to believe when there is insufficient evidence to support a belief.
    9. Atheists heap scorn on creationists, calling the delusional, closing off discussion.
    10. You believe atheists (people?) accept or reject most beliefs based solely on a personal world-view.

    Preface to my response.
    I am not interested in promoting atheism, converting anyone, or disparaging anyone. Nearly all my discussions involving religion involve issues of public policy. I oppose the imposition of any particular secular belief through law or policy.

    1. I agree that is true in some cases. However, crucial facts must be considered in the final decision. The decision to spend tax money on anti-smoking campaigns are based on the facts about societal cost and public health costs but culture is important in designing those campaigns.

    2. Some may use evidence as a gimmick to win an argument. I do not. I try to limit the expressions of my opinion, rather providing facts and the opinions of authorities on issues.

    3. I do understand that religion is about community. I envy the community provided by some congregations and belong to an atheist group that sponsors social events. I was married for 38 years to a woman that became a Jehovah Witness after the first five years. I attended events with her and understood the community they provided.

    4. When a religious person makes a claim, I interpret it based on the English language (i.e., the literal meaning of the words and grammatical structure). How else can I know the meaning of the claim he asserts? If he asserts that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, what should I take that to mean?

    5. That is obvious. I do not engage in personal attacks, name calling or derision.

    6. Public policies and many other conventions of our nation are based at least partly on scientific facts. College entrance requirements influence what is taught in local schools to prepare students. The courts have decided that Creationism cannot be taught in science classes in public schools, nor are the schools permitted to teach secular religions (e.g., Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist). Living in a society means I must accept the contract (laws and policies) created by the society. In some cases, that contract conflicts with the beliefs of some but the courts have decided that the contract wins, in most cases, where a conflict arises.

    8. See my answer to question 1.

    9. Some do. I do not. If there is some common basis for discussion, I treat people with respect even if I do not resect their religion. If I find there is no common basis or discussion, I walk away without expressing anger or derision.

    10. Your assertion may be correct. I have no way of knowing if it is true. I was an engineer and base any belief that has consequences on facts. Some beliefs (e.g., the big bang which I tentatively accept) have no consequences on my existence, but even in this case, it is easier for me to say that I do not know or am not sure than assert an unsupported belief. I do not seek perfect or complete knowledge, only sufficient and reliable facts.

  • That’s largely correct. I’m glad I’m at least getting my points across.

    I only wish I could convey the extent of my disdain for the way people discuss science in the message-board universe. To my way of thinking, the science fans who come here aren’t talking about science. They’re using a lot of the trappings and terminology of science, but it’s all about exerting superiority and authority. They’re pushing an agenda, exactly like the crackpots, conspiracists, and fundies they’re debating.

    I have plenty of discussions here about legitimate scientific disputes and actual controversies in scientific fields , but science fans aren’t interested in those. Anything about the philosophy of science attracts nothing but cricket noises. If you guys are the I-Fúcking-Love-Science crew, then why don’t you have any interest in science unless it’s weaponized for use against your online foes?

    I want people to hear me guffaw every time they say science and evidence, because they’re not conducting scientific discussions at all; they’re just using science-words in pointless factoid wars.

  • Edward Silha

    Your comment about the Asimov quote appears to be a kneejerk reaction that ignores my preface to the quote.
    My preface: It is futile to attempt to convince a person that dismisses accepted scientific evidence based on a world view as there is no common basis for the discussion.
    I was not using it to bash a Christian into changing his mind. The quote presents a valid observation that some people are (deliberately?) ignorant of the facts, refusing to explore or consider anything that conflicts with their world-view. The probability of influencing such a person is near zero.
    The member of the Texas State Board of Education that said “Somebody’s gotta stand up to the experts” will go to a physician when he is ill because the physician (expert) has vastly greater knowledge about health. Yet he is willing to dismiss the findings of the near unanimity (98+%) of biologists that accept the theory of natural selection (what the National Academy of Science refers to as a fact).

  • Sorry, but I always see the Asimov quote posted by people who are just as narrow-minded and anti-intellectual as the fundies they’re using it to bash.

    The quote presents a valid observation that some people are (deliberately?) ignorant of the facts, refusing to explore or consider anything that conflicts with their world-view. The probability of influencing such a person is near zero.

    As I said to you in my response to you yesterday (two posts down from this one), I deal with people here regularly who refuse to consider anything that conflicts with their worldview; they just happen to think their way of thinking is validated by scientific evidence rather than by scripture. They use the word science as synonymous with truth or reality, and never want to be reminded that science is a human endeavor with all the personal and cultural biases that implies. They’re so used to subjecting other people’s beliefs to harsh critical scrutiny that they’ve forgotten to question their own assumptions about knowledge, history, and society.

    If science fans want to take their online foes to task for anti-intellectualism, then it sort of behooves them to walk it like they talk it. But they’re not interested in thinking too hard about how science operates in society, or the philosophical problems with a scientific worldview.

  • TinnyWhistler

    “They think that their thinking is evidence based, and to a certain degree it usually is. ”
    That’s the biggest frustration I’ve had with these sorts of arguments, regardless of the “side” I’ve been on at various points in my life.

    Everyone believes that their beliefs are reasonable on some level: otherwise they wouldn’t hold them. Very VERY few people are actually willfully ignorant or irrational. If they appear that way to me it’s because of some “This isn’t worth considering” postulate that I’m ignoring. We all have those, it’s how we get through the day without our lives becoming one existentially tortured scream.

    Pretending that the people we talk to and about are completely ridiculous is easy, but it at some point it almost turns into a lack of empathy. We don’t WANT to believe that they believe their beliefs are reasonable.

    ” It’s not like there are people who are sensitive to GM foods that I’m aware of, so it isn’t a health thing. ”
    I do know of one person who claims to be sensitive to GM products. She tried cutting that out as a sort of last-ditch attempt from her doctor, a “Well, we’ve tried everything else!” if you will and it has seemed to make her chronic react-to-everything digestive issues marginally better. She’s a walking pile of health conditions piled on top of each other and making each other worse though so she’s certainly not representative of GMO’s effects on the general population. Personally, I don’t think someone having a sensitivity to a newly introduced protein in a GMO product is necessarily weirder than having a sensitivity to a very popular protein (gluten, and other protein allergies and sensitivities) but I don’t think it’s NEARLY as widespread. Certainly not worth the fear-mongering. There are definitely more common allergies and sensitivities that are not marked.

  • Pretending that the people we talk to and about are completely ridiculous is easy, but it at some point it almost turns into a lack of empathy. We don’t WANT to believe that they believe their beliefs are reasonable.

    My brother insists it makes it much more comprehensible—though no less frustrating—to see all these political and ideological battles in terms of sports teams. You’ll stop wondering, for example, why small-government conservatives and evangelicals voted for and continue to support Trump when you realize that the entire thing boils down to having an R next to his name on the ballot. Yankees fans aren’t going to root for the Red Sox, plain and simple. The same goes for the atheist-fundie debates; it’s not about finding common ground or mutual understanding, it’s about demonizing one’s opponent and claiming the moral high ground for oneself.

    Of course, this doesn’t do anything to solve these matters, aside from making it obvious that things like Trump’s behavior, abortion rights, and the existence or nonexistence of The Big G are pseudoproblems in the grand scheme of things.

  • TinnyWhistler

    I mean, they’re real problems insofar as they have real-world effects on people and I don’t see much point in disconnecting arguments about those issues from arguments about their effects. Unless I’m misunderstanding what you mean by “pseudoproblem”

  • I thought we were talking about people’s beliefs and opinions.

    I don’t deny that they’re real problems, or that the legal, and institutional battles about them are important. What I mean is that they’re irrelevant to the political and ideological polarization of the populace: the noises people make about these problems are just tribal markers.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Well, people’s opinions and beliefs are often what inform their actions. I guess that’s what I was getting at.

    I agree that they’re irrelevant to polarization and that the issues themselves are often tribal markers, but there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing going on. What came first? The tribal stance or that one very strongly held belief? The answer is different for different people and sometimes is both.

  • Offhand, I’d say most people form the beliefs they profess according to the tribal stance. Families and communities socialize kids to think according to a certain set of standards. Kids who grow up in union families are going to profess a different set of beliefs than those reared in wealthy households. Religious and racial attitudes form pretty early.

    Those can change later in life, obviously, but even that happens in pretty predictable ways; if someone becomes a Democrat or an atheist after growing up in a traditional, conservative household, they adopt an entire suite of beliefs about gun control, abortion, evolution, etc., depending on the team whose hat they’re now wearing.

    J_Enigma 32 was talking above about the way we lefty types regurgitate anti-GMO propaganda that’s more about ideology than evidence. Personally, I’ve never been too worried about the safety of GMO products, but my knee-jerk leftiness makes me uneasy about the way corporate ownership of seeds and strains puts small farmers at a disadvantage in the industry. I’m interpreting this through a pre-existing set of beliefs about capitalism and power; the facts of this matter get into my head through the hat I’m already wearing.

  • TinnyWhistler

    But if someone becomes an atheist or a Democrat, that’s often (but not always) because they adopted enough of the *new* tribal markers that they figure they may as well adopt the rest. In that case, the belief came before the stance.

  • Or they’re just enamored with the stance, and the thrill of playing philosophical dress-up. “I went from a gun-loving, judgmental Christian to a bearded hipster judgmental atheist!”

    It just seems a lot more likely than that they adopted a particular set of beliefs, then went around looking for a stance to adopt that just happened to accommodate that exact set of beliefs.

  • wrt to your ETA, that’s because YHWH started as a warrior and then a god among many, and then was promoted to ruler of the cosmos.

    Judaism wasn’t initially monotheistic – their God was one among many, but they only had loyalty to that one.

    And it’s true at least in part, that one can acknowledge the existence of other gods. in fact, it makes the jews more amicable in general in terms of getting along with folks who answer to other gods.

    The trouble is when followers of YHWH start granting authority to other gods in their own life, and/or in their thoughts.

  • Illithid

    Well, in their scriptures they don’t seem to get along very well with the worshippers of other gods…

    I always find it amusing how believers change their gods over time, while insisting that they’re eternal and unchanging. RIP Asherah.

  • I think the eternal unchanging fundamentalist view of God is more a western christian thing – might even be contemporary, relatively speaking.

    And in practice, the practitioners of Judaism got along better with pretty much everybody than most anyone else. That only recently changed when western powers started meddling in jewish affairs by way of the nation-state of Israel.

  • I should add, Moses Maimonides encouraged people to accept the truth from the source in which it proceeds.

    He argued that, if one accepts scripture as divine revelation (he was working with The Torah), and it appears in conflict with, for example, scientific consensus, then it is your *interpretation* that is most likely to be incorrect.

    On first blush, no matter how practical, this could appear to be a rush to fit scripture into say, a secular scientific viewpoint.

    There’s a rather large difference here though – with torah, scripture is self checking. And most questions or ambiguities in scripture have many correct answers/resolutions but many more wrong ones, and you can use it to check itself.

    So the challenge here is finding an interpretation that is both self-referentially consistent (“correct” – doesn’t conflict with other scripture) *and* meaningfully reflective of, for example, some scientific consensus.

    That narrows possible “correct” interpretations. It doesn’t widen them. That is the primary difference between simply shoehorning scripture into for example, science. It forces scripture to expand in scope. Maimonides wasn’t arguing that at all.

  • Illithid

    I’ve heard this bit about Maimonides before. It’s better than general fundamentalism, I suppose, but it’s kinda irrelevant to me as I’ve no reason to hold the Torah (or any holy work) as authoritative. I don’t see any way to interpret the Hebrew scriptures in a way that is consistent with scientific consensus, since that consensus would include there never having been a global flood or an Exodus. There also seems no reason to think that a sentient immaterial universe-creating being with magic powers exists at all.

    You seem pretty cool, based on my reading of your comments. I don’t know if we’re even in disagreement, becausd I’m not sure where you’re coming from on this issue.

    Oh, your other comment didn’t post, but I read it. I’d agree that Jews have been less offensive than most other people in recent centuries, but then they haven’t really been in a position to oppress anyone.

  • they aren’t literal accounts. It’s all allegory. So, no actual global flood. and sodom wasn’t literally incinerated.

  • to be clear i do practice something a bit like jewish mysticism.

    whether i’m an atheist depends on which rubber ruler you use.

    i learned a neat thing about the stories. and how they work and how they were made.

    i found it out serendipitously – i was not raised with it, nor all the baggage of it. I was studying queer theory and doing gonzo social modeling when i found it.

    i can sometimes explain it to other people.

    this is ancient sociology, but it’s frighteningly accurate if it is employed correctly.

    Isaiah 53 beginning to end quite precisely charts the life, assassination, and legacy of MLK Jr.

    He was a redeemer archetype. People follow patterns, so we’re partially predictable. It’s not magic.

    Some clever people figured out (accidently maybe) how to transcend the limitations of human foresight through generational storytelling. In the end it allowed them to encode “human nature”*** into the texts, such that if you understand how the lessons and riddles work, you can map out behaviors, choices, and circumstances, in often non-obvious ways, to give you a better chance to get what you want or more importantly, what you need.

    *** not actually human nature, something larger – emergent patterns of complex adaptive systems – networks of millions of things(tm) that are vaguely self organizing – people follow these, act on these, and create things that exhibit these (like economies, societies and governments)

    anyway, it’s a neat toy.

  • Illithid

    I’ll let most of this go, but I want to address one point. The idea of Isaiah 53 corresponding to the life of MLKJ seems poorly founded. I just reread Isaiah 53, and I’m not seeing anything remarkable. It’s like the idea that the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon links up with The Wizard of Oz. There are lots of albums, and lots of movies. It’s not surprising to find a pair that seem to correspond roughly.

    Similarly, I53 could be applied to most any prominant political figure who died. Seems like it could refer to RFK just as easily. I think you’re seeing a pattern where none exists. Human brains do that a lot.

  • It could?

    Would this apply to Kennedy?

    He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
    He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
    Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

    I can whittle away at any example you provide. You’ll find MLK Jr among a very few who fit it entirely.

  • Illithid

    Ok, fair enough. Still just seems like a coincidence, a forced fit. I mean, King wasn’t hard on the eyes, either. Got a fair bit of action, I’ve heard.

  • King was *black*. He was “hard on the eyes” of the majority. That’s how it was. Black was considered ugly.

    It’s not a coincidence. It’s a pattern of human behavior. Gandhi executed something similar, but it wasn’t the same.

  • well, it is and isn’t a coincidence. It’s a coincidence, but there’s a reason it’s a coincidence.

  • > I think you’re seeing a pattern where none exists. Human brains do that a lot.

    Scripture – used effectively – is meant to help guide and hone our higher level pattern matching abilities.

    That’s why it’s in the form of mythos – storytelling, rather than say, a historical manual or even a philisophical treatise expressed using logos.

  • Illithid

    Or… it’s a bunch of stories that speak to our emotions, explore human thinking, and seem meaningful, because that’s what stories have to do in order to spread from teller to teller and become popular and remembered. It’s an evolutionary process.

    I thought of another possible match: Joe Hill. He even “opened not his mouth” about who shot him.

    I’m gonna stop now. No hard feelings, but I’m a confirmed skeptic with little use for mysticism. I enjoy imaginative stories (tell a few myself… I’m an experienced GM), but they’re just stories. G’night.