Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Beliefs based on X said so

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I just re-watched some “Family Guy” episodes. Among them “Hot Shots” (season 15, episode 6), which deals with vaccinations, Peter’s and Lois’s refusal to have Stewie vaccinated, and a pro- vs. anti-vaccine debate.

Indirectly, this leads to the question “How do we know that X?”, where X can be e.g. that vaccines are good (or bad), that global warming is (or is not) caused by humans, that homeopathy does (or does not) work, that the theory of evolution does (or does not) explain life as we now it.

Disturbingly often, the answer boils down to “My teacher told me.”, “I read it in the paper.”, or even the word of a celebrity with more beauty than brains and no expert knowledge. (In other words, poorly supported belief—not knowledge.) Slightly better, but still not good, is what amounts to “I am told that this is what most experts believe.” (except that the subject is rarely aware of the “I am told that” part)—but what experts believe and what e.g. media claim that experts believe are not always the same thing (consider e.g. various topics around IQ). Moreover, if we ask the wrong experts, the astrologers instead of the astronomers, even a near consensus can be highly misleading, as with e.g. homeopaths on medicine or many social scientists on biological issues (including, again, IQ).

I am a strong critical thinker, but even I have often gone down the wrong road on such matters, including only as an adult seeing through the many pieces of incorrect feminist propaganda that I encountered in school and media from my early childhood. (Including variations of the 77 cents on the dollar fraud.)

It also includes many cases of believing something that might well be true, but which I believed for a bad reason (also see a more general discussion). Vaccines are a good example: when I first heard of vaccines as an alleged cause of this-or-that I dismissed it as nonsense, largely* because authorities on the topic seemed to consider it nonsense. Quite possibly, this is what authorities do believe and, quite possibly, they are correct, but to assume this to be the case is a naive and epistemologically unsound reason to believe something. In contrast, if I had myself looked into who said what and read up in detail on the arguments for and against, then I might have had a sound reason to believe.** This I have done with e.g. the theory of evolution and it holds***; similarly, I can say in good conscience that homeopathy does not hold, because I have done the needed reading and thinking.

*To some part, however, because some claims seem far-fetched: how, e.g., is a simple vaccination supposed to cause autism in a post-natal child? I would not consider it impossible, a priori, but it is far-fetched.

**Of course, even then knowledge-beyond-any-doubt would not be possible, and some degree of uncertainty will virtually always be present on any issue. The question is when the degree of uncertainty becomes small enough for the purpose at hand.

***Barring details subject to an improved understanding and possibilities like a “god of the gaps”. (But I note that I see no increase in the explanatory value, should a “god of the gaps” be added to the theory. Occam’s Razor applies.)

I would strongly encourage my readers to postpone judgment and actions on any matter until they have actually gained an own insight. This in particular when it comes to politics, where the consequences of an incorrect decision could have a negative effect on an entire country—it is better to not vote than to vote incorrectly. The simple truth is that most teachers, journalists, and politicians are at least one of stupid, uninformed, ideologically biased, manipulative; and that their claims should be viewed with caution. The same applies to a considerable proportion of non-natural scientists. Notably, when trying to judge a controversy it is important to look into both sides of it. (If the one side is significantly weaker, as with e.g. creationism or astrology, this tends to become obvious early on—often so early that little time is wasted. If there is no such disparity, the time taken to study both sides is a wise investment.)

I would even more strongly encourage those in a position to push their own opinions, including teachers, journalists, and politicians, to take great care in this area. In particular, that they prefer to give the individual the right to form his own opinion over force-feeding him theirs.

Excursion on poor proof:
A benefit of actually thinking a claim or an argument through is that the superficially convincing often turns out not to be convincing or, even, true. This includes many claims made by feminists and creationists (e.g. the 77 cents above resp. the misleading comparison of evolution with a completely random process.) A more subtle example is one claimed proof in favor of the theory of evolution present in my high-school biology book (Sweden, early 1990s): the development of a fetus would replicate steps from the evolution of its species. Even as a teenager, I found this odd, because there is no obvious reason why evolution would have this as a side-effect. It is like saying that “X won the lottery last week; ergo, he built a house last year.”, an almost nonsensical conclusion. (While e.g. “[…]; ergo, he can now build the house that he has been dreaming about.” might make sense.) If anything, this might be more compatible with a deliberate design, e.g. in that a higher power had based the development of different creatures on the same template, with each species diverging from that template at a different point of development. Today, this “proof” appears to have been discredited—to my personal satisfaction.

(Generally, this biology book went to extreme lengths to push evolution as correct, in a manner that seemed entirely disproportionate to me at the time, and the authors might have made the mistake of throwing a poor argument after the good ones, oblivious to the risk that they hurt their own cause. Later I became aware of the U.S. situation, which shed light on the extreme lengths. The authors should either have limited themselves to a proportionate amount of proof or discussed why they saw the amount of proof as necessary.)

Excursion on freedom of X:
I have long claimed that the most important part of the freedom of religion is freedom from religion, e.g. in that no-one be exposed to religious acts beyond own consent or at an age were consent is of dubious value (circumcision of infants, for instance), and in that no-one is indoctrinated into a certain religion or religious belief (including atheism) by parents*, teachers, clergy, whatnot. Everyone should have the right to chose his own religious beliefs and what religious actions he is or is not involved in.

*Note that I utterly reject the claim that freedom of religion would involve the right to impose one’s own religion on one’s children. The violation of the children’s freedom from religion outweighs any restriction on the parents.

My later thoughts extends this to freedom of opinion (and, m.m., other freedoms): The most important part of freedom of opinion is freedom from (the imposition of) opinion. Everyone should have the right to form his own beliefs based on own thinking, observation, reading, etc. If, for instance, schools are allowed to indoctrinate children to hold a certain set of “preferred” opinions, the children’s opinions are not truly free, and chances are that the same will apply to the adults that they grow into.

Excursion on crying wolf:
The reverse issue can be a problem too: If someone lies/distorts/misinforms in one area, why should he be believed in another. For instance, if someone becomes aware of media spouting nonsense when it comes to PC topics, why should he believe media when it comes to global warming? In this way, media, politicians, whatnot, risk skepticism even on topics where they, hypothetically, are both well informed and truthful. If they kept silent on topics where they lacked knowledge/understanding and stuck to the truth on other topics, they would do themselves a favor in the long run. (Not to mention the readers/voters/etc.)


Written by michaeleriksson

December 2, 2019 at 5:12 pm

One Response

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  1. […] complement a recent text on naive beliefs, a few words on how my own opinions on the EU have changed. (Also in light of the recent UK general […]

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