Saturday, August 05, 2006

Well Founded Beliefs

The world these days is being filled with a depressing number of examples of how poorly people think.

The crime in this is that the poor quality of peoples’ reasoning leads them to make mistake. When people make mistakes, other people get maimed or killed or suffer other misfortunes and harms. A few ‘lucky accidents’ may happen from time to time. However, accidents are more likely to be unlucky than lucky – more harmful than helpful.

Anybody who wishes to see these harms reduced has reason to promote a higher quality of reasoning than that which we see today.

It would have always been an error to credit the televangelist Pat Robertson with any amount of intellectual acuity (at least in his public persona). His recent conversion from global warming skeptic to global warming believer is an example of a long history of intellectual dullness than an exception.

According to an MSNBC report on Robertson’s conversion:

This week the heat index, the perceived temperature based on both air temperatures and humidity, reached 115 Fahrenheit in some regions of the East Coast. The 76-year-old Robertson told viewers that was “the most convincing evidence I’ve seen on global warming in a long time.”

The fact is, the heat index on the east coast at a particular time is very poor evidence of global warming. Any who find it convincing is betraying a serious inability to draw reasoned conclusions from available evidence. He is, in fact, proving himself to be an intellectual dullard.

The reasoning is the same as noting that a particular stock might be at an all-time high, and concluding from this that the economy is booming and the people are prosperous. The stock may well be in a company that specializes in helping companies efficiency downsize, as economic conditions worsen and unemployment rises. It may be one of a few stocks rising while the rest of the market is in freefall.

In the market, one measures the overall status of the market by looking at a market index, such as the S&P500 index. These indexes take a weighted average of several companies and allow the user to infer (though never with complete accuracy) that the economy in general is doing well.

When it comes to the climate, the thinking person does not draw conclusions from his private experience with one part of the globe – it might not be representative of the whole climate. The thinking person looks to a temperature index – a collection of representative temperatures from around the globe. That climate index has been showing an increase in temperature for years. That climate index convinced thinking people of the increase in global temperatures long ago.

In another recent example of intellectual recklessness, according to a recent Harris poll, 50% of the people now believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the Americans invaded. This is up from 36% percent who believed this in February 2005. The number of Americans who believe that Saddam Hussein had strong links with Al Queida remains at 64.

It is important to note that in this essay I am not talking about what a person believes, but a person’s ability to distinguish good evidence from bad evidence, and to draw conclusions based on good evidence.

In the case of believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when America invaded, and believing that he had close ties with Al Queida, the fact is, there is no evidence. Nobody who believes these things can point to a shred of evidence to indicate that these claims are true. Wherever they find their reason to believe, they are not finding it among the available evidence.

The third instance of poor reasoning comes from a Scripps-Howard poll that shows that a third of all American adults believe that the Bush Administration either engineered the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen so that they could justify a war with Iraq and taking over American freedoms through the Patriot Act, secret NSA spying, and similar programs.

Once again, the relevant issue is not that this is true or false. I believe that this is certainly possible. However, there is a clear difference between saying that something is possible and that something is likely or certainly true. Once more, the question can be asked, “Where is the evidence?”

In this case, we are bombarded with the same type of conspiracy theory evidence that often seems to rise up in these types of events. People make up stories that others accept as true and repeat – such as the story that many passengers on flight 93 used cell phones to contact their loved ones when cell phones should not have worked at their altitude. (Actually, they used the airplane’s sky phones in almost all cases.)

Popular Mechanics devoted some space to a rebuttal of some 9/11 myths. For my purposes, it is enough to note that there is “evidence” included in 9/11 conspiracy theories that is easily refuted but still widely accepted.

It is worthless to respond, “But what about this evidence over here?” because the evidence of “that evidence over there”, however strong it may be (and I do not know of any strong evidence) does not grant any moral or intellectual justification to accepting claims that are easily refuted – claims whose refutation can be easily found by anybody who has the moral integrity to base their conclusions on strong evidence and shun unfounded beliefs.

What these events say about the ability of most people to draw conclusions based on the evidence should make you concerned about what would happen if you were to find yourself accused of a crime you did not commit. You would find your fate resting in the hands of a jury made up substantially of people incapable of basing conclusions on the available evidence.

On the other hand, those who are guilty of a crime can look at this as a reason to take heart, that the prosecutor may be able to prove their guilt and yet still the jury cannot draw the most probable conclusion from the available evidence

Yet, the possibility of innocent people going to jail or guilty people going free are mild costs of this type of intellectual incompetence. The fate is worse when people with such lack of skills try to decide which policies to support or to protest. A jury trial affects only the accused. A policy trial can affect hundreds of millions or billions of lives. We would expect that people would take their duties here more responsibly than they take their duties to render a verdict in a trial. Yet, what we find is that on policy trials people do not seem to recognize any duty at all to base their conclusions on evidence.

These are not innocent and trivial wrongs. This intellectual incompetence drives people to support wars and all sorts of violence against their neighbors. For every picture you see of a child’s body laying lifeless in a pile of rubble or bandaged in a hospital, somebody – some large group of somebodies – thought that the actions that brought this about was a good idea.

All of the child rapists in existence do not maim and kill nearly as many people as those who act on beliefs that they acquired without securing it to any type of evidence.


Anonymous said...

I am quite regularly amazed at your ability to so well articulate the ideas you write about, and this is no exception.
You've summed up the issue concisely, without overt exaggeration, or hyperbole, and you've provided real and logical examples of poorly supported beliefs and they damage they can cause.
I applaud your ability to do so, and just want to say ‘Thanks’ for your willingness to devote your time to considering and writing about such issues.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thank you. I am pleased that you find value in my efforts.