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The Case Against Everything

There is no more important question when evaluating our personal beliefs, public policy, or science than, “What evidence would cause me to change my opinion?” If you can’t answer that question you are being, by definition, unreasonable.

Will Wilkinson on the Democracy in America blog at The Economist plays the game with some hot-button political issues in response to Charles Murray’s argument that says,

Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

That’s as clear-cut of an admission of irrationality as I’ve seen.

I largely agree with Wilkinson so I won’t cover the topics above, but I think it’d be entertaining to go through some others:

The Utility of Fiscal and Monetary Stimulus.

I favor using stimulus, not austerity and tight money, to counteract the recession and bring the economy back to full employment. If you look at the trend in potential GDP, you’ll see the large gap compared with our real GDP level.

In an economy with a large pool of idle workers it seems odd to think we’ll increase our output by cutting spending, but if states that cut more spending generally saw more employment growth and output that’d be strong evidence suggesting I’m wrong. Do we?

Doesn’t look like it. It’s the opposite actually. Well, if we saw skyrocketing inflation along with monetary stimulus and low interest rates that’d certainly suggest that I was wrong. Did we?

Again, not so much.

What about counter-examples to stimulus? Looking at cross-country data, I am more convinced that monetary policy matters a lot more than fiscal stimulus all else being equal. More precisely, it’s our nominal spending, not our government spending per se that is crucial. If you look at the graphs below you’ll see that Sweden’s government spending dropped, but they still saw an accelerated rise in GDP growth because of a more expansionary monetary policy.

I’m unaware of a nation facing the type of economic depression that we see today that expanded with a contractionary fiscal and monetary policy.  If you’re an opponent of fiscal and monetary stimulus, what would change your mind?

Global Warming.

It’d be pretty easy to change my mind about anthropogenic climate change. First, if I saw multiple global temperature measures in a long-term downward trend despite growing carbon use I’d change my mind. Do we?

Oh… apparently the Earth’s warming is accelerating in our modern fossil fuel burning era. And that’s just Land-Surface temperature – our oceans actually absorb most of the heat!

Even though physicists make a compelling case for human driven global warming because of the greenhouse effect caused by rising carbon dioxide levels, if there was another natural heat source that we can measure I could be convinced climate change wasn’t mainly anthropogenic. So if we saw temperature rise along with solar activity, it’d be suggestive that I’m wrong about the cause. Do we?

So much for that theory. What would it take to convince a climate change denier he’s wrong?

Evolution.

Possibly the most famous answer to our falsification question is biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s retort that finding fossilized rabbits in the Precambrian era would disprove evolution. I agree; if true fossilized rabbits were found to exist along the bacteria from over 500 million years ago, any current understanding of evolution would be completely falsified.

Instead what biologists have found is a total convergence of evidence confirming the theory. The fossil record appears exactly how you would expect – everything in its right place. When you date the fossils they match up with the geological layers of rocks they are found in: earlier, less complex creatures are in the older layers then the newer, more complex creatures progressively distribute through the strata.

Of course, if the convergence failed elsewhere we’d have to change our opinions. Modern genetics could discover that the fossil record and geologic progression contradict genetic relationships. Yet our genetic family tree continues to harmonize with the rest of the evolutionary picture.

Creationism is certainly falsifiable, in fact, evolution has falisfied creationism. But creationists irrationally refuse to accept any evidence that disproves their belief. Creationists, conspiracy-theorists, anti-vacination crusaders, and those like them don’t have an answer to the reasonable question, “What evidence would cause me to change my opinion?” If they did, human superstition would disappear.

To believe anything, you ought to have a case against it.

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