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 Greek Pyrrhonians were extreme in their skepticism. Doubt wasn’t enough; to them, knowledge was impossible… “and they’re not even sure about that.” Modern skepticism differs. Although all knowledge is provisional, reasonable people can accept a proposition as true if the convergence of evidence overwhelms all but the most radical doubts.
I’m no Pyrrhonian, but one of their tactics to defuse their dogmatic and credulous opponents delights me. Sarah Bakewell in How To Live or A Life of Montaigne explains:
Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this maneuver: in Greek, epokhe. It means “I suspend judgement.” Or, in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: “I hold back.”
Epokhe wonderfully captures how to deal with unsupported claims and arguments. As much as the humble method enchants me… there is a limit.
Recently, I debated one of my political antagonists, Rick, at his blog Let’s Get Political on the evidence for climate change. Rick uncritically cited a Daily Mail article that wrote, “the fact that the world has not warmed for 15 years.” It’s a common talking point among global warming denialists. I pointed out the Earth clearly has warmed over the last 15 years:
In response, he appealed to another graph that seems to show stagnant temperatures or even “cooling.”
Yet that deceit was done by constraining the dates (and not even in the timeframe under discussion): Here’s the same HadCRUT sourced data if you look at the full timespan:
Furthermore, this graph’s data doesn’t even capture all the warming or the full extent of the trend. Follow the link above for a deeper explanation.
Rick then implicitly utilizes epokhe.
[My comments intended] to show how one can pull a graph or a statistic out of thin air to support one’s position either way.
My “official” position is that there are too many conflicting positions and immoral manipulations of mean data to meet predetermined ends
Unfortunately, we see epokhe used as a dodge rather than a reasonable philosophical stance. Notice the game he and others in the anti-science crowd play.
How to Manufacture Global Warming Controversy: or How to Undermine All Knowledge in 3 Easy Steps.
Step 1: Claim the evidence shows global warming isn’t happening.
Step 2: When confronted with data that illustrates the temperature is rising, present a graph that seems to show the opposite.
Step 3: When the anti-global warming graphic is exposed as misleading or dishonest, proclaim that as confirmation that statistics and graphs can be “used to support global warming or to deny it.” No need to show that the evidence demonstrating global warming is wrong!
Moreover, his intellectual nihilism only drains the life from evidence that contradicts his worldview. Rick and other skeptics of convenience don’t ever seem to cast doubt on “evidence” against global warming such as the misleading graph and the Daily Mail assertion.
If you’re interested in reading our whole debate go here.
[update]: In Rick’s last comment in our long back-and-forth he argues he “readily agreed that the temperatures have been rising.” That’s false. He appears to have stopped allowing comments and won’t publish my rebuttal (if I seem a bit exasperated it might make sense in context). I’ll post it here below the fold for interested readers:
I’m off on another hike this weekend. Here’s a hardy blend for your consumption while I’m away.
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus:
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
Manhattan Institute fellow, Robert Bryce, confirms the anti-climate science crowd is even wrong about what scientists say they might be wrong about.
The [climate] science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.
I’ll leave aside the terrible logic of his analogy because Bryce can’t even be bothered to get the premise correct. Even if scientists demonstrate that particles can travel faster than the speed of light, that wouldn’t disprove Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Here’s physicist Victor Stenger, who researched neutrino physics for 30 years:
To begin, it needs to be made crystal clear that despite what has been reported in the media, superluminal motion in no way contradicts Einstein’s theory of special relativity published in 1905. Einstein’s equations fully allow for particles to travel faster than light — provided they never travel slower. Physicists have speculated about such objects for years. They are called tachyons. Many searches have been conducted, with no significant signals until now.
It’s not quite a law of nature, but any discussion of science on the Wall Street Journal opinion page stands a good chance of being flawed.
Libertarian writer, Timothy Lee, asks why conservatives and libertarians often worry about climbing inflation even though there is no evidence for it. Lee also worried 2 years ago and became aggravated at progressives that mocked inflation criers. Today we still don’t have much inflation, yet too many that share his politics aren’t adapting to reality. He puts forward 2 explanations of why this might be including this:
Another likely factor is that American conservatism is a fundamentally populist movement, and the inflation hawks’ position has a simplicity that makes it intuitively appealing, especially to a movement that tends to see all policy issues in terms of virtue. Rhetoric about “printing money,” “debasing the currency,” and so forth are not only intuitively appealing, they also dovetail nicely with broader conservative themes of thrift and self-control. The arguments of inflation doves are more subtle and lack the same kind intuitive appeal.
His other is that conservative and libertarian thinkers are intellectually stuck in a 1970s mindset when inflation was a problem. Similarly, I’ve always wondered why conservatives and libertarians often resist the fact that the planet is warming and the overwhelming evidence that mankind is contributing to climate change. Many conservatives have strong religious convictions that lead them to believe that God would never allow global warming, but that can’t explain all of the stubbornness.
Lee leaves out one potential answer on inflation. The Right generally looks out for the interests of the rich and even though inflation could alleviate unemployment it would hurt the wealthy. It’s not that hard to believe that many conservatives don’t “believe” in global warming because corporate backers like oil companies don’t want them to “believe” in it. Yet, I still don’t think that explains the whole story. I have no doubt the the Koch brothers, for example, frequently influence politicians and think tanks that take their money, but not every libertarian or conservative is a corporate hack. Progressives shouldn’t act as if that’s the case.
Just as low inflation causes cognitive dissonance for conservatives’ ideological commitment to “virtue” and “thrift,” solving global warming challenges anti-government dogma. Libertarian and conservative ideology demands that government can’t solve problems and market forces can. A huge negative externality such as climate change requires government intervention. As easy as it may be for many right-wing pundits to refuse to be bought, it is much more difficult to accept reality when it means changing one’s mind.
It’s not as if I switched the labels on the graphs at the top of this post; we all can look at the same facts. But it’s easier to deny the world than it is to alter a worldview.