Intellectual honesty

My devoted reader(s) will have noticed a recurrent theme in my more serious posts, which is the idea of intellectual honesty.  It seems to me that partisans of a particular view point too often assume that 100% of the evidence is on their side, and that there is nothing to be said for any contrary view.  Any evidence suggesting that their view is wrong must be weak or fiddled.  This is known as confirmation bias or, less technically, wishful thinking.  Let’s look at some examples:

  • Those who believe in God and religion say that religion is a force for good, encouraging magnificent art, charitable activity and good behaviour. Those who do not believe in God believe that religion is the cause of much evil in the world: child abuse, conflict, AIDS, wealth and income inequality.  Now, the problem is that both these arguments ignore the quest for truth. Either God exists or he doesn’t: the effects of religion are a different issue. It is logically possible for religion to help people behave well even if there is no God; or for organised religion to support evil even if there is one.  To take an example: I am quite sure there is no God, but my mother got great consolation from her Christian faith when coping with family tragedies, like the death of my brother.
  • Those who are opposed to fluoridation of water do so on the grounds that compulsory medication of a population is unethical (a philosophical viewpoint) and fluoride is a damaging chemical that causes a wide range of illnesses (a scientific assertion). Again, these two views are independent.  It is entirely possible to believe that fluoride is harmless (or even beneficial) to health, but that it is wrong to deliver it to people on what is effectively a compulsory basis.  But the antis do not seem content to have this simple (and, it seems to me, wholly arguable) view: they feel the need to ally themselves with a lot of conspiracy theory
  • People who advocate low taxes because they like small government (and, being rich, don’t want to help the poor) say that high taxes are a disincentive to effort, and reducing taxes will boost the economy and might even increase the amount of taxation received. Those who look for a more egalitarian solution say there is no evidence that low taxes help the economy or that its benefits trickle down to the poor. But nobody says we should help the poor even if it slows our growth rate, even though there are a few rich men (Warren Buffett a shining example) who say that it wouldn’t hurt the economy if they paid more tax.
  • The arguments about capital punishment, again, have moral and factual aspects. Many people (including myself) find it morally repugnant for the state to put people to death. Others feel that some crimes deserve the ultimate sanction.  These are ethical arguments, and are not susceptible to evidential support.  You either believe it’s right or wrong.  But there are also some factual questions which bear on the debate: how many errors are made in executions, for example, or whether capital punishment deters offenders.  Again, one can logically mix these views.  I could say, for example, that even if hanging does deter offenders, it is still ethically wrong.  A pro-capital punishment person could say that execution should be retained, even if it deters no-one.  But what in practice happens is that people believe the factual evidence supports their moral stance.  Look, for example, at the way that the two camps assess the numbers of innocent people wrongly executed.  The pros say it’s a trifling number, the antis say there are many.  The same argument is made about torture.  Those who oppose it on moral grounds say it does not yield useful information: under extreme pain, people will say anything.  They add that the reputational damage to western democracies increases the number of terrorists.  Those who feel it is OK to torture people justify it by saying that it is necessary to save innocent lives.  Again, it is entirely logically possible to say you are against torture, even if it works.  But how many people do ?

Where is all this going ?  It is to say that we should suspect the views (and integrity) of people who find that every piece of evidence supports their belief.  Paul Krugman, the Nobel winning economist who is a hero of mine, recently used his op-ed column in the New York Times to criticise a piece of evidence that suggested inequality contributes to the slump – even though he wished he could prove the opposite .  That doesn’t make me trust him less: it makes me trust him more.

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