Thursday, September 8, 2011

Evidence-based thinking

Many of my Christian friends agree with me, more or less, when it comes to politics. But while they may appreciate my political posts, I'm pretty sure they don't care much for those about religion. And let's face it, I post a lot about religion.

I do that because it's important to me. But it's not just because that's who I am. Indeed, I never used to advertise my atheism, not because I feared any repercussions (as some atheists rightly fear), but simply because I didn't think it was anyone else's business - just as their religious beliefs were none of my business.

I've already explained how that changed, how I came to realize I had to stand up and be recognized as an atheist. But I've done that, right? I've made it pretty clear, I think. And your own religious beliefs are still none of my business. You have the right to believe whatever you wish, and that's a right I'll continue to defend.

So I feel I need to explain to my Christian friends (I know very few people of any other religion, and none very well) exactly why I keep blogging so much about religion - against religion, to be precise. If your belief is really none of my business, why do I keep hammering away at this subject?

My reason is that faith-based thinking seems to be destroying our country - and much of the rest of the world, too. I'm always happy to have believers as political allies, but there's a reason why religion is so closely associated with loony right-wing Republican politics. The fact is, faith is the wrong way to make decisions, even when you get the right answer!

I know that you, too, wonder how the right-wing can believe such crazy stuff, and the answer is that they have faith. Even those few who aren't fervently religious are still faith-based, not evidence-based, thinkers. When you accept faith as a reasonable way to believe, then there's no way to ever tell when you're wrong. (Do I really need to point out that the 9/11 attackers were men of great faith?) No matter what, if you have faith, you'll believe it.

Evidence-based thinkers can be wrong, too, of course. But there's a corrective mechanism built into that. Show us enough evidence and we'll change our mind. OK, it's not that simple, true. But science is basically evidence-based thinking, with careful procedures worked out to separate the truth from wishful thinking, and it actually works!

Because it's based on evidence, science comes to a consensus worldwide. Science is basically the same in Saudi Arabia and in India, in Sweden and in Thailand, in Russia and in America. And when new evidence indicates that scientists have been wrong, the scientific consensus changes. Religion has nothing like that. There's no self-correcting mechanism to faith-based thinking.

And so we get Republican presidential candidates, vying for the faith-based voters in their party, who are blatantly anti-science. Here, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman comments about the anti-intellectualism of the political right:
Mr. Perry, the governor of Texas, recently made headlines by dismissing evolution as “just a theory,” one that has “got some gaps in it” — an observation that will come as news to the vast majority of biologists. But what really got people's attention was what he said about climate change: “I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. And I think we are seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

That’s a remarkable statement — or maybe the right adjective is “vile.”

The second part of Mr. Perry’s statement is, as it happens, just false: the scientific consensus about man-made global warming — which includes 97 percent to 98 percent of researchers in the field, according to the National Academy of Sciences — is getting stronger, not weaker, as the evidence for climate change just keeps mounting.

In fact, if you follow climate science at all you know that the main development over the past few years has been growing concern that projections of future climate are underestimating the likely amount of warming. Warnings that we may face civilization-threatening temperature change by the end of the century, once considered outlandish, are now coming out of mainstream research groups.

But never mind that, Mr. Perry suggests; those scientists are just in it for the money, “manipulating data” to create a fake threat. In his book “Fed Up,” he dismissed climate science as a “contrived phony mess that is falling apart.”

I could point out that Mr. Perry is buying into a truly crazy conspiracy theory, which asserts that thousands of scientists all around the world are on the take, with not one willing to break the code of silence. I could also point out that multiple investigations into charges of intellectual malpractice on the part of climate scientists have ended up exonerating the accused researchers of all accusations. But never mind: Mr. Perry and those who think like him know what they want to believe [my emphasis], and their response to anyone who contradicts them is to start a witch hunt. ...

According to Public Policy Polling, only 21 percent of Republican voters in Iowa believe in global warming (and only 35 percent believe in evolution). Within the G.O.P., willful ignorance has become a litmus test for candidates...

Frankly, it's even crazier to dismiss the scientific consensus on evolution than on global warming. Evolution has been mainstream biology for more than a hundred years, with the evidence just getting stronger and stronger the whole time.

But in both cases, scientists who specialize in those fields are nearly unanimous in their agreement on the basics. If you dismiss the science, what are you going to believe, your gut?

Apparently, yes, that's exactly the case. Here's Krugman again (in a different column):
A number of people have pointed me to this remarkable editorial by Stephen Moore in the WSJ. What’s remarkable isn’t the views; it’s the all-out embrace of anti-intellectualism. It actually denounces “fancy theories” and rejects them because they “defy common sense”.

Gosh, if that’s the way the right is going, the next thing you know they’ll reject the theory of evolution. Oh, wait.

Common sense is great. But it doesn't replace knowledge. It doesn't negate the need for evidence. If the evidence indicates otherwise, then your "common sense" is simply wrong.

Now, economics isn't science, but there's still evidence behind those "fancy theories." If you're going to believe your gut instead, that's faith-based thinking. You're just believing what you want to believe. And again, you've got no self-correcting mechanism. When you don't rely on evidence, there's no way anyone can convince you that you're wrong.

I know what you're going to say. "But I accept the scientific consensus on evolution and global warming. I'm with Krugman on economic issues. I'm on your side. What does this have to do with religion?"

Well, as I said, I'm glad to have religious believers as political allies. But as I see it, this is purely accidental. You got the right answer - this time - and I appreciate that. But what about next time? If you stick to faith-based, rather than evidence-based, thinking, what will you decide to believe next time?

Faith-based thinking is always wrong, even when your answer is right. Remember back in school, when your math teacher made you show your work? That was because you might have been able to guess the right answer, but that wouldn't help you one bit on the next question. So you had to show you understood the process.

This is the same way. Until we all learn to use evidence-based thinking, we'll be prone to believing whatever we want to believe. Sometimes, for some people, it will be true, but all too often, as we're seeing now, it may be batshit crazy. Fundamentally, faith-based thinking is simply the wrong way to believe. The results may or may not be wrong, but in any case, the method is wrong.

Yes, true, some scientists are religious believers - far fewer than among the general population, but some. In general, they use evidence-based thinking in their scientific specialty, but stick with faith-based thinking when it comes to religion. But what happens when their religion conflicts with science? All too often, they simply believe what they want to believe.

And if you recognize the value of evidence-based thinking, why would you want to use faith-based thinking for anything? Well, let's face it. It's because you want to believe what you want to believe. And you don't want to give up your faith, that comforting belief you've been taught since infancy.

I suppose it takes courage to accept evidence-based thinking. I wouldn't know. Seriously, I can't give myself any credit for it, since that's just the way I've always been. Even as a child, as far as I can remember, I wanted evidence. I wasn't particularly good at distinguishing good evidence from bad, but I wanted some evidence for what I was being urged to believe.

Anyway, this is the connection I see between politics and religion. This is why I keep posting about religion. This is why I feel that, although your religious beliefs are your own business, I need to keep expressing my own views.

This is important!  Faith-based thinking is disastrous here in the 21st Century. Your own faith may be perfectly benign, but you give cover to the craziest people in the world who also believe what they believe because they have faith. And their beliefs aren't always so benign.


Anonymous said...


Scratch a Conspiracy Theorist, find a True Believer.

You had me up to the global warming hype. Look to the EVIDENCE, not fallacies.

To put it bluntly, it isn't warming on MY part of the Globe (RECORD COLD temperatures reported regularly, as of 2013 -- maybe this is blog archaeology -- when did you write this?), so how do you justify the use of the word "global"?? Or "warming"???

Actual "evidence-based" Meteorologists (not just pretty TV-weather-readers with degrees) and other Actual "evidence-based" Scientists are starting to pay attention now, and the FACTS are starting to come out, IFF you'd just look.

There's nothing interesting here. Sorry.

Moving on...

Anonymous said...

PS: Darwin has a Theory about any species which refuses to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Jimbo says: "Evolve or Extirpate".

(and I hate pollution more than you do, I just don't Believe the Big Lie "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" was a better strategy than "Global Warming")

WCG said...

OK, Anonymous. You agree with my post on evidence-based thinking except where it disagrees with what YOU believe. You see the problem there? That's what everyone else does, too.

And what about your arguments? You claim your local weather has been setting record cold temperatures. So what?

First, that's weather, not climate, and there are all sorts of things which could influence that.

And second, that doesn't contradict global warming in the slightest. When the planet as a whole warms, that doesn't imply that your particular location will get warmer - certainly not all the time.

And you talk about meteorologists, but meteorologists study weather, not climate.

Clearly, you're not a climatologist yourself, so why do you think you've got the education, the background, the knowledge to say that scientists in their own field of expertise have got it wrong?

I'm not claiming you should have that knowledge. I certainly don't. But none of us can be an expert in everything. Even scientists don't have expert knowledge about every field of science. It's impossible. So what's the solution? Do we just believe whatever we want to believe, then?

When it comes to science, that's not necessary, because scientists come to a consensus. And the reason they come to a consensus is because science is evidence-based. There are specific procedures in the scientific method to help overcome normal human biases and discover the truth.

So, if you understand the scientific method, global warming becomes no different than evolution or the age of the Earth. In all of these, scientists in their own field of expertise have come to an overwhelming consensus. They could be wrong, of course, but that's not the smart bet. (And if they are wrong, they'll be the first to discover that.)

As a skeptic, as a rational person, I accept the scientific consensus. I'm not a scientist myself, and even if I was, I couldn't be an expert in every field of science. But I understand the scientific method well enough to accept the scientific consensus, when there is one.

Everything else is immaterial. Believers always claim that they know the truth, that the scientific consensus is wrong. They always claim that. Creationists claim that evolution is unraveling as the "FACTS" are starting to come out. (Biologists disagree.)

Sure, you might be able to find a "biologist" who disagrees with the consensus on evolution. Scientists are people, too, and you'll never get everyone to agree on anything. To a creationist, that's significant, but it's not. It's just expected that some people will disagree. The scientific consensus is still the smart bet.

The only difference when it comes to climate change is that this is something you believe. Sorry, but I'll go with the scientific consensus over an anonymous Internet commenter any day!

There are many cutting-edge issues in science where there's not a clear consensus. In those, I simply reserve judgment. But if there is a clear scientific consensus, I accept it.

Politicians, political pundits, religious believers, and other assorted laymen can argue all they want, it doesn't matter. If you expect me to agree with you about an issue in science, convince the scientific community first. If the scientific consensus changes, my opinions will, too.

WCG said...

I just don't Believe the Big Lie "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" was a better strategy than "Global Warming"

Sorry, I don't know what you mean by that, Anonymous. In fact, I don't know what you mean by any of this.

But note that species don't "refuse to adapt." Evolution isn't conscious, it isn't purposeful, it isn't directed. There's no intent to evolution.

And biological evolution is very, very slow. The environment might be "ever-changing," but those changes are normally very slow, too. Species adapt to those changes, or die.

Man-made changes to the environment happen far to quickly for species to adapt biologically. And when species are already constrained into tiny, discrete ranges, due to 7 billion people on the planet squeezing out most other life, many species can't move to adapt to climate changes, either (moving north if their own climate heats up).

There's nothing natural about global warming today, despite the fact that there has been climate change in the past. And there's also nothing natural about species becoming extinct at the rate they're becoming extinct today. That's all man-made.

True, if a large asteroid struck the planet (again), that would cause massive climate change and massive extinctions, and it would all be 'natural.' But it still wouldn't be good, certainly not from our point of view.

We live on this planet, and rapid climate change affects us, too. There are 7 billion people on the Earth, many of them already living hand-to-mouth. If nothing else, it is incredibly foolish to roll the dice like this. We need to be smarter than that!