Whom to believe?

I recently listened to a debate/conversation between atmospheric scientists on both sides of the climate change debate. The conversation was unusually civil and I learned a lot from it. Now, I’m not here to tell you about whom to believe concerning climate change. I admit to my ignorance of the facts and science (although I am fully aware of the headline facts and the headline science.)  I simply don’t know enough to be much of a partisan for either side, and I am just not able to devote the time to attain a PhD level in atmospheric science. I fully admit that the question matters, but we can only do what we can do. Better to admit ignorance when the knowledge is out of reach. This post is about thinking how we might generally justify assuming any belief at all. Here are a few ideas:

1. We are stuck with beliefs; there is no getting around our practical need for them. We believe a host of things we cannot prove but which have proven reliable for the purpose of governing our lives. Our minds would be terribly impoverished, our worlds much more circumscribed, without the treasury of beliefs that we learned from teachers (who learned them from their teachers.) I can confidently assert that holding belief can be quite reasonable and that to refuse belief altogether is unreasonable.

2. I believe quite confidently that the earth traces an elliptical orbit around the sun. I haven’t taken made the careful observations or done the math necessary to ground that belief. I just trust the scientists on this one. More than that, I trust the self-correcting process among the community of astronomers. I understand the scientific method and how it operates and I grasp why trusting its results is better than merely speculating on matters of physical fact.

3. The self-criticism is an essential feature of the process. I want to see that the purveyor of belief is appropriately critical of his/her methods and sources. If any supposed knower dismisses a legitimate doubt or qualm out of hand, then I would recommend not trusting him/her.

4. I trust no one who is not transparent about how he/she came to believe what he/she knows. Every belief comes with a genealogy that shouldn’t be suppressed.

5. An authority ought to be frank about the caveats and boundaries of their knowing. All empirical knowledge reaches a limit beyond which certainty breaks down. All empirical knowledge has a range of reasonable confidence, outside of which it must confess its ignorance. Knowledge must be self-aware of these limits/caveats.

6. I tend not to trust people who grow shrill or angry in response to critical questioning.

7. I trust no one who’s best defense is an ad hominem attack on the other side.

8. The public advocates of politically-charged scientific positions had better be humble in the face of questioning, willing to accept their critics as potentially reasonable people, or I pay them no mind.

9. Some situations are critical in the sense that refusing to believe in such situations is practically to take a side. In a crisis, not deciding is as consequential as deciding. (Perhaps the global warming debate is of this type. I am still trying to decide.)

10. Beware of mood affiliation in which we trust/distrust a line of argument based on how we feel about its conclusion.

11. Similarly, we must try to work around our own confirmation bias and seek out the most reasonable advocates for the position we are biased to disbelieve. An abundance of “proof” is not our friend when we are in the grip of this bias.

12. We, and by extension our preferred authorities, ought to be open about our susceptibility to bias and be able to demonstrate the steps we have taken in our own learning process to overcome it.


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