Our beliefs guide what we do, and why, because we base our actions on our beliefs — those things we hold to be true — for the purpose of maximizing the success of those actions. Few people are inclined to act or behave on the basis of beliefs they do not think true, except maybe charlatans and con-artists.
Let me state from the onset that I am not anti-belief. It is not my intent or purpose as a skeptic to ‘make people not believe,’ to otherwise violate anyone’s right to believe. But it’s people who have rights and privileges, not beliefs or claims of fact. All claims of fact are eligible for a fair hearing, but not all have equal truth-value. Nor are all beliefs equally harmless, or equally effective as a result of actions based on them.
I contend that the view that all claims have equal validity is specious, for to paraphrase Carl Sagan, If all claims are equally true, then none have any truth at all.
A problem arises when people confuse what they believe, when what they believe cannot or has not been demonstrated to be true, to be facts. I run into this a lot in some of the comment threads on this blog.
This includes even the claim that it’s a belief that something is a belief, and not whatever one wishes to be fact…
Sorry, but wishes, or to use the new paranormal vernacular, ‘intention,’ have no effect on reality save for the results of our physical actions to fulfill them.
Does one’s belief in a claim unsupported by sound evidence or reasoning, no matter how sincere, justify actions taken on its behalf? Does even sincerity and conviction of belief grant one an ethical free pass to promote or practice any belief, however questionable?
I argue no.
For without casting any doubt or speculation on their purity of motives, many promoters and practitioners of various scientifically and medically questionable claims are often fully knowledgeable that the mainstream research community considers their particular claim to be controversial at best, and its efficacy or factual worth not adequately supported by valid evidence in any case.
Practitioners of various claims not supported by evidence are at best providing a useless service, and at worst causing their clients great harm, such as death or serious illness resulting from the denial or delay of adequate evidence-based medical care for a serious but treatable condition, or even the use of unproven modalities that are not merely ineffective, but actively dangerous. This extends into finances too, when mystics provide what they claim to be ‘divine,’ ‘prophetic,’ or ‘psychic’ advice for a fee, when the services rendered are no more effective than merely guessing, and more often than not, wrong.
Again, they may be perfectly sincere in their belief, but this does not make them right, nor their beliefs true, nor the practice of those beliefs ethically justified.
Even with the purest of intentions, (…and to steal a page from Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto: “We all know about roads to Hell and what they’re paved with.”) one can believe so strongly in something that they are willing to go to any length to support the belief, even cheat, even lie, sometimes even worse, when cognitive dissonance gives them the means to rationalize these acts, as opposed to using rationality, in their own minds. There is the frequent occurrence of what is referred to by skeptics as the pious fraud, the true believer not adverse to bending the rules and cutting corners a bit.
I say this: Let people believe what they want, but should they desire it, should they ask, provide them with the mental toolkit and methods to assess claims for their worth themselves, of their own free will and full understanding, rather than just being forced to accept or reject claims by coercion of others, a knee-jerk reaction, or on a whim.
People who can think for themselves are much less likely to leave their belief systems up to the vagaries of chance, and much more able to protect themselves both financially and health-wise from those who would take undue advantage of their trust, even without meaning to. Fnord.