Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original caption: “Founding of the Planetary Society Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, the founders of The Planetary Society at the time of signing the papers formally incorporating the organization. The fourth person is Harry Ashmore, an advisor, who greatly helped in the founding of the Society. Ashmore was a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist and leader in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When we are faced with an incentive to believe something that agrees strongly with our prejudices, it comes down to a simple matter of “Can I believe?” that we may not even have to ask. We accept such things on a whim, unless we exercise care in our thinking. We have a tendency to first believe things we have an emotional investment in, and then cobble together, often quite ingeniously, reasons to justify our belief.
When we are faced with those things we are disinclined to believe, things contrary to our ideologies, or belief/value paradigms, it’s a matter of “Must I believe?” as though we are being faced with an uncomfortable choice and go immediately on the defensive with frequently clever rationalizations we muster to attack the discomforting idea and defend our belief structures from harm.
But I would add a third option, shown by thinkers and investigators I’ve known, read and listened to who approach certain…nonscientific and scientific…topics as intellectual curiosities or academic subject matter without a clear vested interest in accepting or rejecting the claims that these concern:
“Should I believe? Do I have sound reasons to accept this claim as true, or do I have sound reasons to reject it as false, or worse, as not even wrong?”
Often these questions aren’t even consciously asked by those believing, disbelieving, or suspending both until the data are in.
But the first two involve belief or disbelief first, followed by a attempts at conscious justification, often subjectively ironclad, and often fallacious, whereas the third involves deliberation, a weighing of evidence and argument, followed by a tentative conclusion, possibly with leanings toward either end of a continuum of credulity to denial, but a conclusion subject to newer and better information and reasoning as they are presented.
The third option is uncommon, and involves thinking unfamiliar to most of us, but as it occurs with perfectly normal human brains operating with the proper training and accumulated habit, it is every bit as human as reflexive acceptance or knee-jerk rejection.
It’s something we probably did not specifically evolve to do, but like playing a piano, also without a direct adaptive function, we can learn to do, and quite skillfully for many of us.
I think it’s something worth doing, but it requires that we consciously override some of our impulses, consider our thinking, our motivations, and mind the soundness of our reasoning and solidity of the facts we claim, and always consider that these things all have limits — they are fallible, but used well and with care, reliable and effective as paths to real knowledge.
We must consider the input and critiques of others, for alone we are prone to misleading ourselves, even the smartest and best educated of us, with our own biases and fallacies of thinking and memory.
To quote the late Carl Sagan, “Valid criticism does you a favor.”
This is why modern science acts as a community, so that research workers can get public input from their colleagues, cross-check their findings, and it is the reason that external replication of results is of the greatest importance — one-off phenomena that are impossible to verify objectively are of little use, and any finding must at least in principle be testable, or it cannot be demonstrably known.
Scientific inquiry works as effectively as it does, because unlike any other set of methods, it can tell us when we are wrong, and even when we are, to sometimes continue to reap discoveries from failed ideas that lead to new territory.
Is there something better than this now? Will there be, ever?
I don’t know, to both questions. If such a set of methods exists, I’ve not heard of it, and apparently, neither has anyone else I know of.
But if and when something superior comes along, that more effectively and accurately does what scientific inquiry, and as part of it, skeptical inquiry does at the moment, then I shall happily change my mind about science and support whatever works best instead.