I was going through my collection of podcasts from earlier this year, and one of them was The Skeptic Zone Ep. 381. It was near the end of the show, when the host, Richard Saunders, was at a local Skeptics in the Pub event, and posed the question (I’ll quote him here as best I can): “If skeptics had a magic wand to make people see things our way, would we do it?” I recommend the episode, dating from February 7 of this year, for the full discussion and the responses he got at the event.
My own answer to Mr. Saunders’ question?
No. No, I would not.
It would be easy, it would be simple, and the world might even be a better place. Maybe.
But the cost?
Even if the magic wand turned everyone into better critical thinkers, and there was a true golden age of skeptical thinking encompassing the entire human race, there would be a heavy moral cost, as I am not a believer in the idea that the end justifies the means. Waving the wand would be expedient, but in no reasonable moral system I am aware of would expedience be a good gauge of moral virtue. And no, I do not consider Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics a reasonable set of ideas: it may be summed up in only five words: “It’s all mine, pathetic loser!”
There is the question of the ends being corrupted by the means used, and waving the wand would be akin to the tactics of the Mule, a character in Isaac Asimov’s novel “Foundation and Empire,” whose power was to tweak peoples’ minds to make them feel and do whatever he wants as though it were their own free will. Waving the wand, whatever the consequences (and they may not necessarily good ones despite the immediate results) would be a violation of the right to autonomy, in this case the autonomy of belief.
Also, whether power corrupts, and absolute power does so absolutely, or it is simply that power tends to attract the corruptible, I do not trust anyone with that kind of power, including myself. The ethical cost and temptation to abuse it is too great. And what if, after waving the magic wand and making everyone see things my way, what if it turns out that I’m wrong?
So my answer is no. It is too morally costly. And I can be wrong. This is something to consider when more invested in the reliability of a process of gaining knowledge than in the conclusion that results. I can be wrong, and so, at some point, has every alleged authority ever cited been. In keeping with Feynman’s dictum, I can be fooled, and so can even the most skeptical in the right context, for I, like most of humanity, am the easiest one to fool.
To just magically change someone else’s mind is inherently coercive, even if they agree with the change once it’s done. But to change another’s mind on the strength of the evidence and reasons given for it is not by any valid standard coercive, no matter the conclusion reached. Not even rejection of a particular set of formerly accepted claims. Not even acceptance of formerly rejected ones.
Evidence alone cannot coerce a change in belief as it is a matter of the subjective willingness to accept it, and the same for reason, as it must be subjectively accepted as valid to be of use. Certainly, one can say that they found the evidence for a case compelling, but it would be a fallacy of equivocation to equate that with saying that presenting evidence is somehow a violation of one’s own consent. That is simply another way of saying that the evidence and reasoning offered were sufficient to sway one’s opinion. One must value reason and evidence in order to accept them as worthy of changing one’s mind.
And not everyone does accept these things. So the process of skeptical inquiry and outreach is messy, effortful, and never quite as effective as many would like. But it is successful often enough and worth the work invested when it is done using still fallible but reliable and ethical methods.
Tf. Tk. Tts.
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Ra-Men Special with SAnal Edamaruku
AronRa chats with Indian rationalist and secularist Sanal Edamaruku, on his work combating superstition in his native country and the enemies it’s made him over the years with some very powerful people.