Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The arrogance of demanding evidence

"No one has the right to destroy another person's belief by
demanding empirical evidence." — Ann Landers

This is widely quoted but I haven't found a full citation of the original source. Thus, it's remotely possible that this is a misquote, out of context, etc...

Still, I'm not too worried about misquoting a shared pen name. My main concern is that in 2008, it is still possible to read a quote like this without flinching. One might even agree!

The statement implies two things. The first is that the freedom of speech should be abolished. (We'll look past that one for now.) The second is that it is unreasonable, inhumane, and simply impolite to expect people to base their worldviews on ... the world. In intellectual discourse, once someone says the magic words "I believe," it is inappropriate for other parties to continue further.

In fact, a more honest phrasing of the Ann Landers quote might be:

"Don't speak up; you might inadvertently cause someone to change their mind."

I've had my beliefs turned upside-down by empirical evidence dozens of times in my life, and I'm probably not done. I used to believe that aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. I used to believe that Uri Geller was psychic. I used to believe that homeopathic preparations had medicinal properties. I used to believe that computers couldn't think — and would never think.

I am a better person for being able to change my mind.

"It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." — Carl Sagan

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" — Douglas Adams


Michael Albert said...

It seems to me that the words "destroy" and "demand" are relevant here. If the quote were:

No one has the right to question another person's world view by asking for empirical evidence;

then I'd have no trouble with your arguments. I'm sorry, but it is arrogant, not to mention impolite, to destroy things just because you can.

Steve Asher said...

Alright, let's settle this one once and for all:

Ann Landers vs. Ayn Rand in a cage match dual to the death!

David Mattli said...

I _DEMAND_ empirical evidence(preferably in Excel) to support your haircut and lunch choice .

Also prove plate tectonics, RIGHT NOW.

Ray Myers said...

Micheal: If I broke in to your house and smashed your record player, I would be destroying something.

If I argued with you about whether someone should use homeopathy to treat cancer, I'm not destroying anything. Also wouldn't be doing it "just because I can."

Only you have the power to make up your own mind. I don't have the ability, let alone the desire, to destroy beliefs.

Michael Finney said...

I believe.... that reading the conclusion to The Illustrated Brief History of Time book right before reading your post was an incredible combination.

Ray Myers said...

finney: Hey, I'm here to help!

Ray Myers said...

david mattli:

Haircut - Empirically, the girlfriend loves it.

Lunch - See Healthy Choice

BTW, I dig your new hats!

Chris Gore said...

I DEMAND a basis for your ill-founded belief in your sense-perceptions! Or else I will continue to DESTROY all miserable attempts at logical positivism.

Ray Myers said...

Well Chris, as you well know, what you demand is not evidence, but a philosophical argument defending the notion that evidence can even exist. You're playing the philosophical skepticism card in response to a post about scientific skepticism. A bit of a tangent, but an interesting twist nonetheless!

For the record, my epistemological stance is not logical positivism. It is fallibilism. Absolute logical certainty is not a prerequisite for empirical knowledge. I'll trust my senses until better ones come along.

Chris Gore said...

She is actually embracing an element of Wittgensteinian Fideism, which you are incorrectly viewing as an attack against scientific thought, in spite of being necessary for fallibilism to make sense.

Fallibilism turns scientific pursuit into a religious discourse in the terms of Wittgenstein: scientific pursuit becomes purely self-referential, without any method of self-correction (I am speaking of corrections to the scientific pursuit itself, not of the theories produced thereof). These new religious beliefs can be only be fully understood only by believers and they can't be criticized.