The Cowpox of Doubt

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I remember hearing someone I know try to explain rationality to his friends.

He started with “It’s important to have correct beliefs. You might think this is obvious, but think about creationists and homeopaths and people who think the moon landing was a hoax.” And then further on in this vein.

And I thought: “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!”

I will make a confession. Every time someone talks about the stupidity of creationists, moon-hoaxers, and homeopaths, I cringe.

It’s not that moon-hoaxers, homeopaths et al aren’t dumb. They are. It’s not even that these people don’t do real harm. They do.

(although probably less than people think; people rarely stop conventional treatment in favor of homeopathy, and both a popular website and a review article have a really hard time finding more than a handful of people genuinely harmed by it. Moon hoaxes seem even less dangerous, unless of course you are standing near Buzz Aldrin when you talk about them.)

What annoys me about the people who harp on moon-hoaxing and homeopathy – without any interest in the rest of medicine or space history – is that it seems like an attempt to Other irrationality.

(yes, I did just use “other” as a verb. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Continental types too much lately.)

It’s saying “Look, over here! It’s irrational people, believing things that we can instantly dismiss as dumb. Things we feel no temptation, not one bit, to believe. It must be that they are defective and we are rational.”

But to me, the rationality movement is about Self-ing irrationality.

(yes, I did just use “self” as a verb. I don’t even have the excuse of it being part of a philosophical tradition)

It is about realizing that you, yes you, might be wrong about the things that you’re most certain of, and nothing can save you except maybe extreme epistemic paranoia.

Talking about moon-hoaxers and homeopaths too much, at least the way we do it, is counterproductive to this goal. Throw examples of obviously stupid false beliefs at someone, and they start thinking all false beliefs are obvious. Give too many examples of false beliefs that aren’t tempting to them, and they start believing they’re immune to temptation.

And it raises sloppiness to a virtue.

Take homeopathy. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard people say: “Homeopaths don’t realize beliefs require evidence. No study anywhere has ever found homeopathy to be effective!”

But of course dozens of studies have found homeopathy to be effective.

“Well, sure, but they weren’t double-blind! What you don’t realize is that there can be placebo effects from…”

But of course many of these studies have been large double-blinded randomized controlled trials, or even meta-analyses of such.

“Okay, but not published in reputable journals.”

Is The Lancet reputable enough for you?

“But homeopaths don’t even realize that many of their concoctions don’t contain even a single molecule of active substance!”

But of course almost all homeopaths realize this and their proposed mechanism for homeopathic effects not only survives this criticism but relies upon it.

“But all doctors and biologists agree that homeopathy doesn’t work!”

Have you ever spent the five seconds it would take to look up a survey of what percent of doctors and biologists believe homeopathy doesn’t work? Or are you just assuming that’s true because someone on your side told you so and it seems right?

I am of course being mean here. Being open-minded to homeopaths – reading all the research carefully, seeking out their own writings so you don’t accidentally straw-man them, double-checking all of your seemingly “obvious” assumptions – would be a waste of your time.

And someone who demands that you be open-minded about homeopathy would not be your friend. They would probably be a shill for homeopathy and best ignored.

But this is exactly the problem!

The more we concentrate on homeopathy, and moon hoaxes, and creationism – the more people who have never felt any temptation towards these beliefs go through the motions of “debunk”-ing them a hundred times to one another for fun – the more we are driving home the message that these are a representative sample of the kinds of problems we face.

And the more we do that, the more we are training people to make the correct approach to homeopathy – ignoring poor research and straw men on your own side while being very suspicious of anyone who tells us to be careful – their standard approach to any controversy.

And then we get people believing all sorts of shoddy research – because after all, the world is divided between things like homeopathy that Have Never Been Supported By Any Evidence Ever, and things like conventional medicine that Have Studies In Real Journals And Are Pushed By Real Scientists.

Or losing all subtlety and moderation in their political beliefs, never questioning their own side’s claims, because the world is divided between People Like Me Who Know The Right Answer, and Shills For The Other Side Who Tell Me To Be Open-Minded As Part Of A Trap.

This post was partly inspired by Gruntled and Hinged’s You Probably Don’t Want Peer-Reviewed Evidence For God (actually, I started writing it before that was published – but since Bem has published evidence showing psi exists, I must have just been precognitively inspired by it). But there’s another G&H post that retrocausally got me thinking even more.

Inoculation is when you use a weak pathogen like cowpox to build immunity against a stronger pathogen like smallpox. The inoculation effect in psychology is when a person, upon being presented with several weak arguments against a proposition, becomes immune to stronger arguments against the same position.

Tell a religious person that Christianity is false because Jesus is just a blatant ripoff of the warrior-god Mithras and they’ll open up a Near Eastern history book, notice that’s not true at all, and then be that much more skeptical of the next argument against their faith. “Oh, atheists. Those are those people who think stupid things like Jesus = Mithras. I already figured out they’re not worth taking seriously.” Except on a deeper level that precedes and is immune to conscious thought.

So we take the intelligent Internet-reading public, and we throw a bunch of incredibly dumb theories at them – moon-hoaxism, homeopathy, creationism, anti-vaxxing, lizard people, that one guy who thought the rapture would come a couple years ago, whatever. And they are easily debunked, and the stuff you and all your friends believed was obviously true is, in fact, obviously true, and any time you spent investigating whether you were wrong is time you wasted.

And I worry that we are vaccinating people against reading the research for themselves instead of trusting smarmy bloggers who talk about how stupid the other side is.

That we are vaccinating people against thinking there might be important truths on both sides of an issue.

That we are vaccinating people against understanding how “scientific evidence” is a really complicated concept, and that many things that are in peer-reviewed journals will later turn out to be wrong.

That we are vaccinating people against the idea that many theories they find absurd or repugnant at first will later turn out to be true, because nature doesn’t respect our feelings.

That we are vaccinating people against doubt.

And maybe this is partly good. It’s probably a good idea to trust your doctor and also a good idea to trust your climatologist, and rare is the field where I would feel comfortable challenging expert consensus completely.

But there’s also this problem of hundreds of different religions and political ideologies, and most people are born into ones that are at least somewhat wrong. That makes this capacity for real doubt – doubting something even though all your family and friends is telling you it’s obviously true and you must be an idiot to question it at all – a tremendously important skill. It’s especially important for the couple of rare individuals who will be in a position to cause a paradigm shift in a science by doubting one of its fundamental assumptions.

I don’t think that reading about lizard people or creationism will affect people’s ability to distinguish between, let’s say, cyclic universe theory versus multiverse theory, or other equally dispassionate debates.

But if ever you ever need to have a true crisis of faith, then any time you spend thinking about homeopathy and moon hoaxes beyond the negligible effect they have on your life will be time spent learning exactly the wrong mental habits.

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