Rationality when Insulated from Evidence

by JustinMElms 1 min read29th Jun 201660 comments


Basically: How does one pursue the truth when direct engagement with evidence is infeasible?

I came to this question while discussing GMO labeling. In this case I am obviously not in a position to experiment for myself, but furthermore: I do not have the time to build up the bank of background understanding to engage vigorously with the study results themselves. I can look at them with a decent secondary education's understanding of experimental method, genetics, and biology, but that is the extent of it.

In this situation I usually find myself reduced to weighing the proclamations of authorities


  • I review aggregations of authority from one side and then the other--because finding a truly unbiased source for contentious issues is always a challenge, and usually says more about the biases of whoever is anointing the source "unbiased." 
  • Once I have reviewed the authorities, I do at least some due diligence on each authority so that I can modulate my confidence if a particular authority is often considered partisan on an issue. This too can present a bias spiral checking for bias in the source pillorying the authority as partisan ad infinitum.
  • Once I have some known degree of confidence in the authorities of both sides, I can form some level of confidence in a statement like: "I am ~x% confident that the scientific consensus is on Y's side" or "I am ~Z% confident that there is not scientific consensus on Y"
Once that establishes a baseline on an issue, I am able to do some argumentation analysis to see what arguments each side has that simply should not be included in the discussion. This is usually irrelevant appeals (e.g.: In the GMO labeling debate, "It must be better because it's more natural") or corollary citations that are screened off by evidence closer to the source (e.g.: In the GMO labeling debate, "X many countries require GMO labeling" should be screened off by looking at the evidence that led to that decision).

After that, I find myself with a rather unfulfilling meta-assessment of an issue. I fear that I am asking for a non-existent shortcut around the hard solution of: "If an answer is important to you, do the necessary learning to at least be able to engage directly with the evidence," but I will ask anyway: does anyone else have strategies for seeking the truth while insulated from direct evidence?