The Cowpox of Doubt

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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