1.29.2014

Reason in 2014

If I could wish for one thing in 2014 it would be for the world to embrace reason. Why should I be shunned for asking for evidence? Haven't we had enough woo woo and "one weird trick"? It must be some innate aspect of being human to need quick fixes, to want to believe for no reason other than somehow it fits our biases, or fill some void we are to frightened to examine closely.


For example, just look at this list of apocalypses (apocalypsi?): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events. Over and over people, for some unfathomable reason, want to believe the world is going to end. And in every case they are wrong. They will continue to be wrong. The only people on that list likely to be correct (read: have any evidence, theoretical or otherwise) are the scientists contemplating the fate of our world a very long time from now.


Facts matter. And if you don't have any, then don't expect me to automatically agree with you. Let's define facts as well. Verifiable, testable, repeatable. Observable to everyone. Widely researched and written about. Facts are not something your brother's friend's uncle told him somebody told him about. Facts are not whatever some talking head on tv says is true. Facts can be gleaned from experts, but you need to know how to judge experts. Understand their background. Jenny McCarthy is not a medical expert, she's just famous. Depak Chopra uses lots of scienc-y words and makes many references to quantum physics. He has no training at all in physics and his use of those terms is an offense to humanity. I'll even pick on someone I like. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an expert, but I wouldn't automatically believe what he told me was wrong with my car. He's an astrophysicist, not a mechanic. Just because someone has a website doesn't mean that whatever they are selling is a panacea for all your ills.


The world is grey, not black and white. Declaring something all good or all bad is almost always unfounded. GMOs are not universally evil. Eating only vegetables isn't a problem solver for everyone. The ideas of democrats or republicans are not all great or all catastrophic. The world today is far too prone to having the pendulum swing wildly from one side to the other. If you think "big pharma" is evil and greedy, you must also follow the money behind your preferred treatments. Hate Sysco? Ok, but who owns your organic producers? EVERYONE trying to sell you something should be questioned.


One thing a person relying on reason should do it not jump to conclusions or fill gaps with assumptions. If you don't have facts, if you get to a place along a line of research or discussion where you would shave to say "I don't know", that's ok. Say you don't know and continue researching. It is not reasonable to say you don't know, therefore god/aliens/fairies did it. If you really believe it was god/aliens/fairies, it would be unreasonable of you to expect everyone else to accept an explanation based solely on faith and belief. Choosing to have faith or just believe because you want to or it makes you feel better is ok, but that isn't an excuse for closed-mindedness or belligerence towards others. If you do have evidence, you have to accept that not everyone is convinced by that alone, especially if they already have other long-held beliefs. Belligerence doesn't help much here either. Getting fired up is ok, but watch out for just attacking other people.


If you're position of belief lacks evidence, don't just bitch about it or blame "THEM" for some conspiratorial suppression. Scientists WANT to understand. They WANT to study the world. If there isn't adequate study of a certain issue, blame politicians for not providing the funding for research. Blame famous people for being ignorant of science while they use their bully pulpit to deride science. And blame the people (yes, ourselves) for not putting pressure where it's needed.


Hand in hand with reason is time. It takes time to do research, whether in a lab or online. Reasonable arguments can't be offered and rebutted in sound bites and photo memes. The internet in general is a terrible place to look for rationality. It will take a conscious effort to change that. I would ask the whole world just to slow down a bit. Shortened time scale force you to react with your cognitive biases and emotion, and that's not good. It takes time to dig in to a question, to form an argument for or against. With no time allowed, we agree with those we already agree with, and disagree with those we don't like. "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect.” - Jonathan Swift


Here's another reason to slow down. The world doesn't change that fast. Really, how different is the world now than it was 10 or 20 or 50 years ago? Calm down, think of how choices and actions will affect you both tomorrow and 10 years from now. I ask you also to think about how the choices we make today will affect the world 100, 1000, even 10,000 years from now. Despite all the exoplanets that have been discovered, we are still the only official intelligent technological life in the universe. We have an obligation to survive and continue to further our understanding of the universe. If we don't, we may as well turn off all the lights and go back to subsistence farming.


Despite my rant, I'm asking you to be reasonable, especially in the public square. At home, do whatever you want. But when you step in to the space of society we all share remember that there is a human being on the other side of that other computer screen. I think in some situations, particularly in the functioning of a civilization, we must sacrifice our personal conceits and whims for the benefit of all. However, as we have discussions in the public square, be forewarned that any claims made will always be subject to scrutiny. If you choose to make claims based on faith or whim alone and you are criticized or given evidence to the contrary, you may hold on to your beliefs, you may defend them as you can, but cries of censorship or hate are unfounded. Take a little more time to think about what makes us the same. There is so much hate everywhere I look these days, and it's mostly over such minor issues. We are all human beings and we have an obligation to treat each other decently even if we disagree.