It takes work to think the way you want, not think what you want

As a kid, I was clothed in cast-offs, bikeless and warned off sweets, but none of that sweated me too much, as I was indulging with abandon my overriding hunger for knowing all kinds of stuff. I decimated my junior school library with 18 months still on the cards, and ended up purloining books from the middle school. Animals existed to be petted, sure, but also to be filed away in taxonomies alongside Latin names and habitats. And television smuggled me maths, hostory and science. I wasn’t a special kid, nor an angel; this was merely my preferred brand of sensation seeking. I soaked up the environment through words and concepts, rather than through joints, tendons and the arc a falling ball makes across the retina. (I.e. I was a bit of a geek.) Truly questioning what came in came later, as is with everyone; I began to question my faith, and to appreciate what I was told was not always the truth, from the obfuscation of politicians to the sleight of hand of teachers to the unreliable narrator. But I realise that many of those candidates for independent thought were carried as much by what I learnt – that the conceptual environment was driving me as much as me it. (This is the point where I would shift to discussing memes, if I was in the mood to cloud a discussion with tragically hip jargon.) My capacity to doubt Creation stories as literally true was only installed by access to credible alternatives, and explicit thought experiments to what the traditions I had learned would actually entail. These gifts were given to me through science and fiction, which is perhaps why I hold both so dear.

Now, the danger of the information driving is that you take some naps during the ride, and you’re not in total control of the route, binding you to missing some pretty important scenery. One book begs for another to be read, one revealed truth gestures coyly to another, and before you know it you are happily ensconsed in your fortress of solitude with an impervious worldview. If you can’t change your mind, are you sure you still have one? Of course, to slide the other way, well,that way lies indecisive Dave (minor but feted Fast Show character). And since most philosophers have given up on the idea of a truly objective privileged perspective, I hope you won’t mind that I do the same. What I have, instead, are some means by which I live my mental and moral life. They are not much, but I owe to them all of what little I have in either regard. Namely:

  • faith in reason
  • respect for evidence
  • core beliefs – sentience has intrinsic value, people should not be treated instrumentally
  • the preparedness to question

As to how these interact, I’m quite happy to concede that there is no formula at work. Even if I had one, I don’t think I would actually operate by it. Reason and evidence carry me most of the way through my day-to-day cognitive existence, with a certain set of background beliefs that generally aren’t appraised. They are, however, amenable to appraisal, and I can (and have) shifted my positions on them. The core beliefs are those that I would like to think I would retain even if someone made me a watertight argument against them. I am well aware of the fallibility of the mind generally, and mine specifically, and I could not regard myself a moral being if a figure of however superior intellect could, through ‘proving’ that slavery was ok, headlock me into agreeing.

All that said, I guess I’m a fairly typical left-winger, reminding me of that complaint about political philosophers that the top down systems they model turn out 9 times out of 10 to be a validation of some bottom-up system that’s been in play just fine without them. Having said that, my scientific optimism brought me full-face against the spirit of the left regarding GM technology, and it brought home how ‘your side’ can be composed of orthodoxies too. Since then it’s become clear to me just how rough around the edges some circles in the left are (and perhaps ever have been); I should stress again that this is less epiphanies on my part than the streaming of diverse information.

This post is not to chart my political trajectory, although for the record I guess I’m a moderate, liberal social democrat, though I suspect my epistemological materialism coupled with my teleological spiritualism earmark me for some positions some might deem extreme. Yet while I am moored in things I value, would fight for, which sustain me, I keep myself as free-floating as possible, as I nknow my more contingent beliefs, the things that are important to me principally because they are true and accord with my fundamental principles, must avoid ossification for them to be worth anything. To that end, the question must be a weapon, not against those who threaten your beliefs, but to test and probe those beliefs itself.

This is why I am angered by the erosion and inversion of this principle presented in the blogs regarding the Lancet study of late 04. (Here + here, if you want to tast it first hand; snippets from a ongoing war really.)The publication of the paper on Iraqi deaths due to the war generated many questions among war supporters, but not the right kind. Often just referred to as the Lancet study, as if the journal came into being just for the purpose of this study and poofed away after, it is clear that for many critics this is the first scientific paper, or certainly epidimiological study, that they have come across. This didn’t stop the cascade of mud slung at at, their methodology rubbished, their statistics misunderstood, their motives impugned. It has now become a canard to refer to it as discredited, dubious, biased or just plain wrong, when it is none of these things, and appears a quality piece of research. Few of the critiques provided any light, and fewer still were meant to do so – this was purely “throw enough shit and see what sticks”, writ large. If it were not for a few patient and painstaking (particularly for me Dsquared, but also Tim Lambert and Chris Lightfoot ) bloggers with the expertise to systematically wipe away the untruths and rebut the accusations, the effect would be ever more complete.

It dismays me that people are so willing to bend the information to fit with their beliefs. I guess I come at it a different way, or one could argue that the stance on Iraq is a core belief for some. I know it’s not for me; I marched against it before it happened, but now am cautiously optimistic for the future, and readily concede that it may turn out to have been worth it, even factoring in the deaths (note: we’re nowhere near the point where that judgment could possibly be made). It dismays me that questioning, a means I rate vital for mental life, can be subordinated to leash that boat flush against the quay. If you’re willing to make the conclusion that medical journals accept politically motivated propaganda, that medical researchers produce it, and that peer review accepts it, in order to maintain your preferred perspective on events, then any evidence you don’t agree with can be similarly wished away. Everything is true that I want to be true. It stikes me that this has some resonance with Hilzoy’s post on Obsidian Wings entitled “Hatred is a Poison” – one of the best posts I have read this year, as it happens; she notes how through the prism of partisanship your opponents, and eventually yourself, are rendered despicable. My point here is through that prism, or one much like it, evidence and reason are subordinated to the will of belief.

The term ‘reality-based community’ entered the blogging vocabulary a while back after a member of the US administration poo-poohed such an entity as antithetical to its purpose. I realise this is not the pastiche I thought it was. No-one will admit to not being reality-based, of course, and pride in reason and science is not the birthright of either side of the political divide. But you can talk the talk, and exult reason and enquiry above all else, and use them as weapons to obscure and undermine the true picture. It’s a creationist tactic: what about the eye? What about this molecule? Evolution is just a theory… until you create the appearance of two different camps, and consequently no consensus. Ditto warming. I’m not exempting the left, as GM and to some extent nuclear have infuriated me for years (if the left got on board these projects, and demanded accountable technologies developed for and in the hands of those who need them, the impact would likely be tremendous). But this wholesale comtempt for views that don’t gel with preconceived beliefs has characterised this current US administration (see my post here and is found in full force in people who seem otherwise reasonable, and talk up science in other capacities. It’s unscrupulous, and reeks of a deadening of the mind. That the site designated blog of the year by time magazine denies evolution augurs terribly for the future.

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