I wrote the first four parts of this series a year ago, but something I recently read in How to Think brought the subject to mind again so here is another way to separate the internet’s wheat from its chaff:
Rule #5 – Does the website engage with the best arguments of its opposition?
In a chapter of How to Think titled Repulsions, Alan Jacobs warns that animus toward our opposition “disables our ethical and our practical judgment.” We have such an emotional investment in believing that they are wrong that we harp on their weakest arguments and ridicule their most loony representatives.
If you want to find the truth, then the most dangerous place for you to be is in a group that already agrees with you.
This is particularly true if membership in that group is based on shared thinking, such as the sort of church where you must all recite the same creed, the faculty of a school where there are written or unwritten expectations for what you will teach or publish, or a political party whose “platform” you must support.
The reason is obvious, isn’t it? As Alan Jacobs says in his book, How to Think,
…the pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings [of people who control such groups] make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity.
He continues with the solution:
Mary enters the house and looks into the living room. A familiar appearance greets her from her husband’s chair. She thinks, “My husband is sitting in the living room,” and then walks into the den. But Mary misidentified the man in the chair. [Perhaps she only saw the back of his head.] It’s not her husband, but his brother, whom she had no reason to think was even in the country. However, her husband was seated along the opposite wall of the living room, out of Mary’s sight, dozing in a different chair.
Would you say that Mary knew her husband was in the living room or, because she was mistaken about the evidence, was she merely lucky?
Human science as we now recognize it began in earnest when Ibn al-Haytham, working in the 11th century, formulated the scientific method: proposing hypotheses and attempting to refute them.
The epistemological tools that al-Haytham advocated took us beyond the superstition, appeals to authority, and baseless speculation that had been the foundation of our so-called knowledge until that point.
Almost every scrap of knowledge we have that is beyond the obvious has been gathered in the thousand years since al-Haythem lived. However, in less than a tenth of that time, the window of human knowledge acquisition will close.
Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.
Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:
- A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
- A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
- The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.
Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?
A friend once earnestly invited me to his very fundamentalist church. I was a Christian at the time but, according to his church, I was not the right kind of Christian and was destined for hell. He said to me, “With the stakes so high, doesn’t it make sense to come check it out?”
He had a point, but I declined.