To ask for evidence is not (necessarily) scientism

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Respect is due to people, rather than to ideas. While it may be politically incorrect to say so, there is no contradiction between saying that someone has a misguided, uninformed or laughable point of view, and at the same time recognising that person’s worth or dignity in general. But our sensitivity to being challenged, and to having the intrinsic merit of our ideas questioned, often leads us to conflate these two different sorts of respect.

Respecting a person is partly a matter of not causing them unnecessary trauma through ridicule or contempt. It also requires not prejudging their arguments or points of view, but rather judging those arguments on their merits. But if it is established that those arguments lack merit (when compared with competing arguments on the same topic), there is no wrong in pointing this out. It is perhaps even a duty to point it out, assuming that we care for having probably true, rather than probably false, beliefs about the world.

A complication emerges when one encounters a person who consistently holds untested or unfalsifiable points of view, and who stubbornly refuses to modify those beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. This is when it becomes difficult to separate the notions of respect for ideas versus respect for persons, because the person in question is defined by that dogmatism, and by the absence of a significant relationship between the contents of their minds and the real world outside of that mind.

To what extent can and should we respect this sort of person? They could of course be a good father, a good poet, or a good plumber, and we can respect them for any or all of these things. But when engaging in discussions with such people, on topics where their dogmatism has been established, is it perhaps the case that they have sacrificed their entitlement to our respect?

The issue is complex, in that it may often be difficult to express contempt for an idea without that expression being perceived as contempt for a person. It is also not obvious that contempt for a person isn’t sometimes merited, in cases where any laudable aspects of character are completely overwhelmed by more risible aspects. For example, there is no doubting Kim Jong Il’s commitment – usually a positive virtue – but that commitment is expressed in ways that make it difficult to imagine anyone arguing that we can respect the person, even if we don’t like his ideas.

We all understand these dilemmas, no matter what we ourselves might happen to hold as foundational beliefs. For many religious folk in democratic societies, it is a struggle to tolerate the sorts of insults to their values that are frequently expressed by the secular community, such as in the licentious nature of much advertising. Even for relativists, who should be immune to such sensitivities (if theirs was a logically coherent position), it would be a struggle to reconcile my hypothetical belief that it’s appropriate for me to bed your wife with their foundational belief that there are no objective grounds to moral principles, and that what’s “right” is determined by culture alone.

For secularists, of course, this dilemma is also inescapable, because it’s taken for granted in South African society (and elsewhere) that metaphysical claims are privileged. Non-believers apparently commit a particularly crass form of disrespect by insisting on claims and beliefs operating in a space of reasons, where those claims and beliefs are responsive to testable evidence, rather than simply being dearly – and sincerely, in many cases – held items of faith.

But as indicated above, there’s a significant inconsistency here. A claim that I cannot know for sure whether my desk might dematerialise while I am typing this cannot be disproven, but it doesn’t seem the sort of thing worth taking seriously when absolutely zero instances of dematerialising desks have been observed throughout history, ever. And more importantly, it’s not the sort of thing that those who say such things themselves take seriously, in all aspects of their lives except for these debates on the relative merits of science versus spiritualism of whatever sort.

These questions don’t, for example, arise when those with metaphysical sympathies fly in an airplane, or drive a car. They don’t arise when people are forced to undergo chemotherapy. In other words, almost all aspects of our lives are driven – and largely made possible – by doing things, choosing products, and making interventions in ways that are responsive to available evidence. To not do so would be considered irresponsible.

Many of our daily activities are therefore informed by science, and by the scientific method. This simply means that hypotheses that have no supporting evidence are (provisionally) discounted, while we in the meantime operate on the presumption that hypotheses that are evidenced are more likely to be true than those that are not. As new evidence comes in, we change our minds – or at least, we should change our minds.

This position gives us the best possible chance of avoiding error, and also the best possible chance of accumulating beliefs that are likely to be true. This is important, because the closer the correspondence between our beliefs and the world that those beliefs are about, the better our prospects for successfully engaging with that world.

But this position is not at all the same as a faith or a dogma, in that it comes from a starting point of doubt, and those who adopt it know that they can never be certain – about anything. All that they can know is that a particular belief is best justified by currently available evidence – not that it is certainly true. This is why the language of science (science proper, rather than caricatures of it) is riddled with probabilities, confidence intervals and margins of error.

There is, in summary, a significant difference between science and “scientism”, and those who belong to the cult of scientism deserve as much, or as little, respect as those who belong to any other cult or dogmatically-held faith. But all of us believe in the scientific method, because we depend on it each day of our lives. The notable exceptions to this are those sets of belief (for example, religious faith or homeopathy) that are held to be outside the domain of the scientific method. Because those exceptions might incur avoidable harms, while being accompanied by no benefits that cannot be purchased elsewhere, it is necessary for us to consider how appropriate it is to continue respecting them.

Of course there are many things that we don’t know. But that doesn’t afford us the liberty to make the answers up, or to depend for answers on people who have made them up in the past. We can instead simply admit that we don’t know, but simultaneously go ahead and provisionally believe those propositions that are best justified, and disbelieve those that have little or no justification. As Dara O’Briain reminds us (YouTube link), “science knows it doesn’t know everything. If it knew everything, it would stop.”

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.