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Intolerance we ought to encourage?

by Anders Sandberg

Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington goes to war against bad science: Selective use of science ‘as bad as racism or homophobia’.  He argued: ‘We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality…We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method’. Is he right that we should be intolerant of bad science?

My own general approach to tolerance is to tolerate those who tolerate me as well as those who tolerate others in my network of tolerance.

But that is a general heuristic: there are plenty of people whose views that I might tolerate in general, yet hold particular views that I think should be criticized roundly whenever they come up. This is of course not intolerance, which generally calls for discrimination (institutional or informal) against people with certain views. However, I do think I am justified in being intolerant against intolerant people – both for reasons of my own and my society’s self-preservation, as well as to maximize liberty.

Should we then be intolerant against people peddling bad science? I think at the very least we should call them on it, and possibly even go a bit further. The reason, as Beddington points out, is that ‘We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.’ Insofar science and clear thinking help us live better lives, lack of intellectual integrity that undermine these are actually bad for our lives. If problems cannot be solved or recognized because of noise, deception or bullshit then the moral thing to do is to try to reduce these sources impairment.

It is less clear how far morally one can go in pursuing intellectual integrity. Censoring pseudoscience is problematic, since freedom of thought and expression are also quite essential for the epistemic function of our society (not to mention that plenty of pseudoscience shades over into fringe science that could be true, but with a very low probability). Many false claims are made out of sheer ignorance or laziness. However, deliberate distortion and deception seems to be a promising target. Maybe one could apply false advertising rules or make it akin to libel to make wilfully false scientific claims.

Even there finding appropriate standards (not to mention enforcement) might be tough. But maintaining good epistemic standards in society might reap significant rewards in terms of slightly better policies and better health. Given the vast sums of money currently wasted on things like astrology or homoeopathy, not to mention societal decisions made on cherry-picked data, there might be major financial advantages too.

At the very least we can make it a social rule that just as we frown at racist, sexist or homophobic statements we frown at pseudoscience or deceptive evidence. It is a direct social punishment signal. A bottom-up, individual movement to keep ours and our neighbours’ minds clear is both possible, educational (after all, we will get involved in plenty of agitated discussion with others) and moral.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. This strikes me as a extremely important topic, which also lies at the heart of the role that moral philosophy can play in improving the prospects for humanity. As a moral subjectivist, I do not believe that moral questions can be based solely on logic, but I do believe that rational argument plays a crucial role in defining moral positions, and other types of policy, that are likely to be conducive in creating the kind of futures that we want.

    Actually I think criticizing objectionable views when they come up *is* a form of intolerance, it's just that the object of our intolerance is the position taken, rather than the person taking it. The wilful repetition of views for which there is no evidence, or which even contradict available evidence, should certainly be the object of this type of intolerance. Where such behaviour takes on extreme forms, and/or is not compensated by more worthy characteristics, it is appropriate also to direct one's intolerance at the person concerned.

    In summary: if you want to start "a bottom-up, individual movement to keep ours and our neighbours' minds clear" then count me in!

  2. Thanks!

    Separating views from people is important but often difficult. Things also get interesting since some personality traits seem to predispose towards holding odd views or discounting evidence, and it certainly seems that some constellations could predispose towards bullshitting in Frankfurt's sense. People with these traits might indeed feel that they are being unfairly discriminated against if we demand a bit more reality in discourse, since they cannot help having their personalities. I think they would be wrong, just as a person with an aggressive personality cannot be excused from his behaviour just because he was born that way: he should try to learn how to control himself. If you know you have a trait that biases you towards bad epistemic standards you ought to try to resist it.

    Of course, the most intolerable anti-science views are those that are arrived at through an entirely rational thought process, that is, deliberate deception. Being flakey is not as bad as deliberately trying to distort the truth (although I think Frankfurt has a good point in that conscious bullshitting might be almost as bad since it involves not caring about the truth of statements).

  3. I just saw a comment from "EnglishAtheist" on the Bad Science blog that has a great idea:

    "I wish there could be a law in Parliament that, when an MP mentions the word evidence, they have to actually show/reference it."

    As Ben Goldacre wrote, "it’s fine to make policy based on ideology, whim, faith, principles, and all the other things we’re used to. It’s also fine for evidence to be mixed. And it’s absolutely fine if your reforms aren’t supported by existing evidence: you just shouldn’t claim that they are."

  4. Tolerance is generally understood to consist of allowing people to live their own vision of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", as long this pursuit does not interefere with others' own liberties.
    Nothing in this belief precludes attacking bad science : we shouldn't feel that if we refute manipulation, cherry-picking or sensationalism, that we are behaving badly.
    But neither does it imply that we should censor, for example, "Conservapedia" which peddles a rich mixture of bullshit, bad science and misrepresentation. Even if we wanted to to do it, who but lawyers would benefit from bringing cases of "false advertising"-style proceedings ? A further downside wold be the risk of giving a form of publicity and martyrdom to its compilers and acolytes.

    We need to face the reality that only education can really work in the long term – including perhaps a modicum of science education for journalists who give space to and encourage silly science stories.
    And in education, we should not be tolerant of bad science or bad argument, any more than an instrument teacher should tolerate bad intonation ….(and in agreement with Anders, it's not the students' FAULT if they find it hard to play in tune).

    PS : a pity that the preview facility has gone ….

  5. I don't really think that intelligent, intellectually inclined and properly skeptical persons are going to be intolerant of anything, except insofar as it wastes their time. Such person would tend to prefer argument, public argument and support of good science. That is because I think that intolerance of bad science is impossible to cabin properly, and could lead to harmful effects and regret on the part of ethical persons. To develop this thought, I have two prolix but really simple (bunches of) questions:

    1. What counts as "bad science"? Might it include borderline-looking science done for a corrupt purpose (e.g. science to protect tobacco companies with respect to the manufacture and sale of cigarettes, pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco), and how do we know it when we see it? What of theoretical departure from a current paradigm which antagonizes lots of practitioners in the field? Does it include what looks like science to defend an ideology, like "intelligent design"? What of disagreement among evolutionists as to the manner of evolution (Darwinists v. Punctuated evolutionists v. …).

    2. What counts as intolerance? Does it include rejection out of hand, without any attempt at refutation or reference (in a kindly voice) to materials that might help the student or the audience? Does it count as making bad science a ground for revocation of tenure or expulsion from academia? For legal action against the science-malefactor to compensate any person implicated in and embarrassed by the practice of bad science public defense of it and its results? If your teen-aged child comes home espousing pseudo-scientific twaddle, how do you put intolerance into action (or do you simply try to explain your position and then, in the face of the child's bull-headed refusal to listen, shut up and, with a kindly au revoir, return to whatever you were doing? What of a student for who you have some hope?

    My approach is to feel chagrin, then frustration, and then the futility of arguing and hope that someone in a position of significance with respect to the matter, has the sense to reject it. There's always contribution to politicians and causes.

  6. I guess in one sentence I would define "bad science" as "discourse that claims to be scientific but does not respect the scientific method". I'm currently reading What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly and he includes, convincingly in my opinion, that the transition from "book knowledge" to the scientific method constituted one of the "major transitions in technology according to which information is organized". It is worth defending.

    A more tricky question is whether, based on Anthony's definition of "tolerance", we should also attack other forms of irrational discourse. What if someone is not claiming to be doing "science", but is nevertheless engaging in some form of "noise, deception, or bullshit". The term "noise" here is particularly generic: one might be essentially talking bo***cks, but doing so essentially in good faith, and clearly we wouldn't want to become "intolerant" to the extent that we stifle honest debate.

    My own position on moral realism is perhaps an interesting case in point. Essentially I see it as "noise" in the above sense, which is partly why I keep "attacking" it. But I hope I am indeed doing so in a spirit of (basically) polite and honest argument!

    PS I fully support Anthony's request for a return of the preview button!

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