Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Empirical confusion - a lesson about faith based claims

One day recently I was listening to a radio programme where two people were being interviewed.  The subject hardly matters, except that it serves to illustrate a point that applies equally well to the way that people think about faith in god(s).

As it happens, it was about the effects of tobacco advertising.  This is not a subject that I find particularly interesting, but it is one that others have strong feelings about, and I could summarise the two sides of the discussion as follows: 
  • One of the protagonists in the debate was arguing that advertising attracts new people into smoking. Her argument was very much faith based.  It was simply obvious to her that this was true, and she found it impossible to accept any aspects of the opposing view.
  • Her opponent was making the point that advertising was demonstrably unsuccessful at converting people to smoking, but that it was much more successful at redistributing the market share between different brands of tobacco.  Smokers of one brand could be converted to another brand much more easily than non-smokers.  He said that he based his claim on empirical evidence.
Now I'm not going to try to judge the merits of the two arguments.  I'm not a smoker and never have been.  The point that annoyed me was that the faith-based claim was allowed a lot more air time then the evidence-based claim.  The poor guy only had to start a sentence and the interviewer (John Humphrys I think) would immediately interrupt him with another question.  It annoyed me that we were not able to hear enough about the evidence to enable us to form our own opinions.

A little later I was expressing my opinion - my outrage - about it, as sometimes I do!  I was very surprised by the reaction that I received, although in retrospect I shouldn't have been!

I was told - believe it or not - that the guy with the empirical evidence had come across as arrogant and unyielding.  The reason for this was simply that he had used the expression "empirical evidence".

Now I think you can see the parallel that I am drawing.  Those who believe in gods take the faith-based approach and they are sometimes frightened away from even considering the opposite viewpoint because of empirical evidence.  There are at least two aspects to this.
  • First, I have noticed that even intelligent and well qualified people misunderstand the term.  Empirical evidence is not just another faith claim.  It is evidence that has actually been measured, and brings you to a conclusion without having to rely on inference or deduction.  Even if it might later turn out to be wrong, it should not be ignored.  Surely it must at least be useful unless it is shown not to be true by further measurements.
  • Second, if you take the attitude in life that all claims are equally valid, as many do, then the presence or absence of evidence is not of much importance.  This is why such a way of thinking is fundamentally flawed.
The net result is that those who argue with the certainty that comes from putting the effort into detailed analysis of a topic are trumped by those who just know the truth in their hearts.  This very effectively demonstrates that rationality is not the primary trait of the human mind, as mentioned last week in my review of Michael Schermer's book, The Believing Brain.

Wisest words from Bertrand Russell
The wisest words from Bertrand Russell

The words of of one of the greatest philosophers of modern times spring to mind (as you can hear at this link)

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only "what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out?" Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have benificent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts. -- Bertrand Russell 

Shouldn't this be our crusade as rationalists?

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