Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, May 18, 2007


I've never been entirely convinced by the popular portrayal of the White House Occupant as a boy in a bubble, shielded by his handlers from bad news about his unpopularity, the unaccomplished mission, the non-existence of an actual conspiracy among Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Mahmud Ahmedinejad, and Nancy Pelosi, etc. But who knows? At the very least his delusional view of himself (see above picture) is bound to mislead him about the consequences of his actions.

In any event, as you probably know by now Paul Krugman has metaphorically extended the Bush Bubble to the Republican electorate. (Subscription only but Atrios gives us an excerpt here.) Yes, based on what we've seen so far on the campaign trail, if you want the allegiance of Republican primary voters you have to either be, or pretend to be, foaming at the mouth insane.

But that got me to thinking. I heard on the radio this morning that the Branch Davidians have reconstituted themselves. Their new leader says that God will bring his justice down on America if the state of Texas builds a highway through the site of the notorious Branch Davidian compound. On the one hand, I believe that all religions are equally ridiculous but I do concede that some are more equally ridiculous than others. The people who went off on Comet Hale Bopp, the people who flew the airplanes into the WTC, the people who sold all their wordly goods to await the apocalypse with the Church Universal and Triumphant, the people who donate to the creation "science" museums, Scientologists. And then, in the secular sphere, the followers of Lyndon Larouche, the people who insist that the WTC was brought down by controlled demolition, David Ickes -- who claims that humanity is actually under the control of dinosauroid-like alien reptiles who must consume human blood to maintain their human appearance -- all believe, or apparently believe, stuff that strikes me as highly unlikely.

It seems that we are, after all, entitled to our own facts. I feel quite confident of mine, but when you really think about it, most of what you know you got second hand. I did not personally witness the moon landing. I read about the experiments demonstrating that electrons have both wave and particle properties, I didn't conduct them. For that matter, why should I even believe there is such a thing as an electron in the first place?

For the most part we believe, not because we have seen with our own eyes, but because many pieces of knowledge -- most of which we take on some sort of authority -- fit together into a convincing whole. We use various means to assess the credibility of authority, of witness accounts, of historical records, and we combine these assessments with whatever relevant facts we are lucky enough to have been able to verify more directly to evaluate specific factual assertions, but actually the most powerful reason why we believe or do not believe specific facts is that they do or do not accord with our working overall framework explanation.

Once you believe in evolution, or in creation, you will evaluate new factual assertions in light of one of those controlling frames. It is very difficult to bring about a radical paradigm shift in the mind of a single individual, no matter how many seemingly convincing facts you throw at them. If the facts don't fit, a person can question the credibility of the authority who asserts them, the integrity of the chain of possession of the evidence, the theory used to calibrate the measuring instrument. Authorities who tend to validate our framework beliefs seem more credible to us in the first place - hence Fox News has its audience.

So, ironically (I think that is a rare correct use of the term), the most important reason why I feel fairly confident about many of my beliefs is because I embrace uncertainty. I am willing to see my beliefs overturned, and indeed that has happened several times; I take the time, as painful as it often is, to learn about the counterarguments and try to evaluate them systematically; I have degrees of certainty about matters, withhold conclusions in many cases where I would much rather be sure, and remain completely agnostic about some questions; and, when facts that seem convincing don't seem to fit with other beliefs, I allow myself to be troubled by it and I look for a resolution. It is a balancing act. There is much that I believe strongly enough to act upon as though I were convinced beyond all doubt, but only "as though." Doubt is inescapable. All of reality could be an illusion, after all. But it would make no sense to behave as though that were so.

And that is why, if you have faith, you are most likely wrong.

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