As a right-leaning thinker, I have to admit that my side of the political spectrum does not have the best reputation when it comes to scientific thought and empirical diligence.
After having spent years as a politically active citizen, I’ve brushed elbows with many compatriots who hold, with utter conviction, some very unusual beliefs. Conspiracy theories and superstitions, I must admit, are only the very tip of the iceberg.
It’s meager comfort that the political left harbors just as many eye-rolling pseudo-scientific beliefs and notions of conspiracy. No side of the isle has a monopoly on delusion. If anything, the proponents of rationalism appear to be outnumbered by the disciples of belief at almost all points along the political spectrum. Belief based thinking appears to be a growing influence everywhere.
I’m not speaking here of any particular religious belief, or of faith in general. The belief that fascinates me is our astounding ability to decide that something is true, and then to systematically reject any evidence that challenges that decision.
Hardly anyone seems to be able to identify this quality in themselves, while having the amazing ability to pinpoint this malady in everyone else. The past is particularly fertile ground for pointing out lapses of logic. Each successive generation seems to think that it alone has been blessed with the knowledge and wisdom to guarantee perfect rationality. But this assumption is exactly the kind of haughty arrogance that the next generation snickers at in its own time.
We only have to examine our own nation’s past to find splendid examples of very odd (and sincerely held) beliefs having an impact on our history, often with predictably sad results. Take, for example, the untimely death of George Washington, in which medical superstition played a prominent role.
On a frigid and rainy day in 1799, George Washington developed a sore throat after spending several hours inspecting his property. Less than two days later his condition had become much more serious. Hardly able to speak or breathe, medical help was sent for. Soon Washington was in the care of three capable physicians, all of whom seemed to agree on the gravity of his situation, and promptly decided that the best course of action was to drain him of approximately 32 ounces of his own blood. He died the next morning, on December 14, 1799, a fate hastened by partial asphyxia and dehydration, but almost certainly due in part to the effects of losing nearly a third of the blood in his body. Bloodletting, after all, was considered a very reasonable treatment for many ailments, even though the basis of the practice had been brought into question as early as the 1600s by the great William Harvey.
But before we all gather around and exchange a good snicker about the silly beliefs of our ancestors, consider for a moment the following:
We live in a world where acupuncture, chiropractic and homeopathy are taken seriously by millions of people, despite any strong medical evidence to support their efficacy. We live in the most scientifically advanced time that humanity has ever seen, but chances are good that you or someone you know tacitly accepts one or more of these pseudosciences as being a legitimate part of modern medicine.
But it doesn’t end there. From worthless nutritional “supplements” to dubious alternative medical offerings, our world is peppered with ineffective remedies and superstition-based treatments that have only the vaguest moorings in reality. Cable channels that purport to advocate science and learning regularly feature shows on ghosts and and other supernatural silliness with utter credulity. Some of our most influential celebrities spend their time advocating for pseudoscience and quackery, while scientifically illiterate pundits treat these celebrity opinions as worthy of consideration. Our modern world is in many respects just as gullible and credulous as the demon haunted world of our ancestors.
Frighteningly, this same lack of mental rigor invades our private and public lives. The very same people who believe that poking a needle through your skin might cure a disease, or that getting a regular colonic will cleanse the body of spectral toxins, are also casting their votes every year in support of politicians, state ordinances and local laws, all of which have a very real impact on our lives. Why should we believe that their political choices will be any better informed than their personal beliefs?
Take away our computers, television and cellphones; Are we really that different from our bloodletting forefathers? Are we, as a people, really any more rational? Or are we equally disposed to lazily accepting a world of beliefs and superstition, albeit a more refined and modern flavor of both.
Rationalism, it seems, is always under attack. And that’s understandable. Rationalism is hard.
We’re not talking here about the philosophical school of rationalism, or the derivative movements inspired by Kant, Strauss and related thinkers. The rationalism we’re talking about is a discipline, a way of seeing the world, processing information, and arriving at conclusions that are, to the best of our intellectual abilities, a reflection of reality as it actually is, as opposed to reality as we’d like to see it. And rationalism, when practiced correctly, always seeks to confront the irrational, even when that confrontation challenges our own beliefs.
Rationalism is not dead, but it is under siege, unceasingly and insidiously. As social creatures, we regularly give a pass to the enemies of rationalism who happen to be our friends and political allies, but we shouldn’t. By ignoring irrationality in our friends while attacking it in our opponents, we directly contribute to an environment in which truth and reason can not easily survive. By selectively ignoring irrationality in our own social tribes, we systematically undermine the value of reason in broader society, and in effect we become the enemies of logic and reason, unwitting soldiers on the side of intellectual entropy.
That is what this column is going to be all about: Rationalism. We’ll shine the unforgiving light of rationalism on politics, culture, medicine and even superstition. We’ll question some of the seriously flawed preconceptions that we all take for granted, and, most importantly, we’ll shine that same light on our own sacred cows. We’ll make ourselves and our political allies highly uncomfortable. And everyone – right, left and center – is invited to the party.
Rationalism, at its best, demands that we sacrifice our comfort in favor of reality. In the following editions of this column, I hope to set out a general framework for rational analysis, and use that framework to seriously question some of the popular beliefs and assumptions that have wormed their way into our public consciousness. I will try to make my case based on the best evidence available, and where proven wrong, will openly concede the point and re-examine my conclusions. The ability to temper our conclusions with evidence is, after all, at the very heart of rationalism. I sincerely hope that you will join me in this journey. Rationalism needs all the allies it can get.