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Balanced Views

As with most of my recent blog entries, this started as an e-mail response to a friend, and has been adapted for use here.

Libra ScalesLooking to alternate viewpoints to get a balanced view of things is something we should all strive to do. If you only ever visit forums where everyone agrees with each other, those forums become echo chambers, and nobody ever examines their views. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, just how do you determine who's worth listening to when there are so many voices and not all views are equally valid?

Strictly logically speaking, it makes no difference who's making an argument. It's the arguments themselves that need to be addressed to determine whether they're true or not. If you hang around the Internet long enough, you're bound to see people using the term ad hominem to criticize arguments against the messenger that ignore the message. Practically speaking, though, there's no way to read every point out there. In the age of the Internet, everybody with a computer can broadcast their opinions to the entire world. And with hundreds of channels on the satellite, even TV doesn't have the same respectability as it once did. At what point can you say that a certain source is no longer trustworthy, and no longer worth spending your time reading what they have to say? When the boy keeps crying wolf, at what point do you quit paying attention?

Are there any sources so outlandish you can just ignore them altogether? For example, in arguments over science curricula, I could point you to an organization that honestly and truly believes the world is flat. They've got quite a website with discussion forums to support their claim. But are they even worth taking a first look? It's very, very well documented that the world is roughly spherical. Can't we just call those people cranks without worrying about examining both sides of the flat earth issue?

A 'culture war' I've gotten more caught up in myself is evolution/geology/astronomy (and I guess you could throw physics in there too for radioactive decay & the speed of light) vs. creationism. I'd always accepted the science, but wondered if I might have been missing something when I first learned just how many people in this country doubted evolution and an ancient universe (this was around the time that Intelligent Design began making headlines a few years ago). So, I looked into the claims made by groups like Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research, or individuals like Kent Hovind or Ray Comfort, and at the same time looked a little more into how science works and how we know what we know. The end result, as could probably be expected, is that the evidence for evolution and an ancient universe is overwhelming, and all those anti-science groups had used a lot of poor arguments (and even some dishonesty) to support their cause. But, they continue writing new essays and books, coming up with more arguments, and even making movies to support their claims. Am I still obligated to read what they have to say? Is it wrong to dismiss their new arguments out of hand because I've already seen how poorly they've performed in the past? Is it close minded to not want to waste any more of my time with them?

I guess what I'm getting at is the issue of credibility. Of course, we should always be skeptical of every source, never completely trust any single one, and always seek verification from other independent sources. Some sources are credible enough, however, that you can be pretty confident in the information from them until you see conflicting information from another source, while other sources are so lacking in credibility that you shouldn't accept anything from them until you've seen it elsewhere. Dictionaries and encyclopedias would fall into the former category. They're bound to have a few errors, but the entire editorial process guarantees that they're pretty darned accurate. E-mail forwards and tabloids definitely fall into the latter category. Other sources fall some where in between, so we have to determine how much trust we have in those sources.

Credibility isn't just about honesty. I'm sure the flat earthers I mentioned above are sincere in their claims and don't think they're lying. But they're still completely wrong, none the less. So, credibility has as much to do with competence as it does with sincerity.

One of the things that I'm really big on is science. I think it's the best method we have for answering questions that have objective answers, or in other words, the best method we have for determining reality. Some questions are beyond science. For example, gun control comes down to a question of personal freedom vs. societal safety. It's a question of how much value we place on those two aspects. Science can't give us those values. It can certainly provide statistics, telling us how many people a year are killed by guns or comparing safety in nations with gun control laws to those without. So, we can use science to help inform our opinion, but we can't use it to make the final decisions on legislation.

Most people don't understand science very well, but for most of those people, you just have to let it slide or you'd be arguing all the time, and I'd rather just enjoy their company (as I've pointed out before, 1 in 4 Americans thinks the Sun goes around the Earth, and over half don't realize electrons are smaller than atoms). But, once people are in a position of public prominence, where their voice is heard by a large number of people, they have a responsibility to make sure their voice is accurate. And that means either having a very good grip on science themselves, or, less preferably, knowing where to go to get the results from science.

This is especially true for politicians. They make the laws that affect all of us, so they need to make sure that their laws are based in reality. And they deal with a large range of issues, so they need to know how to determine the best sources even when the issue is outside their immediate field of expertise. When politicians get the science wrong, it really makes me question their credibility. It means either that they're ignorant, or that they're willing to put their ideology ahead of the evidence (or, hopefully much less common, that they're willing to lie to pander to their constituents).

One of the most obvious examples of this is global warming. The evidence for global warming is very strong, and the vast majority of experts in the relevant fields are confident in the science. When I see politicians or other public figures claim that global warming isn't happening, or saying that the science isn't all that certain, it makes me question everything else they say. Another example, not quite so prevalent yet, but getting bigger, is the anti-vaccination movement, or the whole alternative medicine movement in general. Medicine now is the best it's ever been in history, thanks almost entirely to evidence based practices and the double blind clinical trial. Vaccines have saved millions. People who are willing to ignore that put their lives at risk, and in the case of the anti-vaccination movement, put other's lives at risk because of reduced herd immunity. So, the global warming denialists, anti-vaccinationists, alternative medicine proponents, or anyone else who gets science egregiously wrong, also make me question everything else that they say, because it shows that they're too ignorant to understand the evidence or are willing to ignore that evidence when it suits their agenda.

Everything I've said so far has been pretty neutral on politics - just general statements. But I'll be honest - in the past decade or so since I've been more actively following politics, it seems that Republicans are worse off in the credibility department than Democrats (i.e. The Republican War on Science). It's certainly not an all or nothing dichotomy, as there are plenty of Democrats I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw, and plenty of crazy ideas seem to be more associated with the left (9/11 conspiracy theories, alternative medicine), but as the comedian Stephen Colbert often says, it seems that "Reality has a well known liberal bias." Maybe my perception is due to sampling bias because I receive far more erroneous e-mail forwards that support Republicans than those supporting Democrats. Maybe it's because the Republicans have been in power, so they've been critiqued a bit closer, and maybe I'll start to see more of it coming from the left now that they're in power. Maybe it was the Bush administration in particular that abused science, and it isn't such a general trait for all Republicans. Maybe the official platform of the Texas GOP isn't actually representative of most Texas Republicans or indicative of Republicans in other states. But you don't often hear of Democratic school board members introducing anti-evolution measures. And the amount of Republican politicians who refuse to make a simple comment on Obama's citizenship, or who fanned the flames of this death panel nonsense and spread other misinformation over the health care debate, doesn't help with their credibility, either.

I thought of not including that previous paragraph so that this entry would remain politically neutral, but that's honestly how I see it, and I figured that it would help others to see partly why I have the views I do. I realize that politicians from both sides of the aisle will lie to win votes, but my impression is that there's far more misinformation from the right side than the left. But, that's also why I appreciate the conservative e-mails that friends send me, and hope that they keep sending me. It keeps me from only seeing one side of things.

Anyway, I apologize for rambling a bit with this entry. Looking to alternate viewpoints to get a balanced view of things is a noble goal. The problem is that there's just not enough time to listen to everybody's point of view, so it becomes a challenge of figuring out who's credible enough to listen to in the first place.

Updated 2009-09-09 - Removed a section describing my own views on gun control, since it doesn't add at all to the theme of this entry.

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