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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
— William K. Clifford, Ethics of Belief
We all like to think that we are wise, that our opinions are well thought out, and that we’re smart enough to spot when we have inconsistent beliefs. Today I want to talk about why believing something without sufficient evidence is wrong, and that idea that how we come to a belief or a conclusion is more important that the whether the belief or conclusion is correct.
One of the four virtues of stoicism is Wisdom. Wisdom is not just the acquisition of information, but the skill of properly applying the knowledge that we gain to make better choices and actions. It is our job to learn, to see clearly, and act upon the truth, but even more important than reaching the correct outcome, is having a correct process of learning and discovering the truth.
William K. Clifford was an English mathematician and philosopher in the late 1800s. He wrote a well thought out essay called “The Ethics of Belief”, in which he discusses how it is immoral to believe something without evidence, even if you end up being correct in your belief. But why is it so important to make sure that the process we use to form beliefs is sound? Because if you come to a belief based upon faulty evidence, then you can’t be sure that next time you use the same thinking that you’ll get to the correct outcome. Basically, you may think that you are smart because you got it right, but you didn’t. If you use the same thinking process, you may not be as lucky. Having a correct process helps you to be more consistent and to reach correct or more correct conclusions, more often.
Say, for example, you have a friend who is in the same math class you’re in. Your friend is an average student, and on a big test, they get a perfect score. Shortly after, you hear a rumor that your friend cheated on the test. You have no proof of this, nor do any of the people you talk to have any tangible proof, beyond their own speculation that the only way your friend could have done so well on the test, was to cheat. You decide to accuse your friend of cheating, and report them to the teacher.
Let’s look at the possible outcomes. Let’s say that your friend did not cheat, and after they are cleared of any wrongdoing, you retract what you said and try to make amends. You may have spoiled the friendship because you accused your friend with no actual evidence, other than the rumors spread by others.
Let’s say your friend did cheat, and you feel vindicated because you were correct. But should you? No. You are just as wrong as the first case because you made an accusation with insufficient evidence. It was just by chance that you ended up on the right side. You had no evidence to reason through that your friend had actually cheated. Based on the evidence you had, you made an assumption; you guessed. You had no right to come to the conclusion that your friend had cheated on the test. This is dangerous because once you have been “correct”, you are less likely to question yourself the next time because you guessed correctly this time.
Show me someone for whom success is less important than the manner in which it is achieved. Of concern for the means, rather than the ends, of their actions…I want to see him. This is the person I have looked for a long time, the true genius.
Process Over Outcome
When we reach the correct answer but have an invalid process, we have not learned how to make better decisions, so we actually do ourselves a disservice. If we don’t understand why we’re correct, or at the very least admit that we just got lucky and guessed correctly, then we will never create a framework that helps us to be successful consistently.
For example, often entrepreneurs will get lucky. They’ll have a lucky break that may not have anything to do with them. Perhaps the weather happens to ruin their chief competitor. They’ll attribute their success to something else, such as their own brilliance or the superiority of their product, and are unwilling to attribute it to the luck of circumstance that broke in their favor. They may not really understand the lucky break that helped lead to their success. They think because they were successful once they know how to be successful again.
No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.
— William K. Clifford, Ethics of Belief
Beliefs Lead to Action
Why is it so important that we don’t hold on to beliefs that are incorrect or based on insufficient evidence? The beliefs that we hold, even illogical ones that we think are just our private beliefs, influence the choices we make and the actions we take in our everyday life, and some that can have pretty serious consequences.
An example of this how beliefs can impact the choices people make can be seen in when we look at vaccines and the pandemic. People have been fed a steady diet of how they should distrust the government, usually by politicians for their own benefit – though I find it disingenuous because these politicians are usually seeking reelection, so they’re the ones running things. This continuous disinformation campaign from politicians, pundits, talk show host, and others with a hidden agenda has eroded trust in the institutions that are in place to help us a society weather such events.
As we’ve seen cases of the Delta variant climbing higher over the past few months, it comes because of this distrust. We see that 98% of those dying from Covid are unvaccinated, and it’s not because the vaccine is not available, but the majority are refusing to get vaccinated because of the distrust they have in the government and its institutions, distrust of science, or distrust of vaccines.
Because of this belief that they hold, evidence that is presented is filtered through this distrust. Experts who have spent their lives in the service of humanity, who have dedicated their careers, are dismissed as unreliable, or even threatened for presenting evidence contrary to this belief.
If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.
— Marcus Aurelius
You Want to Believe
So what are some of the reasons we believe things without sufficient evidence? When we come into this world, we are given a world view, a belief system from our parents, our religion, and our culture. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We’re taught traditions, beliefs, and stories about how the world is, and it’s how we learn how to function in the world. Where we run into trouble, is that most of us are brought up not to question the world around us. We get in trouble for not simply obeying the rules, and often shamed for asking questions about things we don’t understand.
In my own experience, I was taught that obedience to the church leaders was more important than anything else. I always found the idea of blind faith troubling, because it makes abuse of power very easy, and we have seen this happen time after time. Also, to me it makes a mockery of god. If god just wanted me to just be obedient, why did he give me a mind that wanted to find answers, to question things that seemed illogical, and try to make sense of the world? When I was told to ignore evidence because it went against the teachings of the church, it made me distrust the person teaching it. They were telling me to ignore my own sense of reasoning, logic, and to just take their word for it.
Now, religion is not the only place where we see misguided beliefs that are not questions. There have been plenty of beliefs, ideas, and theories taught in schools or treated as common sense that were taken as fact. There was no proof, but because they have been around so long, were just assumed to be true. For example, for centuries, women have been treated as if they were mentally inferior to men in science, art, literature, music, and many other fields. Because of these ideas, women were denied education, careers, and often treated as second class citizen, all because of a belief that they just were not on the same level as men. This allowed those in charge to point out that there were not a lot of prominent women in as proof that this was true, all the while ignoring the fact that women were denied opportunities to make any contributions, thus creating a self reinforcing belief. It has taken a lot of hard work for our society to move past these ideas, and we still have a long way to go.
On a personal level, we often create beliefs about ourselves because they were things we were told about ourselves, or conclusions we came to through faulty thinking. Maybe we think we’re not very smart or creative because our parent told us so. Maybe we believe we don’t deserve to be treated respectfully, because we’re been treated poorly by others. One that I struggle with from time to time is that I’m not worthy of being loved because I lose my temper. There are plenty of beliefs that we adopt because our brains try to make sense of the world around us.
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
It's Okay to be Wrong
So how to do we get better at challenging our beliefs? I think probably the most important aspect is that we need to be willing to be wrong. This is probably the hardest part. When we feel we are right about something, it feels good and we feel confident. We don’t like to be wrong because it feels uncomfortable and scary. So we avoid being wrong at all costs.
And how do try to avoid this? We’ll avoid admitting we’re wrong by discounting evidence that we don’t like. We’ll reinterpret or spin things in a way that shows our position in a more favorable light. We’ll double down on our position. We’ll get angry, which is a way to manipulate others to support our position. We’ll deflect and try to blame others for their shortcomings.
When we get comfortable knowing that we’re going to be wrong a lot, we can avoid a lot of anxiety and stress. We can be humble and think of ourselves as seekers of knowledge, not as the fountain of truth.
I think one of the best ways to start is to get comfortable with this is practice incorporating some of the following phrases into our language.
“In light of new information, I’ve changed my mind.”
“From the evidence provided, it looks like I need to rethink my position.”
“You make good argument. I’ll consider what you said.”
“I never thought of it that way. Thanks. Now I will.”
Once we are willing to be okay with being wrong, then we can take the time to ask more questions about our belief.
Where did I learn this? Who did I learn this from? What are their motivations behind promoting this belief? Understanding the source of this belief can help you be aware of conflicts of interest from others and yourself.
What evidence is available to support this belief? Are there scientifically rigorous studies, or experts in this area, that can help me learn more about it? We don’t suffer from a lack of information in this world. We suffer from a willingness to look objectively at that information and follow where it leads us, even if we don’t like the results.
How does this belief help me? Understanding this can help us see why we might unconsciously hold on to a belief. Often we want to hold on to a belief because it helps us. Maybe we find comfort in it because the alternative is too uncomfortable or scary. Often, just asking this question alone can help us see that a belief does not serve us, and we can work on letting it go.
The beliefs we have about the world guide our choices and actions. Doing our best to put our beliefs through a rigorous process can help us reach better conclusions. And even when we are correct, we should be willing to always work on refining our process of testing our beliefs. It is not enough that we have the correct answer. More important is how we got there.
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