Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Smart People Don't Always Believe Smart Things

Smart people are very good at justifying things they came to believe for non-smart reasons.

Perhaps no other statement has rung so true, in my experience, than this one from Michael Shermer. It spells the death of appeals to authority. Recently I was told by someone that Muslims offer better arguments for their beliefs than Christians, because they "seem to know what they are talking about what with them being Doctors and all that kind of stuff." This is possibly one of the most imbecilic remarks I've encountered in my conversations with religious believers. Not only does it ignore the many non-Muslim physicians out there (including atheists and agnostics), but it operates on a non-existent connection between medical skill and factually accurate belief.

Doctors may be very intelligent people in their respective fields, yet religion is the realm of philosophy, history, myth, and other fields that are not always well known by medical experts. More importantly, though, even people who have studied religion extensively are not to be trusted off the bat. Certain degrees may warrant further credibility, but only in addition to strong arguments and persuasive evidence. It's the depth of exposure and research that culminates in the credibility assigned to those degrees, and that will be shown in the strength of the case one makes for a particular position. Shermer's statement beautifully illustrates this fact.

Intelligent people are quite capable of compartmentalizing their beliefs and sealing off specific ones in a "do-not-disturb" section. Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, but we need not believe it, even if he was a brilliant scientist. Darwin consulted alternative therapies, but we need not accept them, even if he was also a brilliant scientist. There's nothing about a Muslim holding a physician's degree that tells us whether or not his belief in Islam is founded on good evidence and strong reason. Religious believers are more than willing to embrace the character of those whom they deem to be nice reflections of the religion, but when we point out the garish reflections of suicide bombers, inquisitors, and the likes, cries of a mistaken connection abound.

An appeal to authority should be easily recognized as a fallacy almost at first glance, especially in an age where "experts" are being viewed with increasing skepticism by paranoid and deluded folks like Don McLeroy, the former chair of the Texas State Board of Education. Unfortunately, the fallacy persists. Maybe if we learn to emphasize the value of logic and evidence, then such problems will be avoided, but until we do, I remain doubtful that this common sense truth will really catch on. Still, in the meantime we should all do our part to try and educate others about the fallacy of an appeal to authority.

1 comment:

  1. Faulty reasoning must be weeded out from logical arguments. People with impressive credentials in one field of knowledge should not be elevated to expert status in religion/philosophy.

    It IS easy to compartmentalize beliefs. To cope with his conflicting beliefs and worldviews, my hubby puts each in its own file folder. He chooses not to cross-reference them.