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Honesty vs rationalism in real human beings

November 8, 2013

I understand why scientists push hard for more evidence and rationality in public debate. There are many sloppy, dishonest, ill-conceived arguments out there. We reasonably think that science-based reasoning will solve these problems. As public discourse becomes more scientific, we believe it will also become more honest, productive, and intelligent. In many cases this model is definitely true. It may even be true most of the time. But I don’t think we’ve considered the possibility that there are instances when these goals conflict. That the link between rationality and honesty is a strong general trend rather than an ironclad law. That sometimes insisting on rational argument can undermine honesty. Creationism is one of those instances.

Again, let’s look at the argument scientists make: reading a single paragraph over three weeks will affect students’ cognitive ability. It’s rational to the extent that it makes putative empirical claims, and eschews subjective “we just think it’s wrong”. But it’s definitely not honest. I’m fairly certain we would oppose that paragraph regardless of what the evidence said. An honest argument would recognize the non-rational (not the same as irrational!) reasons we oppose that passage. Simply put, we believe some things are wrong even if they don’t have concrete negative consequences. Why is that confession so problematic?

There are times we all have to argue for something we deeply care about. In those instances, it’s likely that we will not be rational or logical. The exigencies of fighting for our values may sometimes trump our own concerns for reason. Bad arguments must of course be criticized. But when we make such accusations, we should do it with the knowledge that at times we too exhibit such behavior. We are human after all.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    November 10, 2013 1:37 pm

    Nice article. I think I was confused a bit because I saw what was called an argument more as a hypothesis. And i suppose it can be a hypothetical argument. But I think honesty comes in when you test it and you make a conclusion? Maybe, maybe not. I guess I was trying to understand what “honest” meant, and then I realised in my semantical realm, I would have used the word “wrong” as opposed to honest. And I would have used the word “wrong” because the (what I call) “hypothesis” is testable or falsifiable. So someone can logically (you might say rationally) make the argument (or I might say hypothesis) but then I hope if it is testable, after looking at the results you don’t say it anymore or you continue to say it based on those results (of which repeatability is really important).

    I definitely get what you’re saying about honesty though. It seems you mean it’s not even worth testing because, if we were honest, it’s not true. Gotchya.

    PS It took me awhile to understand this. I realised I had to read the link in order to get it. It may be nice to include a brief (tiny bit more) explanation so that clicking the link is optional.

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