Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Intellectual Laziness: The Appeal of Over-Skepticism

I had a strange conversation recently. I got into an argument of sorts with an acquaintance that I see rarely on my daily commute. Initially, we were discussing the differences between HMO and PPO health care plans, but then that shifted to other topics: first, the balance between work incentives and promised benefits and then to the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

Where the conversation grew worse was when this person made a claim that undocumented workers, or "illegal aliens" as he called them, were putting a strain on the system by receiving benefits. I quickly called bullshit and cited a collection of studies compiled by The Urban Institute that debunks many immigration myths; one being the myth that undocumented workers come to the United States to receive welfare benefits. But we didn't even get to debate this topic at all, because this person had already categorically denied that any truth can come from any individual or group.

A true nihilist (only in the sense that he rejects the idea of an objective truth), he went on to argue that I cannot know that what I am reading from organizations like The Urban Institute is truth. I pointed out that, using his logic, that I should not believe a word he says. He agreed with me. At least he was consistent.

His main arguments against my own were that his personally biased, anecdotally collected, and geographically limited observations that led him to broad generalizations about the world are enough to call into question the scientifically verifiable methodology, transparent and accessible data, and repeatable observations of organizations that make claims counter to his own ideas about the world.

I attempted to explain the idea of criteria analysis; the idea that since some sources are better than other sources, people should critically analyze each source based upon criteria laid out in Enlightenment philosophy. For example, a source that provides the raw data that its analysis is based upon would be a better source than one that does not. A source that provides a transparent and accessible methodology is also superior to a source that does not. These factors allow any disinterested individual to repeat the analysis, examine the data, and criticize the methodology. After much conversation back and forth, the end result is a much more robust analysis of the available data -- one that we can be reasonably assured to be truth because many disinterested parties have had the opportunity to criticize and alter the original analysis. This process is the basis of much of academia and is an example of how the scientific method of inquiry is put to practical use.

He unequivocally denied that this is possible, and again he used his own anecdotal evidence from past experiences about how data can be compromised in the lab, outside of the peering eyes of the public. He may very well be right that such things have occurred, and I do not doubt that such things still occur. But over time, these errors can be found out when the data is transparent and accessible. Academia is very transparent and accessible, and academics who conduct analysis that are not transparent and accessible are generally criticized and not taken as seriously as those who are. Organizations that use the same processes of academia can be held accountable, and that is the key to discovering truth.

Getting back to the point of argument that sparked this, I believe that I can be reasonably assured that the analysis from The Urban Institute is accurate because of the use of such open processes. Furthermore, to my knowledge no other academic has provided a damning criticism based on empirical evidence of the debunked immigration myths. I have not seen any scientifically vetted sources make claims to the contrary. Therefore, I have every reason to believe that what I have read is much closer to the truth than the anecdotal evidence of my debate partner.

Although I tried, there was simply no way for me to convey these ideas to him. He appealed to the value of skepticism. While I agree that skepticism has great value in a functioning democracy, his skepticism seemed unwarranted by the available evidence. Skepticism is healthy when it is used to show flaws or holes in existing analysis and data by using new, empirically derived evidence; however, this was not the kind of skepticism that he employed. His was based upon loosely connected anecdotal evidence, false analogies, and logical fallacies that led him to broad generalizations. That kind of skepticism would fall into the realm of conspiracy. The only conclusion that I could come to, as I said then, is that he appears to have rejected objective reality.

Why does this bother me? I have to wonder how many other people out there think the same way. In an email list that I sometimes participate in, I've run into this kind of intellectual laziness before. It seems that many people have given up on the idea of an objective reality. Many of these people subscribe to a conservative political ideology -- I wonder what kind of reaction I would get if I described how their points of view are very post-modern. On second thought, I'd probably be told that's bullshit without a second thought from them.

How can we reach people who think this way? How can there be a debate on things like public policy when the opposing point of view has already rejected the most robust method of intellectual inquiry ever thought by humans?

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