Trust the Method: Abandoning Science and Reason Undermines Progress
A friend of mine has been in poor health for a while and recently made the decision, with advice from medical professionals to lose some weight and improve their fitness. Their first goal was to shed some pounds and they came to me to explain their plan to do it. They decided to use a combination of an unproven, untested weight loss pill and eating only once every 3 days. I was naturally shocked by this and I strongly suggested they reconsider. I recommended a daily exercise regime instead, along with a healthy, reduced-calorie diet. In recommending a different approach, I wasn’t undermining the entire enterprise of improving their health, losing weight, or getting fitter. I was suggesting what I’d deem a more effective and more importantly, safe and sustainable way to get the job done.
Impatience, anger, and aversion to hard work or difficulty can push us toward shortcuts. If we can bypass a short term difficulty we often will, without paying attention to what that means for the future. My friend might lose weight with the pill, they would certainly lose weight by eating once every 3 days but in turn, they risk damaging their health in other ways. If they don’t give up entirely and slip back to square one, they’ll overshoot and wind up with some other avoidable health problem that needs a remedy.
The goal isn’t all there is. The method matters.
This article isn’t about losing weight.
The importance of method before goal runs through every part of life, personal and social. And there’s nowhere that it’s more important than in sense-making, politics, and ideas. We are emotional, intuitive animals. It’s not in our nature to robotically, dispassionately seek truth in every situation. We naturally form our opinions and ideas based on our social influences, emotional experiences, and innate instincts. Having said that, we humans do have a unique ability to examine our thinking and behaviour. Introspection is an incredibly valuable tool for understanding ourselves both individually and collectively.
Particularly lucid and introspective people throughout history tapped into that tool to make important observations and judgements about the intricacies of our condition, the ways we interact, form opinions, and pursue meaningful lives. Their names adorn bookshelves today — Socrates, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and the Stoics, Descartes, Hume, Kant.
“Whom do I call educated? First, those who manage well the circumstances they encounter day by day. Next, those who are decent and honorable in their intercourse with all men, bearing easily and good-naturedly what is offensive in others and being as agreeable and reasonable to their associates as is humanly possible to be… those who hold their pleasures always under control and are not ultimately overcome by their misfortunes… those who are not spoiled by their successes, who do not desert their true selves but hold their ground steadfastly as wise and sober-minded men.”
Those thinkers were in the minority, often coming into direct conflict with majority values (Socrates was executed by the state for ‘corrupting the minds of the young’). It wasn’t until the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries that values of reason, skepticism, and individuality began to expand into the mainstream and contend with traditionalist and religious understandings of the world. The establishment of science as our most trusted and reliable sense-making toolset us on a path to rapid progress in quality of life, wellbeing, health, economy, technology, and so on. And the emphasis on reason and individuality spurred representative democracy in Europe, the American Declaration of Independence and eventually the abolition of slavery.
“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”
Today, science and reason are more central to everyday life than ever before but we don’t always use those tools perfectly. A pilot can crash a plane, no matter how over-engineered. A mishandled fire can erase a forest. And humans can misuse science and reason. Despite the progress it’s delivered, science has been used throughout history to support harmful, evil, and damaging ideas. Eugenics was seen as a scientific movement and became a faux-factual justification for the Holocaust. But science didn’t create Eugenics or scientific racism, intuitive, tribal humans did. They looked to science to support ideas they felt, and perhaps wanted, to be true and in doing so narrowed their focus and misconstrued data. The method wasn’t at fault, the practitioners were. Science has long since discredited and moved beyond Eugenics not because compassionate people simply decided it must, but because the data disproved the nonsense.
Science isn’t just the method of testing hypotheses on an individual level, it is a complex machine fuelled by skepticism. When a scientist or group make a discovery or share a finding, it isn’t just logged in the big book of scientific fact and sealed for all eternity, it’s scrutinised and reexamined. Others reply with their own theories and studies and understanding grow incrementally through a sequence of questioning, disproving, re-imagining, and testing. There is no endpoint, only the point at which a falsifiable theory has withstood all good-faith effort to disprove it. That’s when we consider it the most reliable information we have, the closest thing we have to truth and fact.
Likewise, reason demands good-faith discourse where intuitions are tested through sound logic. No individual can be completely free of context and feeling, other than perhaps the odd psychopath, and we commonly use reason to justify our prior intuitions.
“Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe”
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
But like with science, reason itself isn’t at fault but the flawed human use of it. A human open to, and respectful of, sound logic will be willing to learn and change their opinion, regardless of their initial context. We are constantly up against our own nature and to keep the ship afloat, we have to trust in the method, often at the expense of our feelings. Progress doesn’t function by excluding opposing ideas but by embracing good-faith dialogue across political boundaries and contexts. It’s only by trusting in sound logic and scientific inquiry that we can overcome our flawed impulses and move toward the truth.
If you feel that you’re right but your reasoning collapses under scrutiny, you have no grounds for certainty. If you’re convinced that something is true but scientific consensus says otherwise, you have no grounds for certainty. If your theory can’t be falsified or your argument relies on a logical fallacy, you have no grounds for certainty.
It’s easy to respect the methods when they support our instincts and abandon them when they don’t. When the tools dismantle the dogma of an evil like Nazism, great. When the tools undermine our own position on social justice? Then what? Accept uncertainty, study the data, and entertain other ideas. Be patient. Science and reason aren’t tools to wield selectively against enemies. Skepticism and scrutiny aren’t reserved for the bad guy’s ideas. They are the first principles on which we base all understanding, the tools we must use to navigate the moral landscape, and arrive at shared truths and values that can stand up to scrutiny.
To toss out sound reasoning or the scientific method when they don’t support our agenda is to build a house on sand. If the tide of popular opinion sways toward throwing out enlightenment thinking in favour of any ideology, the door is thrown wide open to mob rule, what the majority says, goes. And whilst the mob may align with you today, they may not tomorrow. If we become impatient in our desire for a particular outcome or our fight against a sickness, we take shortcuts just like my friend and the weight loss pill. The postmodern political shortcut is to abandon our most reliable and sophisticated sense-making apparatus. And much like the extreme weight loss strategy, it might deliver what looks like progress in the short term but ultimately results in a collapse back to square one or the creation of a whole new sickness. At which point, we’ll inevitably have to look for reliable sense-making tools for a cure.
There’s a more effective, safe, and sustainable way to seek progress: Accept uncertainty, respect reason, support science.
Trust the method.