Easy Habits and the Consequences of Belief

At first glance, the two books could not be more different. Subject, tone, everything seems different. Not at odds so much as…nonoverlapping.

Which is ironic, since both deal, in their separate ways, with that very idea, the separation of areas of knowing.

Probably because I read them so close together I recognized their shared concerns as clearly as I did. Whatever the reason, it struck me as obvious in so many ways that I began to recall all the other books over the last few years that could be likewise gathered within this same subset, all on distinct topics and yet all based on, to some degree, an analysis of the same human propensity to disregard evidence when it contradicts belief.

Let me begin with the more general of the two.

Jerry A. Coyne is an evolutionary biologist.  Compared to others with public profiles, he has published few books.  Three, to be precise.  His latest, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, is a direct challenge to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria.”  Gould’s premise is that science and religion should not conflict with each other because they are concerned with entirely separate realms of knowing—hence the nonoverlapping part—and except for certain agenda-driven partisans, there is no reason for them to be in conflict.  Coyne sees this as accommodationism, which he thoroughly discredits in his book.

My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.  “Knowledge” acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions.  In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding reality.

Coyne identifies Accommodationism as an attempt not to stir the hornet’s nest, because scientists are often dependent on politically sensitive funding.  Science, especially Big Science dealing with questions of origins, is expensive and the days of the independently wealthy scientist are largely gone.  Rocking the boat by annoying those who hold the purse strings would seem ill-advised.

The conclusions, he goes on to argue, of scientific inquiry continually poke holes in those claims by religion that still assert authority over secular matters.

But more than that, such deferral to authority erodes our critical capacity and can lead to false conclusions and bad judgments, all because we accept the hegemony of “faith.”

…a word defined in the New Testament as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  The philosopher Walter Kaufmann characterized it as “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

The sticking point for many would be that “reasonable person” proviso, for surely, as Coyne concedes—often—there are many reasonable people who nevertheless espouse a religious faith.  What are we to make of that?  Is the basis for the assessment of “reasonable” perhaps too ill-defined or is the scope of “belief” too broad?

Coyne takes us through the process, giving a thorough explication of why science and religion are incompatible if not a convincing argument for the down-side of belief for belief’s sake.  He tells an anecdote early in the book about how he yearly teaches undergraduates a course in evolution, which the majority do very well at, but admit, after earning their A, to not believing a word of what he taught.  Because it contradicts their religious belief.

It is this that Coyne sees as the dangerous aspect of faith as promulgated through religion, the a priori rejection of evidence in favor of a set of usually unexamined beliefs.  He takes us through a catalogue of negative manifestations, from the rejection of medicines to the acts of terrorists to the rejection of solid science (like climate change), that have their underlying justifications in religion.

Coyne, an admitted atheist, puts all this forward while taking pains to admit the personal comfort to be found in religion by many people.  From a certain point of view he tends to go the extra kilometer to be fair.  Of course, going through the comments on various review sites, those predisposed to reject such arguments accuse him of profound bias if not outright malicious intent.  One cannot help but wonder if they bothered to read the book, all or even in part.

The book makes its case clearly and concisely.  It avoids the polemic outrage to be found in other tomes by big name atheists by sticking largely to evidentiary concerns and philosophical arguments.

But, one may ask, so what?  Religion and science are two realms in which most people would assume they have no stake. Castles in the air, esoteric arguments about things that have no impact on our daily lives.  Most people seem to keep a religion much the same way they have a pet and certainly in the West the majority live secular lives and only rarely feel compelled to apply their religious convictions to anything.  As for science, as long as the technology we depend on works, all the rest is so much theoretical handwaving.  It makes no difference if we have almost no understanding of quantum mechanics and certainly evolution is just tenure-building nonsense having to do with million-year-old bones and what kind of textbooks the school district might use next year.  Nothing to do with us in our daily lives. So what if people rely more on faith and belief in making their daily judgments than on evidence-based science?  We operate more on heuristics defended by aphorism than by reason and applied understanding, or so Daniel Kahneman tells us in his excellent study, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and we by and large get along perfectly well that way.

How does this argument concern me?

Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing The Scream, has an answer to that.  Of sorts, if we but make the epistemological leap.

Hari is writing about the drug war. It is, for him, as much a personal examination as a journalistic one, as he admits to having family and friends who are addicts.  He begins with a simple question.

I scribble down some questions that had puzzled me for years.  Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue?  Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can’t?  What really causes addiction?  What happens if you choose a radically different policy?

Okay, three questions.  Still, simple, basic questions, to which any reasonable person might reasonably expect a reasonable answer.

Yet we spend billions, bully small countries, destroy thousands if not millions of lives, all in pursuit of policies which rest on an appalling lack of informed justification.  By the end of the book you come to see that there are no answers to those simjple questions which in any way validate our continuing on with things as they are.  As they have been for a hundred years.

Hari goes back to beginning of the war, before drugs were illegal, and takes use through the history.  Back to Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who fueled the drug war for the twin purposes of maintaining his agency and exorcizing demons that had possessed him since childhood, even in the face of substantive research and sound arguments denying his approach to the problem had any merit and more than ample evidence—Prohibition—that it would lead to catastrophe, not only on a national but on a global level.  Hari details Anslingers battle to destroy Billie Holiday and his use of intimidation and police tactics and, subsequently, U.S. foreign policy to assure the continued crusade to eradicate drugs and destroy addicts.

Not because of any evidence Anslinger understood that led him to think this was the only if not the best way, but because he believed it in spite of growing mountains of evidence that this was a wrongheaded approach.  He suppressed evidence, hounded physicians who dared present alternative models to the drug problem, intimidated politicians—except those who could secure him funding—and strenuously denied the validity of any evidence that  contradicted his belief.

He believed.

As many did and still do.  It is this that trumps hard evidence.

Even as a young adolescent I thought the argument for our drug policies was lacking.  I thought at the time that I just didn’t understand.  Never having been in the least interested in drugs and knowing few if any who were involved with anything more serious than marijuana, it seemed not to concern me.  Later, I did a short stint as a volunteer drug counselor, but the work was far more than I could handle at the time.  I trusted the people in charge knew what they were doing and certainly the gang violence associated with drugs seemed to make a persuasive case that this was a worthwhile and often desperate fight.

But as the years went by and the war continued, I began to notice bits of research here and there and how certain politicians contradicted themselves and how the prison population, especially in the wake of Nixon’s near militarization of the police community and the drug war ethos, was growing and in very worrisome ways.  I began to seriously rethink my position with Reagan’s zero tolerance policies and the mandatory sentencing guidelines he established through Ed Meese, one of the notable Puritans of the modern age.  Even so, I had the nagging suspicion that maybe I was just missing something.  Certainly I didn’t approve of drug addiction, but I more and more came to believe that these people needed help, not punishment.  We understand that process very well with alcohol, why is it different with narcotics?

And besides, there are plenty of people who receive perfectly legal prescription narcotics and never become addicts.

The number of holes in the picture kept growing.  I no longer trusted stated drug policy, but I didn’t understand the instransigence of people over reform.

Hari’s book lays it out very clearly.  Money is high on the list.  We fund too many of the wrong people at too high a level for them to be easily weaned from the teat.  Foreign policy is also tied to this, especially in these days of international terrorism which has a strong drug component.  But the factor that ties this in to Jerry A. Coyne’s book is the one Hari covers only glancingly.


It is easier to rely on what we have always believed than to look at evidence that requires us to change our mind.

Many aspects of our lives are covered by this observation, but where problems arise are those with political and social ramifications.  The persistent beliefs about the poor, about minorities, about people with different beliefs, even when evidence is provided which significantly challenges such beliefs and suggests strongly that not only are they wrong but that we would be better off discarding them, we cling to them.

Hence my conflation of these two books and the suggestion that they share a common idea.

Not that I argue that all beliefs are wrong.  What is wrong is the intractable nature of unquestioned belief.  The only reason the drug war continues is that it has considerable popular support and the only reason it has that is that many people cannot bring themselves to change their minds about it in the face of not only evidence but what we euphemistically call common sense.

But that can be said of so many things which directly and indirectly impact our lives.

Perhaps it is a stretch and perhaps I argue out of my own biases, but it seems to me the most valuable tool we can have in our intellectual toolbox is the ability to say “well, I believe that but I might be wrong.”  Faith cannot maintain, however, among people who are able to say that and apply it to anything and everything.  Science is built on exactly that principle—all knowledge is conditional—but belief, as exemplified by religion, thrives by the absence of that principle.  It says some knowledge is absolute, not to be questioned.

In the contemplation of matters of theological concern, this perhaps offers consolation, comfort, a certain utility, to be sure.  But it is easy for unquestioning acceptance of arguments from authority to become habit and then apply it to anything that our prejudices suggest we may wish to avoid examining.  Drug addiction is an unfortunate affliction and it may be uncomfortable for people to see it for what it is—a disease, like alcoholism.  That discomfort makes room for assertions from authority offered by people who claim to be working on our behalf.  Our unwillingness to ask evidentiary questions is a cozy environment for demagogues and despots.

When you ask “What does this have to do with me?” you might be surprised at the consequences of avoidance and the price of unquestioning trust.  Why should we learn science and how to apply the discipline of examining evidence?  So we don’t hurt ourselves out of the easy habit of belief.

One thought on “Easy Habits and the Consequences of Belief

  1. Pingback: In Review | The Proximal Eye

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