- Deciding what to believe
Most of us have different levels of justification for our beliefs. We can make better cases for some of them than we can for others. This is inevitable. We can't thoroughly investigate and evaluate everything we believe.
We also differ as individuals in what it makes sanse for us to investigate. We have different lives: different needs, interests, responsibilities, and passions. So we have greater and lesser need for accuracy in different areas. People with children need to investigate child-rearing theories more diligently than people without them. In general, the amount of time and effort we owe it to ourselves to invest in our beliefs, and the way we diversify that investment, depends on what we are like. In the end, what we owe to ourselves is to live well. That means investigating to the extent that best contributes to our well-being.
Since what we believe affects others, there is also the matter of what we owe them. Again, that raises a nest of difficult ethical questions - but this much seems clear: the more the lives and welfare of others depend on the accuracy of our beliefs, the higher our standards of evidence should be (always a matter to consider for Wikipedians).
Once we make peace with the fact that some of our beliefs are based on relatively little evidence, and that's okay, the thought that we are entitled to believe without evidence in certain cases may seem loss shocking. I think we do have such a right, subject to two strict requirements. First, the issues must be ones we can't decide on the basis of the evidence and arguments (even when evidence includes what the experts say). Second, our adopting the belief in question must present no significant risk or harm to others. Some might take these conclusions as an endorsement of intellectual laziness. But they're not. I'm just being honest about the fact that few of us have the time, energy, need, or capacity to carry out Socratic missions of investigation and maieutics. This is not to say we don't need more people like Socrates (or the child who declared the emperor naked). The world is rife with charlatans, cheats, flimflam artists, incompetents, scammers, unscrupulous careerists, and fools in high places (often with big egos). In addition, the intellectual world is not immune to politics of fashion. At times it stampedes and at times it circles the wagons. As a result, bad things happen. So we need our skeptics and iconoclasts, our unmaskers and our sticklers for the truth. We should build monuments to these whistle-blowers in the fields of knowledge and create an annual holiday in their honour. Above all, we should listen to what they say (without losing sight of how often our trusted sources also get things right).
But most of us are ill-equipped to walk in Socrates' sandals, and most of the rest don't want to. As we learned from Socrates, unmasking false experts can be hazardous to one's health, and we should avoid drinking hemlock. The unmasking usually involves speaking truth to (or about) power, and power didn't become power by turning the other cheek. What happened to Socrates is extreme by today's Western democratic standards (is it?), but, with the exception of stand-up comics, serious iconoclasts and unmaskers have harder life than the rest of us (unless they are extraordinarily gifted, like Richard Feynman). As the old saw says, you have to go along to get along, and they don't. Insider whistle-blowers, in particular, have a harder row to hoe than their more compliant and complacent peers. Exposing the weakness of a major research programme in one's field makes one unpopular with colleagues invested in that enterprise. And exposing fraud by a respected or well-liked colleague may even seem traitorous. The fact that our unmaskers and debunkers risk all that is precisely what makes them heroes.
- This is a short essay stating Monozigote's opinion on whistle-blowers. It's only available in English on his userpages in the template format.
- One could also say where the promise of benefits outweighs the expected burdens. The choice between these formulations raises some tricky questions about whether we should treat harms and benefits symmetrically in ethics: roughly speaking, should benefits count as much as harms when we construct our moral principles?
- Nobel Prize in Physics and a renowned nonconformist.