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A response to Aeon’s “Believing without evidence is always morally wrong”

Posted by / November 12, 2018

Written by Francisco Mejia Uribe, an executive director at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, Aeon’s “Believing without evidence is always morally wrong” is a response to the “fake news” epidemic. Mr. Uribe and I are in total agreement here, as you’ll notice if you red this morning’s article about critical thinking and fake news. In this article, I respond to Mr. Uribe’s argument the spirit of critical reading, critical thinking, and friendly debate. The goal is not to suggest that he’s wrong, only to explore the ideas he presents, their consequences, and their alternatives.

First, what’s does “Believing without evidence” (“Believing”) argue? The article uses a philosophical essay called “The Ethics of Belief,” written in 1877 by William Kingdon Clifford. In a nutshell, Clifford argues that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Uribe uses this principle to argue that “[f]alse beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival.” From Clifford, Uribe extrapolates that it is not only our own mental and physical states that suffer from over-credulity, but it is out entire social networks.  That happens because “careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars [sic], conspiracy theorists and charlatans.” Bad information leads to bad beliefs, and bad beliefs lead to bad actions.

Uribe makes a particularly fascinating point when he suggests that Big Data has the potential to create a feedback loop: bad beliefs fed into search engines and other fodder for big data will produce more and worse beliefs. In sum, Uribe applies Clifford’s essay to the technology age in order to argue that we all need to think and read critically, so we don’t fall prey to bad information that builds bad beliefs and then, as a result, bad actions.

Uribe’s intention with the article is a good one. But the foundations of it are shaky at best because, ironically, Uribe himself fell into the very trap that his article warns about. Specifically, Uribe failed to contextualize Clifford’s essay, and as a result he reproduces not only some of the questionable elements of the essay but also the problems that have resulted from those elements in the last 150 years. Tomorrow, I will post my response to Uribe. It’s a long treatment, as I aim to treat his arguments with respect, so it’s better as a standalone piece.

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