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How We Come to Our Beliefs (Evidence vs. Authority, and the Climate Change Crisis)


This piece will be my newspaper opinion piece for the coming week in my very red congressional district (VA-06).


(Almost everything we humans do, as cultural creatures, is based on our beliefs. Thus it’s important how people come to their beliefs.)

My father, Jacob Schmookler, called himself “a child of the enlightenment.” By which he meant that he believed in coming to his beliefs by applying reason to evidence. And he walked his talk beautifully: I feel privileged to have had as a father a man with his kind of integrity and respect for the truth.

Being raised in that family culture, I thought the world in general was like that. Which set me up for surprises about the ways many people come to their beliefs.

I remember being shocked, in my early teens, to learn about the Scopes Trial in 1927 – in which a public school teacher was charged with the crime of teaching his students evolution. Some Americans in Tennessee — more than two generations after Darwin published one of the most important ideas in the history of science – had passed a law making it a crime to teach it.

“Wow!” my naïve 12-year-old self thought in surprise. “This was going on when Mom and Dad were already alive! So recent!”

I’d imagined that when someone makes a powerfully reasoned and substantiated case for the truth of an important idea, people would feel obliged – as my Dad would — to believe it.

But the people in Tennessee had a different way of coming to their beliefs: they had an unquestioned authority – the Bible – and felt obligated, as Bible-believing Christians to treat every word of that Bible as literally and completely true. So when Darwin contradicted the literal reading of Genesis, these people passed a law that said, in effect, “Satan, get thee hence!”

Lately, I’ve been reading a book that shows that in a long perspective of the history of our civilization, what was surprising was not something like the Scopes Trial but the emergence of an outlook like my father’s.

The book is titled The Invention of Science and it shows how the culture of Christendom out of which science arose was one where — for centuries — belief consisted of acceptance of dogma handed down by unquestioned authority.

The authority that dominated Christendom was a marriage between the Church and the wisdom of the ancients. Especially the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Whatever Aristotle said – about all sorts of subjects we’d call scientific now – was considered necessarily true. Even things that a simple test could have proved it wrong at any time, like that a heavier object (e.g. a Cannonball) falls faster than lighter objects (e.g. a bullet or a BB).

(When Galileo saw moons around Jupiter – which contradicted basic principles of what the authorities said about the heavens – there were churchmen who refused to look through his telescope.)

Authority, not evidence, dominated.

The evidence of history is quite plain: On scientific questions, the reason-and-evidence approach brought people closer to the truth than the deference-to-authority approach. That’s proved by how the rise of science has handed humankind a whole new level of power in relation to the complex world around us. The Scientific Resolution led

  • To the Industrial Revolution, which brought about enormous growth in the power of societies to generate wealth.
  • To breakthroughs in public health and medicine, producing a dramatic increase in earth’s human population (more than tripling in my lifetime so far).
  • To breakthroughs in food production, to support our additional billions.
  • To the total transformation of the weapons of war – with an exponential increase war’s potential destructiveness.

People can harness nature’s powers only to the degree that they understand what they’re working with.

On the other side, our times have revealed a great danger with the reliance on authority: sometimes the authority might prove untrustworthy. Sometimes, the authorities people rely on will feed them lies.

This danger is demonstrated by the effect of the lies the authorities on the right have been selling about climate change – a “hoax,” “unsettled,” etc, — just as the fossil fuel interests want them to believe. Even as the scientific evidence has grown to mountainous proportions, substantiating the urgency of the warnings from the climate scientists, the Republicans have moved further from acknowledging the scientific truth than they were in the 1980s.

The questions, “Is the earth’s climate being destabilized, and what are the likely consequences of that?” are scientific questions. But as climate change denial became Republican dogma, the Republican electorate has believed their authority, and ignoring what the science so clearly and urgently shows.

The people on the right – like those who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope – regard the preservation of their ignorance as, in some sense, “keeping the faith.” Dangerous—because it is preventing our doing what absolutely must be done.

And I wonder: Can we get to a place where in their political lives at the very least, Americans generally will respect the scientific answers to scientific questions?


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