Questionable Motives

March 11, 2010

Why is understanding plausibility so important to how we inform our beliefs?

Plausibility is essentially an application of existing basic and clinical science to a new hypothesis, to give us an idea of how likely it is to be true. There are three broad categories of plausibility we need to appreciate:

If evidence for a direct connection between a cause and its effect can be established, then we have a highly plausible explanation upon which we can depend for consistent results.

If we have evidence for an consistent effect from some cause but do not understand the generating mechanism, then we have neutral plausibility for an explanatory hypothesis.

If we have evidence for an inconsistent effect from some perceived cause and suggest an explanatory hypothesis that violates the basic laws of science, then our explanatory hypothesis is implausible.

As Steve Novella writes over at Science-Based Medicine regarding homeopathic treatments that claim to provide efficacy to improve ‘life energy’,

Invoking an unknown fundamental energy of the universe is not a trivial assumption. Centuries of study have failed to discover such an energy, and our models of biology and physiology have made such notions unnecessary, resulting in the discarding of “life energy” as a scientific idea over a century ago.

Essentially any claim that is the functional equivalent to saying “it’s magic” and would, by necessity, require the rewriting not only of our medical texts, but physics, chemistry, and biology, can reasonably be considered, not just unknown, but implausible.

How we inform our beliefs using the plausibility standard is important and depends entirely on the quality of the explanations we rely on to do so,  whether they are about specific ideas in medicine or religion or politics or about more general policies and procedures. If our explanations are plausible, then our beliefs are plausible. If our explanations are implausible, then our beliefs are implausible. If we are considering to act on our beliefs, then we need to first undertake due diligence and establish how plausible they really are.

If the beliefs are implausible, then we know they are poorly informed and, as such, are unjustified. Acting on unjustified beliefs in our personal and private domain is our prerogative. We have the freedom to do so because the founding documents and charters and bills of our liberal secular democracies provide us with the necessary legal framework and state-sanctioned power to protect these equal freedoms. But providing what’s necessary isn’t nearly enough. We must also do our part as individuals to maintain our own equal freedoms.

In stark contrast to the freedom we have to exercise our beliefs in the private domain, acting on our implausible beliefs in the public domain is wrong and richly deserving of sustained legitimate criticism. Whenever we come across those who wish promote unjustified beliefs as if they were informed and plausible when they are neither in the public domain using public offices, we must hold them to account for their abuse of their office’s public power that allows them to cross that important boundary between the what is allowable in the private but forbidden in the public.

Our task is to maintain sustained criticism towards those who abuse public office in this way – whether they abuse the office’s power to support implausible medical therapies, implausible religious truth claims, implausible political solutions, and so on. We must insist that only informed beliefs that are plausible be made into public policies and procedures. Our collective failure to participate in our civic duty in this matter is a failure to be responsible to no only ourselves but to our fellow citizens, which has a cumulative effect of reducing our equal common rights and freedoms. We harm the very fabric of our equal rights and freedoms under a liberal secular democracy when we allow the abuse of public office to promote implausible beliefs. We allow it to continue when we choose to remain silent about this abuse. Even more damning to our equal individual freedoms  is our active support of candidates and office holders who are willing to promote our favoured implausible beliefs… again, whether those implausible beliefs are about complimentary and alternative medicines, favoured religious beliefs, political strategies, and so on. This kind of willing support to the implausible is both unpatriotic and seditious no matter how great may be the popularity of these candidates and their platforms.

The standard of plausibility is a very important concept to inform public policies – useful to each of us to determine our level of support for these public policies and procedures – although we have the freedom (and luxury) to pay it scant attention in our private lives… for now. What is essential, however, is to understand why plausibility matters so much.

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