Never Give Up on the Virtue of Doubt

Nattering nabobs of negativism. William Safire wrote those words for Vice President Spiro Agnew to push back on people who doubted him. Three years later, Agnew resigned after a corruption probe and conviction for tax evasion. Doubt always has its doubters. But it has special virtues in science and health. Critical thinking is impossible without doubt.

David Allison, Greg Pavella, and Ivan Oransky offer a remarkably thoughtful essay on reasonable and unreasonable doubts. You’ll find it here in the new issue of American Scientist. Feel free to stop reading this and click through to their superior essay.

Doubt Mongering

Like any potent tool, doubt can be misused. Politicians muster our doubts about their political rivals to advance their own causes. Russia appears to be sowing doubts about the integrity of rival democracies all over the world to enhance its own standing. We see doubts about climate science used in politics to fight climate policies.

Doubt mongering is a classic tool for someone who is losing a policy debate. And it’s pummeling us today.

Ad Hominem Responses

Likewise, an ad hominem response to doubt mongering is classic. “Those people are just shills for the industry” is a typical example. Close to home, we have the idea that nutrition science from the food industry is by definition unreliable. That ad hominem argument extends – sometimes with dramatic flair – to anyone whose research might receive funding from industry.

Such arguments serve to discount the importance of objective facts and truth.

No Progress without Doubt

Time Cholesterol Cover 1984Despite the dangers of unfounded skepticism, scientific progress is impossible without doubt. Critical thinking is the indispensable tool for distinguishing myths from speculation or speculation from facts.

Is childhood obesity declining? People with vested interests in touting their own strategies have been saying it is for years. Skeptical scientists find that objective evidence says otherwise.

Does low-fat dietary advice promote health? Nearly three decades of dietary guidance said so. Skeptics proved that conventional wisdom to be unwise.

Belief without doubts is certainly not the foundation for good science or good policy. It’s not even a very good foundation for theology.

Show us the data.

Click here for the essay by Allison, Pavela, and Oransky.

Doubts, photograph © Rolf Dietrich Brecher / flickr

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February 28, 2018

2 Responses to “Never Give Up on the Virtue of Doubt”

  1. February 28, 2018 at 9:36 am, Susan Dimick said:

    Wow. Love this. Just attended the National Lipid Association meetings. Lots of healthy doubt. Many brave people willing to challenge long taught dietary guidelines.

  2. March 01, 2018 at 1:42 am, David Brown said:

    John Stuart Mill said it best: “There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers—knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.”