Friday, May 29, 2015

Saving Millions of Lives with this One Weird Trick

Inside of a Jail from the Spanish Inquisition.
I know what you're thinking. "Millions of lives? What is this guy talking about?! What trick could possibly do that?" I know, I was skeptical too, but don't click away just yet!

OK, enough ad talk. It just feels dirty. I couldn't resist the title, but my point is actually a pretty modest one, and I'll explain why below. Consider, if you will, the following questions:
  • George Washington died because his doctors thought bloodletting was good for you. What if there had been a way to prevent that?
  • Thousands of people suspected of being witches or even werewolves were once hanged and burned at the stake. What if that could have been avoided?
  • Consider the Aztecs. They used to to cut people's hearts out to keep the gods happy and the sun from falling out of the sky. Was that really necessary?
  • And then think about people right here in the United States. They once enslaved millions of Africans, and justified it (in part) by saying that Africans were the descendants of Ham; cursed by Noah to a life of servitude. What might have prevented that attitude?
Could there really be a simple "trick" to keep this kind of thing from happening? What if didn't just prevent religious violence, superstitious savagery, and bad medical practices, but other kinds of needless suffering too? What if it could have prevented horrors fueled by overconfident and violent secular ideologies like Jacobinism, Nazism, and Stalinism?

Surely no "weird trick" could do that, right? Actually, I honestly think it could. Consider what would happen if people lived according to this simple rule:

If you don't have overwhelming, undeniable evidence that your beliefs are true, never hurt anyone because of them.*

In other words, when your beliefs tell you to do something that could hurt or kill people, ask yourself: "Do I really know this is true? What's my evidence? Can I actually prove it, the way you can prove the Pythagorean Theorem, or that the moon is made of rocks?" If not, then don't do it! When in doubt--and there's almost always doubt--don't hurt anybody or impose upon their happiness. If the implementation of someone's belief puts lives or happiness at stake, then the burden of proof is on the believer, and it's a pretty enormous burden.

That's especially true considering that it's extremely easy to be wrong. That's why this proposal is actually modest: it's based on deep intellectual humility; on knowing you might be wrong. After all, being wrong is the rule in history, not the exception. That's why evidence is crucial. People have been tragically wrong about all kinds of things, from prehistoric human sacrifices to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Better safe than sorry.

Imagine if the Aztecs had said, "Wait, what's the actual evidence that the sun won't come up if we stop ripping people's hearts out? Have we actually tested this idea? What if we went a year without doing it, and see if the sun comes up anyway?"

Think of how many horrible deaths that would have prevented if they had questioned whether they "just knew" the sun would stop coming up.

Imagine if the doctors who accidentally killed George Washington had known how to do controlled experiments, and actually tested to see whether bloodletting was helpful or harmful, instead of relying on tradition and hearsay? What if the people hanging "witches" in Salem had thought, "Whoa whoa whoa...can we prove she's in league with the Devil? Come to think of it, have I ever actually seen the Devil?" What if slave owners had said, "Hold on. How do I actually know any of this stuff about the curse of Ham? Sure, it's written in the Bible, but anybody can write something down. What if it's a bad interpretation, or it never even happened at all?"

We're imagining what might have been, and that might seem like an idle exercise, but it isn't, because the principle doesn't just apply to the past. It applies to the present and the future, too. People are dying over dubious beliefs right now. Children are dying around the world because their parents would rather rely on faith healing than real, evidence-based medicine. People aren't vaccinating their kids, and they're basing that decision on discredited studies and vague appeals to what's natural, not on real scientific evidence. They're not just putting their kids at risk--they're putting us all at risk.

Or consider how questionable religious convictions** still shape global politics. George W. Bush seems to have believed that God was telling him to invade Iraq. In retrospect, he was surely mistaken. Otherwise surely things would have gone better, right? He shouldn't have been so sure about what God wanted. What if he had thought, "Do I really know God wants me to invade Iraq? Can I prove it? Am I sure enough to bet hundreds of thousands of other people's lives on it?"

Of course, the kind of primitive impulses that got heretics and "witches" burned at the stake are still going on today. ISIS is doing that kind of thing right now, and it's as savage as anything that ever happened during the Middle Ages. Dogma-driven barbarism isn't confined to the past, unfortunately.

So, while it may sound insanely grandiose to claim that this principle could save millions of lives, it really isn't. First, it's not my idea anyway--it's been suggested many times before. Second, it's really quite modest--it simply recognizes the fallibility of human understanding. Third, it really could save all those lives, and not just right now, but in the future. The problem, of course, is implementing it. The suggestion is simple, but getting people to actually do it isn't. People have gotten a little less willing to kill for their unproven beliefs in recent decades, but it's still a pretty strong tendency. Montaigne once said, "It is taking one's conjectures rather seriously to roast someone alive for them." Plenty of people still take their conjectures every bit that seriously.

And that's just what they are: conjectures. They aren't proven, and many of them are just flat wrong. That's the thing: it's so very easy to be wrong. People do it all the time. They're wrong more than right, and have been throughout history. That's why, when people's lives and happiness are at stake, it's best to err on the side of caution. None of us are smart enough to bet our beliefs against other people's lives.


*Of course, a good broader rule would be: Try not to hurt anybody because of any belief, true or not. I mean, I know the Earth is round, but I'm not going to punch somebody in the nose if they insist it's flat. But I can imagine some situations where a provable belief could require that people be hurt or killed. If there were an airliner, full of innocent people, and you had undeniable evidence it was carrying an atomic bomb toward a major city, it might be justified to shoot it down. It would never be justifiable if you think God told you there's a bomb, or if your horoscope made you think there was a bomb, etc. You need hard, physical evidence. A feeling of certainty won't cut it. People are constantly feeling certain about all kinds of things they're wrong about.

** I don't mean to imply that religion only causes people to do hurtful things. If often does, but it also causes them to do great things. Think of how many hospitals and homeless shelters have been founded by religious people. It's conceivable that someone might do good things because of a false belief. I think that probably happens all the time. But so what? If it's helpful, and not harmful, there's no pressing need to insist on absolute proof before acting. If you're wrong, you've still done a good thing.