After writing a recent column on evolution for our local paper, I was discussing with a colleague the reactions I had received. I had not revealed my position on evolution, just the process by which I had reached my conclusions. But my colleague stated that, of course, my position was clear, even if unstated. “They know what your position is because you believe in evidence,” he observed.
I had never thought about it that way but I certainly do believe in evidence. It seems obvious to me that I should base my decisions and beliefs on the available evidence. There are times when the evidence is murky or when there is no evidence to go on. In these situations, intuition and extrapolation are the best we can do, though they both have inherent limitations. And when the evidence is lacking or mixed, caution is imperative. But when evidence exists, it seems like a no-brainer to weigh it before deciding what car to buy or what we believe about the origins of life.
Unfortunately, we seldom do this. Most of us have many ideas and opinions that we hold strongly, even if we are not at all conversant with the relevant data. Once we have formed these opinions, we tend to look only at the evidence that supports what we already believe. Instead of starting with questions, gathering evidence, and then making decisions, we do it backwards. In the process, we often reach conclusions that would be indefensible if subjected to knowledgeable cross-examination.
Being open to the evidence can be unsettling. What if a dearly held belief is proven wrong? It would be much more comforting to cling to our preconceived notions without searching or questioning. Maybe ignorance really is bliss, at least temporarily. But in the long run, I would prefer to take my chances with truth, even if the journey is sometimes bumpy. The only reason to fear evidence is if what one believes is not true.
Evidence-based living requires humility. If I am really open to what new evidence may tell me, I must assume that what I think to be true now may possibly be wrong. All of my conclusions must be tentative and open to modification if the preponderance of the evidence proves me wrong.
Imagine a world where governing decisions were made based on the dispassionate evaluation of objectively-collected data instead of political pandering. Or how about a world where what we consumed was based on rational considerations of health and economics instead of glitzy advertising? Or better yet, a world where lethal products such as tobacco did not get special consideration because of their historical standing. And what if we followed the data that shows that happiness is not a by-product of fame or wealth but is found in cultivating close personal relationships, improving ourselves, and finding meaning in life.
We would all be better off if we lived there.
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