PRODUCTIVE QUESTIONS AS CRITICAL THINKING
1. Is Evidence Really All That Important to Human Flourishing?
2. How Can We Celebrate Evidence When We All Know There Is Abundant Horrible Evidence?
3. Is There A Practical Fix For The Common Failure To Use Evidence As A Basis for Decision-making?
I think it important to begin with the recognition that even those of us who tout evidence as an essential component of skilled thinking are not as likely in practice ourselves to adequately search for nor rely on evidence as we are to sing the praise of evidence. Honesty would require each of us to confess numerous decisions when we should have given evidence much more thorough respect than we did when we went on a certain vacation, took a specific medicine, or forged a particular friendship. We think far too rapidly than we should when making important decisions.
But, we must know that we ignore systematic evidence at a heavy cost. For example, millions of dollars are wasted on medical practices for which there is little to any evidence that the doctor is using effective techniques. Many of us feel annoying pain at some location in our back. Do you think that the many people who feel that pain should follow their doctor's advice to have spinal fusion to eradicate the pain? Does it help your answer to know that hundreds of surgeons recommend the procedure? In light of the popularity of the procedure and its certification of effectiveness by highly trained caring professionals, what do you think? Think Again!
Much more than money is lost in these situations. The time we have in such short supply is frittered away by our needing to rehabilitate or treat the side effects of such practices.
Consider all of the time the medical commuunity spends and the research dollars allocated to identifying the medical effects of acupuncture. Renowned hospitals have acupuncture specialists on their staffs. So there must be substantial evidence for the positive effects of acupuncture, right? Think again. These authoritues have all studied the placebo effect, haven't they?
Why do we not give evidence the respect it deserves?
1. Time. We are bsuy doing things we either like to do or feel we must do. Identifying evidence is very toime consuming, especially when very few people have any sense of where one would find substantive evidence.
2. Lack of knowledge of the multiple forms evidence can take and the strengths and weaknesses of each. To say we need to heed evidence is obvious. But the multiple guises evidence takes are appreciated by only those few who have been specifically trained in those evidential forms.
3. Lack of knowledge about how to sort or evaluate evidence once it is found. Even highly educated people confuse effect size and statistical significance on a regular basis.
4. Lack of understanding of the relative credibility of alternative sources of evidence. If one is not a persistent reader and curious about the attributes of particular perveyors of eviidence, a consumer of evidence gets understandbaly frustrated or manipilated rather easily.
5. Possession of the awareness that even the most eminent experts in many fields change their monds about the power of evidence over time.
If what I have said above is correct, it is unlikely that evidence will ever be amajor source for human inference. I do not expect an educational revolution, the demise of the myriad entertainment options that eat people's time, or any other large-scale change that would eradicate the 5 causes of lack of respect for evidence that I enumerated.
But, we can become missionaries for the kind of knowledge that would elevate respect for evidence. We can also stop acting as if all evidence is equally flawed and therefore can be ignored at will. We can also try to cleanse our own model as careful consumers of evidence.
My biggest hope would be that evidence would be treated more as a public good, something that can be generated and shared in a fair form. As long as evidence flows from self-interested, rather than community-focused sources, we can be certain that it will be largely unreliable and its dissemination creates confusion and misinformation more than enlightenment. I say "evidence should be more a public good than currently" with full recognition of th danger in trusting an evidence-purveyor just because it comes from an allegedly community-minded source. But there are multiple other evaluative tools that could be used to complement such "knowledge."
1. Is greater respect for evidence a hopeless quest? In other words, is it too late to remove the pernicious effect of evidence produced and dissemonated by partisan selfish groups?
2. Is there really no evidence untainted by selfish motivations?
3. Is the skilled consumption of evidence always going to be the province of a very few citizens?