Marion Nestle writes in Food Politics "Although most scientists view scientific methods - testing hypotheses by controlled experiments - as inherently valid and truthful,... many people regard science as just one of a number of belief systems of equal validity and importance.  Religious beliefs, concerns about animal rights, and views of the fundamental nature of society, for example, influence the way people think about food.  So do vested interests."

The same thing applies to people's religious beliefs.  Although to most people with a science background it seems obvious that science is our best way of knowing, this is apparently not true for people in general.  They adopt a religion, or stick with it, because it feels right and they believe their feelings reveal truth. 

One's feelings do reveal truth about inner realities, and it's crucial to be in touch with one's feelings.  Taking one's feelings as evidence about objective realities extends "being in touch with one's feelings" beyond its proper area of authority, but that's what people do. 

I like Marion Nestle's writing about food politics so far, because it reveals a lot of corporate and advertising interests that we are often influenced by without realizing it.  These influences contribute to people being overweight, and other problems.  And it's a good question, in what ways economic interests reinforce religious belief as well. 


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There is one lesson from scientific investigation that applies much more generally and saves us from error—that is the necessity for evidence to support assertions.

The mathematician William Kingdon Clifford made the need for evidence a moral issue: it is unethical to assert anything for which you lack evidence and it is an ethical requirement to look for evidence. Clifford's essay, The Ethics of Belief, is online in many places such as:

This, however, is a modern attitude as the philosopher and psychologist William James noted:

Up to a comparatively recent date such distinctions as those between what has been verified and what is only conjectured, between the impersonal and the personal aspects of existence, were hardly suspected or conceived. Whatever you imagined in a lively manner, whatever you thought fit to be true, you affirmed confidently; and whatever you affirmed, your comrades believed. Truth was what had not yet been contradicted, most things were taken into the mind from the point of view of their human suggestiveness, and the attention confined itself exclusively to the aesthetic and dramatic aspects of events.

In the past the statements of authorities were considered sufficient evidence. If it could be found in Aristotle, Plato, or the fathers of the church, it was considered true.  Only in law and mathematics was demonstrable proof uniformly required. We are more skeptical today and rightly so. Mere authority is not sufficient in cases where we need to make a personal decision.

it is unethical to assert anything for which you lack evidence and it is an ethical requirement to look for evidence.

I like that attitude, it's exactly the opposite of people's proclamations that "I believe ..." said with a sense of virtue. 

But I wonder why William James or you think that's a modern attitude, and what is meant by that?  There's a history of skepticism going back to the ancient Greeks.  And if you are talking about the attitude of the majority of people - what William James describes is exactly what I'm talking about, in the present. 

I suppose some changes like literacy, mobility and wide availability of information would tend to make people question more.  But children have always asked questions. 

And I've wondered if the technological society tends to loosen people's minds about the possibility of magic, and weaken their faith in reason.  If a cellphone can exist, why not angels?  And people don't understand how to fix a cellphone.  If it breaks, you just throw it away.  Things like carpentry or fixing a bicycle do require thought.  But hardly anyone does such things for themselves any more.  We're surrounded by magical objects, we just have to know how to manipulate them. 

No question there was a history of skepticism going back to Socrates himself, but it did not always apply to even scientific questions. James, in a note to the passage quoted above, provides examples:

Until the seventeenth century this mode of thought prevailed. One need only recall the dramatic treatment even of mechanical questions by Aristotle, as, for example, his explanation of the power of the lever to make a small weight raise a larger one. This is due, according to Aristotle, to the generally miraculous character of the circle and of all circular movement. The circle is both convex and concave; it is made by a fixed point and a moving line, which contradict each other; and whatever moves in a circle moves in opposite directions. Nevertheless, movement in a circle is the most "natural" movement; and the long arm of the lever, moving, as it does, in the larger circle, has the greater amount of this natural motion, and consequently requires the lesser force. Or recall the explanation by Herodotus of the position of the sun in winter: It moves to the south because of the cold which drives it into the warm parts of the heavens over Libya. Or listen to Saint Augustine's speculations: "Who gave to chaff such power to freeze that it preserves snow buried under it, and such power to warm that it ripens green fruit? Who can explain the strange properties of fire itself, which blackens all that it burns, though itself bright, and which, though of the most beautiful colors, discolors almost all that it touches and feeds upon, and turns blazing fuel into grimy einders? . . . Then what wonderful properties do we find in charcoal, which is so brittle that a light tap breaks it, and a slight pressure pulverizes it, and yet is so strong that no moisture rots it, nor any time causes it to decay." City of God, book xxi, ch. iv.

The modern view of questioning anything for which evidence has not been provided can be traced most prominently to Descartes, but it took a long time to percolate through all the sciences and philosophy.

Through most of that time religious questions were completely out of bounds. Newton discovered that the comma Johanneum was a corruption of scripture, but he dared not publish his ideas since doubt of the Holy Trinity was a legal offense. The last person executed for denyting the Trinity was young Thomas Aikenhead in Edinburgh in 1697.

The answer of the church to scepticism is that we have the word of God in scripture and such authority cannot be doubted.

The original post raises an interesting point because there are a number of things which science can't (or maybe shouldn't) be consulted on. A few examples -

Ethical issues: you can't test a moral hypothesis in a lab or by experimentation (at least not easily). Therefore you need another belief system (a philosopher, a religion, logic, what you feel like) on which to base ethical decisions.

Subjective importance e.g. of children: most parents feel their children are more important than any other children and would sooner have (e.g.) 10 whole other families die than one of their own children. Any logic or argument that says otherwise is likely to be dismissed out of hand.

Casual opinion: what foods we like are based on what each person thinks tastes nice. Science should hold no opinion on whether chocolate ice cream tastes better than the strawberry flavoured variety.

There is also the legitimate issue, which some people have commented on, of who pays for the research. If a tobacco company releases a study of how safe smoking really is, alarm bells should ring due to the potential for bias by the company funding the research.

This is a catch 22 situation much of the time because those organisations who have access to the best experts and data on a subject are usually the same ones that have a financial interest in a specific conclusion.

Yes, and of any legislation, one must first identify the intended abuse.  Self interest (presumably to support your immediate tribe, or your position as an alpha breeder) is a "moral" human behavior.  Bluff, conn, ambush and camouflage are all tactics used by moral animals.  The Pacific Octopus and the Grey wolf are exceptional at all four.

As to not being able to test a moral hypothesis by investigation (methods notwithstanding) is something to which I do not agree.  You list "logic" as a process along with religion as an alternative method.  Logic (not apologetics) is merely the process that the scientific method serves to discipline.  It is a systematic approach to using logic.  Merely "strong logic" vs. ad hoc off the cuff logic.

We are the product of the process of evolution.  Anthropological and genetic/biomechanical studies are quite useful in identifying our impulses and our belief systems (theology being only one example).  Our morals, and our ideologies are created from the codification of our base impulses.  Thou shalt not kill says "You are a pack animal, and you must take care of the pack".  That does not (as in the bible) extend to the folks in the village over the mountain who dress and look different, because they are not of the genetic line our genes are tuned to least when push comes to shove.  As for those, the good book says "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. "

      Moral humans look after their own.  Moral monkeys do to, but to a lesser extent.  Moral Humans must go kill and steal cattle from others in times of hunger rather than let their own babies suffer.  Moral monkeys fling shit at the other monkeys and then go rub genitals with their mothers.

     There isn't a damn thing that you or I do that cannot be directly related to the expression of our genes.  Period.  There are no mysterious forces driving our thoughts and beliefs.  We are no different than a virus except in one aspect:  When we become such a virulent strain that we start killing our host, we can become aware of the fact, and we *theoretically* have the options to limit our effectiveness as a predator to ensure preservation of our genes over time, vs using up the host or only surviving in environments that keep our new strain in check.

Strawberry ice cream vs. chocolate ice cream is very testable.  Ask someone which one they want.  Since "taste" does not exist any more than "run" exists, you are not evaluating the existence of something, you are evaluating a behavior.  You can also add "variety" to your testing run, which is what the people really want.  Sometimes the answer is chocolate, sometimes strawberry.  I prefer chocolate covered strawberries




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