Earlier this week, science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed a virtual nation that sounds like a science-fetishists dream-come-true:
Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 29, 2016
It provoked some mocking responses on Twitter, like this one
In actual #Rationalia, nobody comes up with creepy fascist ideas like “Rationalia”
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) June 29, 2016
The idea is ripe for mockery, because, of all people, a scientist should understand what a subjective basis for policy this is.
As a scientist, I’m very much in favor of evidence and reason; but to base an entire nation’s policy on the weight of evidence is ludicrous, for one simple reason. Has our knowledge of the world stayed the same in the last 500 years? the last 100 years? the last 5 years? the last six months? The last six minutes? The answer, of course, is no. The weight of evidence is constantly changing. There have been so many major revolutions in science and philosophy based on the current weight of evidence that our view of the world has been upended more times than you can probably count. Ironically, to base your policy only on the weight of evidence means that your policy is completely subjective, not objective.
Also, who decides how to interpret the evidence? Interpretation is subject to limitations, like current technology, limited human perception, and human emotions. This is why bad theories persist for so long in spite of evidence to the contrary, and why there are alternate theories for just about everything. And even when there’s consensus, that’s hardly a guarantee that the evidence won’t support an entirely different view in the future. Remember, there was a time when most people thought the Sun went around the Earth and that there were no such things as germs.
But for the sake of argument, let’s accept the premise of Rationalia and apply its sole law of the land to judge whether Rationalia would be a place in which anyone would want to live. We don’t need to imagine it, because there have already been at least two major historical movements based on reason and evidence — the French Revolution and communism. The first devolved into an orgy of violence and produced the exact opposite of what it intended, and the second led to misery and genocide on a scale never before seen on earth before it ultimately collapsed under the sheer weight of its opposition to reality. The weight of evidence says that any nation whose policy is based solely on the weight of evidence will be an unmitigated disaster.
Don’t misunderstand me. The point here is not to reject evidence and reason — evidence and reason are important and have their place in any decision-making process — but they cannot be the sole arbiters of policy.
[This isn’t the post I alluded to yesterday. That one probably won’t be posted until next week. -Ed.]