# All problems will be solved in #Rationalia

I am so happy. Most days I wake up to a world of pain and chaos, and don’t know what to do…but now Neil deGrasse Tyson has fixed everything with a single tweet.

Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence

Why has no one thought of this before? It’s brilliant!

Let’s try it with a simple test case and see if it works. There’s currently a bit of a tussle between competing interests in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota, which, if you’ve never heard of it, is a gorgeous pristine wilderness in the northern part of my state. On the one hand, you have the fact that it’s beautiful and wild…but that doesn’t seem very logical, especially when, on the other hand, a Chilean company wants to excavate a giant open pit copper mine there.

So, rational reasonable residents of Rationalia, please use your reason and rationality to deliver an evidence-based verdict to this problem. And don’t you try to sneak in human values into your solution, that would be cheating.

I’ll wait on that rational answer, preferably delivered in the form of a mathematical equation with clearly defined, confirmable parameters, before moving on to a slightly more difficult problem.

Aww, OK, I know you’re going to tear through the easy problem fast, so I’ll just give you a hint of what’s next: are justice and equality rational?

I’d recommend you avoid reading any philosophy on that kind of thing — it’ll just muddy the waters of your cold clear solutions — but I suspect it would be a superfluous warning, since all the philosophers in Rationalia are hanging from the lampposts, anyway.

1. Akira MacKenzie says

Rationalia? This has the same putrescent stink of the “Brights” all over it.

2. komarov says

If I’m not mistaken, the Borg from Star Trek might qualify as a perfectly rational state. Every decision is made collectively on the basis of all the available facts and data with the goal of implementing the optimum solution to any given problem.

Of course they were immensely popular with their neighbours, being held in the high regard of a galactic nightmare. Their extreme rationality also explains why they were so incredibly inefficient: they’d always ignore boarding parties infiltrating their vessels to conduct sabotage because, until the damage was done, the boarders were not seen as a threat. *sigh*

I certainly wouldn’t go to the Borg asking for guidance on ethical issues. They’d probably try to assimilate them, adding their distinctiveness to their own, and then things would get very … ambiguous and confusing. Or, more likely, they’d delete them as irrelevant data – because rational! – and find more stuff to assimilate.

3. qwints says

4. Bill Buckner says

I would like to see, under that constitution, how it would be decided what live animals, if any, can be the subjects of scientific experimentation.

5. says

Tyson needs to read Habermas. It will make his head hurt, but he’ll learn something.

6. Now all I hear in my head is the anthem of “Anvilania” from Animaniacs with the name of the country replaced with “Rationalia”.

7. Sastra says

So, rational reasonable residents of Rationalia, please use your reason and rationality to deliver an evidence-based verdict to this problem. And don’t you try to sneak in human values into your solution, that would be cheating.

Silly, the human values aren’t in the one-line Constitution — they’re in the one-line preamble: Everybody shall be good a

8. Sastra says

Silly, the human values aren’t in the one-line Constitution — they’re in the one-line preamble: Everybody shall be good and do the right thing.

Sorry, I hit the wrong key and posted too soon, making the preamble too short, uninformative, and useless for practical purposes.

9. Dunc says

Everybody shall be good and do the right thing.

(*For NdGT’s culturally-specific definitions of “good” and “right”.)

10. Sastra says

Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence

“Consider a spherical Constitution …”

Physicists.

The ways this is a terrible idea are insurmountable.
Setting aside even “Basing policy on weight of evidence is almost impossible anyway” (weight of evidence says we should act on global warming. But how? Do carbon offsets make a difference? Precisely what sort of action should we take? I need evidence on the price we need to set carbon offsets by law!) the idea of a “virtual country” is itself either terrifyingly broad or completely hollow, with no way to determine it.
If I claim to be a citizen of Rationalia, what of my crimes? Am I to be extradited to a “virtual country” to serve my sentence, or does Rationalia not practice citizen protection similarly to Israel and the US? What if my crime is one which is illegal where I am bodily, but would be an exercise of perfect reason, like teaching Evolution in Kansas or making fun of Kim Jong Un’s haircut?
Are there taxes in Rationalia? Public services? Who pays the civil servants?

The best possible reading I can imagine of this is some kind of enlightened dictatorship that defers to technocrats on minutiae while governing broadly based on “reason” as determined by the philosophical ponderings of the platonic god-king.
Which if you’re playing Civilization V is a solid strategy, but doesn’t sound particularly ethical to inflict upon real humans.

12. Owlmirror says

@Sastra:

“Consider a spherical Constitution …”
… moving on a frictionless inclined plane in a vacuum …

/Helpy!

13. says

Eh, facts about humans are evidence. That includes what we value, etc., and pursuing what we value is rational. It’s the only thing that rationality is for.

The only problem I could see is the politics of how that would work. It would upset a lot of people who disagree with the conclusions made by the “government”. Democracy lets everyone feel like they have some control over the country they live in.

14. Katie Anderson says

My first thought was a much simpler case. How do we argue for a policy that dictates what to do with a murderer?

15. says

Oh ya that too: what is a “virtual country”?

I forgot he put that word “virtual” in there…makes it incomprehensible.

16. says

@Katie Anderson

My first thought was a much simpler case. How do we argue for a policy that dictates what to do with a murderer?

Using facts, predictions, and logic! :)

The fact is we don’t want ourselves or people we care about to be murdered. Do murderers go on to murder again? Does doing something with the murderer prevent other people from becoming murderers? Is it emotionally distressing to have the person who murdered your loved one live near to you? What other things do we care about?

These are all factual questions. And many more could be asked.

Actaully doing this kind of analysis would be much deeper and involved than what I’ve done here, of course. I’m just trying to illustrate. Your simple case was helpful for this too.

17. The Mellow Monkey says

Brian Pansky @ 14

Eh, facts about humans are evidence. That includes what we value, etc., and pursuing what we value is rational. It’s the only thing that rationality is for.

But one person’s values will be in conflict with another’s. One person’s desires, aims, goals, and perfectly rational ways of achieving them will conflict with another person’s desires, aims, goals, and perfectly rational ways of achieving them. Because often what we want is not, in fact, rational.

The only problem I could see is the politics of how that would work. It would upset a lot of people who disagree with the conclusions made by the “government”. Democracy lets everyone feel like they have some control over the country they live in.

So… in this perfectly rational system, there wouldn’t be democracy? I assume because as I said above, people’s desires aren’t rational? So… how is the government, presumably made up of people, going to be rational exactly? Is Peter Singer building AI with Skynet?

18. corwyn says

So, rational reasonable residents of Rationalia, please use your reason and rationality to deliver an evidence-based verdict to this problem. And don’t you try to sneak in human values into your solution, that would be cheating.

Well, since we’re deliberately ignoring the message he’s trying to get out and the fact that it’s unlikely he meant this in the literal sense you’re interpreting it, I would have to say… where’s your evidence? Both sides would have to present evidence making their case for or against this project, and yes, that would have to include the negatives of who’s being hurt by this.
I interpret what he’s saying, as applied to this scenario, as simply only allowing the facts to be presented and leaving the BS, the lies and the woo out of it.
Apply this to more woo-influenced conflicts today, such as the women’s right to an abortion. The anti-side trying to present bible quotes or complete medical fallacies as evidence – that simply shouldn’t be allowed or accepted. With LGBT rights, the evidence shows that it’s not as simple as “what’s on your birth certificate”, so the “birth gender” argument should be tossed on it’s ass in light of the evidence.

20. Donnie says

I interpret what he’s saying, as applied to this scenario, as simply only allowing the facts to be presented and leaving the BS, the lies and the woo out of it.

Well, that is the point. How does this perfect, Rationalia distinguish between “facts” on a matter that is subjective. That is PZ’s whole point. You have none rational people determining which “Facts” are more “facts” then other “facts” and making a subjective judgement based upon human emotions.

It really is “imagine a spherical Constitution….”

I would expect this type of trite Tweet on another “stupid atheist meme” posting. And really is indicative of another “Brights” dumb ass “Atheists are better than others….” movement.

21. unclefrogy says

But one person’s values will be in conflict with another’s. One person’s desires, aims, goals, and perfectly rational ways of achieving them will conflict with another person’s desires, aims, goals, and perfectly rational ways of achieving them. Because often what we want is not, in fact, rational.

hence we have had to institute government and courts to help make these inevitable conflicts between people. that is not unique to “rationalia” it is pretty much a universal and unavoidable in any case.
I would go further and say that the U.S. Constitution was implemented and adopted with reason as an underlying foundation. The problem of irrationality in human relations and understanding has persisted. It is becoming more of a problem. Intolerance and inequality are becoming more intolerable over time, population increase and it’s environmental and social stress increase, economic swings are becoming more intolerable, global warming and ethnic aspirations around the world beg for solutions that work. The solutions we have habitually used previously based on belief are proving to be inadequate and ineffective to the problems.

If I am correct in my recollection the borg were at the very root not completely rational but were based on an emotional response rooted in the “queen” and in fact their whole project was based on incomplete use of reason hence the aggressive and destructive results.
uncle frogy

22. unclefrogy says

hence we have had to institute government and courts to help make these inevitable conflicts between people tolerable .

my mind works much faster then my fingers (finger) sorry.
uncle frogy

23. consciousness razor says

Aww, OK, I know you’re going to tear through the easy problem fast, so I’ll just give you a hint of what’s next: are justice and equality rational?

Are there sufficient reasons for promoting equality, justice, fairness, cooperation, and so on? I think there are. I think it’s already overwhelmingly clear, if you ask basically anybody to seriously consider it, that they outweigh any reasons you might be able to come up with for the alternatives.

If you’re saying that those things aren’t rational, but also that we do have such reasons, then I guess I need to understand what you mean by “rational” and why you’re using it that way, because I can’t make any sense out of it right now.

Maybe you think there’s some other kind of method or process that we can and should use, one which doesn’t involve (or somehow goes beyond) reasoning and evidence. If so, please try to describe this mysterious magic process — simply what it is and how it’s supposed to happen to start with, but also why that’s necessary for making good decisions. You said having or using or sneaking-in “human values” would be cheating. It’s not at all clear what that could mean to you. So I guess I should ask what you think those are, how it is that those are not based on reasons or evidence, what if anything is supposed to support them, and how any such things would help.

Or, if there’s just some other word or phrase (with essentially the same meaning as the terms I’m using) which you think should substitute for them, because of this weird taint you believe they’re supposed to have, then it would help to know what that is. Is it “human values” maybe? Is there something special about that phrase, which I just don’t understand? Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to be a little charitable and interpret Tyson that way, whatever that would be like, since at any rate I don’t see how this kind of response is helping anybody or anything.

However, if the main objection is supposed to be that Tyson tweeted a stupid and thoughtless proposal which is too vague to be useful to anybody in any specific situation, not that we don’t actually need good reasoning and evidence to make appropriate decisions in the real world (and not that there’s something else we should be doing), then I agree and am totally unsurprised that twitter still isn’t the place to make a useful contribution for things like this. What he said is also confusing at best: a “virtual country” is presumably not a real country, but it has policies? What does that mean? Why does Earth need anything like that, or what is supposed to be the point? Anyway, I wouldn’t agree that the best approach is to reply with your own stupid, vague, thoughtless, confusing, pointless bullshit.

24. Zeppelin says

“All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence”

Pretty sure every government already tries to do this. When policy seems to go against the “weight of evidence”, there’s two main reasons:
— You disagree with the people making policy on what the Evidence is and what Weight it should have. The people running Iran, for example, have concluded that the weight of evidence for Shia Islam is overwhelming, in part because they disagree with you on what constitutes “weighty” evidence.
— The people making policy are actually trying to optimally achieve a goal other than that stated (enrich themselves, for example).

Neither of these problems is solved by that stupid one-line constitution, because they’re based on differences of values, not facts. No-one deliberately goes against their own best judgement.
It would only work if everyone already agreed on what evidence to value, to what extent to value it, and what goals we should try to achieve once we have it. And when you’re at a point where everyone shares the exact same goals and values, why do you even need laws or a constitution?

25. says

@18, The Mellow Monkey

Are you objecting to anything I said?

26. brucegee1962 says

There’s was an excellent article in the Atlantic: How American Politics Went Insane ( http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/how-american-politics-went-insane/485570/ ).

Here is a relevant quote:

Using polls and focus groups, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.

NdGT seems to have another take on this attitude. The fact is, politics will always be messy, and there is no way to avoid subjective measurements, and culture and tradition weigh heavily as well. Is there a rational reason why cannibalism should be illegal if all parties consent? It’s just protein.

27. says

I just looked and saw that “virtual country” is a term that shows up on google. Whatever it means. Most uses seem to be “virtual” in the sense that they are on the internet?

28. Nepos says

Critiquing Tyson’s comment for being unrealistic seems to be missing the forest for the trees. While his solution is sloppy, the problem he is addressing is, I would argue, the greatest threat humanity faces: if we, as a species, don’t develop a new way of working together, one that puts cooperation and comity above greed and hate, our civilization is doomed.

Despite our profligate expenditure of natural resources, humanity still has the ability (barely) to feed, clothe, and house every person on the planet–if we wanted to. But collectively we are too selfish and short-sighted to make the necessary changes.

Likewise, we could almost certainly solve the global warming problem if, as a species, we worked together. But when some of the most influential people on the planet are actively working against even acknowledging the problem, the odds are a lot lower.

We need to rise above our tribal instincts and recognize that all humanity must work together for the greater good. Unfortunately, that’s about as likely as the sun rising in the west. In this context, NdGT’s quote seems like crying out against the coming of the night.

29. unclefrogy says

Is the objection I am reading too rationalia a rejection to reason as a means to order society?
If it is how is that any different from the reaction to reason displayed by the “dictionary atheists” have to anything besides none belief in gods?
uncle frogy

30. Katie Anderson says

@Brian Pansky,

The fact is we don’t want ourselves or people we care about to be murdered.

But to make a policy against murdering, wouldn’t we need evidence that it is in fact something that should be stopped? Not wanting something to happen isn’t a justification in Rationalia.

Does doing something with the murderer prevent other people from becoming murderers? Is it emotionally distressing to have the person who murdered your loved one live near to you?

How do you propose we perform the studies to collect enough evidence to answer these questions? You might think it is emotionally distressing to have the murderer live near you, but that’s just an opinion. We can’t know for sure until we test it. You couldn’t perform these studies here, but I suppose Rationalia doesn’t have any rules about unethical human research until someone comes up with proof that it should be stopped.

31. Nick Gotts says

“All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence”

Pretty sure every government already tries to do this. – Zeppelin@25

I’d have to guess you’ve never been involved in policy formation, or policy-relevant research! By and large, governments say they are committed to evidence-based policy, but what they really want from either the “intelligence” services, or any research they commission, is policy-based evidence, i.e. evidence that will support the policy they have already decided on for ideological, political or personal reasons. A currently topical example in the UK: the way the Blair government interacted with their “intelligence” services in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as exposed by the Chilcot report.

32. says

@31, Katie Anderson

The fact is we don’t want ourselves or people we care about to be murdered.

But to make a policy against murdering, wouldn’t we need evidence that it is in fact something that should be stopped?

Facts about people and what they want are evidence.

You might think it is emotionally distressing to have the murderer live near you, but that’s just an opinion. We can’t know for sure until we test it.

Wait, are you saying you don’t know that for sure? Or that you know it for sure using some method other than a “test” of some sort?

Also, it says “weight of evidence”, not 100% “know for sure”.

You couldn’t perform these studies here, but I suppose Rationalia doesn’t have any rules about unethical human research until someone comes up with proof that it should be stopped.

Weight of evidence that it should be stopped. Not 100% proof.

33. says

That hypothetical project would almost certainly have to be Utilitarian, but the problem I generally encounter with practical applications of such a philosophy is that it’s almost impossible in practical terms to measure the utility of any given action. The universe is chaotic, and actions will always have unpredictable and unavoidable consequences. You can choose the course least likely to cause a catastrophe, but that’s about it.

Of course you also before doing anything else have to work out what is good in life. Just don’t ask the barbarians.

@31 Gathering evidence on things that already happen is not such a big problem. There’s not an ethical problem in experimenting with alternatives if the current method is unsupported by evidence, since you have no way of knowing if any other suggestion is better or worse.

34. consciousness razor says

But to make a policy against murdering, wouldn’t we need evidence that it is in fact something that should be stopped?

You’re not aware of evidence that murder is harmful to individuals and the communities they live in? I know that there’s abundant evidence of that fact.

If you thought that moral or political decisions were about something other than benefiting individuals and their communities, then I suppose I could see how you might think there would still be something left to say or some more evidence that would need to be presented.

“Oh, sure, it’s bad for people and their communities,” you might say, “but what if it’s good for something else” — what if this other thing is my goal, like murdering as many people as I can for instance? Doesn’t that count as moral behavior, because I’m capable of telling myself that it’s a worthy goal?

No, it doesn’t. That’s just not the topic here. Something that would actually count (however else you might want to describe it) is something for which there is abundant evidence that you shouldn’t murder. I’m really fucking sure of that, based on all sorts of evidence that I could present if you’re seriously going to press the issue somehow. We’re simply not in a situation where we lack evidence of that. Maybe you’d want to tell me infants don’t have such evidence. Fair enough, I guess they probably don’t. You don’t pop out of the womb with it, I’m pretty sure. But basically all of the people who you might have this conversation with don’t have that problem.

Not wanting something to happen isn’t a justification in Rationalia.

I don’t know (or care) about what happens in “Rationalia.” What you probably mean is that simply one person wanting a thing doesn’t mean they should act on that desire. I brought that up earlier. The trouble is, that is wildly different from saying that we don’t or can’t have any reasons at all for how we should act, which have anything to do with the experiences we have as human beings. Feeling pain (for example) is something that actually happens in the real world, so it is empirical evidence which we can potentially use to justify acting one way instead of another. If you don’t want to feel pain, there’s no reason at all why we can’t take that into account when we think about how we should behave. There’s plenty more to consider, but it would be utterly absurd to claim it should be disqualified (or isn’t rational or who knows what the next complaint will be) because you experienced it as a subject. The fact that there’s more than one person in the world, not just you and what you want, may complicate things for you, but that is nevertheless also a real fact that we can understand and use to make decisions that are better rather than worse. The fact that we depend on each other, for survival if not exactly happiness all of the time, is another.

I don’t see how anybody could seriously claim things like this are either not a part of the process or are not enough for some obscure reason. What else are we supposed to be doing? It’s easy enough to point at the various difficulties we have (or just the way that we talk about them). It certainly isn’t easy or simple or obvious, nor is it catering to everything you could possibly want at the expense of others, which may not seem very satisfying at first. But is there anything constructive to offer as a genuine alternative?

35. Kenny De Metter says

In your particular case, weighing the evidence is exactly how one would decide the correct course of action : the harm caused to the environment versus the potential economic benefit.

All it does is provide the basis for a decision : you ensure that all the evidence is presented before you make a decision.
It doesn’t mean that you cannot base your decision on human values also.

This is essentially how decisions are made : people use evidence to make decisions. That doesn’t mean other factors cannot come into play afterwards. Neil is only requiring that the basis for the decisions is evidence.
Essentially, he’s just saying you shouldn’t make decisions that have no basis in evidence at all ( you shouldn’t make a decision based purely on emotion for example ) . It makes perfect sense.

36. Becca Stareyes says

Kenny, but how you determine what weights to put on the ‘harm to the environment’ versus ‘economic benefit’ — is one extinct-locally species worth a thousand extra dollars or a million or a billion? There’s a reason our current Constitution lays out not just some general principles of governance, but a process of how to get from those general principles to policy.

37. Zeppelin says

Nick Gotts:

“what they really want […] is evidence that will support the policy they have already decided on for ideological, political or personal reasons”

In other words, you disagree with them on what evidence should be considered and why, and what its “weight” should be, and possibly also with their ideological, political and personal goals.
That’s what I was saying — the idea that policy being “based on the weight of evidence” would be a sufficient basis for good governance presumes that people agree what constitutes weighty evidence. In the case of most people, that happens to be “evidence that supports my position or confirms my preconceptions”.
Tyson’s suggestions only works in a situation where everyone already agrees on what constitutes good evidence (and trusts the sources presenting it, since people can hardly be expected to personally replicate every scientific study and observation), and on what should be done given that evidence. Since that will never happen in a million years, it’s a useless suggestion.

38. Jake Harban says

On the one hand, you have the fact that it’s beautiful and wild…but that doesn’t seem very logical…

…are justice and equality rational?

That’s… not… really actually meaningful.

Reason, logic, and evidence – that is, rationality – is a tool for helping us achieve our goals. Justice and equality are goals in and of themselves. Asking whether the goal you are using rationality to achieve is itself rational is basically meaningless.

The exception, of course, is when a lesser goal is desired only as a means to achieve a greater goal— if the lesser goal is desired solely as a means to an end it will not actually advance, then pursuing it is irrational. However, rationality can’t generally comment on the validity of one’s final end.

I can’t believe I actually need to explain this to PZ Myers. As in, I literally can’t believe it— this is hardly controversial stuff. So why don’t you explain to me, is there some context I’m missing? How did an (apparently) one-off tweet snarking about irrationality become an attack on meaning, morality, and something else that starts with m like music or something?

39. says

While I heartily approve of any nation, virtual or otherwise, that sounds like the setting for a Marx Brothers comedy, I regard that part of deGrasse-Tyson’s tweet as a pure rhetorical device. And, much as I’m loathe to swim against the tide of opinion here, I don’t think the tweet is about pure rationality in policy, more as a plea for any rationality in politics.

The fact is that very little of the decision-making in government is evidence-based; Trump’s fulminations are merely the extreme of a decision-making process that is almost entirely about emotion — often emotion stirred up to support one “side” or the other, and not about what is best for the governed, i.e. us. Ben Goldacre’s got a bunch of posts about the subject in his Bad Science blog, which I think (and hope) is what dGT’s actually on about, but which the Tweet format is too small to contain.

40. says

Maybe I’m the one who has to fix my use of terminology and such, since most people distinguish between facts and values? And even methodology is a separate thing.

Neither PZ nor Katie Anderson seem to really think it should work differently than I do. I suspect we all basically agree.

(I think it all reduces to facts, but that is more complicated to explain, and amounts to basically the same thing. I could try to explain that if anyone wants me to!)

41. says

@39, Jake Harban

Asking whether the goal you are using rationality to achieve is itself rational is basically meaningless.

The exception, of course, is when a lesser goal is desired only as a means to achieve a greater goal— if the lesser goal is desired solely as a means to an end it will not actually advance, then pursuing it is irrational.

Or if the lesser goal is contrary to a more important goal!

42. Rob Grigjanis says

Tyson and Twitter are made for each other. Combining inane, banal and vapid in 140 characters or less, and having some people think it’s somehow thought-provoking. How about #WhyCantWeAllJustGetAlong?

43. Katie Anderson says

My biggest issue is that a huge amount of laws, including my murder example, are attempts to codify ethics.

You’re not aware of evidence that murder is harmful to individuals and the communities they live in? I know that there’s abundant evidence of that fact.

I agree with this. Murder is harmful in many ways. And there is plenty of evidence to back that up. But there’s nothing in the Rationalia constitution saying that harm to individuals and communities should be minimized. It makes sense and we agree (except perhaps in contrived trolley problem examples) that it’s a good ethical rule, but how do you justify that moral opinion scientifically with evidence?

That’s the problem I have with this, and what I read PZ’s opinion as – it’s just too simplistic and reductionist. Evidence-based policy is a great thing where it can be applied, but to pretend that it can solve any problem a government is involved in is naïve. If ethical problems really could be easily worked out from purely rational evidence-based reasoning, then it seems like philosophers would have a lot less to argue about.

44. michaelpowers says

So “human values” and logic and reason are incompatible? It’s the same twaddle that theists spout. Can’t have people thinking too much, can we?

45. Rob Grigjanis says

michaelpowers @45:

So “human values” and logic and reason are incompatible?

No, simple-minded tweets are useless. What is Tyson’s intended audience? People who are on the fence about the role of reason in policy-making? He’s a self-promoting, self-important, bloviating twit.

46. says

@44, Katie Anderson

But there’s nothing in the Rationalia constitution saying that harm to individuals and communities should be minimized.

Notice that there’s nothing in the Rationalia constitution that says that evolution is true. There doesn’t need to be. It follows from the facts and the correct reasoning.

The same is true for minimizing the harm of people. If you’re using the facts and the correct reasoning.

It makes sense and we agree (except perhaps in contrived trolley problem examples) that it’s a good ethical rule, but how do you justify that moral opinion scientifically with evidence?

In answer to your question: by understanding what morality is, and seeing that it follows from scientifically discoverable facts about people and the world.

Though, of course, politics is not identical to morality. It isn’t always rational/moral to legislate morality. Breaking promises isn’t illegal, unless it’s in a contract or something.

If ethical problems really could be easily worked out from purely rational evidence-based reasoning, then it seems like philosophers would have a lot less to argue about.

Not easily, not without enough data. That’s why science needs to get the data. Though philosophers could reach better consensus if they were institutionally more scientific, too.

47. johnmarley says

This reminds me of something a history professor I had in college (decades ago) said once. Something to the effect that all ideal systems of government ever devised would have been successful, except that they all fail to account for people being people, not robots.

48. hiddenheart says

Of course, if Rationalia had existed a couple hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have Tyson to advocate for its continuation, because – I presume – the evidence of Negro inferiority would have continued to stand as clearly correct, and wasteful, disruptive efforts to overthrow it would have been shut down and the resources allocated toward questions not yet settled.

49. Rob Grigjanis says

Brian Pansky @47:

If ethical problems really could be easily worked out from purely rational evidence-based reasoning, then it seems like philosophers would have a lot less to argue about.

Not easily, not without enough data. That’s why science needs to get the data. Though philosophers could reach better consensus if they were institutionally more scientific, too.

What the fuck does that even mean? Enough ‘data’ and ‘correct’ reasoning would unambiguously solve ethical problems? What’s ‘enough’ and what’s ‘correct’?

50. says

@50, Rob Grigjanis

Lol, go rant at those pesky evolutionists, ask them to justify to you how much data is enough to conclude evolution happened! Or what reasoning is “correct”! Oh wait, aren’t you a scientist or something?

Or, if evolution is too unambiguous for you, try the tentative conclusions in less certain fields, such as psychology and sociology. Those are very relevant to moral conclusions.

Go rant at them.

51. Katie Anderson says

Brian Pansky @47,

Please walk us through a sketch of the proof that murder is wrong and what an appropriate response to a murderer is. I don’t need all the details, but I want to understand the basic argument without appealing to anything other than measureable evidence and objective logical reasoning. Your statement that “it follows from scientifically discoverable facts about people and the world” is simply too hand-wavy.

I’m beginning to suspect you’re an Ayn Rand fan…

52. unclefrogy says

If ethical problems really could be easily worked out from purely rational evidence-based reasoning, then it seems like philosophers would have a lot less to argue about.

from my experience which is not vast but i have been here for what is becoming a long time an awful lot of philosophy does not do that in any systematic comprehensive way at all hence they devolve into pointless arguments which tend toward ever more abstract language.
seriously is murder an OK thing or a bad thing?
Well just to bring it down to earth a little bit. If you or someone else murders one of my loved ones and there is no restriction to murder then I sure as hell will think very hard but not very long about killing the one who did the killing. Is that reaction a good thing to promote domestic tranquility? It would take only a few weeks to turn in to a Baghdad like war zone .
Using reason on the pit mine question is also possible when you take all evidence in to consideration which as been mentioned is generally not what is done. one side selects their reason for the proposal and the others select their reasons against. for are often short term. The motivation for is profit driven which is tied to commodity prices, which are influenced by international politics and conflicts. Is there a real shortage of the commodity or not or is it just market distortions caused by international politics? Are the high prices caused by market manipulation.
Are temporary lower prices and jobs worth the destruction cause by the open pit? Are private profits worth public loss and environmental costs?
uncle frogy

53. hiddenheart says

Unclefrogy: But why, objectively, is a Bagdad-like war zone worse than where you’re living now? (Among other questions: some people are living in such places right now. Why are you deserving of better and they’re not; or, if they are, explain how your current level of engagement is plausibly part of a valid effort to improve things for them?) It is possible that war zones are net ecological gains if you take a sufficiently encompassing view – at least, we can’t presume they aren’t, and no implicit premise that human beings deserve any special consideration is allowed without a preponderance of evidence for it. It’s possible that Rationalia is a self-destructing state, but then, the premise that it deserves to survive is also unproven.

54. Rob Grigjanis says

Brian Pansky @51: Lol as much as you like, dimwit. How about answering the fucking question. Define ‘correct reasoning’ and define ‘enough data’ in the context of ethics. For once, why don’t you try to actually support the crap you write?

55. hiddenheart says

Brian Pansky: I mean, it was less than 200 years ago that there were plenty of scientists (and others) convinced of objective variation in intelligence among human races, with Tyson in one of the losing groups. The idea that it’s worth any white person’s while to bother with him depends in part on the judgment that those guys were as wrong as a wrong thing. But in a state founded on Rationalia’s principles, I can’t see them supporting a lot of research specifically intended to reinvestigate already settled issues, when so many other remain.

(I should note that I do think those guys were wrong, and that murder is wrong, and a bunch of other things, but that scientific evidence can only settle some of them.)

56. firstapproximation says

michaelpowers,

So “human values” and logic and reason are incompatible?

No. This is the age old problem of not being able to derive an ought from an is. When you have a goal (“maximize happiness”, “maximize liberty”, etc.) using reason and evidence can help a lot in achieving that goal. However, you can’t use them to derive normative statements (or, at least, I’ve yet to see evidence or a good reason to think so :).

Brian Pansky,

The same is true for minimizing the harm of people. If you’re using the facts and the correct reasoning..

Please show this. Every attempt I’ve seen to derive morality purely from reason and/or evidence had some implicit prescriptions.

57. Kenny De Metter says

Becca,

The confusion may be what ‘basing your decision on evidence’ means exactly.
As I understand it : it’s about having evidence in the process of making your decisions. In other words, you try to gather evidence for and against the policy you are about to implement, so that you ( and in a larger sense the public ) can make an informed decision.

It doesn’t have to mean that human values and emotions don’t get to play a role, but decisions shouldn’t be based solely on emotions for example.

Offcourse, you understand ‘basing your decision in evidence’ to mean that you can only use evidence to make a decision, than I would agree that this doesn’t make sense.

But to go to the specific case, you need only go to the article to see the importance of evidence, which is what the article brings. It talks about the place being pristine wilderness, and about the problems with mining sulfur.

When making a decision on the matter, you would put these facts against each other. Then, you make a decision, not purely based on that evidence, but also on your vision ( what world do you want to live in ) and values.

If we ignore evidence in this case, than someone could make a decision thinking that sulfur mines don’t do any harm to the environment at all. Or if we only listened to one side of the argument ( the mining companies ) .

58. unclefrogy says

hiddenheart you are one of those who really really like abstraction so sorry.
there is no “reason” you should live nor that any one should live. There is no reason earth should be here at all.
So What!
If you think any society that does not have a sanction against murder is not self destructive tell me why. If you think a war zone is good how do you make that judgment? We do not live in an ivory tower world we live and die here and now.

We find ourselves in the midst of a vast sequence of time somewhere between the beginning which we can speculate about and some end we can only guess at. We did not start it nor do we control it .
Any judgment of about it other than it is is hubris and just a rationalization of belief.
fuck!

uncle frogy

59. hiddenheart says

Unclefrogy: I think there are tremendously important reasons why people should live, free of fear, as free of suffering as possible, trained to understand the world around them, empowered to make and act on good judgments. I just don’t think that much of that can be proven analytically without huge heaping doses of value judgments, for while standards like the preponderance of evidence just aren’t very helpful at all. There was a time when there was very little evidence that a society without slavery did better than one that had it, but I think it was as right then as it is now, for instance.

I think it’s important to recognize how much of what should matter in social life – personal, political, the whole deal – is subjective.

60. hiddenheart says

I actually have a strong interest in granting a place of social importance to subjective consideration: I’m trans. People too convinced of their objectivity have been bad for me and mine for a long time; we tend to do well only when our self-appraisal is taken seriously. I extend the same consideration I need to everyone else, because what do I know about them?

61. says

@52, Katie Anderson

Please, if you disagree with me, answer my question directed to you: what do you do that is somehow different? What other way do you personally justify your moral conclusions? Or do you not justify them at all?

No, I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand.

Please walk us through a sketch of the proof that murder is wrong and what an appropriate response to a murderer is. I don’t need all the details, but I want to understand the basic argument without appealing to anything other than measureable evidence and objective logical reasoning. Your statement that “it follows from scientifically discoverable facts about people and the world” is simply too hand-wavy.

Ya, I was actually working on writing another post on that part (near what you quoted) where I mentioned the need to understand morality.

Ok… No pressure…no pressure…basic argument…I can totally do this!?

Ok, the argument needs to involve what it means for doing something to be wrong, and how this example (murder) fits.

For it to be wrong to do something, it must be the wrong choice out of two or more options. Morality is about making the right choices.

And choices are about achieving goals (things we value, desires, motivations, satisfaction, preference, etc.). That’s what we make choices for. So they are wrong or right depending on how well they do that. And, of course, whether the reasons for the choice contained any errors of fact or logic.

In reality, you do this all the time (for things far more mundane, like “did I make this recipe wrong?” or “should people brush their teeth?” or “was I wrong to treat that person that way?”, instead of “should I murder someone?”). It doesn’t magically become too different now that we are talking about something more terrifying, and less mundane.

More can be reasoned about here. For example, if you achieve one goal, does that prevent you from achieving some other goal? If so, this is once again a choice. Which would you actually prefer to achieve? Similarly for the means used to achieve a goal. Do those means cause a conflict? If so, there is a morally relevant choice.

These are things we can have evidence of. Whatever ends we are motivated by are empirically discoverable facts about ourselves. We can measure what actually satisfies people more. How to achieve them is also empirically discoverable.

Ok, so I’ve sketched what it means for doing something to be wrong, hopefully that was a complete enough sketch for that part. Now how does this apply to the example of murder?

Well, if you murder someone, it’s probably going to make your life terrible. Most people would be severely disturbed at having done such a thing. Even the rest would experience the other consequences, such as conflict with those acting in self defense, or the justice system, and thus risk much.

And I believe that in most real-life situations, there will be a better choice.

As for appropriate “response” (I think you mean legal policy, etc?), again, what is the legal policy trying to achieve? Less murder. That’s a goal. In fact, it’s a goal that real people have, and there’s many reasons to have that goal, such as reducing the risk to yourself or others you care about. We can make predictions about what policies will achieve that, and get data relevant to those predictions. I think locking up killers can prevent them from killing more (and prevent them from doing who knows what else). An alternative policy, such as executing them, kills people who are wrongly convicted (that could be us or someone we care about!), and evidently even doesn’t help deter other murderers.

Based on the options I know, and what I know about those options, prison seems sensible. But more investigation could be done on this: who can be rehabilitated, and is that a good idea? What other options exist? Etc.

There’s a lot more that could be said here! I could go on for a long time. But you asked for a basic argument. And any dispute of my argument would be about whether my premises (facts and semantics) are correct or whether my conclusions logically follow from my premises.

Whew!

62. says

@firstapproximation

You seem so close! :)

And you seem to know what you are talking about.

Humans have built-in “implicit prescriptions”. Motivations. Just like all animals do. Otherwise we would all sit motionless until we starve to death. Without motivations, there would be nothing at all to motivate us to any action over no action or an infinite number of other random actions.

See my above response to Katie Anderson for more.

63. says

@hiddenheart

I was trying to finish my response to you too, but it’s very late at night, I need to sleep!

You can’t get more techbro-crackpotty than calls for a “virtual country” that will, by definition, do no good at all for actually existing countries. This is a move designed not to engender positive reform, but garner asspats from Internet STEMlords.

That’s some mighty good thought-leadering from TV Science Man.

65. anym says

(on reflection, that seems a bit like I was suggesting that ndgt be put down, which wasn’t my intent at all)

I wonder though. Is this like engineers and creationism? Are physicists more likely than other flavors of scientist to tell other fields how they should be doing things?

66. hiddenheart says

@Anym: I don’t think so, it’s just that they’re more likely to get a platform, for reasons running back to World War II and postwar politics around science. A chemist or paleontologist similarly full of such ideas is just going to mostly tell their friends, coworkers, and maybe a discussion forum somewhere.

67. Rob Grigjanis says

anym @68: Hey, it’s an internet meme, with cartoons and everything! How could it possibly be wrong?

More seriously; since Einstein, some areas of physics have been disproportionately popularized. Relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang, string theory, etc. The media is just more likely to give print space and air time to the people working in these fields. Switch to biologists, and I’m sure you’d have a similar percentage of kakus kooks.

Anyway, calling Tyson a physicist is a real stretch.

68. says

Also I should mention the different ways to weigh evidence: analytically, and intuitively.

Most of the time we use intuition. It’s nice and quick, it’s a heuristic that saves us time. It does a lot of the complicated steps for us. Then we can pay attention to some steps (such as ones that we are less certain about), and use a bit more detailed analysis to figure them out (or discover that we just don’t know enough to be very sure). You can even plug heuristics into a logical syllogism if you want! But they can be wrong, too.

69. Kenny De Metter says

anym,

It’s a funny cartoon, and I’m sure a lot of physicists will enjoy it, but I don’t see how it applies to Neil Degrasse Tyson ?
He’s not attacking other fields of science, as far as I know ?

He’s well known for giving his opinion on matters that are outside of his field. Are you expecting that when someone becomes a scientist, they should only talk about their specific science subject, and never express any other opinion ?

Neil is above all else a science communicator, and his broad interests are a strength in that, as it allows him to bring science into everyday life.

He’s not a political scientist, and so we shouldn’t give necessarily give more weight to his opinion then anyone else, but he is entitled to his opinion.

The problem with Twitter though, is that it allows so little room for expressing your opinion, and such way too much room for speculation on what you actually meant.

70. “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence”

What’s he been smoking?

71. John Morales says

Kenny De Metter @72:

He’s well known for giving his opinion on matters that are outside of his field. Are you expecting that when someone becomes a scientist, they should only talk about their specific science subject, and never express any other opinion ?

Oh, come on!

You know damn well that anyone (like you or me) can express their opinion about anything. Thing is, such authoritativeness that comes from expertise in a particular field is not applicable to a different field.

Neil is above all else a science communicator, and his broad interests are a strength in that, as it allows him to bring science into everyday life.

So was Richard Dawkins (Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford), back when he was a professional, before his dotage.

Look at him now.

He’s not a political scientist, and so we shouldn’t give necessarily give more weight to his opinion then anyone else, but he is entitled to his opinion.

Indeed. Though I like your “necessarily” — otiose, but revealing.

The problem with Twitter though, is that it allows so little room for expressing your opinion, and such way too much room for speculation on what you actually meant.

Heh. Weren’t you referring to a “science communicator”?

(Shouldn’t a science communicator know that?)

72. Arnie says

Rob Grigjanis (#70)

Anyway, calling Tyson a physicist is a real stretch.

Why? Has he no academic degree in astrophysics? Has he not been working as a researcher in astrophysics?

73. Rob Grigjanis says

Arnie @75: You can call analyzing astronomical data physics if you like. I don’t. But if you go on NPR and tell the audience that “red light penetrates through fog better than blue light” you should definitely turn in your physicist card, if you had one.

74. ezraresnick says

Um, if we’re not supposed to base public policy on evidence, what are we supposed to base it on? Are the “human values” PZ mentions not based on reason and evidence — and if not, how are they better than religion? PZ has unfortunately aligned himself with sociologist Jeffrey Guhin, who wrote a stupid critique of Tyson’s tweet in Slate. My response is here: https://norighttobelieve.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/whos-afraid-of-evidence/

75. Kenny De Metter says

Oh, come on!
You know damn well that anyone (like you or me) can express their opinion about anything. Thing is, such authoritativeness that comes from expertise in a particular field is not applicable to a different field.

Yes, and I’m not claiming that his opinion is authoritative. He still has a right to say it though, just like you and I do.
And you have a right to challenge his opinion, but are you certain that you have his complete opinion on the matter, when you have to base it on a single tweet ?

Would it not be better to learn his full opinion on it first, and then respond on that basis, certainly when assuming a very negative opinion ?
If he has expressed his opinion more fully somewhere else, please share it with me.

So was Richard Dawkins (Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford), back when he was a professional, before his dotage.
Look at him now.

Neil Degrasse Tyson is not Richard Dawkins, and not all scientists are alike.
Richard has always been more ‘on the offensive’ than Neil. They both have their flaws, which is allowed for human beings.

Indeed. Though I like your “necessarily” — otiose, but revealing.

Really, what does it reveal ? In hindsight, it’s obviously a meaningless error on my part, but you’ve managed to divine something meaningful from it. So you can read my mind, and know it better than myself ? That’s an awesome gift :-)

Heh. Weren’t you referring to a “science communicator”?
(Shouldn’t a science communicator know that?)

Yes, that would be better, though he’s certainly not alone in that.
It doesn’t make him ‘not a science communicator’ , just that there is room for improvement ( and there always is ).
Perhaps he is aware of it, but doesn’t care as long as the majority of his tweets bring education
I don’t know, I can’t read his mind.

I am amazed at the phenomenon of a ‘twitter storm’ though. How willing people are to read the most horrible things into those mere 140 characters.

Also, my sincere thanks for teaching me a new word (otiose) .

76. Rob Grigjanis says

ezraresnick @77:

Um, if we’re not supposed to base public policy on evidence, what are we supposed to base it on?

Who said we’re not supposed to? Tyson’s tweet is the epitome of banality. Do you know anyone who would read it and think “Evidence-based policy? Gosh, hadn’t thought of that!”?

77. consciousness razor says

Do you know anyone who would read it and think “Evidence-based policy? Gosh, hadn’t thought of that!”?

I bet my grandmother would ask “what’s ‘evidence-based policy’?” Or she would just mumble something about Jesus. I’m not sure.

PZ thinks it implies having “human values” would be cheating, for reasons I can’t really fathom. I would’ve thought that even if you’re mired in subjectivism, you’d at least realize that’s all empirical if anything is. Also, he says it would be “cold” somehow — I guess I’m supposed to imagine Spock or maybe a robot. It seems there may also be an issue with solutions that are “clear,” because of something or other to do with philosophy. I assume that (at least for people like PZ) it’s not exactly that “we’re not supposed to” use evidence, but that there needs to be some obscure thing in addition to that. Maybe only certain types of policies should be evidenced-based while others should be evidence-free, maybe all such things need a mix of evidence plus the secret special sauce. It’s not clear what the sauce is or what it’s supposed to be doing, but it’s definitely supposed to be in the recipe.

So, yes, it looks like there are a variety of people who haven’t really thought about it, as you can see here in this very thread. However much they may have thought about it, there are people who think there would be some kind of a problem with doing things that way. They’re not just saying it’s banal, and that even though they’re bored to death by Tyson’s twitter bullshit they actually agree with it. I mean, you could try to explain how they don’t mean what they’re saying, how we’re supposed to interpret all of it in a way which agrees more closely with your position, but I don’t think that’s going to work.

78. Rob Grigjanis says

cr @80:

I assume that (at least for people like PZ) it’s not exactly that “we’re not supposed to” use evidence, but that there needs to be some obscure thing in addition to that.

There’s nothing obscure about it. Just a hell of a lot more complexity than a stupidly simplistic tweet. What’s next? “War should be avoided if possible”?

So, yes, it looks like there are a variety of people who haven’t really thought about it, as you can see here in this very thread.

That’s not at all what I see in this thread.

there are people who think there would be some kind of a problem with doing things that way

Yes – there are situations in which it would be really complicated, and people would disagree about how to weigh evidence! That’s a problem. Life is hard.

you could try to explain how they don’t mean what they’re saying, how we’re supposed to interpret all of it in a way which agrees more closely with your position, but I don’t think that’s going to work.

My position is that Tyson is a vacuous twit. I’ve said my piece, and that’s that, whether it ‘works’ or not.

79. Kenny De Metter says

@Rob Grigjanis

Who said we’re not supposed to? Tyson’s tweet is the epitome of banality. Do you know anyone who would read it and think “Evidence-based policy? Gosh, hadn’t thought of that!”?

That is essentially how I read it. And yes it does seem obvious.
Is your argument that just because it is obvious and banal to you, it couldn’t be what Neil Degrasse Tyson meant ?

The main problem here, in my opinion, is that a tweet like that simply doesn’t have enough information to make out what he meant, so all we can do is speculate.

Which is a lot of fun to do, and totally useless the moment he bothers to actually clarify what he meant by it.
But I would have to agree that as a science communicator, he should realize that this is a mistake on his part.

But for all I know, he does realize it, and he’s just doing it on purpose ( not giving enough information ) , just to see us speculate about his ideas, laughing maniacally at how wrong we are getting it :-)

80. John Morales says

Kenny De Metter:

But I would have to agree that as a science communicator, he should realize that this is a mistake on his part.

But for all I know, he does realize it, and he’s just doing it on purpose ( not giving enough information ) , just to see us speculate about his ideas, laughing maniacally at how wrong we are getting it :-)

It’s not that obscure, and I doubt he’s maniacal. Follow the fame, follow the money.

(By now, he’s accrued about as much credibility outside his specific field of expertise as Michio Kaku or Paul Davies have in theirs)

81. Kenny De Metter says

I was just engaging in wild and fun speculation there, to show where it might lead to :-)
Thanks for the interesting conversation.