Are Your Beliefs Falsifiable?

By Robert Bernstein   |   January 21, 2021

I used to buy snacks at the Isla Vista Deli Mart even though they were a bit more expensive than the competitors. I went there just to engage the former owner Mike in debate about Donald Trump, whom he supported. (Note that the Deli Mart has new owners who are not Trump supporters.)

When Trump would do something especially outrageous, I would ask Mike whether this finally changed his view. Mike said he could not support Hillary Clinton in 2016 because he thought she was too close to the Saudi government. In 2018, after the Saudi government murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Trump sided with the Saudi government, I asked Mike whether this changed his view of Trump. No, because Hillary would not have been any better.

One day I asked Mike whether there was anything Trump could do that would make him stop supporting Trump. He said no. He likes everything that Trump does. Nothing could make him stop supporting Trump.

I explained to Mike that in science we have the concept of falsifiability: A theory can only be valid if in principle there is a way to prove it false.

For example, Aristotle said that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. Galileo showed through experiment that a heavy cannonball in fact fell at the same speed as a light cannonball. Galileo asserted that all objects fall at the same speed regardless of weight. At the end of the last Apollo 15 moonwalk, Commander David Scott dropped a feather and a hammer and showed they indeed fell at the same speed in the absence of air. The Eöt-Wash group at the University of Washington has refined the experiment to one part in ten trillion.

Local journalist Starshine Roshell gave a delightful talk to the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara in 2008. When she was just three years old her grandfather drilled this into her. He asked, “How do you know if something is true?” She learned to answer, “Only if it’s observationally corroborable.”

We all hold beliefs that we operate on every day. Have you ever stopped to question these beliefs? In particular, have you ever asked yourself, “What in principle could prove my belief to be wrong?” Do you realize that your belief has no meaning if there is no answer to this question?

What leaders do you support? Is there anything they could do that would make you stop supporting them? If not, what does it even mean to support them?

Do you believe in astrology? Every year famous astrologers make predictions for the coming year. Does anyone ever go back to see if any of the predictions from the previous year came true? Perhaps more important, whether anything really important was missed? Susan Miller is considered a top astrologer. In January 2020 she predicted 2020 would be a “great” and “prosperous” year. What about that COVID thing? Oops. Missed that. So did every other astrologer.

I believe that the climate crisis is the most important issue facing the planet. I base this on following this issue for 40 years and watching the evidence accumulate. Could I be persuaded to change my position? Yes. If there was evidence showing that the record global temperatures in recent years were caused by some previously unknown factor that is going to go away. I would bet a lot of money that is not going to happen. How much would you bet on some of your beliefs?

Do you believe that tax cuts for the wealthy lead to increased wages for working people? That unregulated free markets would provide healthcare for everyone? That same-sex marriage will harm heterosexual marriage? That religious belief makes people more law-abiding?

Have you ever sought out evidence that might challenge your belief?

Do you believe that “voter fraud” “stole the 2020 election”? Did you consider that this claim might have been invented to cover up actual voter suppression of minorities that really did steal elections?

Care to try the Wason selection task, which tests your understanding of falsifiability? You have four cards in front of you labeled D F 3 7. The proposed rule is: If there is a D on one side of the card, then there is a 3 on the other side. Which card(s) must you turn over to see if these cards obey this rule? Google “Wason selection task” for the answer.

Lateral Thinking author Edward de Bono said, “If you never change your mind, why have one?” I would rephrase this as: “If you don’t know what would change your mind, why have one?”

 

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