A friend of mine is a much more outspoken sceptic than I am. He spends his day around people with beliefs so unbelievable that I simply don’t believe it is worth the energy debunking them: homeopathy, moon farming, healing crystals, psychic counselling… trust me, the list goes on. Said friend will always explain to these people why said beliefs are fundamentally nonsense, and sometimes get irate about the fact people profit from selling lies. Needless to say, he has been told on more than one occasion that he needs to be more tolerant. This doesn’t make sense though; are people asking him to be tolerant of their ignorance?
Some thing I should make clear is that Paul (I have decided to call him) and I have very similar rules for discourse: if you think I’m talking nonsense, tell me. Then we’ll weigh up the plausibility and probability of a claim based on evidence and the existing paradigm of known science. It’s not a complicated process. Are Paul’s friends and clients asking him to hold them to a lower standard what which he would ask to be held?
I think I know what the problem is: science is ruthless. (It is without ruth.) Science has a clear cut and unsociable benchmark. If you don’t make it, tough. There is none of the mollycoddling and cuddling; science doesn’t give you a gold star for taking part; science doesn’t treat us like children. People don’t like that. We are so used to things softening their blow and bending around us for our comfort that we do the same with our epistemology: “surely I’m entitled to my opinion!“. This sentence–I am entitled to my opinion–is the call of a person desperate to get their participation gold star and, without a single sense iota of irony, wanting to revel in the patronisation that ensues. You are not entitled to your opinion of matters of fact. You are entitled to what you can defend.
People are very uncomfortable being held to a standard and kept to it. But it is difficult to say what, exactly, they expect to achieve. Do people believe that reality will bend, or that other people will entertain their ignorance? Do these people know, on some level, that they are based their beliefs on bad evidence?