Updated: Sep 3, 2022
Key Take Aways
To evaluate a theory, you need to be able to compare it to an alternative.
This suggests that people can easily fool you with their theories if you have no alternative.
One way to avoid this is to be aware of alternative views.
It is February 26, 1504, Columbus and his crew are in Hispaniola with dwindling food supplies (see Tyson, 2018). The locals barely produce enough for themselves; they refuse to help. Columbus therefore sends a messenger warning them that God's wrath will befall them for not feeding “his” servants. As evidence of god’s wrath, the moon will vanish and further punishment will escalate unless they handover food. The following day, a lunar eclipse is witnessed by the people of Hispaniola, so they tremble in fear and surrender their meager supplies.
This is terrible. And, unfortunately, there are still people who would do that today. In this essay, I want to explain how we can all fall for Columbus’ trap and how to avoid it. I’ll touch on the questions “are we gullible?” and “how can we avoid gullibility?” My view is that any one of us can be made into a sucker if we lack relevant information.
Why theory evaluation depends on having alternative theories
Richard Creath, a previous professor of mine, told me that you don’t need a good theory when you have the only theory. This is what happened to the people of Hispaniola. Relatedly, philosopher of science Larry Laudan (1978) maintains that theories in science are rarely evaluated on their own. The best way, often the only way, to expose the problems of a theory is to present an alternative theory that better addresses the problem. Only then do the problems become forceful. Why is it that we need another theory to evaluate a theory, and why is this relevant to gullibility?
Laudan’s explanation is that problems for a theory are simply questions a theory has to answer. And it is not always obvious whether a theory has to answer a question, so it is not always obvious that a theory has a problem. Suppose you have a theory of how language develops in one’s lifespan. You find that children in some neighborhoods do not fit your theory. Is this a problem? Potentially, but it could also be that those neighborhoods are poorly resourced. As such, the problem can be set aside as a one off exception to the rle, perhaps to be addressed by social workers. However, if someone comes around and gives a theory that is as good as your theory on all other measures, and it also explains the tendency of children in underserved neighborhoods, then you can’t just set aside the problem. The potential problem becomes a real problem; it becomes a question your theory should be able to answer. As Laudan puts it in his book, Progress and its Problems: “...unsolved problems generally count as genuine problems only when they are no longer unsolved (18).”
Why is this important?
I think this is important for two reasons.
It tells us that rational evaluation of theories depends on what you know. It suggests that we can’t just evaluate a theory without knowing anything else.
It tells us that in situations where people are ignorant, people can exploit the lack of alternative theories to gain power over others. Looking back, this is could be what happened to the people of Hispaniola. Unaware of astronomy, they only had one theory to explain the eclipse, and it didn’t even need to be a good theory for them to believe it.
I think the problem persists today. For example, many people I know have been god believers since birth. They cite god as an explanation for many things, such as why the universe exists, why morality exists, or why they had some fuzzy feeling on Sunday. Many of these people have never even imagined alternative explanations. Sure, they know about atheism. They know science exists and talks about… stuff. My point is that many of these individuals couldn’t even describe an alternative explanation. To be clear, many christian philosophers have developed rich explanations in these areas (e.g., William Lane Craig), so I'm not assuming they are wrong. All I am saying is that the mere fact that many christians are unaware of the alternatives means that, regardless of the truth or falsity of their beliefs, they can’t fully evaluate the theories they believe in. I also don’t “judge” people, for I have been in this very situation myself.
In many places, the bible warns readers to beware of false teachings. Some have interpreted this as the command to be unaware of science and theory. But as another professor put it to me, the best way to beware is to be aware. Now, I don’t think this problem is only a christian problem. It is an everybody problem. Speculating, perhaps this is how conspiracy theories get a hold of so many (Coady, 2006). People rarely understand all the nuances and details of science (how do scientists calculate global warming? I don’t exactly know). As a matter of fact, science is so complex that scientists themselves don’t generally understand everything (Oreskes, 2019). They collaborate to bring all the pieces together–like a bunch of little ants. So, when you hear a confident TikTok conspiracy theorist reduce a bunch of complexity in a few minutes, and when it's really the only theory you got, it must seem plausible. But you might be believing the person just because you don’t really know an alternative.
I’m not naively suggesting that the solution to all bad beliefs is solved by being informed. Being informed can lead to more bias because we now know how to better defend our own bias. Nevertheless, I think the advice is solid. Be(A)ware of the allure of a theory just because it is the only one you got.
Coady, D. (2018). Conspiracy theories: The philosophical debate. Routledge.
ORESKES, N. (2019). Why Trust Science? Princeton University Press.
Laudan, L. (1978). Progress and its problems: Toward a theory of scientific growth.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tyson, N. G., Lang, A., & Vance, C. B. (2018). Accessory to war: The unspoken alliance
between astrophysics and the military. New York: Random House.