I am often asked to denounce religion. At about a third of the public talks I give, someone will suggest that the root cause of most of our problems is irrational religious belief – and will invite me to agree with them. My reply however is always the same: that trying to take the rational high ground is not easy. I maintain that the nearest place to see someone who cherry picks evidence and is ruled more often by emotion than reason is in the mirror. The most outwardly ‘rational’ of us harbour a festering pit of assumption, un-evidenced opinion and prejudice. Even our most iconic scientists are not immune as Michael Brooks’ Free Radicals brilliantly documents. On a personal note I’ve seen more than a few of their number rendered about as rational as David Icke by alcohol, romantic disasters or a perceived snub by a colleague.
So the scientific method and critical thinking skills are crucial – providing a framework of checks and balances, putting filters around our bug-ridden brains so that what eventually dribbles out is something approaching the truth. Let’s be honest, science has been astonishingly successful and one can only admire how this cognitive safety harness has continually come up trumps for its irrational creators.
Successful optimists therefore know that a commitment to evidence is key, regardless of your beliefs, your favourite ideology or accepted wisdom. This principle (number six) is perhaps best summed up as: be more like an engineer and less like a politician.
Think about it. Engineers do not build bridges from a left-wing, right-wing perspective. They build them from an evidence-based perspective and, over time, bridge building gets better. Politicians often make their decisions from an ideological standpoint, and if the evidence fits well (or can be ‘made’ to fit) that’s nice, and over time – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – our political system has got worse.
If you do something useful the politicians will come calling soon enough. There is a story, the truth of which is debated, that when Michael Faraday was asked by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer what the practical value of electricity was he replied, “One day sir, you may tax it.”
This has been re-published with permission of the author.