Hume’s Problem and the Weaponization of Doubt

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote something to the effect of “With subjectivism in philosophy comes anarchism in politics.” (I’m too lazy to go hunt up the proper quote, so this may be way off base, but my getting the quote right doesn’t change the basic argument here.) As someone who rejects objectivism in philosophy, who recognizes inevitable subjective elements in all reasoning, and who wants political stability as well as some element of democratic rule, this sentence struck me as problematic, even wrong. Of course, Russell lived through the Nazi era, when big lies were spread to create an alternate reality that inspired horrific acts of violence. I had not yet seen the weaponization of doubt employed by too many, but especially the big business interests and many political actors.

David Hume is perhaps most famous for his framing of the problem of induction. Induction is the process of making generalizations from specific examples. So, for example, suppose you are looking at trees, and every tree you see has green leaves. Induction takes those many observations and makes a general rule: “trees have green leaves.” The problem of induction is that there is no guarantee that future observations will resemble past observations. To Hume, this was mostly important in distinguishing what we know (with absolute certainty beyond doubt) and what we believe (with good reason, but only as a conclusion from experience, which is necessarily fraught with the problem that the future might not resemble the past). Unfortunately, this basic logical problem has become used to much effect (and, in my opinion, much harm).

Much of science proceeds, to some extent, on the basis of “the best-tested theory”—on theories that have been tested and passed those tests, but are subject to further testing. According to the theories of Karl Popper—a philosopher who developed a famous response to Hume’s problem—we can have some certain knowledge in science: we can know (with certainty) that things are false. Because we can know that things are false, we can test and disprove theories, and thus eliminate bad ideas.  This basic structure is common in many fields, where a “null hypothesis” is shown to be false (or at least highly improbable), and an “alternate hypothesis” is therefore accepted.

In the hands of reasonable people who are interested in discovering the truth, this basic structure allows for progress, and thus scholars develop a general consensus agreement about the basic facts. It is not a fully-determined consensus—there is debate and there are those who reject some or most of the consensus, but there is a general acceptance of most basic ideas.

But in the hands of those who have some agenda other than truth, Hume’s problem becomes a weapon to paralyze an enemy and seize power.

It has been widely reported that in the 1970s, scientists at Exxon identified the problem of global warming, and, seeing that such knowledge might hurt their business, the company developed a strategy of questioning global warming science. (It should be noted that Exxon was not necessarily at the forefront of this. For example, check out this article from 1965.) Hume’s problem makes it possible to question every theory, no matter how much evidence: “well,” you say, “that is suggestive, but it can’t be considered conclusive.” In many cases you can offer some alternative explanation. This has been happening less with climate change over the last several years, as evidence becomes even more overwhelming, but it used to happen much more often. I remember one man asking me “well, if it’s caused by humans, why are the polar caps on Mars melting” (implying, I presume, that the Martian polar caps melting showed some solar-system-wide force was at work).

But the most extreme weaponization of doubt that I have ever seen is the current GOP assault on the credibility of the American election systems. Let’s start by admitting that the American election systems are imperfect: there are mistakes made, and some of those mistakes may even impact the outcome of votes. That is why, in addition to systems for gathering and tabulating votes, there are systems already in place for checking the results of an election. Of course, these systems, too, are imperfect. 

Like any knowledge based on observation, the election-checking systems can always be challenged by the question at the heart of Hume’s problem: just because we haven’t observed something (vote fraud) yet, doesn’t mean we won’t observe it in the future (if we run another audit). What the GOP keeps doing, in calling for further investigation into the election, is relying on the basic logic of Hume’s problem. This is the argument that is driving the current audit of votes in Maricopa county: “sure, there were already multiple audits, but just because they didn’t find fraud doesn’t mean the fraud doesn’t exist; it just means that the audits didn’t look for the right things.”  Whatever checks you might carry out, you can make up some new claim and say “You haven’t proved this didn’t happen.” Case in point, the Maricopa county audit has apparently been looking for traces of bamboo to prove that fake ballots were introduced into the election count by sinister Asians. “Sure, you didn’t find any local interference, but what about the Chinese? They managed to inject thousands of fake ballots into the system to help Biden.” And, yes, I’m sure that no one has checked to see if the ballots were faked and forged from China” (And let’s just forget the fact that they did check that the counted ballots were from registered voters, and that no voter voted multiple times, so for the Chinese scheme to work, they must have somehow managed to make fake ballots only for people who were registered but who did not  vote without making any ballots for people who were not registered or who registered and voted.)

Hume correctly pointed out that we cannot prove with certainty the claims we make based on observation. But, while this is logically correct, when that doubt is used in bad faith to ignore the vast preponderance of evidence, there’s a big problem.

I’m no big fan of the Democrats; I think they have been too complicit in many of the worst failures of the USA during my lifetime. And, in my heart, I am conservative (not politically conservative, but actually conservative in that I would like to mostly keep things as they are—there are things that need changing, but let’s only change those things and keep all the rest). But in contrast to the Republican party, it can at least be said that the Democrats are apparently interested in truth, evidence, and data based on observations, all of which are really good things. During my adult life, it seems to me that the Republican party has consistently strayed farther and farther from the truth.  I only remember Watergate from a child’s perspective, but obviously the honesty of Nixon was an issue. And the GOP—at least some members of it—called on the president to step down when it became clear he was a criminal (and apparently, those people were willing to vote to impeach). The Reagan administration at least tried to cloak its work in theory—the Laffer curve was at least an academic theory promulgated by an academic. Stuff like The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray at least tried to give an intellectual defense to GOP perspectives. I don’t think much of the way Herrnstein and Murray handle data (I think they confuse correlation with causation), but I would give them the benefit of a doubt that it’s just bad data analysis, rather than intentionally deceitful analysis. The investigation of the Clintons was a preliminary weaponization of doubt—it started with a supposed real estate fraud (Whitewater), but reached out in any direction it could to find reason to attack Clinton, ultimately resulting in Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. There were no real limits on an investigation that said “we haven’t found any fraud yet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The second Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction and many other things, but they seemed to be trying to come up with realistic alternate hypotheses. But the GOP since is all about baseless conspiracies that no evidence set to rest. No matter how much evidence there was that Obama was born in the US, the birther conspiracy just rolled on.

GOP attempts to “find the truth” about the 2020 election are bad faith arguments.  They have nothing to do with finding the truth. They are weaponization of doubt to gain political power. Whenever confronted with actual evidence that there wasn’t fraud (like recounts of votes and audits of votes), the GOP answers, “well, you just haven’t found it yet.” It’s not a reasonable search for truth; it’s an attempt to gain political power by reducing people’s faith in the electoral system.

It should be noted that my primary interest is in finding the truth. The fact that I prefer Democrats to Republicans follows from my interest in the truth. I do not prefer Democratic policies because they are proposed by Democrats (Indeed, I loathe many Democratic policies). Instead, I prefer policies that are based on the truth, and then prefer the party that shows closer adherence to the policies that I would espouse. My objection that the GOP is arguing is bad faith is not based on my preference for Democrats, but rather on my observation that they are weaponizing doubt and engaging in intentional deflection, distraction, and disinformation. I believe in the truth. And that belief shapes my preference for politicians who respect and respond to the truth.