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Dawkins: How far do you trust someone with irrational beliefs?

25 January 2011

The evolutionary biologist, author, and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins kick-started an interesting discussion about the relevance of irrational personal beliefs over at Boing Boing yesterday. His post (Should employers be blind to personal beliefs?) suggested several extreme hypothetical examples of people whose beliefs might undermine confidence in their ability to perform a certain job, as a way of illuminating the general principles at issue in the settlement described by this New York Times article. Dawkins was quite clear that he was not commenting on that particular situation, but using it as a jumping-off point to test the limits of what is considered “acceptable” for someone in a given position to believe.

"Stork Theory (Sumi-e)" provided by Flickr user morgantj under a Creative Commons license

For instance, Dawkins asks us to suppose we visit an eye doctor who believes that babies come from storks, rather than sex-gestation-live birth. This belief is clearly irrational, unscientific, and flat-out wrong — but it would not necessarily decrease the doctor’s knowledge or skill as an optometrist. If you were hiring director at a hospital, and this person were the most highly-qualified for the job, would you hire them? If you were a patient and found out that your optometrist believed in the Stork Theory, would you feel confident in their ability to treat you?

Many of the Boing Boing commenters took a firm stand against discrimination and said Yes, they would in fact hire a Stork Theorist, or trust their eye care to one. Dawkins was surprised. In a follow-up comment, he wrote:

[T]here is apparently no level of absurdity that can serve my purpose of serving as a baseline for further discussion. For some people, the taboo against prying into a candidate’s private beliefs is so absolute that there is literally no belief, no matter how absurd, that could rule him out. … Are there literally no limits?

Perhaps it is not so surprising that people would respond that way, however. On paper, there truly is no reason to think that you’d receive anything but the best eye care from our hypothetical optometrist. And, in the cool light of a computer screen, it’s easy to hold on to a “rational” commitment to non-discrimination.

"Is it safe...?" provided by Flickr user Lomo-Cam under a Creative Commons license

But our decisions are rarely purely rational. Emotions play a large role as well, especially in situations that are too sudden, or too complicated, for the rational parts of our brains to think through. Often emotional responses serve as shortcuts to making fast, reliable decisions.

Emotions are central to the doctor-patient relationship, because that relationship requires a significant investment of trust on the part of the patient. She entrusts the doctor with responsibility for some aspect of her physical and/or mental health. A patient who can’t or doesn’t trust her doctor will naturally be less likely to follow his recommendations. In the case of a doctor who, despite the patient’s mistrust, is highly competent, this lack of trust could endanger the patient’s health.

If any of those pure-rationalist Boing Boing commenters were to actually hear their optometrist espousing Stork Theory during their next visit, I imagine they’d be hard-pressed to avoid a feeling of serious skepticism — not just in the ideas being promoted, but in the fundamental medical competency of the doctor. It doesn’t matter that, theoretically, there is no reason the doctor couldn’t separate this belief in storks from his understanding of eye care. A patient would nevertheless feel that something was wrong.

That emotional response could be enough to undermine the doctor’s effectiveness, even if their competence remained unassailable. I wouldn’t fault anyone for preferring a different eye doctor, and I don’t think I would fault a hospital for refusing to hire them. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that the patient or the hospital management would be acting “irrationally”. The patient’s feeling that the doctor is incompetent might technically be irrational, but it is thoroughly rational to base a decision upon the practical consequences of that feeling.

Two further considerations:

First, of course, all this turns on the assumption that the belief is known — that the optometrist has expressed belief in Stork Theory publicly. If nobody knows about the belief, the doctor will be judged on the strength of competency alone and none will be the wiser.

Or would they?

Because secondly, it remains an open question whether a given irrational belief must intrinsically impact upon competence in a given area. Even if the belief is 100% private, there could be practical consequences. My gut feeling is that there would be practical consequences of some kind. But the extent to which they would undermine competence depends upon many other factors, and I’m not aware of any data that points one way or the other.

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