“All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up.”
When his daughter turned ten, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — arguably today’s most vocal atheist and celebrated skeptic — wrote her a simply worded but tremendously thoughtful letter about how we know what we know, stressing the importance of evidence over blind belief. The letter, found in the 2004 essay anthology A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (UK; public library), is a fine addition to history’s best letters of fatherly advice and an important reminder that it’s never too early for critical thinking.
To my dearest daughter,
Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.
Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball — the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.
Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.
He then offers an oblique addition to the finest definitions of science:
Scientists — the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe — often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.
Dawkins goes on to warn against “three bad reasons for believing anything” — “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation” — particularly as they apply to religion.
But perhaps the most moving part of his letter deals with love, exploring the difference between naming feelings with concrete labels and intuiting them from the living fabric, the “evidence,” of experience:
People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.
He relates this to the importance of intuition in scientific discovery, something a number of famous scientists have attested to, but only as a starting point:
Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.
After returning to the perils of tradition, Dawkins concludes with some practical advise reminiscent of the Baloney Detection Kit:
What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.
A Devil’s Chaplain is excellent in its entirety — highly recommended.