The duty of inquiry

I’ve just re-read W K Clifford’s ‘The Ethics of Belief’. The first paragraph is well known.

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first…Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections.

He rationalized them away, and was content. In reading that paragraph again, I was struck by a parallel – a very strong parallel. Feynman on the Challenger. The first paragraph there:

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?”

Fascinating, isn’t it? Clifford’s example is imagined, and Feynman’s is real, and the mechanism is identical. Wishful thinking in action. ‘Oh, it’s okay, it’s fine, it’s done pretty well so far; bye bye.’

Clifford takes an ethical view of the matter.

What shall we say of [the shipowner]? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

That’s the whole burden of the essay: he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. It’s not a popular view, but I think it has a lot to be said for it.

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