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A License to Disbelieve

Belief is an unlicensed activity, but wide-spread rejection of information is self-licensed, and is revoked upon the consequences of disbelief.

In Ian Flemming’s series involving the character James Bond, there is the notion of a “License to Kill.” The license, granted to secret agents, apparently confers immunity from prosecution when they commit homicide as part of their official duties.

But one of the key concepts that’s harming our modern political discourse is this ungranted, self-founded license to disbelieve that many have taken up. Climate denial has surely played a major role in its development, what with one party virtually deciding that having a livable planet is not a priority and just outright denying that we should do anything.

Causes like the anti-vaccination movement, which is apparently much of a non-partisan affair, also fuel the idea that we can just up and decide to ignore data out of fear or discomfort.

There was the rash of Republicans who famously disbelieved the citizenship of President Obama, which was a precursor to the current government that feels comfortable disbelieving (without evidence or due process) the citizenship of ordinary folks.

But unlike the License to Kill, or even a license to drive, the license to disbelieve is not issued. There is no test. There is no accountability. Oops, I rejected vaccines as a commie plot, and now your kid has plague. Oops, I thought China invented the global warming hoax, and now Miami is Sea World.

The license to disbelieve does get revoked, though. Just as in the above cases. When pestilence spreads, the license to disbelieve vaccines gets revoked. When the seas rise, or when, in 2100, half of the country has over 50 days per year at 38°C/100°F, the license to disbelieve carbon pollution is stamped void.

There is a high level of irreverence for facts that comes with the license to disbelieve. It is as though the practitioners of disbelief are looking at a cloud, deciding its shape. While it is clearly a mushroom cloud, they want to lie and pretend that nothing horrible will happen. They choose to see a funny tree shape, instead.

The antidote to disbelief is logical reasoning about mitigating risks. If there’s a bevy of evidence for something, even if you disbelieve, you’re a fool to not make some plans to handle the risk that you’re wrong.

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