Sunday, April 16, 2006

The reality-based community

There is an ideal. It claims that a vital prerequisite of a high-Quality life is an accurate understanding of how the universe works. Recently I've taken to referring to this ideal's adherents as the reality-based community.

This is not the same as the scientific community - it's possible to be a member of the RBC without being a scientist, and it's possible for a scientist to have non-reality-based beliefs. Nor is it the same as atheism - atheists can be dogmatic too - although at the present time I'd say that atheism is a necessary condition for membership (but I'm an atheist myself so I would say that...). It's not quite the same as scepticism - unjustified scepticism is not reality-based. However, it can reasonably be considered to be the motivation for all of these behaviours.

The heart of this ideal is a willingness to admit when you're wrong coupled with an active drive to make sure that your inaccuracies get exposed as quickly as possible. It's about seeking out alternative hypotheses and analysing them on their own merits. It's about not rejecting ideas just because they conflict with your understanding of the world. It's also about ditching ideas the moment you find yourself unable to support them, in an appropriately public manner, no matter how attracted to them you are. It's about truth, often at the expense of beauty.

As the origins of the phrase suggest, this viewpoint has its weaknesses. Members of the reality-based community, dedicated as they are to building an accurate understanding of the universe, may have comparatively less drive to achieve. They will generally have made conscious efforts to avoid being ruled by their feelings and instincts, so may actually be slightly handicapped in situations where intuitive responses are more appropriate (in particular, members of the RBC are unlikely to be good at rhetoric).

However, if you want an answer to a factual question about the universe, ask someone who follows this ideal. Their answer may be wrong (and in fact they'll often caution you against assuming that it's 100% right), but it definitely won't be crazy.

No-one's perfect. There's not a single person in this world who is fully a member of the reality-based community. We all have our dogmas, and it's painful to let them go - and, until we do, we can't consider ourselves part of this select yet self-selecting group. In my opinion, however, it's an ideal worth aiming for.

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