In several of my comments on posts by my friends Barney and BTG I have been circling around an issue that I think deserves expansion. It has to do with one of the central problems we face as a nation and as a human race, if that doesn’t sound like hyperbole. And it has to do with our increasing inability to tell (and recognize) the truth. On ESPN, for example, we hear about a “six pax of cold-hard facts” which turn out to be a load of opinions that amount to little and certainly should not be confused with facts — unless you can say that Jackson held the opinion that the Jets would be a terrific team this year. That may be a fact, but when Jackson says the Jets will be awesome, that’s his opinion .
Most of the problems that Barney and BTG write about are serious problems, such as the drought in California and the determination of the legislature there to continue to endorse fracking, which both he and BTG have written about eloquently and persuasively: it is madness. It is madness on a normal day, but when water is becoming increasingly precious it is double-madness. But there are other serious problems we face as a nation and as a people who seem determined to follow one another blindly off a cliff into oblivion. And, it strikes me, it comes down to two things: (1) overpopulation, which I consider the core problem at the heart of all the rest. and (2) education, which I go on and on about for a reason. If we cannot use our minds to think our way through these problems we are in serious do-do, especially if we hope to feed, and provide air to breathe and water to drink, the numberless mouths we seem determined to continue to produce.
One of the obvious signs that we are losing our ability to think is not only our inability to differentiate between facts and opinions, as noted above, but our inability to recognize the truth when it is staring us in the face. We are inundated with information from all sides and people make claims that we suspect are bloat and rhetoric, but have no grounds for rejecting. So we simply accept comfortable claims, the path of least resistance. On the contrary, we need to be suspicious of all we hear, but we also need to be able to recognize that when a scientist, let us say, who is operating within his or her domain of expertise tells us that the earth is in serious danger we need to listen and take appropriate action. This assumes that we can recognize experts when we see and hear them and that we can think our way to appropriate action when necessary. But the first step is to accept as true those facts that are undeniably true despite the fact that we find them terribly confusing or even deeply disturbing. As BTG tells us, we must beware of cognitive dissonance.
We are not in position to know everything. We need to rely on experts for many things from medical advice, to accepting the bad news from our mechanic about why our car engine goes “clunk.” And this means that we need to be able to differentiate between genuine experts and those who just pretend to be experts. This is no small order. There is a host of folks out there who claim to be experts; my rule of thumb is to suspect the lot of them and listen only when I know that the expert knows what he or she is talking about. For example, I listen when a geologist tells me that earthquakes in Oklahoma are becoming increasingly numerous, and I listen when he presents the evidence that suggests that fracking is almost certainly the cause of those earthquakes. And I tend to reject out of hand anything I hear on Fox News, just as a matter of principle.
We need to know whom to listen to and when to pay attention. We need to have a healthy skepticism and a suspicious attitude toward those who merely pretend to know. A good clue is to ask whether the speaker has a “hidden agenda.” If the “scientist” on TV wearing the white smock is being paid by Gulf Oil I suspect he is not telling me the truth. If he works at Cal Tech and is trying to live on a faculty salary, then he might have something worth hearing — even if we don’t particularly like what he is saying. The truth is not determined by what we like to hear and read. It is determined by evidence provided by impartial sources and tested by others who have no axe to grind.