Unreasonable Doubt

I recall reading years ago about the results of a study that showed beyond doubt that the self-esteem movement was based on a faulty assumption. Telling kids they were great because they breathed in and out on a fairly regular basis did not, in fact, breed self-confidence. In California, where the self-esteem movement was started, the study was denied by at least one city councilman who said: “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In fact, the study showed that the kids who were told they were great knew damned well they were not and what was bred was not self-confidence but contempt for their elders. I worked with kids for years and, believe me, they know when they are being duped. They sense falsehood the way a dog senses fresh meat on the floor. They may not be able to articulate it, but they sense falsehood and pretense.

In any event, the doubting of science is not new and it seems to have been given new life in recent years as people who should know better insist that scientific evidence about climate change is bogus and science, in general, ought to be dismissed out of hand as an attempt to alarm and upset the rest of us. The people who make these outrageous claims are obviously in denial (or the pockets of Big Oil) as they proceed to make their coffee in electric coffee-makers, make office calls to their local physician when in pain, drive their automobiles, fly around the world in airplanes — all activities involving faith in scientific ingenuity. In a word, we have here a case of denial in the form of selective beliefs. We reject those beliefs we find uncomfortable and we adopt as certain those that make us feel good.

This would not be a serious problem, of course, if we weren’t talking about the survival of the human species and possibly even the planet itself. Selective belief has been around, I dare say, since the dawn of time. For all we know the saber-tooth tiger fell victim to it! But we are now living in an age in which the rejection of science borders on the insane. Science is not THE answer to all our problems. Heaven knows, Horatio, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in science. But, at the same time, science can provide us with a fairly certain guide to human conduct that will not only fly us anywhere we want to go, but also help us avoid the deep pitfalls that await those who insist upon walking around with blindfolds across their eyes.orwell-1

I am a firm believer in testing all claims to truth. Critical thinking is essential if we are to survive as individuals and as a species. But it is not critical thinking that insists upon the rejection of scientific truth; it is sheer stupidity, if not duplicity. There are certain things that are beyond doubt: the probability is so high as to approach certainty. When 97% of the scientific community agrees about the dangers of continued abuse of the planet, we can be fairly confident that this is true — even if we can’t follow their arguments and decipher their complicated data.

It pays us to be cautious when the stakes are as high as they are. And it pays to check for hidden agendas among those who deny climate change as well as those who insist it is a fact. The deniers have a great deal at stake, to wit, their increasing profits in the sort term. The affirmers are scientists who are simply concerned about the future of this planet and who have no hidden agendas — despite all the false charges laid at their feet. It might be the better part of wisdom to pay attention to those who are shouting alarms in increasingly louder voices and ignore those who insist on looking the other way. It just makes sense.

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Post Truth

The folks who publish  Oxford Dictionary have decided to introduce a new term in the world’s American/English vocabulary: post-truth. To be specific:

After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

There are two things that must be noted about this new term. To begin with, the reduction of truth to “emotion and personal belief” is not new. Hardly. It has been around ever since humans started worrying about what is and what is not the case. Even the brightest among us find ourselves accepting as true those statements that fit nicely with our belief-set. If it is comfortable, it must be true. The only thing new here is that this reduction has become commonplace to the point where a great many people now dismiss as false even those claims for which there is a mountain of evidence — such things as global warming, for example. But the notion is rejected because it makes people feel uncomfortable, not because it is false. After all, should we have to alter our life-style just because a bunch of scientists tell us the earth is slowly being destroyed by our ignorance and neglect? The answer is, of course, “yes.” But not for those who reduce truth to personal belief.

But it behooves us to consider what truth is before we reject it out of hand. It pertains to statements, or claims. And those statements are true if, and only if, there is a fact “out there” that corresponds with that statement. If there is, in fact a blue chair in my living room I can make the statement that it is so and anyone who chooses to do so can go into the living room and corroborate the claim for himself or herself. Moreover, even if a claim cannot be immediately verified by me, if it is coherent and fits logically with a set of facts known to be true, independently of my own particular wishes or desires, then that claim can be regarded as itself true. That’s the point: truth claims can be verified, or corroborated by anyone at any time. They are not private claims; they are not a personal set of statements that I find comforting. Truth is universal, it is not subjective and relative. Beliefs are relative and personal, but beliefs may or may not have anything whatever to do with truth.

Science deals in truth, because the claims of the scientist can be verified by any other scientist at any time. If the claims cannot be verified, such as claims regarding cold fusion, for example, then the scientific community rejects those claims as false. It matters not how much I want to believe in cold fusion, the evidence suggests that it is not possible. And until it can be verified by the scientific community — and anyone else who might be interested — it must remain merely a hope.

But we should all be concerned about the truth or falsity of the things we say and not just the scientists among us. The recent phenomenon involving major politicians standing before huge crowds and spouting innumerable untruths has become commonplace — to the point where we now talk about “post-truth.” But the concept is absurd and we must insist that there are claims that are true and claims that are not true regardless of how much we may want to believe or to disbelieve those claims. To reduce all claims to mere subjective belief is to turn our backs on features of our common world that we might find uncomfortable, but which may make our lives richer in the long run.  Like it or not, we must accept as true those claims for which there is a body of evidence that cannot be dismissed in all intellectual honesty, and not just because the person who said it did so with conviction or what he said fits nicely into my personal belief-set. A world consisting merely of personal beliefs is a shrunken world. It lacks dimension, color, and life.

Demagoguery

With the vast improvement in the transmission of pictures and words quickly to more and more people, the always present threat of demagoguery increases. We have seen a number of such (whose names will not be mentioned), but all learned their  techniques, directly or indirectly, from Adolph Hitler. And in order to understand the man’s success no one has studied Hitler more closely than Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was forced to leave Germany in her childhood and later became a teacher and writer of international fame. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a large book that established her reputation firmly as one who had a penetrating insight into some of the most important events of the past which she was convinced should enable us to better understand the present and anticipate probable future events. In a lengthy footnote in that book she reflects on the success of the depressingly ordinary Adolph Hitler “who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune.” Indeed, anyone who has seen films of Hitler before a crowd, even if he is not fluent in German, finds himself swept up in the emotional theater and inclined to agree with whatever the little man is saying. What is it that makes this possible? As Arendt notes:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, the tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and the ‘conviction . . .that everything is balderdash’ could best be avoided by adhering to one of many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency.’ The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates.”

There are a number of features of this comment that invite our attention. Clearly, Arendt has studied her subject closely and asked key questions about how it is that such a person as Adolph Hitler could hold vast numbers of people spellbound and convince them that black is white. To begin with, as she says, he grabs one of the many opinions floating out there and presents it with absolute conviction as the only possible truth, bringing order out of chaos. Repetition, conviction, and consistency, with the assurance that people will believe what you say if they hear it said often and without doubt or hesitation. This is key. Please note that it doesn’t matter in the least whether the opinion is true or false. What matters his whether or not the speaker says it with conviction. Hitler never doubted himself; he never second-guessed. He simply asserted what he wanted people to believe, knowing they would believe what he said if he said it often enough and without any hint of uncertainty.

But as Arendt points out, it matters also that this opinion must be asserted in a group where there is confusion about what matters and what is true. They seek release from the bewildering array of opinions on every side: they want something firm to grab onto in a world filled with conflicting opinions. In Hitler’s day when the mass media were just aborning, the situation was less chaotic than it is in our day when we are overwhelmed with numberless opinions on every subject. We are bombarded on every side by claims and those who presume to be experts about things we may know little about. We all have opinions, but we also are easily persuaded by one who seems to be certain of the truth, even if that truth runs counter to what we ourselves believe. And even if it is blatantly false. The appeal is always emotional, not intellectual., This is not philosophy; it is rhetoric. The demagogue knows how to “work on” the emotions of his or her listener. And as Arendt points out, when the audience evidences ” a characteristic lack of discerning judgment,” as it does in our day especially, the job is made so much easier.

So we should not be amazed that folks like Rush Limbaugh and, in his day, Paul Harvey are immensely popular: they make complex issues simple by  stating “with unbending consistency” and without wavering an opinion (any opinion) that floats in the air and assert it with smug confidence. Their listeners seem to be sitting at the feet of wisdom itself. How could we not have seen that before? It seems so clear now. The demagogue doesn’t know any more than we do. He simply appears to do so and he does so with swagger and with firmness that seem to make disagreement impossible. So we buy what he is selling, whatever that might happen to be. And we feel a sense of relief in doing so, because by agreeing with the demagogue we are ourselves now also wise. Where we had doubts before, we now have certainty — even if we are “demonstrably wrong.”