Sunday, February 9, 2014

An Opinion Piece in the NYT by Simon Critchley Exposes the Concept of Certainty in Opposition to Intelligence and Intellectual Integrity

And Indirectly Why Ideologues Are Almost Always Wrong

While the following concept is not original with this Forum, it is central to the thesis of this Forum.  That concept is this, that one of the best, if not the best measure of intellect is the degree of uncertainty with which one holds one’s views.  The more certain one is that he or she is absolutely correct, the less thoughtful, the less studious and the less intellectually honest is that person.

In an opinion piece in the New York Time, Simon Critchley illustrates this concept as well as it can be done.  He is writing about a landmark public television show of 40 years ago, a show where scientist Jacob Bronowski examined man and evolution and culture.  Here is Mr. Critchley’s take after watching a section on Mr. Bronowski confronting the Holocaust in which he lost much of his family.

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is as personal an act as lifting a paintbrush or writing a poem, and they are both profoundly human. If the human condition is defined by limitedness, then this is a glorious fact because it is a moral limitedness rooted in a faith in the power of the imagination, our sense of responsibility and our acceptance of our fallibility. We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

While this applies to fundamentalists and activists of all stripes, think about how applicable this is to conservatives.  Think about Rush Limbaugh as an example, a commentator who brooks no uncertainty, that he and he alone is the source of truth and that never ever can what he think be contradicted.  As a result he is constantly and consistently wrong and morally and intellectually offensive.

Now there are those who may seek to turn this against the allies of modern science.  They may ask, doesn’t the principle that all is uncertain mean that one does not have to believe in evolution, that one  could believe that God does not want couples to use contraception, that lowering taxes on the wealthy pays for itself, etc.  But the answer to that is simple, show us the data.

If someone believes that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon about 8,000 years ago, fine, show us the evidence and refute our evidence.  If someone believes that cutting taxes on the wealthy increases tax revenues fine, produce the models and the research.  If someone believes that creating further deprivation among the low income groups will stimulate those groups and help them leave poverty, great, just prove it or at least demonstrate how that has worked in the past.  If someone believes that increasing the monetary base always leads to inflation, explain why that didn’t happen in 2008-13.

The great failure of conservatives is their refusal to place their view under the microscope of science and logic and analysis and their refusal to change their beliefs when knowledge and information contradict those beliefs.  As holders of beliefs based on faith rather than intellect, they fail any test of truth.  And the sad part, this failure takes millions with them.

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