It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow human beings: M. K. Gandhi / People all seek to know what they do not know yet; They ought rather seek to know what they know already-Zhuang Zhou / If a person ain't careful; they can make a profession out of revenge: Godless, TV serial
NB: Explore my blog by clicking'LABELS' & 'ARCHIVE' on the top LEFT PANEL. You can also use the SEARCH function on top.
Lee McIntyre - The Attack on Truth: We have entered an age of willful ignorance
To see how we treat the concept of truth these days, one
might think we just don’t care any more. Politicians pronounce that global
warming is a hoax. An alarming number of middle-class parents have stopped
giving their children routine vaccinations, on the basis of discredited
research. Meanwhile many commentators in the media — and even some in our
universities — have all but abandoned their responsibility to set the record
straight. (It doesn’t help when scientists occasionally have to retract their
Humans have always held some wrongheaded beliefs that were
later subject to correction by reason and evidence. But we have reached a
watershed moment, when the enterprise of basing our beliefs on fact rather than
intuition is truly in peril. It’s not just garden-variety ignorance that periodically
appears in public-opinion polls that makes us cringe or laugh. A 2009 survey by
the California Academy of Sciences found that only 53 percent of American
adults knew how long it takes for Earth to revolve around the sun. Only 59
percent knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the
As egregious as that sort of thing is, it is not the kind of
ignorance that should most concern us. There is simple ignorance and there is
willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to
remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an
ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical
matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere
scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for
the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are
on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.
It is sad that the modern attack on truth started in the
academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in
holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot
understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its
author. That disrespect, however, has metastasized into outrageous
claims about the natural sciences.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of
academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the "science
wars" were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the
philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and
cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural
realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity.
skirmishes blew up in the well-known "Sokal
affair" in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a
scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a
leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to
settle the matter once and for all.
But then a funny thing happened: While many natural
scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some
left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing
ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate
change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal
said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found
hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that
caused discombobulation on the left.
"Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this
field known as science studies?," Bruno Latour, one of the founders of the
field that contextualizes science, famously
asked. "Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said?
Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you
like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for
"But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth
creationists are coming after the natural scientists," the literary critic
Michael Bérubé noted,
"… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic
left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind." That is the price one pays for playing with ideas as if
doing so has no consequences, imagining that they will be used only for the
political purposes one intended. Instead, the entire edifice of science is now
under attack. And it’s the poor and disenfranchised, to whom the left pays
homage, who will probably bear the brunt of disbelief in climate change.
Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute
inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow
postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the
strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back
to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented
scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by
skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a
public-relations campaign. Sadly, that strategy has largely worked, and we
today find it employed by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle organization
advocating that "intelligent-design theory" be taught in the public
schools as balance for the "holes" in evolutionary theory, and the
Heartland Institute, which bills itself as "the world’s most prominent think
tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change."
What do such academically suspect centers have to offer by
way of peer-reviewed, scientifically reputable evidence? Almost nothing. But
that is not the point. The strategy of willful ignorance is not to fight theory
with theory and statistic with statistic. It is instead to say, "I refuse
to believe this," and then filibuster in the court of public opinion. It
is not crackpot theories that are doing us in. It is the spread of the tactics
of those who disrespect truth.
Remember the great dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates, soon facing
trial for impiety and corrupting youth, admonishes a callow young fellow for
professing to know what "righteousness" is? Socrates demonstrates
again and again that Euthyphro has no idea what he is talking about when he
argues that it would be righteous for him to prosecute his own father for
murder on the basis of some pretty shoddy evidence — and shows that Euthyphro
cannot even define the meaning of the word. Socrates is adept at questioning
and at verbal humiliation — his standard method throughout the dialogues — but
not because he knows the answers. When challenged, Socrates always demurs. He
has no wisdom, he says, but is only a kind of "midwife" who can help
others to seek it. Even though the goal of philosophy is to find the truth,
Socrates customarily professes ignorance.
Plato here teaches a central lesson about the philosopher’s
search for knowledge, which has ramifications for any quest for true belief.
The real enemy is not ignorance, doubt, or even disbelief. It is false
knowledge. When we profess to know something even in the face of absent or
contradicting evidence, that is when we stop looking for the truth. If we are
ignorant, perhaps we will be motivated to learn. If we are skeptical, we can
continue to search for answers. If we disbelieve, maybe others can convince us.
And perhaps even if we are honestly wrong, and put forward a proposition that
is open to refutation, we may learn something when our earlier belief is
But when we choose to insulate ourselves from new ideas or
evidence because we think that we already know what is true, that is when we
are most likely to believe a falsehood. It is not mere disbelief that explains
why truth is so often disrespected. It is one’s attitude.
In a recent
paper, "Why Do Humans Reason?," Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber,
both of them philosophers and cognitive scientists, argue that the point of
human reason is not and never has been to lead to truth, but is rather to win
arguments. If that is correct, the discovery of truth is only a byproduct.
The fact that humans do reason poorly is beyond dispute. The
psychological literature is replete with examples of mistakes like
"confirmation bias" (seeking out only information that confirms our
preconceptions) and "hindsight bias" (relying on current knowledge to
assume that something was predictable all along). The work goes back to the
1970s and ’80s, with Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s groundbreaking research
on irrationality in how people weigh risks and losses, which helped establish
the field of behavioral economics and undermine the reigning idea in economics
of rational choice. Kahneman,
a psychologist who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, updated
his work in Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
The fundamental question that motivates Mercier and
Sperber’s analysis is this: Why would being a persuasive speaker be valuable to
humans as they evolved? Here the authors tell a story about the importance of
argumentation to the evolution of communication. In a group setting, where
people were not already inclined to trust one another, they would need some way
of evaluating claims. That’s where arguments come in. Just to make an assertion
does not rise to the level of overcoming what Mercier and Sperber and
called the "epistemic vigilance" against being deceived or
manipulated. If you present other people with the reasons for your belief,
however, you have now given them the means to evaluate the truth of your claim
and also, if you are right, presumably extend more trust to you in the future.
Thus, according to Mercier and Sperber, providing arguments for our beliefs
improves the quality and reliability of information that is shared in human
The philosopher Andy Norman and others have criticized this
theory by pointing out that it relies far too heavily on the idea that
rhetorical skills are valuable within an evolutionary context, irrespective of
the truth of the beliefs being advocated. What if the reasons for your beliefs
are not true? In a response to Mercier and Sperber, the psychologist Robert J.
out that while reason and argument are closely related,
"persuasive reasoning that is not veridical can be fatal to the individual
and to the propagation of his or her genes, as well as to the human species as
We are faced with the prospect of a significant change in the
temperature of our planet if we continue to harvest and use all of the fossil
fuels at our disposal. Suddenly the stakes for a longtime problem of human
irrationality seem enormous. But if the seeds of disrespecting truth were
planted so long ago, why are they now growing with such force?
One likely candidate is the Internet. It facilitates not
only the spread of truth but also the proliferation of crackpots, ideologues,
and those with an ax to grind. With the removal of editorial gatekeepers who
can vet information, outright lies can survive on the Internet. Worse, those
who embrace willful ignorance are now much more likely to find an electronic
home where their marginal views are embraced.
An obvious solution might be to turn to journalists, who are
supposed to embrace a standard of objectivity and source-checking that would be
more likely to support true beliefs. Yet, at least in part as a result of the
competition that has been enabled by the Internet, we now find that even some
mainstream journalists and news media are dangerously complicit in the follies
of those who seek to disrespect truth. There have always been accusations of
bias in the media, but today we have Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the
left (along with a smattering of partisan radio talk-show hosts like Rush
Limbaugh), who engage in overt advocacy for their ideological views.
Yet those are not the kinds of journalists we should be so
worried about, for they are known to be biased. Another tendency is perhaps
even more damaging to the idea that journalism is meant to safeguard truth.
Call it "objectivity bias." Sensitive to criticism that they, too,
are partisan, many news sites try to demonstrate that they are fair and balanced
by presenting "both" sides of any issue deemed
"controversial" — even when there really aren’t two credible sides.
That isn’t objectivity. And the consequence is public confusion over whether an
issue — in the case of climate change or childhood vaccination, a scientific
issue — has actually been settled.
To fight back, we should remember the basic principles of
evidence-based belief and true skepticism that got us out of the Dark Ages.
Although behavioral economists, among other scholars, have amply shown that
human reason is not perfect, that is no excuse for lazy thinking. Even if our
brains are not wired to search for truth, we can still pursue a path that might
lead to better answers than those supplied by Kahneman’s "fast" part
of our brain. Truth may not be automatic, but it is still an option. Socrates
taught us as much long before we knew anything about cognitive science: Good
reasoning is a skill that can be learned.
We are no more a slave to nature in reasoning than we are in
morality. Few people would argue that we are genetically programmed to be
moral. We may be hard-wired to do things that increase the survival value of
our genes, like killing our rivals when no one is looking, but we do not do
them, because they are unethical. If we can make such a choice in morals, why
not also with reason?
The choosing is what makes us human. It’s not our imperfect
brains, but the power to decide for ourselves how we will live our lives, that
should give us hope. Respecting truth is a choice
Hiroshima (is) the only date in history that he takes as
a real turning-point; the earth has been shaking ever since. His rupture with
epistemology... comes from this realization: all these eminent gentlemen are
deaf to the noise made by the atomic bomb; they go on as if physics was
business as usual; as if the emergence of thanatocrat - his
word for the black triad made by scientists politicians and industrialists- had
not reshuffled for ever the relations between society and the sciences… The mob in a state of crisis cannot agree on anything but
on a victim, a scapegoat, a sacrifice. Beneath any boundary is buried a
According to Murakami, “1Q84” is just an amplification of one of his most popular short stories, which (in its English version) is five pages long. “Basically, it’s the same,” he told me. “A boy meets a girl. They have separated and are looking for each other. It’s a simple story. I just made it long.” One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo's fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl. Tell you the truth, she's not that good-looking. She doesn't stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn't young, either - must be near thirty, not even close to a "girl," properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She's the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there's a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert..." read the story: http://www.youmightfindyourself.com/post/22131227
'Do you know', Napoleon once said to Fontanes, 'what astounds me most about the world? The impotence of force to establish anything. There are only two powers in the world: the sword and the mind. In the end, the sword is always conquered by the mind' Conquerors, you see, are sometimes melancholy. They have to pay some price for so much vainglory. But what a hundred years ago was true of the sword is no longer true today of the tank. Conquerors have made progress, and the dismal silence of places without intelligence has been established for years at a time in a lacerated Europe. At the time of the hideous wars of Flanders, Dutch painters could still perhaps paint the cockerels in their farmyards. The Hundred Years War has likewise been forgotten, and yet the prayers of Silesian mystics still linger in some hearts. But today, things have changed; the painter and the monk have been drafted - we are one with the world. The mind has lost that regal certainty which a c
NB: This is the text of my address to the Eighth East-West Inter-cultural Relations Conference held at Ramjas College, the University of Delhi, on March 17. The details of the conference may be read here . A pdf file of the address is downloadable here - DS Satyagraha - An answer to modern nihilism Dilip Simeon Keynote address to the Eighth East-West Inter-cultural Relations Conference Ramjas College, March 17-18 2016 Zilu stopped for the night at Stone Gate. The gatekeeper said, Where are you from? Zilu said, From the household of Confucius. The gatekeeper said, The one who knows there’s nothing that can be done but keeps on trying? - from the Analects of Confucius (14:40) What is truth? asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer – Francis Bacon In fact it is more correct to say Truth is God than to say God is Truth – Mohandas Gandhi Introduction: The human being is the speaking animal, the discerner of good and evil. This featur
Mother of Cities to me, For I was born in her gate, Between the palms and the sea, Where the world-end steamers wait Rudyard Kipling , To the City of Bombay "Few people who have criticized England from the inside have said bitterer things about her than this gutter patriot" : George Orwell IT WAS a pity that Mr. Eliot should be so much on the defensive in the long essay with which he prefaces this selection of Kipling's poetry, but it was not to be avoided, because before one can even speak about Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his works. Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a byword for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there. Mr. Eliot never satisfactorily explains this fact, because in answering the shal
In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith (when Basilides was announcing that the cosmos was a rash and malevolent improvisation engineered by defective angels), Nils Runeberg might have directed, with a singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic monasteries. Dante would have destined him, perhaps, for a fiery sepulcher; his name might have augmented the catalogues of heresiarchs, between Satornibus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preaching, embellished with invective, might have been preserved in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or might have perished when the firing of a monastic library consumed the last example of the Syntagma . Instead, God assigned him to the twentieth century, and to the university city of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas ; there, in 1909, his masterpiece Dem hemlige Frälsaren appeared. (Of this last mentioned work there exists a German version, Der heimliche Heilan
NB: An interesting obituary to a great intellectual. My knowledge of the situation is limited, but as regards this article, I'm uncomfortable with the argument that there should be no objection to the participation of communal parties in a democratic alliance. My views on this are conditioned by the history of religion-based mobilisations in India, where the communist movement has from time to time allied with communal groups of all colours, with disastrous consequences. Some material on this theme may be read here . Nor can I agree that Islamists, Hindutva groups or Khalistanis etc. can be described as 'religious parties'. I do not mean to justify alliances with 'secular' tyrants, but to remind anyone who cares to listen, that communalism is also an expression of tyranny. Communalists proceed on the assumption that membership of a religious community automatically produces a political interest, and strive to create that interest. They enter democratic move
Twenty years ago—on November 25, 1994—Isaiah Berlin accepted the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Toronto. He prepared the following “short credo” (as he called it in a letter to a friend) for the ceremony, at which it was read on his behalf. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” With these words Dickens began his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities . But this cannot, alas, be said about our own terrible century. Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and what