Everyone is entitled to their own opinion

24 09 2012

The Sombrero Galaxy

I’m always intrigued when scientists shed a bit more light on a subject,  giving us a more keen insight into ourselves and the universe around us.  We’ve come a long way from the snake oil salesmen of the wild west days, haven’t we?

The advances we’ve made in all fields, from astronomy to genetics to physics is awesome at the least, and often completely mind-boggling.  Since Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe,  and the symbolic start of the scientific revolution a mere 480 years ago, we’ve come to learn that there are other solar systems out there in addition to our own.  We have begun to break down our very genome, and are uncovering new ways in which our 25,000 genes make us what we are.  Physics has taken us from Einstein’s Law of Relativity, to Quantum physics, and now there’s talk of anti-matter. (whatever that might be?)  For more on any of these topics, you had better go somewhere else.  Indeed, they are all fascinating topics, but beyond the scope of this blog, and far beyond the capacity of my limited intellect!

A relatively recent, and very well-known product of science, the  internet, has completely transformed our world.  Never, in the history of man, have we been so connected to one another.  Never have we had immediate access to so much information, nor the ability to share great thought far and wide.  What an opportunity for our civilization to take a huge leap in consciousness, right?


There are people who choose to believe the earth is only 10,000 years old. (and probably some who think the “round” idea is a hoax, too, like the Apollo moon landings) There is ongoing debate on the validity of vaccinations, and parents who opt out, fearing their children will become autistic.  Climate change is just a left wing conspiracy.

And this kind of thinking isn’t just reserved for some small segment of our society that has somehow slipped through the cracks.  These folks haven’t been isolated on some island without access to an education for generations over the past few centuries. This kind of thinking has permeated every level of our society.  The aptly-named “Crackpot Caucus” of the Republican Party is a perfect summation of just how pervasive the absurdity has become.  (Much like Jon Stewart, who’s at his funniest when he does nothing more than point out the ridiculous things others have said, this op-ed piece by Timothy Egan is hilarious, albeit a bit scary.)

In his humorous and entertaining book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free,” Charles P. Pierce offers a great critique of an apparent movement in our country that rejects education, intelligence, and science as being too elitist.

“The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise.  It’s not so much anti modernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those things are part of it.  The rise of Idiot America today reflects – for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power – the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is good.  It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about.  In the new media age, everybody is an historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage.  And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.”

Which brings us to our current state in the public forum.  Never before has the fringe had the ability to spread their ideas, no matter how unfounded or absurd, without review, censure, or critique, on a level playing field with all others.  The internet, for all of it’s potential,  has only helped to propagate this condition.  One webpage can look just as official and reliable as the next, and any crackpot with a little technological savvy, can say or sell whatever it is they’re peddling, with as much gravitas as the next.  Mr. Pierce sums the dilemma up nicely with his Three Great Premises of Idiot America:

· Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
· Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
· Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it

It seems the internet has been just as much a boon to the snake oil salesmen of our modern era as it has been to everyone else.

I’m reminded of a Chinese Proverb I used to tell students  years ago. “Three men make a tiger” (Chinese三人成虎pinyinsān rén chéng hǔ)  The accompanying parable was a great way to point out the fallacious nature of such reasoning.  Here’s my quick rendition.

An advisor to the king posited this question, ” If someone told you there was a tiger in the market place, would you believe him?”

The king responded, “no.”

“What if two people told you there was a tiger in the market place?” the advisor continued, to which the king responded, after a bit more contemplation, “no, but I would begin to wonder.”

The advisor then asked, “what if three people told you there was a tiger in the market – would you believe it then?”

“Yes, I guess if three people said it was so, it must be so.”

“I see,” said the advisor.  “Then it only takes three men to make a tiger.” 

It doesn’t matter how many people say a thing, nor how loudly and emotionally they all yell it, nor how official looking their website that’s peddling it may appear. None of these factors make that thing true.  As Bernard Baruch admonishes us:

“Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”


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