Monday, 18 February 2013

Of Conspiracy and Consensus

One of the most valuable things we enjoy is freedom of opinion, and the freedom of speech that goes right along with it. So long as we don't actually slander or libel anyone we can say whatever we damn well please, even if it's extremely offensive, and even if it's completely untrue. Because we all see the value of this, people are willing to go to great lengths to keep these freedoms, and lives have been lost for them. It's THAT important.

Of course, along with freedom comes responsibility, and you really don't need me to quote you  “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” As we follow the news we often hear of examples of the abuse of free speech, e.g the Westboro Baptist Church. It's a sort of trade off really. For us to keep our rights, we have to give them theirs.

On a day to day basis, the majority of this freedom is not exercised in hate speech, however, but in opinions that are not backed up by hard data. These may include religious beliefs which by definition have no scientific support, or political opinions which can be argued using evidence endlessly but nevertheless never reach a conclusion, because it's just not that simple.

The problem is this. We never have all the evidence.

This is why arguments are possible at all. There is always the possibility, however remote, however laughable, that we are wrong. You can take this to an absolute extreme, as I'm discovering in my philosophy course, that we know nothing. Obviously, as a philosophical position and not a practical one, we don't worry about it too much in day to day affairs. Our normal understanding of what we know is quite enough for most tasks.

But sooner or later what we know is challenged, rightly or wrongly, and an argument may begin.

Lovely example this morning. You may have seen the headline about the child who was slapped on an airplane by a businessman, who was charged with assault. I saw many comments from people who had not read the full story offering some sympathy to him. Suggesting that back in the good old days it was perfectly OK to discipline other people's children if they didn't. Which of course it was, but this is 2013 and you can't do that now. That's not the point. When you read the whole report, you discover that the guy was drunk, and was both verbally abusive and intimidating to the child's mother. And the child was in pain. It looks quite different then.

People jump to conclusions. They don't wait to get all the details. They form quick opinions based on headlines, quotes, snippets of stories.

Sometimes we call this a knee-jerk reaction, and that's quite a good analogy, an impulsive response without any real thought having gone into it. Once more details emerge some people will back-peddle, change their attitude, and even apologize for having been so hasty.

Not everyone does.

Some people feel a bit silly after they've done something that that, but instead of admitting it, they make things worse by "doubling down" (a new idiom apparently, I love it) on their hasty and erroneous opinion. We may see them as fools, but it doesn't seem to stop them.

In fact there's a very easy-to-spot attitude out there where any argument is stopped in its tracks by a curt "Well, that's what I believe anyway", a sour face, and the accusation of bullying if their view is still challenged. A brick wall goes up, and no further discussion is possible.

It's best not to waste your time on them. Maybe their minds will open, maybe they won't.

I have discussed all of this before, in many places, and I always hear the same thing from one voice somewhere. "People are entitled to their opinions and beliefs". Yes, absolutely, and so they should be, but when challenged, if ALL you've got is a disgruntled expression, it can't be a very solid opinion.

So what do we know? Not much really. And it's OK to admit that. Scientists do. They don't deal in certainties, but in likelihoods. Science is the exploration of how everything works, and it is a progressive thing, we learn more all the time, and what was a FACT a hundred years ago, may not be today. Understanding that is crucial and it was one of the first things I taught my kids when they started asking questions, lest I become some sort of oracle.

That doesn't mean we just poo-poo what scientists tell us. These two extremes, of taking the best scientific data we have as written in stone, or ridiculing it as some sort of conspiracy, are silly and dangerous. We are all just trying to do the best we can with the information available. Some of it more reliable, some is more speculative, and so long as we are honest about which is which we do fine.

I don't have much time for conspiracy theories generally. Obviously some are more far-fetched than others, but I'm not big on any of them, because I have better things to do with my time, I'm not a paranoid personality, and I know what "evidence" means. Most importantly, I'm of the belief that trying to keep things secret is one of the most difficult things there is, and that if you take two or more of the most intelligent and reliable people you know and try to keep a small surprise quiet for a couple of days, somebody usually slips up. Therefore, a matter of massive importance, over a long time, known by a large group of people, some of whom are idiots, simply isn't going to hold together. That's people for you.

When forming an opinion, you have to get your data from somewhere. Collecting anecdotal evidence can be fun but isn't always terribly reliable. Even the most diehard mavericks tend to rely on expert evidence these days, citing research in much the same way that mainstream reporters would. This is how we've got "creation science", which isn't science at all, but they know their beliefs won't be taken seriously unless it LOOKS a bit like science. "Well, that's what I believe anyway" just won't cut it at this level.

But of course they choose their experts. And many of these would not be seen as experts by others. Opinion again.

It doesn't have to be superstition to be controversial. Look at the argument over climate change. For a long time opinion was much more divided than it is now, two sides formed, and both sides told lies, to get their agenda across. It's not very professional, and it probably delayed any useful action. There are still those who believe the entire idea is a conspiracy, and although they are now a minority who get ignored, they include some very highly educated people. Experts. There is still not complete consensus on the issue, and probably never will be. In fact my guess is that some would hold out saying it's not happening even if Antarctica melted completely. Why do I think this? Because there are still flat Earth believers, that's why.

You see, no matter what evidence you have, it's never enough. Opinion and beliefs still prevent people from accepting the work done by experts, for a variety of reasons, some more justified than others.

You can ridicule those who take a more bizarre view on issues than whatever is mainstream, and I do too. Even this is variable. We pick and choose which theories we make fun of and which we support with great seriousness. Pretty much everyone does this. I think it's part of what makes us human, actually.

Perhaps it doesn't matter too much, so long as the mistakes made by erroneous beliefs aren't too great. If they harm people, then I lose patience with them. And so we will keep on arguing, and so we should. It'd be boring otherwise.


  1. I have nothing intelligent to add here. My new favorite conspiracy theory is that US President Obama caused the meteorite to hit so he could get increased funding for NASA. It is my belief that if he could guide meteorites to Earth he could probably get Congress to do something and we all know that isn't happening.

    1. No way, seriously? Somebody actually said that?

  2. A most excellent discourse, my friend!

    I am a 'fan' of conspiracy theories, guess that would be safe to say. While I can certainly support hard, empirical evidence in formulating a stance, the idea is that there is always 'more' behind the scenes than many of us may care to consider; quite like those who form their beliefs from the headlines instead of reading the more detailed, back story behind the subject.

    As you've said, we do not know everything; cannot really comprehend it ALL with any great certainty and accuracy, even with all of our more modern, technological ways of keeping track and having 'facts at our fingertips.' People will rather choose to hold opinion than Google the data and see for themselves, or will pass along a 'rumor' than check the site to verify its accuracy. We are all subject to doing it--operating without question or critical thinking at the ready.

    Interesting that your philosophy class has you attuned to this. I shared a video on Facebook today that started out discussing philosophy and morphed into various definitions of mental health, so these things have a way of meandering about before we all do get to reaching that consensus you mentioned.

    Maybe, for many of us, we do stop short of thinking critically, which is a shame, really. As much as I respect the opinion of others, a tighter understanding is obtained when we do hold a clearer, emotive feeling with each other, that goes beyond the 'cold hard facts.' As I've heard said elsewhere, 'It may be true, but it isn't sexy.' LOL ~ Blessings!

    1. I will tell you here and now, that I'm having a hard time with this philosophy course, and I don't mean passing the tests. I sit there listening to them and something inside me screams "OH PLEASE!" an awful lot, and the accusations of belly-button gazing that one hears all the time start to rear up. But I'm plodding through, because there must be something useful in there. SOMEBODY had to sit and work out all these ideas, it was inevitable, and it probably saves the rest of us time in the long run.

    2. I think, when one enters the arena of philosophy, we are invariably called to take it upon ourselves to 'cull the wheat from the chaff,' as it were--just as we might do with Fox News--LOL! (I refer to your other reference made today, of course.)

      Having associated comedy and humor into the philosophical and sociological mix as well, it is a good reminder that (amongst all the bellybutton-gazing), we do need to laugh from time time to time. Seriousness can only get us so far. ~ Blessings!

    3. And if ever there a group of experts with no would be philosophers:)

  3. And that is why I say that the answer to all of life's deep questions is, "It depends. . . "

    1. It's a good answer. So long as we keep talking, we'll be OK.

  4. I don't mind people who have opinions that conflict with mine, as long as they can deliver those opinions without smug self-righteousness.

    1. Well, yes, I think that's part of it really, isn't it - a bit of humility goes a long way.