Silence the Skeptics, Fuel the Conspiracies
Movements Start Small #22
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” George Orwell
“To be a successful scientist it is not enough to be right. You have to be right when everyone else is wrong. Conventionally minded people can’t do that” Richard Feynman
“Doubt is an unpleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Voltaire
How is it we live in a time of both outlandish conspiracies and the fear of being cancelled?
I think it comes from the intolerance of good old fashion skepticism.
Consider our current vaccine debates. Here are two vaccine storylines you might come across today:
The vaccines are a plot engineered by Bill Gates to control the public, and I refuse to take them under any circumstances.
My 19 year old child has natural immunity after recently recovering from covid, has the vaccine, but given her low risk and congenital heart issues, I do not think a booster is a good risk-reward tradeoff right now.
These two points of view might cover the extremes of the vaccine hesitant, but I can tell you both are deemed anti-vaxxers. How do I know? I am the second person. You can disagree with my view, but to say there is no data to support my concerns is flat wrong. And, I surely could end up miscalculating. But, should I be silenced? Should my kid be forced to get the booster or face a scarlet letter of constant masking and testing at school? Should you lump me with the more clear cut conspiracists and assume you know my politics? Is the decision so clear cut it should be forced on her? I think the answer is clearly no to all of these questions.
Early in the pandemic I expressed the view that masks likely help only marginally, maybe 20%, but surely were no panacea. I was quickly told I was anti-science and by saying it I just encouraged lack of mask use. Huh? Again, I might be wrong, but the data is far from clear cut. And expressing certainty when it is not there, might work in the short term, but in the long run it creates massive suspicion.
There is no big issue facing us today - Covid, race relations, climate, income inequality - where the causes and cures are not riddled with massive complexity and trade-offs. Yet as a crisis is declared and narratives formed amongst the mainstream, it becomes so much easier to just fall in line with the chosen path.
But, running a society this way is a guaranteed loser.
First off, we need all ideas in the mix. How many times has Dr. Fauci been wrong? This is not an indictment - anyone weighing in on Covid has been wrong many times. That is how it works. Science is about testing, failing, learning…testing, failing, learning. We stumble to answers over time through the work of countless collaborative brains, experiments and real world experience. When we have our top scientist say criticizing him is criticizing science, we truly have crossed a bridge too far. Newton, Einstein and Feynman are surely rolling in their graves. Answers come from debate. Ideas must stand the test of criticism and the cold judge of experience. Arguments need to be had, not shut down. And, persuasion, not authority, must lay at the heart of any big decisions.
Next, a massive lack of trust arises in the wake of inevitable groupthink errors. Consider the societal desire of retribution and delusion that took us to Iraq. Or the collective rage and passion that led to “defund the police.” Or the racist accusations at any suggestion of a potential Covid lab leak. Our institutions lose foundational support when they ram through big ideas with certainty and end up dead wrong. Expert credibility vanishes. And it’s compounded when they can’t admit they were wrong. Without this trust, the risk to societal order grows. We divide into camps and can’t believe a word from the other side - or even the groups supposedly devoted to finding the real truth - public health, the news, our universities. Expertise is not the problem - we need more of it. Certainty and censorship to protect the experts from debate are the source of the rot.
Finally, the silencing of rational skeptics creates room for the conspiracists. The most bold and extreme raise their voice first. But, the lack of real debate on simple issues (kids and boosters, for example) makes these people wonder why no debate at all is tolerated? If we can’t question obviously debatable things, there must be a bigger story to tell. And then the human brain goes wild. Gates and Soros, robots and 5G. And the cycle continues... more conspiracies, more intolerance of skepticism and less trust.
We must get back to reasoned debate. Yes, politics must come back to the dinner table. And contrarian views must return to the University. No debate is the worst of all worlds. And debate means defending your actual position, not shaming your opponent as a racist or communist or selfish capitalist or anti-science. Our public debate must rise again with rational voices being heard on all sides. We can’t just give platforms to leading thinkers - they must face their best critics. Fauci (protect everyone) must debate Kulldorff (protect the vulnerable). Kendi (anti-racism) must deal with McWhorter (woke racism). Mann (climate crisis) must address the research of Judith Curry (climate and economic uncertainty). We will get better answers, better institutions and a more stable society. And, we better hurry.
Abigail Shrier tells the kids at Princeton that there are far worse things in life than being cancelled. “You who are studying at one of the greatest academic institutions in the country only to be told that after graduation, you must think as we tell you and recite from this script—why were you born? What’s the point of being alive? Computers are vastly better at number crunching.” Must read, especially for the young.
Micheal Shellenberger continues to drive real change with his relentless attack on open air drug markets, harm reduction strategies and the cruelty of homeless policy in San Francisco
Tyler Cowen has a great reminder: “As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.”
With age I am tempted by golf. This Robin Williams classic bit keeps me from succumbing.
Speaking of golf, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Genes or parenting? Likely both! Two minutes of Tiger and Charlie.