From my Facebook account, posted there today:
What the heck, I’m deleting my account soon anyway, I might as well really say what’s on my mind. I’m struggling lately with the loose way we’re using language and how it has us in such a mess.
1. Not everything is beautiful. What’s with the tendency we have today to want to call everything beautiful? (Actually, I think that’s a liberal-hipster thing.) When a person loses 500 lbs., the sagging skin on her (or his) tummy is not beautiful. While it is admirable, even beautiful, that he/she worked so hard, while they are probably more disciplined than most people, while their accomplishment cannot be celebrated highly enough, the sagging skin itself is pretty ugly IMO, and I think most would agree. We don’t have to say everything is “beautiful.” If everything is beautiful, nothing is. I realize that in certain spiritual and metaphysical ways of thinking, everything truly IS beautiful, and I totally subscribe to that, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
2. Not every opinion is equally valid. Because of the wide availability of the Internet, and the ease of getting an opinion out there, everybody has their opinions. We are guaranteed a right to express those opinions. But the vast majority of opinions, by definition, will be sub-standard, uninformed, thoroughly unthorough, and drowning in the hatreds, biases, and/or particularities of the person voicing them. Nothing is more difficult than stating an opinion that deserves to be considered. Except, perhaps, sorting through whether the opinion you are currently reading is one of those opinions.
3. Words mean things. (Though I stole this phrase from Rush Limbaugh, perhaps no one needs to learn this lesson more than he does.) As I write these words right now, I am mindful that the majority of people who will read them do not know me very well, and many don’t know me at all. I cannot expect people to grant me a lot of breaks, or to assume I was “tired” or “crabby” when I wrote this. I have to figure out what I want to communicate, and then use the words that will communicate my message as accurately as possible. On social media, people often “spout off” about things, without giving much thought, it seems, either to their opinions or the words they choose to express them.
4. Before you can use language to communicate anything clearly, you have to have already decided what does and does not count as knowledge. I recently heard a holistic medical blogger say, “Vaccines are toxic, and I don’t care if you line up doctors for three blocks down the street to say otherwise, I’m not injecting them into my kids.” What this says to me, frankly, is “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Doctors, while human and vulnerable to error, are nonetheless those among us most qualified to have informed opinions on this topic, and to know how to express those opinions best to the public.
5. Science is a way of knowing. It is a claim to knowledge. Consensus is defined simply as agreement. When there is consensus among climatologists (not politicians, not weather men/women, not bloggers, not religious leaders, but climatologists — those most in a position to have an informed, accurate, reliable opinion) about climate change, then that is something we must simply take to be the case, whether we like it or not. The same is true when there is consensus about earth’s origins among those most qualified to know, or consensus about vaccines among those most qualified to know. Though these people are human, and though errors are always possible, when the best and brightest among us have spoken with one (or nearly one) voice about the very thing about which they are most qualified to speak and have a reliable opinion, as rational beings we must accept those opinions as our current “state of knowledge.” This doesn’t mean they might not turn out to have been wrong, but it means that our operating assumption at least for now, is whatever they have so painstakingly decided.
Thus for now, here are three truths we simply must acknowledge. The current state of our knowledge is thus:
- The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and, through very gradual changes, has become the place we all inhabit today.This is the overwhelming consensus of geologists and those most qualified to know about this topic.Though exceptions can always be found to tell you this is not the case, the consensus is that it is, and refusing to believe it, and base policy on it, is unwise at best, and foolish at worst. This also settles what goes into our textbooks. Science goes into our textbooks. “4.5 billion years ago, this happened.” If people believe a God or gods was/were behind that, that’s to talk about at home. If people believe the earth only looks 4.5 billion years old, but is actually only a few thousand years old, that’s to talk about at a therapist’s office.
- Vaccines are extremely important in preventing the spread of disease. Those who do not vaccinate are not only exposing their children to risk that is far higher than any benefits they may receive by not vaccinating, but they are also depending on everyone else’s child being vaccinated in order to protect their own children. Though exceptions can be found to tell you vaccines are dangerous, it is the overwhelming consensus of physicians (those most in a place to have accurate opinions on this) that they are beneficial. Thus this is the current state of our knowledge and it is wise to base both personal and public policy decisions on this.
- The earth’s climate is warming. Human action is responsible for a significant portion of this warming. Human action can therefore play a role in slowing down this trend. Human beings are responsible for failing to act to do this. This is the consensus among climatologists, who are the only people who are qualified to have sound opinions on this issue. They did not arrive at this conclusion over night, but have been studying climate change and refining their opinions on it for thirty years. Like it or not, this is our current state of knowledge and we are responsible for acting on what we currently understand to be true. It is wise to base both personal and public policy decisions on this.
One of the things that has convinced me to ditch my Facebook account (I have posted on that elsewhere) in the next couple of weeks is that I’m tired of people speaking as if these three things above are in any legitimate dispute among those most qualified to know. They are not. I am weary, frankly, of the expectation that we have to show “equal respect” to every opinion, just because every person is equally entitled to actually express one. If tomorrow, half of Facebook became suspicious of English and started writing in another language, we would immediately see how that stands at cross-purposes with the reason people use Facebook to begin with. And yet we have done exactly this with science, with our claims to knowledge, acting as if the opinions of those people most qualified to speak on these urgent matters are equal to those of religious leaders, politicians, bloggers, etc. If that’s the case, thinking and reasoning itself are worth nothing and if that’s true, then there’s no reason to believe anything anyone says on Facebook or anywhere else.
But the fact is, we DO believe what people say on Facebook most of the time. We do believe the universe has laws and works predictably most of the time. We do believe that there’s such a thing as logic and that, using logic, we can arrive at the truth (what I call the “is-ness”) of things we cannot discern otherwise. The religious nuts I talk to on the Internet, without exception, attempt to use logic to score their cheap religious points in arguments, failing to see that they are biting the hand that feeds them. They use logic — a language given to them by the philosophers — in order to spurn many things we have come to know only by logic. The climate-change and vaccine deniers do the same thing, using the language science gave them to dispute the claims science is now making. I am by no means suggesting that one cannot have differing philosophical and scientific opinions, only that we do, fundamentally, at least pay lip service to rational speech and thinking and behavior.
These deniers though, they are all alike, talking in disparaging ways about farmers, with their mouths full of the food put on their table compliments of the hard work of the farmers they spurn. And never seeing the contradiction.
It is not fundamentally a climate change argument we are having, or a vaccination argument, or an origins argument. It is an argument about the very nature of what we can and cannot claim to know. For my part, I will continue to trust doctors to do the doctoring, farmers to do the farming, therapists to do the therapy, teachers to do the teaching, writers to do the writing, and the scientists to do the science. Wouldn’t the alternative be ludicrous?
Yes. And that’s exactly what we have now. Religious leaders deny evolution, political leaders deny climate change, and parents ignore their family physicians.
Ludicrous. No rational and sane society will survive this way. When we cannot agree on what constitutes knowledge, then no one’s opinion can ever be shown to be valid. Or not valid. That is called chaos and that is exactly what most of the Internet is. And it’s infecting our politics and our very way of understanding the world.
END. OF. RANT.