Way back before the Pandemic (BP), I wrote Why Intelligent People Disagree in an attempt to understand why otherwise smart people could come to completely different conclusions about important issues of the day. Now I’m thinking I should attempt to understand why ignorant people latch onto different truths. Before you get defensive, admittedly I’m ignorant about a bunch of things. Unfortunately, we are all ignorant of a bunch of things, so being ignorant is a fact of life, not necessarily a malicious disparagement. Problems arise when we lack humility to appreciate how much we don’t know but continue pontificating with insufferable arrogance. I’m guilty. I rationalize that stating my opinions is just an expression of my freedom to opine, a guarantee given to those of us fortunate enough to live in a country that celebrates freedom. As many wise people have said and repeated, the answer to wrong speech is more speech. By analogy, the answer to unworthy opinions is more opinions and more information.
To illustrate my point, yesterday, I watched two different half-hour presentations on YouTube by medical experts, physicians, both highly esteemed and credentialed. One warned of dangers of the new vaccines, the other explained why these same vaccines should not be feared but embraced as miraculous innovations promising to revolutionize the practice of medicine. Very few of us are capable of discerning which expert to believe, but most of us will form an opinion. In my utopian world, I would want these two people to sit down in a room with no one else present and have a rational discussion about their opinions. Again, in a perfect world, they would decide where they agree and where they disagree. The points of agreement would be useful for us to know, more valuable than one expert’s opinion. The points of disagreement would also be enormously useful, but for reasons of necessitating further study and not declarations of who’s right or wrong.
We don’t decide right or wrong opinions by voting or even by consensus. We decide by further observations, more information, testing hypotheses, experimenting, and seeking the wisdom of others. Allowing a disagreement to remain a disagreement is okay. Many issues in science and in society remain unresolved. The need for quick but uninformed decisions occurs rarely. Is the vaccine safe? Is it effective? Much evidence argues yes. Questions remain such as what about children, what about pregnant women, what about long-term consequences? Do we wait until all these questions are answered? No, we weigh the costs and the benefits, the pros and the cons, the alternatives that give us the most likely positive outcomes then we act. Waiting for the perfect solution can be a deadly option. We accept the fate that could arise from a bad decision because we humbly accept our limitations of knowledge and wisdom.
In this modern world of the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Parler, Instagram, Pinterest, Rumble, and 24-hour television news and opinion, as well as email, texting, and cell phones, there is no escape from dueling opinions of experts, pseudo-experts, faux-experts, and non-experts. Our brains are perfectly suited for living in caves sharing stories around a fire. The technology onslaught overwhelms us. We are not a highly evolved species, but we are superbly adaptable.
Whether they are intelligent or ignorant, people often disagree, sometimes with great emotional attachment to their opinions or beliefs. The reasons are many. What do we do about it? Dueling is one answer, but it’s highly frowned upon and litigiously messy. Wars are fought over disagreements with millions of victims in their wake.
Another way of dealing with disagreement is to choose the winner and silence the defeated opponent. Who chooses the winners? In the last few weeks, we discovered that Twitter chooses winners and silences the losers. Amazon went one step beyond silencing opinions they didn’t like, they silenced a platform in cyberspace where those opinions could persist. Even approved opinions are not to be seen, heard, or read on Parler, at least for a while. What will Amazon do when Parler, or possibly some other enterprise exerts itself with even stronger opposition than before? The war of differing opinions escalates. Politicians demonize their partisan opponents, advertisers boycott networks, consumers boycott retail stores. Does it ever end? History provides innumerable examples of attempts to silence by powerful leaders and regimes. None of them ended well. The passion to control is addictive and dangerous, but eventually self-destructive.
What is the opposite of control? Freedom! Why do some people fear giving other people freedom? They even fear allowing others expressing an opinion that may be at odds with conventional wisdom. Why do political partisans try to dominate their partisan opponents? Why is a master afraid to release a slave? The answers are many, some obvious, others not so much. Is domination easier than resolution? Is domination justified when winners believe they are sole owners of the truth? Do the ends justify the means?
I know the answers to all these rhetorical questions. Control of other humans is rarely justified, only when freedom is threatened, when life or property is threatened. Control of opposing opinions is never justified. Censoring and silencing are antithetical to our continuing evolution, our ability to adapt to changes in our world. Ignorant people will continue to disagree as will intelligent people. Celebrate their freedom while pursuing your own enlightenment with an open mind and a relentless spirit.