The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Opinion

Arrogance and Respect

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Is it always arrogant to tell people they are wrong?

Arrogance is a common accusation levied at scientists when they declare that, actually, x is the case, and anyone who believes otherwise is simply incorrect. And, yes, there is an arrogance associated with any kind of absolute certainty, since there is very little, if anything, of which anyone can be truly certain. This is something that scientists know (or should know) better than anyone. Scientists are generally very candid about what they do not know, where their areas of expertise are and what lies outside it, and their claims are always tempered by error bars, confidence levels, and the fact that correlation does not imply causation; and that’s before you get down to the real philosophy of science stuff with the problem of induction, unreliability of the evidence of senses and so on.

Nevertheless, there are some things about which scientists’ feelings come so close to certainty that there isn’t much reason calling it anything else – certainty in the existence of atoms, or that the Earth is an oblate spheroid orbiting a main-sequence star, or that humans and broccoli share a common ancestor. The evidence of these things is overwhelmingly good, and anyone who believes otherwise is wrong.

But is it arrogant to say so?

The concept of arrogance is bound inextricably to the idea of respect: to be arrogant is to not respect another person’s opinions.

Now I’m just going to come right out and say it: some people’s opinions are pretty dumb. The idea that the Earth is 6000 years old deserves no respect whatsoever. But then, neither does the idea that the Earth is 4.5 billions years old. No opinion deserves respect, or protection from criticism.

But is disrespecting an opinion the same as disrespecting the person who holds it? Sometimes, if it’s not done properly. And here lies the meaning of arrogance.

Respect, as applied to an intellectual, means that, if this person says something that is totally opposed to your own opinions, you still listen to hear what she has to say. It’s tempting to dismiss people who say that trial by jury should be abandoned; but when Richard Dawkins says it, I sit up and pay attention, because I know he’s thought hard about it. I respect the man, and so I listen.

To respect someone means to assume that his opinion is founded on careful thought that is worth taking on board; it also means to assume that he is amenable to rational argument, and is not so inflexible that he cannot be persuaded otherwise, if he is wrong. One should always make this assumption, and frame one’s arguments as though to someone who will listen to them; if nothing else, it is good exercise. To treat one’s opponent as unreachable by logical discourse is arrogant in the extreme.

So next time you see a conversation in which one debater calls the other arrogant, ask yourself this question: who is showing the least respect? The one who is hears a deeply-held belief and demands evidence for it? Or the one who’s deploying the A-word as a get-out-of-argument-free card and hoping to stop the debate in its tracks?


Actually, Dawkins makes good points about trial by jury. Worth reading.

Written by The S I

October 29, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Good Book

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At the end of the film The Time Machine (the scene does not appear in H G Wells’ original novella), the Time Traveller leaves the present day to spend the rest of his life in the distant future, helping to rebuild the society he has helped to liberate. Before he goes, he takes with him three books from the library, and we are not told what they are. It is an open question directed at the film’s audience: what three books would you take with you?

I’d be tempted to say The Origin of Species. I’d like to get that one absolutely sorted out on day one.

Evolution is a fact. It really, really is. I can just about imagine someone who can look at the overwhelming evidence in its favour and come to some other conclusion; I wouldn’t mind meeting this person, we might talk about it over coffee and an apple danish, it’d be fun. But the existence of people who think that to acknowledge the truth of evolution is a political stance rather than an empirical one truly astonishes me.

And yet people like this do exist. There are countries when a candidate can lose an election for acknowledging that evolution is real, or that climate change is real. Fine, if the objections raised are grounded in facts – but they are not. They have become matters of personal identity, religious orthodoxy and party-political loyalty. To call attention to facts is seen as a personal attack on one’s values. And other people’s values are to be respected, however baseless they are.

What do I ask for, then, in a well-run society? That the veracity of evolution be constitutionally protected?

No. That kind of mindset would only make things worse in the long run.

And this is why, over and above The Origin of Species, I would choose another book. I would find space in my time machine for Mill’s On Liberty. Although Darwin’s book is invaluable for showing us, better than anything else, our true position in the universe, I would argue that On Liberty transcends even this in importance, because it tells us about how to react to theories like Darwin’s.

This book, written in the 1850s, is a brutal attack on anyone who wants to see an idea ­– any idea at all – as being above criticism. It says, beautifully, that the only way of arriving at the truth, or of preventing us forgetting the truths we’ve already uncovered, is by exposing it to constant criticism. Yes, feel free to have your opinions, but be prepared to fight for them. By calling on everyone to attack opinions they do not like – and to defend against attack the ones they hold dear – it casts suspicion on anyone who holds an opinion for any reason other than because they have evidence for it.

The power to criticise ideas – all ideas, held for whatever reason – and to see which ones stand and which ones fall based solely on what the arguments for and against are them are, is a necessary condition for a decent, well-constructed, compassionate society. It might even be a sufficient one.


On Liberty can be found here. Don’t be put off by this man’s egregiously long sentences; his stuff is gold.

Written by The S I

October 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

No Opinion

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In a pub a while ago, an acquaintance asked me this: “As a scientist, what is your opinion on climate change?”

Looking back, I can see it was the three-word prefix that changed everything. Normally my response would have been automatic and decisive; but because he’d asked me for my opinion as a scientist, I found myself saying something new. To my surprise, my answer was that, as a scientist, I didn’t actually have an opinion.

But really, what other answer could I give?

Consider the opposite case. Imagine if I’d been sitting at the same pub with a climatologist, and I’d turned to him and asked him, “As a climatologist, do you think the macrocycle I’ve synthesised in the lab acts as a catalyst, or an inhibitor?”

He would of course have looked at me as though I’d grown another head. Why on earth would I be asking him, a climatologist, a question about chemistry? How the hell should he know? To answer the question ­– to even understand it – would require huge amounts of data only I had access to, not to mention years of background study. And if he had simply volunteered an answer, without any of the knowledge required to answer the question intelligibly, then I would be perfectly within my rights to ignore whatever he has to say.

Is my chemistry question the same as the question about climatology? Certainly not: my chemistry problem affects only me and a tiny circle of other chemists, whereas climate change affects every human being on earth, myself included. But the fact that I am affected by something does not entitle me to an opinion about it. Not when there are people who have spent their entire lives studying something I only know about from the media. Not when lives are at stake.

I am affected by the global economy, but I don’t understand it. I have very clear opinions about what a functioning economy entitles me to. These closely-held and cherished beliefs about right and wrong, justice and injustice, are important to me and define me as a person, and I would love to share my ideas of Utopia with the world; but I would be horrified if the Prime Minister asked me to decide whether to raise or lower interest rates. Given enough time for study, I might be able to make an informed decision ­– but I’d rather stick to what I know.

Is the answer to put our trust in others? Yes – but not blindly. We must hold our experts to account, and remove those who fail our tests; the experts, in turn, have an obligation to be as transparent as possible, to have sufficient internal and external checks against fraud and self-delusion. The peer review process, although far from perfect, is pretty good at ensuring that once an opinion becomes widespread in the scientific community, it has resisted every possible attempt to discredit it and come out on top.

If the climatologists say climate change is happening, it is. And this I can say, whether as a scientist or not.

Written by The S I

August 3, 2011 at 8:30 pm