When did we begin to accept mere opinion as unquestionable truth, with no hint of doubt or uncertainty allowed, no need for deeper knowledge, no possibility of error and no place for any change of mind? Such is the arrogance of the loudly uninformed that fervour these days overwhelms mere fact
There are three levels of ignorance. Simple ignorance is just not knowing and knowing you don’t know. Compound ignorance is thinking you know but knowing so little you can’t recognise your own ignorance. Tertiary malignant ignorance is then not knowing, thinking you do know and that, for their own good, others should be forced to conform to what you believe.
The simple form is the most honest and least harmful. It can even be beneficial in avoiding stupid mistakes as well as prompting one to learn more. Unfortunately, in our culture it seems to be noticeably less popular than the compound and malignant varieties. In the current version of democracy, the idea of one-person one-vote appears to have become equated with the notion that all opinions are of equal value and everyone is not just entitled to an opinion, but should have one on every issue regardless of how ill-informed they may be. Indeed, it appears that the only socially acceptable consideration for a belief is for the fervour and conviction with which it is held. Conviction thus trumps reason, and certainty prevails.
In public opinion polls it is unusual for anyone to say they do not know enough about something to have an opinion, or to be uncertain, to need to know more or even to be open to better knowledge. It seems that opinions are not only necessary but must be expressed as beliefs with no hint of doubt or uncertainty, no need for better knowledge, no possibility of error and no place for any change of mind in the light of better information. When the idea of simply not knowing about something or of making a tentative assumption that may be subject to change become unthinkable, believing a half-dozen impossible things before breakfast becomes the norm.
With such a dynamic prevailing in the public sphere, the future of our current form of democracy looks dubious. This problem is now manifest across a growing number of complex and uncertain issues of critical importance. These include mass immigration from failed societies, premature adoption of technically and economically unviable energy systems, an ongoing unchecked proliferation of government that is stifling essential productive activity, plus ever-increasing commitments for health, education, welfare and defence spending which are simply impossible to sustain. Another major and pervasive problem would also have to be the whole obscene morass of taxation that is now beyond any possibility of effective reform and desperately requires a fundamental rethink.
The greatest difficulty in addressing such problems is not so much their inherent complexity or impossibility, but rather our inability to recognise the limitations of our beliefs, our unwillingness to seek better information and our resistance to exploring new approaches. The socio-economic ground of our society is in decay and we are going to have to become a lot less dogmatic, certain and rigid in our beliefs to avoid serious decline.
Over recent years prevailing societal ethoses have been changed on a variety of issues. These include such things as attitudes on sexuality, gender, race, religion, smoking, and disabilities. There is no apparent reason why change could not also be effected in our approach to belief. Such a change could beneficially include a recognition of the primacy of reason and evidence, the limits to our personal knowledge, the uncertainty involved in what we think we know and the need to take a more experimental approach in addressing the problems we face. This last does not mean assuming great risks on a grand scale but rather being open to trying new approaches on a limited basis to seek better methods. Instead, we endlessly try to patch up failed systems and greet any fundamentally different approach with knee jerk rejection because it might be less than perfect rather than hopeful consideration that it might at least be better.
Essentially what is needed is a broader application of the most successful approach to problem solving we have yet discovered and that we know as the scientific method. Effective use of this method does not require “proof” or high level understanding accessible only to “experts”. As with justice, the criteria needs only to be beyond reasonable doub,t but with a recognition of uncertainty and willingness to admit and correct error.
Truth, honesty, transparency and full disclosure with no exceptions for any higher purpose is the essence of scientific ethics. There is a very real and unfilled need for university and even high school level courses in the philosophy and ethics of science as a fundamental educational requirement necessary to the future health of both science and democracy. Likewise, there is a need to point out and disparage irrational ill-founded nonsense wherever it appears. Stumbling along with the current farce of never-ending popularity contests, clinging to half-baked ideologies and mindlessly trying to reform the same fundamentally flawed policies is going to be an increasingly unviable basis for government in the accelerating world of change our advancing technology is creating.
Most importantly, and despite popular assumption, a system of ethical values does not have to be founded on religion or else be simply arbitrary. It can also be based on a simple empirical aim to optimize the quality of life for the individual from a holistic perspective. This entails recognition that the existence of society is of massive benefit to the individual and to have this requires governing our behaviour with one another. This in turn requires the same kind of fundamental demands and restrictions that religions attribute to commandments from deities. It also entails recognition of the necessity of not breaking these rules even when there is little chance of anyone else finding out, as that, if not proscribed, would inevitably become widespread practice and result in a weakening of the social system to the disadvantage of everyone.
No gods or supernatural forces are needed to derive this, just simple reasoning and observable facts. What is required though, is looking beyond immediate individual gain to the wider perspective of the value afforded by the goods, services and protections provided by a well-ordered society. No threats and rewards from supernatural beings are required; but, simply the self-discipline to set aside immediate gratification in in order to gain a greater and longer-term benefit.
The ability to take a more holistic view, recognize the greater long-term benefits and exercise the self-discipline to achieve them are also teachable practices which warrant much greater attention in our education system and in society more generally.
The overriding problem with religion is that in addition to the basic values it espouses, it also tends to accumulate a considerable baggage of nonsensical beliefs some of which can even be quite toxic. Compounding this problem is a claim to absolute certainty and a fierce resistance to any consideration of possible error, making differences in such beliefs unresolvable and immune to all reason and evidence. Combined with a reliance on evidence-free revealed truth, the vulnerability to mistakes and malpractices is wide open and littered with all too many examples.
None of this means there is no place or need for religion. That is a separate issue; but, it does mean that religion is unnecessary as a basis for ethics and morality and, in view of the irreconcilable differences it generates, it presents a major obstacle to social agreement.
Without a common adherence to reason and evidence, our increasingly diverse society and increasingly diverse access to information is rendering a popular vote too volatile and too vulnerable to mass manipulation by demagogues, vested interests and hidden persuaders for effective governance.
More and more strict regulation by government is also appearing to be a hapless solution. The only effective answer must be for individuals to become more objective, rational, empirical and open. This is a readily teachable, easily understood practice we have largely ignored. It’s worth a try.
A marine biologist, Walter Starck has spent much of his career studying coral reef and marine fishery ecosystems. He wrote recently at Quadrant Online about Professor Peter Ridd’s ongoing legal battle with the warmists at James Cook University