THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
By doubting we come to inquiry;
and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance.
BECAUSE I SAID SO
There's a theory that humans are programmed to pay attention to what popular people say. There is little agreement over just why this might be so -- in evolutionary psychology, everything is controversial. But if the basic idea is sound, we're in trouble.
As evidence, I offer the recent philanthropic orgy known as Live 8.
The problem is that too many people pay far too much attention to the pronouncements and advice of a peculiar breed known as the celebrity. Bono and Bob Geldof have decided that the developed world's efforts to support our cousins in Africa and other less-fortunate parts of the planet are insufficient. Millions of their fans cheer them on, and governments promise to pay heed.
In Canada, Prime Minister Paul Martin even managed to find time in his schedule for a private meeting with Bono. (Globe and Mail, July 6).
It is, of course, possible that a bunch of under-educated rock musicians have the answer to what ails Africa. But to assume so, based solely on their good name, is to commit a major logical fallacy known in English as "appeal to authority" and in Latin as argumentum ad verecundiam.
What Paul Martin and the rest of us should be doing is making time for people known for the quality of their arguments, not considering arguments known for the popularity of their advocates.
In the example of Africa's economic woes, there is actually considerable debate over whether focusing on how much we are giving, or how much debt we are forgiving, is doing good or making things worse.
Writing last week in the New York Times, Cameroonian newspaper columnist Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme called Live 8's premise "an insult both to us and to common sense." He argues that it is a lack of freedom and accessible government that is keeping Africa poor, not a shortage of funds:
Our anger is all the greater because despite all the presidents for life, despite all the evidence of genocide, we didn't hear anyone at Live 8 raise a cry for democracy in Africa.... Neither debt relief nor huge amounts of food aid nor an invasion of experts will change anything. Those will merely prop up the continent's dictators."Even before Live 8 went live, philosopher George Monbiot devoted his regular space in Britain's The Guardian to chastising Bono and friends for legitimizing the entrenched power structures of the G8 nations responsible for keeping Africans down in the first place.
Anyone with a grasp of development politics who had read and understood the [G8] ministers’ statement could see that the conditions it contains -– enforced liberalization and privatization -– are as onerous as the debts it relieves. But Bob Geldof praised it as “a victory for the millions of people in the campaigns around the world”, and Bono pronounced it “a little piece of history.” Like many of those –- especially the African campaigners I know –- who have been trying to highlight the harm done by such conditions, I feel betrayed by these statements. Bono and Geldof have made our job more difficult.What Monbiot, Tonme and other Live 8 dissidents want is for the rest of us to start thinking critically about where our donations go before jumping on the latest bandwagon.
That may be a tall order. Again, humans likely evolved to follow dominant individuals. A 2001 paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior (Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 165-196), defined this notion of "prestige" as "freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission." The authors' thesis is that we learned millennia ago that group leaders are worth emulating, and that idea is now bred into our genes.
That worked back when everyone needed the same skill sets to deal with the same challenges. Where are the snakes hiding? Is that safe to eat? How do I get some action tonight?
Today, the division of labor means that expertise is no longer universal. There is no guarantee that what Sir Bob Geldof has to say about the World Bank has any merit whatsoever. Yet legions of his fans -- and the politicians who crave the votes of those fans -- behave as if he's an expert on the subject.
Sociological studies back the evo-psych theories. As many as a third of us may suffer from "celebrity worship syndrome." (See here for a popular article covering the subject; subscription-only New Scientist for a more detailed take.)
The job of journalists, it would seem to me, is to try to counter our worst instincts, and to give space and time only to those who genuinely know what they're talking about it. That means not reporting every utterance by every high official, even if he is the president of the most powerful country in the world.
The result of failing to live up to that responsibility is plain to see. The concentration of power in fewer and fewer (incompetent) hands, for example, is to some minds a direct consequence of the cult of celebrity. John Ralston Saul wrote a magnificent book about it: Voltaire's Bastards. You can find it on Amazon for less than the cost of a couple of U2 CDs.