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Certainty

Entry 1977, on 2019-05-04 at 21:01:14 (Rating 4, Comments)

I recently saw a Charlie Brown cartoon which I think made a very good point. It was a discussion between Charlie and another character, Linus I think (I don't know the characters very well), and went like this...

L: I have a theological question.
L: When you die and go to heaven, are you graded on a percentage or a curve?
CB: On a curve, naturally.
L: How can you be so sure?
CB: I'm always sure about things that are a matter of opinion.

I think this reveals two interesting characteristics of human thought: first, that questions in some subject areas (especially theology) can be answered with a wide range of different, and often contradictory, answers without reflecting too badly on that subject's credibility (Charlie could have just as easily chosen a percentage as his answer); and second, that people are very certain of their opinions even though they generally have no independent or subjective evidence supporting them.

When I say the subject's credibility isn't affected I probably should add that many subjects have very little credibility to start with. I know that many people have a quite negative view of theology, for example, along with many "social science" subjects like gender studies and indigenous studies. I work in a university and when I mention these areas to non-university friends I often get some sort of humorous comment like "oh, didn't they pray and get their computer fixed by Jesus?" or "you mean they let an old white man work in their department?"

Other reactions are more hostile. Some people don't hold universities in very high regard to begin with, and some of the material generated by the types of university departments I listed above seems to just reinforce their sense that academics just pursue their own agendas without too much concern for how useful or fact-based their conclusions might be.

Note that I am not making any value judgements on these subjects myself, although I am aware of some incredibly shoddy work done by some universities, and the recent Grievance Studies Hoax seems to indicate that some university research is nothing more than mindless political activism with no basis in any reasonable form of reality at all.

So the idea that people can be "always sure about things that are a matter of opinion" is not just limited to theology, because a lot of social science is really nothing more than opinion dressed up to make it look more academic.

And this extends to society as a whole. For example, I regularly see phrases like "it is undeniable that white privilege has caused this problem" or "no one would doubt that men have held back women's progress in this area". Well, no. Those are opinions, and opinions which are very much open to doubt. So those issues actually are deniable, and there is doubt about them.

But it seems that, as our old friend Joseph Goebbels said: "if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth" could perhaps be rephrased as "if you act confidently about something which is in reality very uncertain, then people will stop questioning it".

So far I have mainly criticised the nonsense which is primarily perpetuated by people on the political left, but as you will know if you are a reader of this blog, I do strive for equal criticism of everyone, so I should point out that there are some old canards where the right is equally complicit in this deception.

For example, the libertarian catch-phrase that "free markets will always result in the most efficient and fair systems" is clearly very much a matter of opinion, and in many real-world examples, we don't see that outcome at all. So the confident repetition of this idea is not making it any more credible.

And I hardly need to mention it, but this approach is also common in religion. Many Christians I know are totally sure that the narrative advanced by their particular branch of one particular religion is correct, and that everyone else has got it wrong. The fact that all those other people with similar but slightly different ideas claim the correctness of their opinions with an identical level of confidence doesn't seem to worry them in the least.

So how should we approach these issues? Well, in a recent debate I had with a fundy Christian I did offer some opinions but I labelled them clearly as such. So I would say something like "it seems to me that the way your god acted was quite immoral, but if you can explain what is portrayed in a reasonable way I might change my mind". But when making fact-based claims I would say "we see evolution happening in many places, so evolution is fact, but the theory explaining those facts probably has a few deficiencies which haven't been fully addressed yet". And even "we can never be 100% sure about anything, even after observing it quite carefully, but the current evidence shows the Big Bang is an accurate model".

Notice the caution and even humility in those statements? That happens for two reasons: first, because it is realistic because we really can never be 100% sure about anything; and second, theories change and new evidence appears making my beliefs less credible unless I indicate the option for expanding and modifying existing views.

Another common problem of this type is the use of the word "acceptable". I often see comments like "his behaviour is not acceptable" as if this was some sort of absolute, fact-based assessment of the situation. I recently used the word (in relation to a freedom of speech issue) but I said "to me, this is not acceptable". So I clearly indicated it was a personal issue and that, while to me the issue was unacceptable, there might be others who have different criteria and disagree.

But it's just so easy to dismiss a contrary view, comment, or action by labelling it "unacceptable". First, admit that acceptability is a personal opinion, and second say why it isn't acceptable to you. In the example above I went on to say that people should be able to share their opinions, even when they might be currently unpopular, because it is exactly the views contrary to the current orthodoxy which we should be most carefully listening to.

So no one should be certain about anything, and those who are generally are the ones who we should be most suspicious of. In most cases absolute certainty comes from two sources: either it is an opinion and being certain about opinions is easy, or it is a weakly supported view where the confidence element is important to attempt to hide the real lack of certainty.

Either way, watch out for people who are always sure about things that are a matter of opinion!

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Contact: OJB, OJB@mac.com. Features: Blog, RSS Feeds, Podcasts, Feedback, Log. Modified: 03 Mar 2007. Hits: 30,213,351.