Fox, Certainty, Arrogance, Evidence, and Cosmos

Follow-up article in Salon about the man whose father was lost to the paranoid outrage of Fox News. (The original article on this topic inspired my explanation about how science fiction represents the antithesis of such dead-end traps of ideology and dogma.)

The new article describes how Fox News invited the father – but not the writer of the article – on TV to defend himself and denounce his son, though in doing so it demonstrated many of the points of the original article. The son writes that the host

misstated, misunderstood or fibbed about the tone of the original piece, picking the most salacious moments, trying to rile up my dad. She acted exactly how I portrayed Fox News in my first piece, needlessly inflammatory and defamatory.

But what struck me were these observations and conclusions at the end of this article.

Certainty is the most dangerous emotion a human being can feel in politics and religion. Certainty stops all outside thought or reason. It closes the door and is a metaphorical spit in the face of anyone who disagrees. Changing one’s mind is the essence of critical thinking. As Thomas Jefferson himself said, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”

In America we’ve stopped hearing each other in the streets, restaurants, churches and, in my case, in my own home, talking with my father. It is tragic, but it’s not all our fault. Fox News makes a living dividing people, offering the seductive lie of certainty to some people who just want to be reassured. Who doesn’t want ironclad answers?

My father said something to me before the interview that struck me. He said I’m wrong about Fox News. “Fox didn’t warp me,” he said. “I created Fox News so I’d have something to watch.”

What a nugget of pure genius. Dad has always been conservative, although as I said, not to the extent that he is now. He and like-minded conservatives created a “news” source that would tell them what they wanted to hear, without calling into question their preconceived notions. Confirmation bias is a much different thing than news.

This is why the more heartfelt and impassioned one is about one’s certainty – without evidence or reason to back it up – the less persuasive and more suspect it is.

This dovetails with the common accusation that science is somehow arrogant to draw conclusions that challenge faith or conventional wisdom. Those who think so don’t understand the content of science or even the concept of science. Here is a relevant passage from a Sam Harris book I’m part way through (The Moral Landscape (p.124) that, coincidentally, I was reading last night:

…while it is a standard rhetorical move in such debates to accuse scientists of being “arrogant”, the level of humility in scientific discourse is, in fact, one of its most striking characteristics. In my experience, arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity. At any scientific meeting you will find presenter after presenter couching his or her remarks with caveats and apologies. When asked to comment on something that lies to either side of the very knife edge of their special expertise, even Nobel laureates will say things like, “Well, this isn’t really my area, but I would suspect that X is…” or “I’m sure there are several people in this room who know more about this than I do, but as far as I know, X is …” The totality of scientific knowledge now doubles every few years. Given how much there is to know, all scientists live with the constant awareness that whenever they open their mouths in the presence of other scientists, they are guaranteed to be speaking to something who knows more about a specific topic than they do.

So why do you hear so many scientists speak with such certainly about, say, the age of the universe or the fact of evolution? Because for those topics, there really are mountains and mountains of consistent evidence in support of those ideas.

This is why Cosmos needs to allude to those chains of evidence at some point, rather than merely revel in grandiose conclusions. Otherwise the ignorant and self-satisfied will blow off such conclusions as just some other kind of “faith” concocted by people who (they probably imagine) hate God.

This entry was posted in Cosmology, Evolution, Lunacy, Religion, Science. Bookmark the permalink.