Monday, March 7, 2011

"Intellectual correctness"

Do you have any photos of you in your younger days, wearing clothes to be embarrassed of now?  Likely you do.  We all do.  Ditto for the music of our youth where there are at least a few "recording artists" you're ashamed to ever have listened to.  Look at this way: it was those old Wham! and Whitesnake tapes that gave you the money on trade-in to buy The Sex Pistols or U2.  But I digress...
This principle applies to intellectualism as well.  My father, a college professor, once told me that he would go through papers he had written as recently as ten years ago and think, "my God, I'm horrified I ever thought that."  We're supposed to grow.  We're supposed to change our positions on issues in light of new facts.  But such actions are slow to happen and many times it's because of fear.  The fear of being ridiculed for your thoughts, the fear of going against what is deemed "acceptable" by the academy.  What I and others call, "intellectual correctness."

What brought all of this on?  I was leafing through Jacques Vallee's new book, Wonders in the Sky (itself the subject of an upcoming post.)  In the introduction, Vallee cites a 2008 quote from Stephen Hawking: "I am discounting reports of UFOs.  Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdos?"  Hawking then goes on to assert that we are the only form of technologically advanced life in a 200 light-year radius.
Oh boy, where to start?  First of all, I was surprised to read of Hawking making that latter claim.  More assertion than claim, really, for there is not much in the way of evidence to back it up.  And where did he get that "200 light-year" figure?  Just doesn't seem like good science.
The problem with these statements is that they lead to a public consensus of what is "true."  Stephen Hawking is widely regarded as the smartest human alive and with good reason.  So when he says something, the public at-large takes it as proven fact or at the very least a strong likelihood.  He is an "agenda setter," he determines what will and will not be entertained in the arena of public discussion on all things scientific.  Think of what Oprah does for books and what an appearance on David Letterman can do for a band.  You get the idea.
So when anomalies show up, they are not met warmly.  They are fear-inducing.  They are a threat to the academic status-quo and must be resisted at all costs.  One tactic in doing just this is to paint the speaker of a "heretical" thought as mentally ill...not unlike Hawking does with his "cranks and weirdos" barb.  Imagine if you had a bizarre experience.  An honest-to-goodness, true-to-life, paranormal encounter.  Who would you tell about it?  Would you even talk about it?  Why not?  Think you'd be called "crazy?"  The so-called "marketplace of free ideas" is in actuality quite regulated and patrolled by agents of pre-established concepts, this "intellectual correctness," forcing out ideas that don't dovetail or otherwise conform.
I can give you examples.  There was a brouhaha back in 2007 when Dr. Jeff Meldrum of Idaho State University was receiving funding to do research on Bigfoot.  His fellow scientists were incensed by what they deemed as money spent on fringe science outside the mainstream.  They even expressed concern over teaching at the same university as him.  Closer to home, I know of a scholar of religious studies who has quietly confided in me about passages in India's Mahabharata.  In that holy book, there are descriptions of vast battles and an enormous explosions.  "I can't see a way to interpret those descriptions other than nuclear weapons," he said.  But in no flippin' way would he ever write that in a paper or state that in a lecture.  Why?  The academic world is tough enough to get a job in.  Speaking that kind of heresy is enough to get you drummed out for good.  And that's just what you want to see from institutions that are ostensibly enacted to broaden minds.
Is this what we have become?  Genuinely afraid to utter a thought or voice an opinion that is contrary to the established consensus?  Maybe you think this is an exaggerated interpretation of our state of affairs.  Then ask yourself this: do you have any thoughts or opinions that you would never want anyone else to find out about?  If you're any kind of critical thinker, then you must.

So here's to all the researchers, writers, and thinkers who are willing to sacrifice their name and professional reputation in order to find a greater "truth."  It ain't easy but somebody has to do it if we are to grow out of our current box of "intellectual correctness."

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  1. Jon,

    I'm going to quote you a couple times here to make my point.

    "Just doesn't seem like good science." Referring to Stephen Hawkings assertions about extraterrestrial life.


    "Imagine if you had a bizarre experience. An honest-to-goodness, true-to-life, paranormal encounter."

    Okay, the title of your post "Intellectual corectness" lends itself to the idea that there is some right way to think about things. Well, there is the established scientific method that generally applies to critical thought and reasoning. Ultimately the scientific method comes down to obtaining a truth through proof based on testing and measurements of evidence and with reproduceable results. Without such evidence and reproduceable results, the thing you are considering is suspect and your considerations are merely theory rather than truths.

    I wish I did have some honest-to-goodness, true-to-life, paranormal encounter so that I could apply some "good science" to it and come up with an intelligently correct assertion about what happened. Hawking may not have proof that there is no advanced life within 200 light years, but also there is no proof that there is, even with all of the efforts we have made to find and contact such life.

    I would assert that despite how we would like to bask in our technilogical and intellectual achievements, we are very ignorant not just about what is happening outside of the Earth's gravitaional field but even within it and we have a long way to go before we should dare to declare any truths about universe.

    I'm out.

  2. David,

    A few things:

    1) Burden of proof is always on the claimant. If I say "there are no technologically advanced civilization within 200 light years," I must have evidence to support it.

    2) Related, you cannot prove a negative. I cannot prove to you that there are no unicorns in the world. I can only prove that I can't see any in the room with me right now. Absence of evidence is not the greatest argument for evidence of absence. (Minor point of order: "all of the efforts we have made to find and contact such life" have in reality been quite limited, mostly due to our current level of technology.)

    3) I truly do feel secure in the scientific method and findings made by practicing it. My point is that mindset of "there is only one acceptable way of looking at things." This applies not just to science but across the curriculum. Case in point: English. Several are the times when students would bring up works of science fiction or horror, only to be granted looks of disdain by professors as being "beneath them." In their way of thinking, only literary fiction is acceptable. Can you imagine pitching the notion of Afro-Centrism to a History department back in 1955? More often than not, it's political forces that keep our paradigms propped up.

    4) I whole-heartedly agree with you in that we don't know everything. Pretty damn far from it. As a matter of fact, consider how many times our supposedly rock solid "facts" have been overturned:
    "The Sun revolves around the Earth."
    "Man will never break the sound barrier."
    "The locomotive is impressive, but it could never beat a horse and carriage."

    We've got a long way to go.

    I'm out too.


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