A state similar to the instrument in the title is often the condition of prominent people who offer pronouncements about issues not related to their expertise. Typically, these proclamations concern politics, economics, and/or science and technology. Athletes and actors are obviously entitled to their opinions. Because they are prominent, their opinions get disseminated and commented upon. Why should the views of someone with exceptional hand-eye coordination, or someone who’s a good mimic, hold any more weight than those of a mailman or an accountant? We could compare the position on climate change of an associate dean for Diversity Studies to those of a longshoreman and likely find that the associate dean gets more attention, though neither of them knows very much about the subject.
Thus, we shouldn’t pay serious attention to the opinions of a comedian on any subject. All we should expect from him is funny jokes. But we can’t help ourselves and react with approbation or disdain when an opinion concordant with our bias comes from ignorant lips. But this dofus doesn’t really cause a problem if we pause a bit to reflect that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about irrespective of his conclusion. If he’s”right”about something he’s no different from the broken clock right twice a day. Of course we might conclude, that an actor or athlete is good at at least one thing while the rest of us aren’t very good at anything and accordingly pay attention to the jock or jokester. But that’s just a mistake rather than a reasoned act.
The real problem comes from the expert. I mean a real expert. Let’s use climate change as an example as it’s a subject everyone likes to fight about. Experts typically get things wrong. There are numerous reasons for their propensity for error. Prime among these is that the more we know about a subject the greater our ignorance. This cloudy perception occurs because the expansion of knowledge raises new questions at an logarithmic rate compared to the plodding rate of increase in what we actually know. Simply put, the smarter we get the stupider we become.
A real expert knows a lot about a very small slice of what there is to know. Thus, a climatologist may have a lot of information about the earth’s temperature, its patterns of change, and an estimate of what future variables of climate might be. His approach to certitude might be 10 times that of a laymen, yet his degree of error still is enormous. As Yogi Berra cogently observed, predictions are difficult especially when they concern the future. Those whose scientific exposure is limited to a survey course on the history of science spout utter nonsense when they talk about settled science. Science by its intrinsic nature is always unsettled. Good theories are proposed, sometimes adopted, prevail for a while, and are then overthrown or drastically modified. Even Newton needed a big overhaul. Stating that a preponderance of scientists believe this or that is just as likely to lead to a wrong conclusion as a right one. Go to any scientific meeting and observe how heated are the arguments between experts.
Then there’s another momentous problem. Even good, and as near as we can tell, accurate theories must be fitted into the complexities of human society. A scientist who understands climate as well as possible, which is to say he sees it dimly, has no particular expertise in economics, politics, engineering, energy utilization, as well as a host of other disciplines that intersect with climate and its future. So we should pay attention to his explanation of what may happen to our environment, but pay little heed to the solutions he offers as these are the domain of other disciplines about which he knows no more than anyone else.
When we liken someone whose views depart from ours as a denier on a par with a holocaust denier we are engaging what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of prevailing opinion.” Name calling is not an argument, it’s an admission of bias and ignorance. Those would be Nostradamuses who call for the fatal and irreversible cooking of the world in merely a dozen years are guilty of the worst kind of folly – that which can easily be disproved in a short time. If you predict the sky will fall put your time frame far enough in the future such that you and your critics will not be around when its proven wrong.
Looking at the best available data and then extrapolating to future destruction is victim to the same error that characterizes static bookkeeping. The future is not static, it’s dynamic. We cannot know what unforeseen events or technologies will intervene tomorrow or next year or over the next decade which will render our initial analysis irrelevant. Thus, the Congressional Budget Office is always wrong as is anyone who tells us what the climate will be in 70 years or how we should proceed over the next seven decades in our attempts to prevent armageddon.
What we should do is take seriously the possibility that human events may have adverse effects on our planet and study the best ways to deal with the possibility that human intervention may both initiate and forstall adverse effects over the unforeseeable future. Telling Africans to cease developing their societies and restrict their diet to kale as we continue to live the good life while they stay centuries behind is neither humane nor enforceable.
Malthus (1766-1834) was wrong when he assumed human population would grow exponentially while food production would increase arithmetically causing the world to starve to death. Just the reverse happened. Paul Ehrlich (b 1932) who proclaimed a similar prediction made the mistake of staying alive long enough to see his prediction of mass starvation fall victim to modern agriculture. His poor prophesy doesn’t seem to have harmed him as he holds a named professorship at Stanford. He still maintains he was right.
It’s easier to be a broom handle than it is an informed citizen open to the complexities of modern life. HL Mencken described out current state close to a century back – “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”