Monday, June 08, 2009

"The Application Of A Questioning Mind Is The Best Way To Wisdom And Insight"

ABC Lateline host, Leigh Sales, on the benefits of healthy scepticism versus ideological denialism :

In our society, certainty has more cachet than doubt and that is making our public debate shallower than it ought to be. Some of Australia's highest profile commentators act, in public at least, as if they have never experienced a second of self-doubt or ever entertained the thought: "What if I am wrong?" Our age of cable television, talkback radio and blogs seems to have been accompanied by a growing number of people who think their opinions are always right and that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but worthy of contempt and public ridicule.

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It is a shame that, in today's politics, expressing doubt is taboo. Consider the great thinkers throughout history. Many have been branded heretics for publicly voicing scepticism. Those who have sought truth, whether philosophers or scientists, artists or writers, revolutionaries or explorers, have always begun their quests from a premise of doubt, not certainty. Their questions most often ran counter to the prevailing wisdom or authorities of the day.

Copernicus asked whether the Earth really was at the centre of the universe. Martin Luther asked whether the Catholic Church was the only route to salvation. Thomas Jefferson asked why Americans couldn't govern themselves. Mary Wollstonecraft asked why women shouldn't have equal rights. Nelson Mandela asked why blacks weren't entitled to the same privileges as whites. To elevate certainty over doubt as a mark of intellectual strength flies in the face of historical experience, which has repeatedly shown that the application of a questioning mind is the best way to wisdom and insight.

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...climate change is an area in which we should allow room for doubt. The weight of scientific and political opinion backs the existence of human-induced climate change. When there is such universal agreement, doubters have an important role to play, both in terms of the science and the policy responses. Constructive sceptics (as opposed to ideological zealots) will be able to force our politicians and scientists to keep testing the evidence and exploring the options. That should lead to better outcomes for all of us.

The rest of Sales' excellent essay is definitely worth a read.