Avoiding the Truth –How we are Trapped by Intellectual Cowardice

There is no denying that most of the intellectual debates in today’s society, particularly those that have significant political and social ramifications, evoke emotional responses. This is unsurprising because for most of us our beliefs underpin who we think we are. They form a vital part of our self-concept. It is unremarkable then that we are reluctant to have those beliefs challenged.

But many of us attach our self-concept to beliefs that are hard to defend. Consequently we strive to avoid having those beliefs challenged. This is evidenced in the pervasive “cancel culture” where those who have views opposed to ours are prevented from expressing such opinions. This is essentially an infantile reaction that exposes the intellectual fragility of those that practice it.

Another pointer to the intellectual cowardice of such people is when they refer to “my truth” as though somehow truth is a subjective concept that can be fashioned by personal idiosyncrasies rather than an objective outcome derived from reasoned debate and proper investigation.

For example one such subjective “truth” that has unfortunately gained traction is that that gender is a subjective construct that is socially manufactured and that individuals can choose to change if they so desire. There is no scientific evidence at all to support such a thesis.

There are indeed only two genders – male and female. It is a misguided falsehood that we can change our gender by merely modifying our genitalia. There are subtle differences in other organs between male and female. Recent research, for example, shows that female livers when exposed to extra testosterone are prone to develop tumours to a greater extent than males. Moreover there are inherent differences between male and female brains. Neuroscientists can distinguish between males and females just by their brain responses to various stimuli. Rather than believing, as some of the gender activists do, that gender is socially constructed in the mind, it might be better described as being genetically determined in the brain!

A tool many use in defending their uncertain “truths” is confirmation bias. That is they seek out other opinions that reinforce their beliefs and ignore those who might believe otherwise. An ugly manifestation of this tactic is “cancel culture” where those of differing opinions are prevented from even having the opportunity to expressing their viewpoints. Unfortunately, this seems to be most often displayed in universities where we once looked to provide a robust contest of ideas.

Humans have a tendency to believe what they want to believe, search for evidence in support of their belief and discard contrary evidence.

This can happen even where there is no ill-intent. Years ago I remember reading in one of Charles Darwin’s diaries his observation that went something like this:

I have learnt that when seeking to prove a thesis, if I find evidence to the contrary I quickly write it down because I know that is what I will most likely soonest forget!

That is a very perspicacious observation and runs counter to human nature.

As we have seen in previous essays, many of us invest our sense of self into a particular belief system, whether it be critical race theory, the apocalypse of global warming or the nobility of pre-colonial aborigine societies (and there are many, many more).

This is a problem even in scientific ranks as Thomas S Kuhn perceptively illustrated in his fine book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn challenged long-standing linear notions of scientific progress, arguing that transformative ideas don’t arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation but that the revolutions in science, those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas, occur outside of “normal science,” as he called it. Though Kuhn was writing when physics ruled the sciences, his ideas on how scientific revolutions bring order to the anomalies that amass over time in research experiments are still instructive in our biotech age.

Kuhn perceptively created the notion of a “paradigm”. A paradigm is a coherent body of knowledge that scientists in a particular cohort believe to be true and invest their reputations in defending.

Although Kuhn’s expertise lay in the philosophy of science, it is also true that his notion of paradigms is equally applicable to social and political stances. Adherents of climate catastrophism for example are just as invested in defending their paradigm as were the adherents of classical Newtonian physics.

Some may protest that the issue of climate change falls into the realm of science and of course in some ways it does. But the major impact of climate alarmism is social and political. Even if you believe in global warming you can debate how we might respond to it.

Danish economist, Bjorn Lomborg, for example, agrees with the notion that global warming is occurring but disagrees with our response to it. He argues that the huge costs required to secure a significant abatement in CO2 emissions would be better spent in combatting preventable dis eases like malaria or, increasing supplies of potable water and supporting education in third world countries.

But those captured by the climate catastrophist paradigm will have none of this. To them the climate issue is so imminent and dire that it must take precedent over all other issues and all our resources should be dedicated to combatting it.

A decade or more ago Lomborg offered to set up a research institute in an Australian University. Unfortunately the offer was refused because academics in our universities felt threatened by his challenge to the paradigm, ubiquitous in many academic circles, of environmental catastrophism.

When paradigms are challenged not only are vested interests challenged but also for many their very sense of self is questioned.

This was famously demonstrated by the case of Galileo. Galileo Galilei was born in Italy in 1564 (coincidentally the same year that William Shakespeare was born in England). Early on Galileo had done some fundamental work in physics at Pisa. But because of his practical ingenuity, the Venetians hired him as a professor of mathematics at Padua. Galileo was active in many fields but his moment of fame occurred when he was forty five.  At this time he became acquainted with a Flemish invention of a very basic telescope. Galileo was greatly intrigued by this and over several years was able to make his own vastly superior telescopes. His observations using these instruments led him to believe (as Nicolai Copernicus had hinted before him) that the earth was not the centre of our solar system but in fact the sun was. Since time immemorial humans had believed that the sun circled the earth. Our everyday observations of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west supported that notion. But this conclusion by Galileo incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church,

One of the arguments used against Galileo was that his theory countered biblical revelations. In particular, the Old Testament had said:

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Oh sun, stand still over Gibeon, Oh moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jasher.

(The Book of Jasher was a collection of Jewish myths covering the Old Testament material from Genesis to the Book of Joshua. In ancient times it was included in the collection of books that in those days constituted the Bible.)

Galileo, now in his seventies, was forced to recant when offered the rack as a consequence of such heretical thoughts.

The vested interests of the Church would not allow its dogma to be challenged by science. As I have alluded this is not an uncommon occurrence. But in fairness to the Church it did eventually admit Galileo was right -350 years after the event!

It is hard for anyone that has a vested interest in defending a paradigm to acknowledge that it, or some parts of it, may be in error. Even Einstein when he learnt of Quantum Theory supplanting his Theory of Relativity when dealing with subatomic physics could not accept that at the quantum level reality could only be described by probabilities. He famously said that he could not believe that “God would play dice with the Universe”!

But let us return to examine further the paradigm that is currently distorting our thinking and that is the notion that Humankind is in imminent danger due to man-made global warming.

The climate warming alarmists are one of the offshoots of left politics that has succeeded in infiltrating our political processes and our educational institutions so that our governments have committed to unattainable environmental goals at the expense of our cost of living and economic welfare and our children have been indoctrinated to believe that they face an uncertain and desperate future.

As a consequence of this unsubstantiated paradigm our governments are competing to outdo each other with virtue signalling about their efforts to set renewable energy targets which they purport will avert the global warming crisis. Yet even Australia’s Chief Scientist once conceded that even if Australia succeeded in reaching its improbable target of net zero by 2050 this would have no discernible effect on global CO2 levels because Australia is a minimal contributor.

Yet despite this, we have embarked on a foolhardy attempt to reduce our emissions which is resulting in higher electricity prices and a far less secure energy network. Whilst many European countries are walking away from their CO2 abatement targets because of these deleterious effects, Australia under the direction of the hapless Chris Bowen is doubling down on its efforts. Once you are enveloped in a paradigm it is mightily difficult to abandon it.

Of course the government promised there would be huge numbers of jobs created by the transition to renewable energy. Try as I may I can’t see them, but I do see conventional industry struggling and shutting down as a result of high energy prices.

Let me conclude by examining another paradigm that is inexplicably stoutly defended. It is the notion that prior to colonisation, Australia’s indigenous peoples lived in an idyllic paradise. It has become almost a secular version of “Paradise Lost”. This myth is perpetuated by the black activists who are keen to accentuate the notion that all the difficulties and dysfunction experienced by indigenous peoples are due to colonisation. This grossly distorted point of view is actively promulgated because it supports the activist’s crutch of indigenous victimhood.

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau first proposed that the “noble savage” lived an idyllic life uncorrupted by civilisation. This concept struck a chord with many romanticists then and since.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes took a contrary view. He postulated that life without civilisation as we know it was likely to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

With respect to the indigenous population of Australia, I suspect that Hobbes’ view was more accurate than Rousseau’s.

Unfortunately the idealisation of indigenous existence was given early credence by a historical figure I greatly admire –viz Captain James Cook.

Cook had minimal interactions with Australia’s indigenous people. But when the Endeavour’s hull was breached by coral as he tried to navigate the Great Barrier Reef in what is now far north Queensland, he was forced to beach his ship to effect repairs in proximity to what is today known as Cooktown. During that protracted stay as the ship’s carpenters struggled to restore the hull of the Endeavour, he and his crew interacted with the local indigenous population. Speaking of these indigenous people with whom he had limited contact Cook wrote in his journal:

Thus lived these I had almost said were happy people, content with little, nay almost nothing ……. From them appears how small are the wants of human nature, which we Europeans have increased to an excess which would certainly appear incredible to these people could they be told of it.

Well whether these indigenous people were happy or not could be debated but one thing is for certain is that they lived in a fortunate environment with a bountiful rainforest behind them and a bountiful sea in front of them.

And here we encounter a common error when commentators seem to wish to see all indigenous people as one. When William Dampier, the English buccaneer and explorer first encountered indigenous people on the barren west coast of Australia, some seventy years prior to Cook’s encounter with indigenous people, he described them thus:

The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world.

Now across the continent of Australia very different conditions prevailed and indigenous life would have reflected those various conditions. Those aborigines that lived along the Murray-Darling and those that lived in fertile coastal areas had easier lives than those who lived in our barren interior.

The indigenous people Cook encountered as he was repairing his boat in far north Queensland no doubt had a more congenial lifestyle than those Dampier encountered on the verges of the deserts of Western Australia.

I guess it is always problematic when people try to generalise the characteristics of the pre-colonial indigenous population when it was comprised of a myriad different tribes living in vastly different circumstances.

Yet there seems little doubt that most indigenous people lived difficult lives. Despite the confected fantasies of Bruce Pascoe, any reasonable reading of the early encounters of the settlers with the indigenous peoples of Australia tells a story where infanticide was common. This merely testifies to the survival difficulty of many tribes where they could not guarantee the survival of extra mouths to feed in a challenging environment. We also know that violence against women was widely condoned in these patriarchal societies. There is even some evidence of cannibalism. On top of this there was the devotion to “pay back” and the assumption that unexplained deaths are due to sorcery. (Jacinta Nampijinpa Price confirms that adherence to these beliefs is still contributing to indigenous dysfunction.)

So an objective analysis would lead us to believe that the pragmatism of Hobbes might prevail over the idealism of Rousseau in our assessment of the natural condition of these people. Or even that the selective imaginings of James Cook were not as useful a description as the acerbic observations of William Dampier.

Another well-propagated myth is that of the ecological aborigine. Those that like to romanticise the lives of pre-colonial indigenous people like to highlight their stewardship of the environment. One of the things that the propagators of indigenous virtue often refer to is the constructive use of fire to beneficially modify the environment. This again is something which scientists dispute.

There are two reasons indigenous peoples did little harm to the environment.

  • Firstly in pre-colonial times their numbers were not sufficient to make a huge impact.
  • Secondly they had no productive industries that might impinge significantly on the natural ecology.

(Mind you they have been blamed by some experts for the extinction of the megafauna that once had been common in Australia!)

But it suits the activists to glorify the pre-colonial history of indigenous people because they can argue that the current dysfunction of a sizable minority of indigenous folk can be blamed on colonisation. (I will have more to say about this issue in a future essay.)

So let me draw some conclusions here.

Firstly we are not rational beings. We don’t often weigh up the evidence for and against a particular proposal. We normally have a predisposed bias (paradigm) that we want to defend. We seek our information to support our thesis and discard information that challenges it.

Quite often our sense of identity is tied to some of these beliefs which makes it difficult to be objective.

Also we often have strong vested interests in supporting a particular point of view.

Those who most avidly promote climate catastrophism are often beneficiaries of government research dollars that want to find more evidence to support this thesis. Or they are recipients of green energy subsidies that rely on climate catastrophism to promote their business activities.

Those that promote the notion that indigenous people led idyllic lives pre-colonialism want to promote the notion of indigenous victimhood that underpins a whole industry of black activism.

In this way erroneous paradigms are sustained by individual self-interest and identity politics.

Being brave enough to confront the truth is a rare phenomenon in the face of these distorting influences.

Those who choose to confront climate catastrophism and the notion of pre-colonial existence of indigenous people as inhabitants of a latter day Garden of Eden (and many other “woke” paradigms) will find that these are unyielding quasi-religious cults, which proffer propaganda little different from the dogma of the Catholic Church that Galileo had to contend with.

4 Replies to “Avoiding the Truth –How we are Trapped by Intellectual Cowardice”

  1. Interesting treatise Ted how vested interest holds onto error. And for a long time too, even against what we see today as clear evidence. I’m minded of the famous Piltdown Man, about a huvdred years ago. Couple of dudes faked a missing link between apes and humans that was British and white, and it was immediately believed by the British establishment and held fast for 40 years. What a triumph that the first man was white and British rather than African and black! Then and only then did someone actually run some simple checks that showed it was fake! I’m also in mind of how the Gregorian calendar (appeared around the same time as Galileo) was totally rejected by the newly protestant England and many protestant countries because it was papist and therefore not to be touched. It took 200 years for Britain to finally accept it as correct and correct the 10 day accrued error of those 200 years. And I’m sure there are plenty of examples more. I’d be interested Ted in your thoughts on deliberate hoaxes, for profit, when you’re done with differences of opinion, one of which usually turns out correct (but not always!)…..Yours Jack

    1. Thanks Jack. But I don’t have the intellectual energy to expose all the deliberate hoaxes perpetrated around the world. I have in the past dealt with some of them like:

      Transgender politics
      Catastrophic climate change
      The Black Lives Matter movement
      Indigenous victimhood
      and many such “woke” ideas. It is beyond my limited capacity to address all such hoaxes! These might not be the hoaxes you had in mind but they are nevertheless hoaxes of gargantuan scale which impinge on our democratic state and stultify free speech.

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