We are in a pandemic and the experts do not all agree about what we should do. So what do we do? What sources can we trust?
Sometimes intellectual gadflies are Socrates, most often they are just carrying a plague of disinformation. How can you tell the new thing God is saying, in John the Baptist or Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to the grifter false prophet making profit on “words from the Lord?” When you are not an expert, how do you know when to trust the experts? Experts are. . .human and have interests and group think just like all the rest of us.
Yet cranks are also human and though we should begin believing people, our epistemology should begin in trust, we cannot assume every dissident is correct. Bigfoot is not, though I wish he was. Skepticism, an invaluable tool in our mental kit, applied to Bigfoot leaves nothing worthy of belief. That’s sad but not uncommon.
How should we live in pandemic time?
I ask due to this email from a very brilliant former college honor’s student who is tempted to “want to know everything!” This desire is both good and bad. We should want the truth and nothing but the truth so help us God. However, we all have limited intellectual capacity . . . by Divine design. Humankind must live in community. We need each other. It is not good for a man to live alone! As a result, the desire to know everything personally creates the false autonomy that tyrants believe they have. We need each other, we need people we can trust.
So how can we know, when the community is split and our lives are on the line? Our brilliant yet curious chum:
I had a question for you- As you can imagine, I have always been pretty fascinated with news/world events/politics/philosophy/research/conspiracy theories . . . This has proven pretty hard for me during this Covid era. I am seeing so many different articles and stats literally contradicting themselves and I JUST WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH. . . . However- I wanted to ask if you have any news sources, articles, thinkers, doctors, journalists, etc that you trust in this time.
Maybe the answer is there are no answers and I just have to keep reading multiple sources to get glimpses of truth and wait to see what happens.
All that to say, any sources you have been turning to in this time for information? Quite frankly I don’t know who to trust so I am turning to the spiritual and intellectual leaders in my life that I do. I also imagine if I am struggling with this as a (generally) healthy minded individual. . . there are many others that are struggling. . .
This is a great series of questions. Do not ever just take expert opinion, but do know that (usually) expert opinion is correct (or the closest thing to correct we have). I try to follow a few rules.
I. Start your quest for truth with relevant experts. Assume they are right.
With Covid, I began with the CDC. Since they span administrations, there is a possibility that they are hacks simply carrying on group think from one administration to another. (This is not probable, but possible!) As a result, I started with the health departments in a state like Ohio, dominated by a Republican; Texas, friendly to the administration; and New York, not at all friendly to Mr Trump.
What did they have in common?
What they had in common, was likely to be just so. The idea that the Ohio GOP, Texas GOP, and New York Democratic establishment are all in cahoots is possible, but very, very, unlikely.
II. See if there are multiple competent dissidents.
A way to fame and academic fortune (long term) is to be a competent dissident. Particularly with our response to this pandemic, there is “click” fame waiting for the man willing to dissent. Are there multiple people with competence in the area dissenting? If not, then the people who control the cameras are puffing dissenting opinions for clicks and views.
There are lone dissidents, but very rarely.
III. Give weight to arguments against self-interest.
If a person is saying something at a cost, then listen carefully. The virologist who does not take the establishment line may have something to say. The Democrats who wish Biden to win, but who agree with the Trump CDC deserve special weight.
Science cannot tell us what we should do, only what the outcomes are likely to be. How do we measure risk to life with risk to mental health in a lock down? Science cannot give us values. Find trained ethicists, theologians, and philosophers to suggest what is the best balance between one outcome and another.
Science can tell us how the world might go, the philosopher how it should go. Do not trust either without verification through Socratic dialog.
V. “Follow” the world, the flesh, or devils to see if there is another motive.
What is someone getting for their opinions? All of us are getting something. The “establishment” has lures, but so does the fringe. Many people will believe crank ideas so to be the brightest person in a dim room. The grifter (establishment or dissident) will often tip off the motive by selling something. They will oversell surety and demonize the foe.
Avoid the person who will risk nothing for the truth they claim to proclaim.
VI. Boring things are oft true.
When I was in tenth grade, evidence forced me to the conclusion that the Bolshevik had murdered Anastasia. She did not escape. Atheist regimes rarely miss their victims once they have power or so history teaches us.
For every duckbilled platypus, so dubious, but real, there are several fairy photographs. Believe if you can, then if you wish to believe, challenge harder. Generally, the boring is true.
A person is born of a virgin, does miracles, is killed, and raised from the dead. Given His life, the resurrection is what we (should) expect. The boring is most often true.
VII. Ignore those who will not dialog in good faith.
The crank will claim that nobody will listen to them, but become shy when asked to debate or argue their beliefs. The intellectual scammer will not persist. He will repeat old arguments, refuse to engage critics in appropriate forums. Oddly, he often will claim suppression of his ideas, but then grow shy about responding to critics.
VIII. If someone seems like a nut, pause. They might be.
Nuts might be genius misunderstood, but mostly are nuts. A sure sign of a nutter is a person who cannot stop attacking “those” people. They have nothing positive to say, but keep grinding away against their foes. You know a nutter when the sum total of their writing is angry, overly confident, and only appealing to those who already agree.
IX. Ask: “What if I am wrong?” Minimize risk by the virtue of prudence.
Always ask: “What if I am wrong?”
What is the worst outcome of your position if you are wrong? Minimize extreme bad outcomes, maximize moderation. We hate the virtue of prudence in this radical age and this part of the problem. The truth, as Proverbs and Aristotle understood, is somewhere in the “do least harm” area.
This is not to moderate between opinions, but outcomes. If I wear a mask, what harm? If I do not, what harm? What if I am wrong? What is most charitable to my neighbor?
X. Be intellectually kind and listen to other people. Judge with the judgment you wish applied to your most “extreme” idea.
Kindness, intellectual charity, is too rare. My intellectual life owes so much to atheists, people in other religions, those who (I think) are wrong. As a result, I pause before I issue a jeremiad. Jeremiah could wax angry, because he loved his people. The jeremiad from Jeremiah has weight, because Jeremiah loves us. Sadly, most of social media consists of the jeremiad against those we hate.
This is bad.
Instead, let us practice charity. What are the arguments? Where is the data? Look up the footnotes or claims. I have discovered that most of the time grifters and frauds are revealed quickly, since they misquote or misunderstand what they say. When someone says the Middle Ages is obsessed with demons and points to Dante, go read Dante. You discover that most of his work says nothing about demons and even his book on “hell” has fewer demons than you would imagine!
Ignore the intellectual grifter.
So it seems to me. Start with the CDC and then compare with the health departments in a “red” and “blue” state. See what they have in common. Proceed. In a broken world, we still might be wrong, but we will have minimized the risk. After all, nobody is damned for an intellectual mistake.Most of all be kind to one another intellectually. Do your best, moderate your claims to your surety, trust God, and be content to be right in Paradise.
Thanks for writing chum!