One of the fun things to contemplate is how little more than our ancient ancestors we laypeople know about the science and technology from which we benefit. As Michael Flynn once challenged his readers, prove to me right now, without recourse to books or media resources that the earth is in motion orbiting the sun and turning on its axis. Good luck with that.
Or, alternatively, as Milton Friedman used to love to challenge people, explain to me how a pencil is made or, better still, make one yourself. Not for nothing are most people eaten in first few months after The Change in S.M. Sterling’s chipper and cheery fantasy Dies the Fire (which basically thrusts us into a world where all technology depending on electricity or the internal combustion engine ceases to work). Most of us do not have the slightest idea what we would do if we we were suddenly thrown back on our own resources. We live in a vast web of technology that we trust works and that we trust somebody else to understand. Civilization would fall to pieces if we did not.
A vast amount of what we unscientific laity “know” is, in fact, received in exactly the same way Catholics receive revelation: from people in priestly garments called “lab coats” who we ordinary people trust to be handing on a reliable Tradition and who, for the most part, we trust to know what they are talking about.
If we had to really satisfy for ourselves that every bit of scientific and technological knowledge we simply trust to be accurate and to work was not part of a vast conspiracy to fool us, we would be terrified to get out of bed.
So: Describe how, beyond the vaguest hand waving and generality, this blog entry got from me to you. You can’t and neither can I. Oh, sure, you have a vague image of something called “bits” bouncing off satellites and so forth, because you watched a Discovery Channel show and imagine that the CGI cartoon you saw is “science” and not media experts dumbing the real science down so you can understand it. In the same way, Disney dumbed down the picture of the atom for your sixth grade science class
and Woody Woodpecker explained rocket science for an audience that could not make even a pop bottle rocket if their lives depended on it.
None of that is bad. Most people can get through life just fine with a crude notion of the atom just as most Catholics get through life just fine never being able to define transubstantiation. As C.S. Lewis remarks, the command was “Take, eat” not “Take, understand.” As he elsewhere comments, people ate their dinners for thousands of years and felt better without having the slightest understanding of proteins and vitamins. Now a few of them do and the rest of us have some picture in our heads from commercials and a few science shows. And we go on eating and feeling better. And if all that knowledge is shown to be wrong tomorrow, most people will go on eating and feeling better.
The problem comes when people fall into the cracks between trusting those with real knowledge and adopting a hermaneutic of ignorant suspicion that teaches them to skeptical of people they should trust and credulous toward quacks.
We discussed some of this yesterday. This is the mentality that gives us flat earthers, geocentrists, six day creationists, Moon Landing Hoaxers and anti-vax conspiracy theorists. It is a kind of madness and Chesterton describes why such a mind fever is so hard to argue with:
Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.
So if a conspiracy theorist were to drill down into levels of detail demanding an explanation for how the internet works, persistently doubting all you said, the more tongue-tied you would get until he could shout in triumph over your ignorance and foolishly declare that it is all a hoax. Because you don’t really know how your computer works. You aren’t even entirely clear on what electricity is or how it got to your house or where it goes when it leaves again. You aren’t clear why pushing key on your keypad results in a letter on your screen. You have only the vaguest notion of how the chip(s?) in your device turn that information into… what? magnetism? waves? electronic beeps? photons (whatever those are) and get them somewhere else. It is, for most of us, a mystery as inscrutable as the Blessed Trinity or the Resurrection. We trust the people who tell us how it works and it does work and that’s all we really care about.
But now and then we are confronted by people with mind fever who tell us “Everything you know is wrong! It’s a conspiracy!” Some of them say it about geocentrism or the flat earth. But others say it about evolution and climate change or vaccines. And because of certain cultural factors, we irrationally believe the “conspiracy theory” explanations, even though such explanations are utter rubbish. We believe we are being “smart and skeptical” when in fact, we are simply ignorantly believing people with an intensely vested interest in a false narrative and ignoring the people who have done the work and know what they are talking about.
Paradox: Telling ignorant laity that their “skepticism” about everything makes them smart is often a way to keep them clever but ignorant.