State News

Right ideas wrongly applied

By Sen. Dick McCormack

The pandemic, its economic fallout, and the resulting social and personal stresses, all beg for analysis. What’s going on? What are proper responses? What mistakes are being made? What fundamental problems are exposed?

I’m grateful for the informed, insightful, indeed wise communications I’ve been getting from concerned citizens. It’s gratifying when constituents and I agree. It’s a challenging opportunity for deepened understanding when we don’t.

Even wrongheaded ideas contribute to the discussion. To believe in free speech is to trust that, overall, good ideas will prevail over bad ideas in the competitive “marketplace of ideas.” More harmful than wrong ideas are right ideas wrongly applied.

The present Covid discussion has many examples.

The right to an opinion

I suggest that it’s a right idea that everyone has an equal right to an opinion, and an equal right to argue for his/her opinion. But this right idea is wrongly applied when taken to mean all opinions are equal. Bob Dylan sang: “You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine.” Hippies believed that “everyone has their own truth.” Popular pseudo psychology tells us to “trust your feelings.” The rightwing version is when Fox News claims to be “fair and balanced” by airing “both sides” in reporting on climate science.

But this claimed equality of all opinions equates the proven with the unproven, or even with the disproven, making intelligent discernment impossible. The learned scientific consensus on global warming, for example, is not merely a show of hands among the world’s climate scientists, but a recognition that the thesis has endured the rigors of the scientific method and “the thing has been proven” (QED). Conversely, as with Covid-19, various nonsensical claims have been proven wrong. You can’t cure a virus by drinking bleach. The pandemic is not a “hoax.”

A legislator disagreeing with a citizen’s opinion does not deny the citizen the right to an opinion, or the right to promote an opinion. But those rights do not extend to a “right” to be agreed with. I remain unpersuaded that there is a God-given right to spread a deadly virus, or that social distancing is part of a plot to destroy freedom. No one is less free because a legislator does not buy his/her argument.

The contingency of all science

Another right idea is that all science requires perpetual skepticism and open-mindedness and that dogma is fundamentally unscientific. All accepted scientific claims are contingent on proof achieved via the scientific method. Such proof is always subject to being revisited and potentially reconsidered. There were once five planets, eventually nine, then back down to eight. I came to the concept of contingency early. My father, a physics teacher, started all his answers to scientific questions with, “the accepted theory is…” Scientifically, the truth is like the speed of light, something that can be approached but not attained.

The wrong application of this right idea is the nihilistic view that because scientific understandings are contingent, they therefore have no actual truth value, that all claims are equal, and that to favor the proven over the disproven is to be dogmatic. Thus, we hear “the jury is still out on global warming,” “vaccines cause autism” or Covid can be cured by this or that unproven method, and to disagree is being dogmatic.

Such arguments are not calls for skepticism and open-mindedness.

They are intellectually sloppy.

Scientists who dissent from science-based agreements are free to submit their alternative hypotheses to the rigors of the scientific process, to disprove the accepted science, and to prove their alternative hypotheses. But until the dissenters achieve that proof, we scientific laity, including policy makers, must rely on the established science.

Yes, all science is “only a theory” but a theory that enjoys a high level of discerning confidence.

I don’t plan on jumping off any high cliffs simply because gravity is “only a theory.”

Pseudo science is frustrating. But the worst of it is that the pseudo science regarding Covid undermines our ability as a society to combat a deadly enemy.

. Sen. Dick McCormack from Bethel represents the three-member at-large Windsor County district in the Vermont Senate

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