Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"You may be right"

Outraged readers who wrote to H. L. Mencken would receive in reply a preprinted card:

   Dear Sir or Madam:
   You may be right.
   Yours sincerely,
   H. L. Mencken

(I have also seen this story attributed to Mark Twain, Alexander Woollcott, Edward R. Murrow, and several other controversialists but it rings truest for Mencken.)

Mencken was serenely unconcerned by criticism and free of the thin-skinned compulsion to defend himself; after all, his whole raison d'etre was to be provocative, and he was hardly going to take umbrage that he had succeeded in provoking people. As he wrote a friend, his brand of opinionated journalism "must be done boldly, and, in order to get a crowd, a bit cruelly."

But like most people who have had the experience of covering politics and public affairs up close, Mencken also had a finely honed sense of what his biographer William Manchester perfectly captured in the phrase "tolerant misanthropy." An early lesson I learned in journalism was the limitless capacity of the human mind for sincere self-delusion. There are of course totally cynical charlatans, frauds, demagogues, and quacks, but they are actually exceedingly rare. In my time as a science writer I became quite interested in the phenomenon of medical quackery, and I interviewed a good many quacks who peddled worthless, dangerous, and unconscionable "alternative" treatments in crassly lucrative schemes. But I never encountered one who I ever doubted was absolutely and sincerely convinced of the truth and virtuousness of his metier.

Being in a business whose job it is to crank out facile arguments on complex matters also tends to give one a certain detached view of the whole process of public controversy — and of how easy it is to convince oneself of just about anything. Leonard Woolf described this perfectly in a wonderful passage about Richard Crossman, who he called "the best journalist I have ever known":
His mind was extraordinarily fertile of ideas; it teemed with them, and if you dipped into it, you brought up a shoal of brilliant, glittering ideas, like the shoal of shining fish that one sometimes sees in a net pulled out of the sea by a fisherman. It is true that Dick's ideas were almost as kaleidoscopic in colour and as slippery to keep a hold on as the mackerel for, having written a glittering and devastating article one week, he would turn up the following Monday with the most brilliant idea for the most brilliant article contradicting his most brilliant article of the previous Monday. And on each of the two Mondays, Dick, I am sure, believed passionately in each of the two ideas.
My three years at Nature left me painfully aware that scientists are about the worst people on earth when it comes to confusing their political inclinations with objective fact — and absolutely the worst in the concomitant certainty that one's opponents must be liars, frauds, or corruptly motivated, since (obviously) no honest person could possibly have reached a contrary conclusion through objective reasoning. As absurd and unwieldy as democracy is in handling scientific matters, I found myself constantly thankful that scientists weren't running things, mainly because of this supreme intolerance for differing political conclusions.

Many of the standard laments about the Internet are, I have always felt, overblown; I continue to be amazed not only that, thanks to its marvels, I now know for the first time in my life how to successfully slow-cook ribs over a charcoal fire, exactly where in the neck to give a horse an injection, and the complete lyrics to Spike Jones's "He Broke My Heart in Three Places (Seattle, Chicago and New York)," but also that far from isolating and separating people the Internet has made it possible to share information and make connections with people and ideas that never would have happened before. And as I mentioned the other day, there is much in the old business of print journalism that no sane person would ever regret.

And of course there have always been zealots; you can't blame the Internet for that. I have always loved the observation that Hugh Trenchard (the first chief marshal of the RAF and not exactly a model of open-mindedness himself) made about Billy Mitchell, the great American evangelist for air power in the 1930s: "He tried to convert his enemies by killing them first."

But one thing I do lament about the Internet is the way it has tended to amplify self-righteousness. I am sure this is old hat to most readers but I came across the other day for the first time this classic cartoon by xkcd:

The cartoon was cited the other day in a very interesting and moving article by Alan Jacobs about the vituperative Internet battles between liberals and conservatives in the Anglican church, and his own futile attempts to keep the discussion on substance rather than character assassination. The overdeveloped sense of moral certainty on each side — and the atrophied sense of charity and humility — left Jacobs saddened and frustrated.

His feelings echoed my reaction to the Internet-frothed bloodlust of those who have been cheering on the appalling and chilling efforts of my state's highly partisan attorney general to launch a criminal fraud investigation of the former University of Virginia climate researcher accused of cherrypicking data to make the case for global warming. The fact of the matter is that scientists, no less than lawyers, politicians, theologians, policemen, historians, criminologists, education theorists, and brilliant-opinion writing journalists, get things wrong all the time. And one lesson I took away along with my enduring gratitude that scientists aren't running things is the conviction that we need to be extraordinarily reluctant for the same reasons to enlist the power of the state to arbitrate, much less punish, scientific disagreements.

My comparison to Lomborg was precisely to make this point: his opponents were not satisfied with refuting him; they wanted to destroy him, and sought a quasi-legal process to do so. And that is precisely the same mindset at work in those who now want to turn a scientific dispute over climate evidence into criminal fraud. Fraud is taking the money and — instead of buying computers, writing software, searching the literature, hiring graduate students, and doing the work — spending it on a blonde and a trip to the Riviera. (Do people take blondes to the Riviera these days? I admit I'm not as up on this as I probably should be.) If fraud is overstating the evidence, using data selectively, or employing methodologies that don't stand up to later scrutiny, then half the scientists in the world will be in jail.

Nothing so aroused Mencken as the illiberalism (an old-fashioned word) of the nervous nellies who demanded the censorship, muzzling, or punishment of contrary views — who were so afraid of engaging the battle of ideas on its rightful and honorable ground that they had to call in the Truth Police to do their dirty work for them. And as Leonard Woolf observed, there are still two kinds of people in the world: those who in the "depths of their brain, heart, and intestines agree with Pericles" and those who "consciously or unconsciously accept the political postulates of Xerxes, Sparta, Louis XIV, Charles I, Queen Victoria, and all modern authoritarians." Woolf has always been one of my heroes for his ability to combine a fierce intellect and a passionate drive to carry on arguments over everything from politics to theology to literature to croquet with an unfailing humanity and liberalism. Even in the most heated disputes he could cite Voltaire's observation, "We may both be wrong"; he always knew that the real evil was the authoritarian mindset that viewed one's opponents' views as not merely mistaken, but impermissible.