Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Left

Many years ago on Usenet a remember reading a post by a Muslim who argued that, although the Koran in English may seem unimpressive, if one were to read it in the original Arabic one would be convinced that it must be the direct word of God, that it is such sublime poetry that it could not have been written by a mere man. I wasn't an active participant in that particular thread, just a reader, but the argument made an impression on me because it so clearly illustrated a principle. It seemed absurd that the poster would expect his readers to go to the trouble of learning Arabic just to refute him, and yet in principle there was nothing really wrong with his argument, nor was there any real way he could make it without expecting the other participants to learn Arabic. I had perhaps been somewhat suspicious of the assertion that one should investigate all ideas for one's self rather than merely relying on the judgments of others, but never before had it been so clear what an utter crock it is; there isn't time, wouldn't be sufficient time in a thousand lifetimes, to actually examine all possibilities sufficiently, even if one restricted examination to ideas with a substantial number of adherents.

This post is not about the political left, but rather about the left side of the intelligence curve, and not just the left tail, or even the left half, but more like the bottom 95%, and perhaps in some cases still more. That is, nearly everyone.

I have a pretty high opinion of my own intelligence, but although I'm samrter than the average bear, I know that there are millions of people in the world who are at least approximately as smart as I am, and some of them are substantially smarter. Occasionally I have come across an argument that seemed sufficiently complicated that not only was I unwilling to devote the time and effort to puzzle it through, I thought perhaps it might be beyond my ability to follow (and I'm not counting cases where the author is deliberately being obscure). I can't remember the particular incidence, but I do remember once being shocked by the insight: most people are like that all the fucking time.

There are important implications of this. First, people are generally being sensible when they dismiss unconventional or outlandish ideas as "nonsense". Most such ideas are nonsense, and most people are incapable of distinguishing the occasional profound insight from madness, Either they can't do it all, or they can't do it within the constraints of time and effort the idea seems to deserve. Second, that when new ideas do overtake the old, it happens not so much because everyone is convinced as an individual of the truth of the new idea as that an influential few embrace the new idea and the rest follow "expert" opinion. That's all they can do. Finally, if an idea is popular with the most influential members of a society it is likely to become regarded as "true" regardless of the idea's actual merits. This is, I think, true in all societies, but particularly those like ours which have a reasonably well defined class of professional intellectuals.

It follows that it's generally a waste of time trying to persuade the masses of anything new by argument. The following one can get will depend more on one's skill as a persuader than on the quality of one's ides, and in any case that following will remain small unless one has the support of the influential ones.

But where argument fails, demonstration may succeed. Technology advances because the new methods can be directly observed to be better at accomplishing desired aims than were the old methods, or even are capable of accomplishing that which could not be done before.

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