Heraclitus remains the honest prophet of immediacy: a mystic without raptures or bad rhetoric, a sceptic who does not rely for his results on conventions unwittingly adopted, a transcendentalist without false pretensions or incongruous dogmas.
George Santayana - The Life of Reason (1905 - 1906)
As we know, there has never been enormous social or political enthusiasm for the sceptic. It is okay to be sceptical about astrology or politics because they are much the same, but less okay to be sceptical about a stablemate of theirs such as climate change.
Consensus scepticism is okay, but not the other kind where bad people say horrible things to undermine comfort zones. And what could be more horrible than that?
Yet scepticism is good, we cannot do without it. Anyone who at least tries to be a rational sceptic is pursuing a better view of reality to be followed by an even better view. It is an endlessly fascinating pursuit for the sceptic, but not at all fascinating for those invested in consensus. Neither does it fascinate those who peep at life from comfort zones.
To take a topical example - those awkward people currently engaged in sitting down on busy roads as a protest about climate change. Their attitude may seem like extreme scepticism of some kind, but it isn’t. A rational sceptic would cast doubt on both their cause and their motives for sitting in the road upsetting everyone else.
The road squatters are clearly immune to any form of climate scepticism. Rock solid immune. Armed with doctrinal placards they sit down on busy roads to oppose even the faintest hint of doubt. Not so much self-flagellation as flagellation of others, but that’s the modern angle for you. Voluntary silliness doesn’t count as self-flagellation.
It is an accessible form of high-profile preaching. Anyone can do it – preaching by placard. From their tarmac pulpit they tell us that their version of consensus should be compulsory for all - or modern hellfire awaits. Modern hellfire being a two degree rise in temperature. Yet no the faintest whiff of scepticism is allowed. The placard is holy writ.
The coronavirus debacle was much the same - considerable mainstream effort went into excluding sceptical input to official policy. Yet a dash of rational scepticism could have helped devise far less costly and more effective and adaptable government policies. This soon became obvious as the data accumulated. Really, instead of spouting from a lectern Boris may as well have waved placards.
We seem to have a wider problem with our insatiable demand for answers rather than possibilities, uncertainties or better alternatives to the consensus. Even when there is no answer, governments and pressure groups are apt to demand one. Inevitably the demand for answers is met by charlatans willing to provide them.
It isn’t complicated. The demand for answers is an opportunity and it works both ways. Governments know how to offer the opportunity and ask for the answers needed to bolster policies already decided. Attract those prepared to give those answers and reject those who are not. Even at an individual level the fraud does not have to be explicit. A good dose of sanctimonious confidence is usually enough.
Almost as if the complexity of the information age has given rise to a fantasy world where citizens are encouraged to demand an official answer to everything. A doomed world where sceptics don’t fit. Doomed because
sceptics don’t fit.