Monday, June 26, 2006

Equality, Liberty, Validity

Too often lately, I’ve heard people talk about everyone’s opinions being “equally valid”, by which they seem to mean that by right of being a human, each person is intrinsically equal to each other.... thus their perceptions have equal weight. However, this seems to confuse process with product. As equal members of the human race, we have equal rights to perceive and to express our perceptions; but those perceptions (products) do not have equal sagacity, clarity, and validity. Some perceptions lead us down a dead end; some lead us to greater awareness and growth. Those are not equal!

This assertion of equal validity keeps coming up whenever science and politics collide, for example the global warming issue. It is all too common through the ages that governments and authorities try to suppress discoveries that cause them trouble (look at Gallileo!). Authority has a weakness for one-sided arguments. But I am concerned about the number of people who seem to get no material benefit from ignoring facts, who are being swayed by this erroneous idea of giving “equal weight” to both sides, as if there will always be an equal preponderance of evidence. That’s one of the things I liked best about the debate club in high school -- it was necessary to back up your point of view with evidence, and the best evidence won.

Over and over, I hear that we must give both sides equal rights. Equal right to speak is a benefit to us all, yet once the hackneyed phrases have turned out to have no factual backing, it’s time to put them aside. Defenders of this confusion will point out that in history, too often people were wrong about the value of an idea; that something ultimately turned out to be the opposite of what they thought. They use this to say we must not make judgments, but simply support each opinion equally... until when? We can’t suspend judgment until after our lifetimes; it’s impossible, and judgments after that fact are irrelevant to our lives anyway.

No, despite the possibility that we may be wrong in our judgment, we must make one, as best we can, in the circumstances. To abrogate that is to allow our unconscious to do the job, for -- as our behavior shows -- we make unconscious judgments in all cases where we won’t consciously judge, acting out our preferences. “Not to decide is to decide” , as the old saying goes. And the corollary to that is to admit when we have made a wrong decision (are you listening, Mr. President?) and change our perceptions as new facts become available. To live as if everything were equally true is to live as if nothing is true.

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