Anti-intellectualism and questioning of authority

criticalthinking002Hat tip to Bill Elwell.

Anti-intellectualism has long been a strong and deplorable force in American life, but there’s a fine line between anti-intellectualism and questioning authority.

It is not anti-intellectual to refuse to accept someone’s opinion because the person has an advanced degree and speaks in scientific jargon.

I don’t believe credentialed experts who tell me that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is safe, or that the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership will create jobs, or that it’s necessary to drop bombs on people in Middle Eastern countries for their own good.

I question authority, but I accept legitimate authority.  I don’t elevate my personal feelings to equal standing with scientific fact, and I don’t think I can determine everything for myself.  Rather I try to figure out which persons have real knowledge and wisdom, based on their records and on my ability to follow their reasoning.

Darwin’s theory of evolution of evolution is not an article of faith for me in the same way that the Genesis story is an article of faith for a fundamental Christian.

I do not believe in the Genesis story (or stories) as scientific fact.  If you read Genesis with close attention, about the waters under the waters and so on, you see that the writers of Genesis believed the world was flat.  I think there is wisdom to be found in the Bible, but the Bible is not a guide to fact.

I accept Darwin’s theory as a reasonable and evidence-based explanation for the origin of species and descent of humankind, based on an understanding of how natural selection works and a broad understanding of the fossil and DNA evidence.

I do not understand the Big Bang theory as I understand Darwin’s theory, despite reading books by Brian Greene and other popular science writers.  String theory seems outlandish to me, but I don’t have any basis for judging it one way or the other.

I accept that the Big Bang and string theory as representing the best thinking of smart people based on what they know now, but, if the world’s physicists decided overnight to accept a new theory, it wouldn’t bother me.  The truth or falsity of these theories makes no difference to my life.

I accept the conclusions of climate scientists concerning global warming for the same reason that I accept Darwin’s theory.  I broadly understand what greenhouse gasses are, and the correlation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures.  I accept that climate scientists have ruled out alternative explanations of present-day climate change, such as sun spots, perturbations in the Earth’s orbit, El Nino and so on.

What little doubt I had has been erased by the manifest melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps, changes in vegetation and animal migration and the increase in extreme weather events.

I once accepted the conclusions of nuclear scientists that nuclear power is safe.  I’ve changed that opinion because of Chernobyl, Fukushima and the many near-miss incidents.  I’m not totally opposed to nuclear power.  It is possible to do dangerous things safely.  But I do question the complacency about nuclear safety that seems to prevail in the U.S. government and industry.

Similarly my beliefs about fracking, free trade and military intervention have changed based on evidence and experience.

Finally, I do not scorn the American public for being poorly informed.  It is hard to be well-informed, even if you are, like me, an educated person with plenty of free time to look into things.

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