Saturday, January 7, 2017

Follow Up to "Intellect and Politics"

I have made the point before, most fully in "Intellect and Politics", but it is one that is worth repeating, as I hear it restated so often in so many different ways. Most recently, on IMDB I saw a variation in a dispute about why so many successful cartoonists were atheists. One response struck me in particular. Here are the relevant parts:
-Reaching the highest level in your craft (getting a show on a national TV network means that you're at the top) means that you're very talented and intelligent. Those people tend to not be that religious.
-Artsy people in general tend to not be very religious and lean towards liberalism.
-Religious people start with a fixed idea in their head and look for convenient arguments to justify it. To be a satirist you need to be open minded and not see one set of ideas as sacred.
Since it is IMDB, I am not sure it was worth crafting a thorough response, but I can't help myself. I responded as follows:
You show a very contemporary bias. Until fairly recently educated people tended to be more religious. I think a more true statement would be "educated people tend to follow whatever beliefs are current in educated circles". German professors in the late 19th century tend toward authoritarianism, in the early 19th century much less so. neither says one or the other is more correct, just that you tend to follow those beliefs other educated people hold In short, educated people follow the pack just like the less educated.

In addition, satirists are not inherently atheist or even given to lack of belief. In times when skepticism is the popular belief they tend to be (say today, or the age of reason), when it is not, satirists often make fun of those lacking belief. Again, it is a fallacy to assume atheism is inherently more amenable to parody. The USSR was officially atheist, yet not known for either free thinkers or satirists.

It is akin to the sometimes heard argument "educated people are liberal" or "creative people are liberal" offered as evidence for the superiority of liberal views. It may be true today, but in other eras and places educated people were often quite conservative, even reactionary. And creators have been all over the place. Dostoyevsky went from 19th century liberal (think Jeffersonain type, not modern liberal) to royalist, but produced his best known works while holding the most traditional beliefs. Knut Hamsun also comes to mind, or Jack London.

In short, it is a mistake to assume a given belief is conducive to a certain practice, or a sign of intelligence, just from contemporary patterns.
I could probably leave it at that, and simply end the post, but as that would go against my compulsion to be as verbose as possible, let's take one more moment, to look at this argument in its most general terms, and recognize the most important piece of what I wrote above.

The main point, at least as far as I am concerned, is made in the very first paragraph, and it can be used to dismiss not just the arguments that intelligent people are liberal, or atheist, but almost any argument that involves proving some particular viewpoint is superior by the number of "educated" or "intelligent" or "creative" people hold that view. The fact is, educated people, intelligent people, and creative people, like their mundane counterparts, are herd animals, and tend to hold the views of those they consider peers. Thus, when academia is liberal, they are liberal, when royalist, they are royalist, and so on. Yes, there are those who buck the trend, but, for the most part, intelligence, creativity and all the rest is no cure to conformity. In general, whatever idea is held to be true by the majority of those around them will also be held by artists, or the educated, or whatever group you selected.

And thus, not to put too fine a point upon it, polling a given group is no way to establish truth, no matter how erudite or educated they may be. Recall all those funny beliefs held by educated men in the past? Well, they were not true, were they? Yet they were the consensus of the educated and intelligent. So why should today be any different? Ideas are proven true by evidence and testing that evidence, not by consensus. (Cf "Inquisition to Galileo - 97% of Scientists Support Geocentric Theory of the Universe", "A Bit of Support from Skeptics", "My Irritation with Supposed Skeptics", "Dismissive Skeptics", "To Be Fair") And thus, even if 100% of educated men agree something is true, it can still be wrong. Polls are not a substitute for proof.

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