Monday, February 19, 2018

Stupid statements


Mark Fraser

 There are certain assertions which people often make without realising how dumb it makes them sound. For example:

“Science doesn’t have all the answers.”

Like all such stupid statements, this is true in a trivial sense: of course, science doesn’t have “all the answers”. But neither do theo­logy, philosophy or intuition, which are generally the alternatives people have in mind.

The stupidity here lies in the speaker’s implication there is some other system of knowledge which either has all the answers or which can answer questions science cannot. 

This is not the case because science is by far the best system invented by human beings to acquire knowledge. Theology has never answered any important questions about human existence. Philoso­phical questions, once formulated so they can be answered empirically, become scientific questions. And intuition suffers from the human predilections of bias and self-deception—the very qualities that science, by its approach of hypotheses, experimentation and replication, is designed to combat. 

So yes: science doesn’t have all the answers—it just has more reliable answers than any other system of knowledge.

“You’re never given more than you can handle.” This statement can only make sense as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it were true, in the sense that the statement “a rock is hard” is true, then people would never commit suicide. But the fact that some people do kill themselves proves they were given more than they could handle. 

“Everything happens for a reason.” This statement is usually offered as an expression of comfort to people experiencing distress. It is therefore laudable, but it is not a cliche any intelligent person can offer another intelligent person. 

It is also, when examined closely, a counsel of cruelty.

If, for example, the distressing situation is the death of a child, then the person who says “everything happens for a reason” is telling the bereaved parent their child died for some good purpose. To make such a large claim, that individual should be able to suggest what that purpose might be. Doing so, however, leads only to one conclusion: that the pain and grief the parents and others are feeling are for their own good.

This makes no sense in intellectual, moral or even psychological terms. Deconstructed, the statement asserts the universe or god being invoked is an arbitrary sa­dist.

“Politicians set a bad example for children.” I suspect people who make this claim have amnesia about their childhood. As a child, I never thought meaningfully about any politician—not the prime minister, not a government minister, and certainly not any MP. I remember only one thought from my youth about the president—at that time, Ellis Clarke, which was how his statements on public holidays consisted of nothing but platitudes.

“You can use research to prove anything.” This statement is invariably made by half-educated people, with the uneducated half being science. The reductio ad absurdum proves its dotishness—you cannot use research to prove the sun orbits the Earth, for example.

However, this response is usually made in the context of psychological or socio-political data. Again, however, you cannot “prove anything” by research. That misconception has been created by post-modernist academics (most of them literature professors) who assert all theories are equally valid and scientific theories, statistical data and psychological research are all “narratives”.

In this way, these literary critics could claim to be intellectually on par with Bertrand Russell, Darwin, or Einstein—never mind not one literary theory has ever helped improve the world.

“The voice of the people is the voice of God.” This statement is often made by politicians and political commentators. But, even as a statement about election outcomes, it is invalid. 

This is demonstrated by the implied metaphor of “God” as an all-knowing being. It is true each individual voter wants a particular party to win and, if enough other citizens agree with him, then that party does win. But this does not mean the citizens, as a collective, intended this outcome. That could only be so if each citizen knew how everyone else was voting. 

And, even then, there are still citizens who voted for the losing party, but who this statement logically excludes from “the people”. That is, the statement really means “The voice of the majority of people is the voice of God”. But this is also problematic, since history is replete with example of the majo­rity embodying the worst elements of human nature.

Additionally, it has been demonstrated mathematically that the one-person-one-vote system can, in any competition involving more than two candidates, lead to an outcome not favoured by most voters.

So this statement, like all the others listed here, is stupid on every possible level; and people who don’t want to sound stupid should not make them. If you don’t mind being a fool, however, by all means continue.