Saturday, March 17, 2007

In Defence of Dissent

I listened to parts of BBC radio 4's Moral Maze (See here) on Wednesday evening.

The debate centered around dissenting from current orthodoxies like climate change, and to some extent multiculturalism, and discussed whether there was a growing intolerance of ideas that do not fit within the new orthodoxy.

I have to say I think there is a great deal of intolerance around, directed at people who hold unfashionable views. The problem is of course, that the current orthodoxy was yesterday's unfashionable view. If we allow debate to get fossilised in this way then we will lose the ability to move ideas forward.

3 comments:

Timothy said...

Dissent is wonderful, yes, but we should not celebrate dissent for its own sake as such. We might not think it is a good idea to criminalise Holocaust-denial, but it is surely wrong to celebrate those who deny the facts.

Similarly, those who continue to "believe" that humans cannot affect the world's climate are not dissenting they are deluded.

I work as a scientist, and I want to defend the fact that sometimes there is sufficient evidence to decisively reject a hypothesis. It isn't "suppressing dissent" to criticise those who support a position* which is not defensible by evidence, reason or logic.

People are entitled to "their own opinion" but, in the cases that it is completely bonkers, I think the rest of us are entitled to be free of their deluded rantings so that we can concentrate on more important, and frankly, interesting, questions where there are not clear cut choices. For example, the climate change debate desperately needs to move on from whether it is happening to what we are going to do about it.

* By "position" I am here referring to those things that affect "society". I wouldn't criticise people for things they did in their own private relations provided no-one was harmed, etc, etc..

Timothy said...

Specifically, your final two sentences I have a problem with:

"The problem is of course, that the current orthodoxy was yesterday's unfashionable view."

However, it is not true that all of today's "unfashionable views" will end up being part of a future orthodoxy. Some of them are unfashionable because they are simply wrong, and will always be wrong.

"If we allow debate to get fossilised in this way then we will lose the ability to move ideas forward."

At the same time, if we endlessly repeat pointless debates that should already have been settled, that is another for of fossilization and genuinely interesting new ideas will get drowned out in the sea of crap old ideas that aren't allowed to die and disappear.

What if scientists were still trying to find evidence of phlogiston? Would that help them move science forward?

Benedict White said...

Timothy, is it worth pointing out that the Heliocentric view of the solar system had been roundly rubbished by Aristotle some 2,000 years before Copernicus and other Catholic astronomers started to take it seriously? (Galileo went wrong by confusing science with religion and claiming that his theory which did not answer all the problems with the heliocentric view, was a truth comparable with things like the virgin birth).

Had the issue not been revisited where would we be know?

It is also true that not all of today's unfashionable views will become future orthodoxy. However if a climate is created that stifles debate we will all be the poorer for it.