When “I don’t know” is heresy… and when it’s not
Posted by Ron Coleman on July 6, 2008
The brilliant Penn Jillette makes a living from being a skeptic. Skepticism, he reports in the LA Times, isn’t good enough for the “reality based community, however — not on matters central to the canon:
[S]omeone asked us about global warming, or climate change, or however they’re branding it now. Teller and I were both silent on stage for a bit too long, and then I said I didn’t know.
I elaborated on “I don’t know” quite a bit. I said that Al Gore was so annoying (that’s scientifically provable, right?) that I really wanted to doubt anything he was hyping, but I just didn’t know. I also emphasized that really smart friends, who knew a lot more than me, were convinced of global warming. I ended my long-winded rambling (I most often have a silent partner) very clearly with “I don’t know.” I did that because … I don’t know. . . .
The next day, I heard that one of the non-famous, non-groovy, non-scientist speakers had used me as an example of someone who let his emotions make him believe things that are wrong. . . . Later, I was asked about a Newsweek blog she wrote. . . . She ends with: “But here was Penn, a great friend to the skeptic community, basically saying, ‘Don’t bother me with scientific evidence, I’m going to make up my mind about global warming based on my disdain for Al Gore.’ … Which just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.”
Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? . . . You can’t turn on the TV without seeing someone hating ourselves for what we’ve done to the planet and preaching the end of the world. Maybe they’re right, but is there no room for “maybe”? There’s a lot of evidence, but global warming encompasses a lot of complicated points: Is it happening? Did we cause it? Is it bad? Can we fix it? Is government-forced conservation the only way to fix it? . . .
[T]he climate of the whole world is . . . complicated. I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say “I don’t know”?
Skepticism has been turned on its head; doubt becomes a thought crime. What is it called when that happens, exactly? I have always liked this guy.
I can’t give Jillette all the credit in the world for this thinking, however. His skeptical principles of knowing when not to know only go so far. Perhaps it really does matter whose ox is being Gored, because when it comes to other important matters arguably at least as complicated as global warming, Jillette is bold in his ignorance when in, fact, being so makes him feel good.
Writing elsewhere, Penn Jillette the humble skeptic confidently argues that he is “beyond atheism” because “Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. . . . But, this ‘This I Believe’ thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life’s big picture, some rules to live by. So, I’m saying, ‘This I believe: I believe there is no God.'”
Well, that’s actually atheism; you could look it up, Penn. More to the point, however, is the problem that he does not demonstrate with any kind of rigor that he has moved from “not knowing if there is” (and hence not believing merely by skeptical default; this is not principled atheism) to “knowing” (at least he calls it “believing”) there isn’t.
Frankly, based on his comments about global warming — “I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say ‘I don’t know’?” — you would think he had enunciated the manner in which an intellectually honest person publishes an opinion on a topic that, like global warming, “encompasses a lot of complicated points.” Why doesn’t Penn Jillette apply the same level of intellectual rigor, honesty and humility to the mere question of God’s existence?
And why does Penn Jillette tell us, in contrast, that he believes affirmatively that there is no God?
Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.
I told you: I really like Penn Jillette. But this just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.
(Hat tip, still and all, to Anthony Watts.)