On Activist Audiences

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thomas Sowell and John Stossel make kindred points pertaining to the relationship between thought and action.

First, in one of his "Random Thoughts" columns, Sowell discusses the harm caused by influential "know-it-alls", as he calls them. He is really talking about people who are unaware of the vast swaths of their own ignorance:

When I was growing up, an older member of the family used to say, "What you don't know would make a big book." Now that I am an older member of the family, I would say to anyone, "What you don't know would fill more books than the Encyclopedia Britannica." At least half of our society's troubles come from know-it-alls, in a world where nobody knows even 10 percent of all. [bold added, and minor format edits]
Second, Stossel discusses deliberate context-dropping by journalists and "activists" who want attention -- and seek it by leaving out important details which, by requiring thought, would get in the way of stirring up strong emotions:
"It's a great way to get attention," says Bjorn Lomborg, statistician and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, "but it focuses you on the wrong solutions." Instead of doing something that really fights cancer, like quitting smoking, people devote their energy to banning things like GM foods. [bold added, and minor format edits]
No surprise there that considering some alleged datum in isolation could be a costly distraction...

Both authors make excellent points, but I think that each misses part of the problem. I would ask of each, "How do they -- the know-it-alls and the context-droppers -- get away with it?"

Part of the answer is that our government serves in roles well beyond its proper scope of protecting individual rights, interfering in all areas of our life with inappropriate laws. Without being able to influence the political process, such busybodies would harm only themselves and a few suckers here and here.

But that doesn't fully explain the disproportionate influence of such people. After all, our political process is  still somewhat under the control of voters. The answer lies with them, and that part of the answer is epistemological. How many people are in the habit of asking, of some claim or another, "How do you know that?" And how many will rightly dismiss poppycock out of hand when not given an acceptable answer? Just as people are insufficiently suspicious of government "help", so they are of self-proclaimed authorities and scary pronouncements. 

The apparent irony here is that the truly rational man, who is aware that his (actual) knowledge is limited and who insists on connecting new information with what he does know, is less fear-driven than a compatriot who wants effortless answers or other handouts.

Know-it-alls and scare mongers aren't the whole problem or even, really, the biggest part of the problem. A culture in which there is little appreciation for reason is the problem: It enables such hucksters by providing them with a receptive audience.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...


From Thomas Sowell's column;

I thought of a line from the old movie classic "Citizen Kane": "Charlie wasn't cruel. He just did cruel things."

This reminds me of the statement of a friend of one of the royal dukes during the succession roundabout in George IV's Regency for his father George III.

"Bertie's not a bad man. Just don't tell him you've got a tender spot on your foot. He's apt to tread upon it."

This idea that man's character is somehow divorced from his habitual actions is a puzzle to me.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

It think it comes from the common notion (which I believe is rooted in Christianity) that one's intentions are the more relevant gauge of character than one's actions.

Jim May said...

If Gus or anyone can dig up the link to Christianity about intentions, I'd love to know it.

The emphasis on intentions is the escape hatch that all Leftists use to exonerate themselves from responsibility for their end-of-road ("But I didn't mean THIS!") and I'd love to know more about how that idea took root.

It would be another data point towards grasping and clearly delineating the core (and heritage) of ideas common to religious conservatism/Christianity/Catholicism, and the Left.

Gus Van Horn said...


I don't have a source yet (and can't actively look for one for some time), but here's an interesting exercise to try, if you aren't in the habit of listening to sixties/seventies-era rock/pop music: Watch for the many religious allusions. As allegedly secular as the left is, it is interesting that the music is as free with religious allusions as it is.