I’m indebted to the People’s Party candidate in Oshawa, Darryl Mackie, for embodying much of what must be dealt with among anti-vaxxers.
He’s the guy who went into his local Timmies, proudly maskless, and told the internet that refusing vaccination was his “Rosa Parks moment.” He says he’s endured “racist attacks” as a white man and a Christian, and called others to reject “segregation” and “stand for freedom.”
He’s clearly thought about this, which may be the problem. You can hear his pride at having these thoughts and in the “right to his opinions” — much as you hear it in star academics, or columnists. But thinking can be overrated. It’s simply a thing humans do, the way we use language and opposable thumbs.
It doesn’t elevate us, it characterizes us. It’s a species function.
It’s probably done best in a group, as Socrates knew. He was the wisest person in Athens and did all his thinking in discussions with others, which was his famous method. Nor did thinking get him very far. All that he wound up knowing was what he didn’t know, which still made him the wisest guy in town.
I once had great hopes for talk radio. At last, I thought, this will carry us past elite opinions to the wisdom of real people. But you rarely hear dialogues on talk radio — just individuals in their silos belting out their thoughts, like profs without tenure or columnists without columns. It was a missed opportunity.
Something similar has happened to the word “research.” People “do their research,” meaning they google. They don’t engage with others, which is how good research happens or, if they do, it’s among people with similar affinities. So their original impulses get reinforced and improved ideas don’t emerge.
The point about the limits of thinking is crucial. I had a teacher, Hannah Arendt, who tirelessly made the point that our “apparatus” for thinking isn’t very good for knowing. It’s useful for forming opinions and it can keep our lives interesting, but it has little value in establishing what counts as knowledge.
How do we achieve knowledge? In broad terms that’s what science does. Science isn’t about what’s true, except in a trivial way. It’s not opinions. It’s a set of conclusions reached among a community of scientists based on evidence that can be replicated and which seem to work, for the moment. These get continually tested, rejected, replaced or improved. Science doesn’t deal with ideas like justice, freedom or even truth, though scientists themselves can, like everyone.
This kind of skeptical mental activity, unlike individuals thinking up bright ideas, is ill-served by politicians who yammer on about “believing in science.” Science barely believes in itself. It disbelieves or questions its results till a consensus, always tentative, emerges; then it moves on. It’s not a belief thing.
I’ve spent much of my writing life decrying beliefs and ideas promoted in the mainstream media, but their decline in the face of social media is less satisfying than I expected. Why? Well, the fact they often lied doesn’t mean everything they said is a lie. And at least they provided a sense that there can be reliable knowledge as opposed to: any old idea will do because free thought.
This week, for instance, YouTube — which with other big platforms is replacing traditional media — removed anti-vax sites, but that may be ineffective given the internet’s unruly nature. What to do then, if you accept, as I do, that required vaxxing is a matter of life and death.
I realize I’ve said little on this subject that’s practical. I see garbled “thinking” — and the “right to free thought” — as a recalcitrant problem due to its vain, self-flattering qualities. I also believe that as a society we must require vaccination if there’s wide public agreement, and be empathic while doing so. I say this not only regarding Darryl Mackie, who I don’t know, but about people I’ve known and felt close to for years, until this.
The human engagement in having ideas can be intense and seductive. It can also mask riskier impulses. It’s like the recent election. Almost everyone projects what they’d like to see happen, into what they claim is happening.
This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.