The Folly of Wisdom in an Unwise Age

"Twenty years ago credulity was the characteristic trait of the mob, incredulity the distinctive feature of the philosophic; now the case is exactly conversed. The wise are disinclined to disbelief."
— Edgar Allan Poe, “Doings of Gotham”

Those who were up in arms about the White House being occupied by an old white man who said racist things and had corrupt business dealings and touched women in inappropriate ways are content to see the White House occupied by an older white man who has a history of saying racist things and corrupt business dealings and touching women in inappropriate ways. It is not the greatest paradox of these discordant times, but it is emblematic of them. 

Fake news proves to be real, and real news, fake. Months of rioting that result in widespread destruction are portrayed as peaceful, while hours of unarmed Trump supporters streaming aimlessly into the Capitol amount to an insurrection. Coercion is a precondition for freedom and children—and not just children—are being harmed in the name of public health. Those who remain unperturbed by such absurdities appear to have mastered the art of doublethink: the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” It is an aptitude that allows people to navigate these paradoxical times with aplomb, blissfully unattuned to the contradictions that pepper their lives. I doublethink, therefore I am not. 

An underlying paradox of the day, one that might help to explain the aforementioned ones, is that credulity has become a characteristic trait of the educated. Or to frame that inversely, it is the putatively uneducated who incline towards healthy skepticism. Only a credulous mind could take at face value the reports that are being peddled by the media and advanced in the name of science—media that have abused their trust time and time and time again and a science that has been so thoroughly politicized it has largely forfeited any pretense to objectivity. 

The groundwork is not being laid here to promote conspiracy theories. There is a distinction to be made between conspiratorial thinking and critical thinking. Those alarmed by the prevalence of the former should be no less alarmed by the lack of the latter. It is that lack that accounts not only for the swell of conspiratorial thinking but also for that of doublethink. Witness those who loudly lament that democracy is dying eagerly cede their freedoms to an elite that dictates policies in an arbitrary and peremptory manner. Despotism is democracy: a double-thought for today’s double-thinking denizens. 

Trust the Science™

A remedy to such incongruities in the minds of those who embrace them is science, or more to the point, faith in science. “Trust the science” is the mindless mantra of uncritical thinkers. “If science tells me to mask up, shoot up, grow up, then count me in!” It is a posture so shamelessly specious that it is bewildering so many tout it as a mark of pride. 

For one, science may be able to isolate a pathogen and identify its mode of transmission or calculate that the mortality rate for people above the age of x is y per z, but it is hardly in a position to determine what society should do in response to the pathogen and the dangers it poses. Mandating that kids wear masks in schools or workers in businesses with 100 or more employees get vaccinated is a matter of policy, not science. It involves questions of value, which science, by its very nature, is ill-suited to settle. 

Science, for example, makes plain that life begins at conception. What is no less plain is that science has nothing to say about the value of that life. Returning to mandates, one would think that science, particularly among those who deify it, would not be used to legitimate the idiocies of the proposed federal mandate. What happens when a virus so pestilential that it justifies forcing people to get vaccinated against their will enters an office with 99 employees? Does it move on in search of a business with at least 1.01 percent more employees? People avoid something like the plague because the plague was something to be avoided. The idiom hardly would have aged well had the plague been, for the preponderance of people it afflicted, on par with the seasonal flu.

Faith in science is also misplaced given the intrinsic lability of or changes within science. The established verities of one age prove to be untenable fallacies in the next. In the popular mind, Galileo, the hero of science, defied a blinkered and backward Church. Science spurs man along the path of truth, a path that religion obstinately impedes. But science is not some unified field whose discreet branches continually develop in tandem. Oftentimes it is science that impedes the path to knowledge. Consider the two centuries that elapsed between Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microbes and the formulation of the germ theory of putrefaction. It was not the Church that prevented the requisite dots from being connected, but a medical community indisposed to abandon its long-standing convictions. 

Old truths die hard—scientific ones no less than unscientific ones. But die they must. This verity was conveyed by Henri Poincaré, who, reflecting on the fallibility of those who employ the scientific method, observed that “every century makes fun of the preceding one, accusing it of having generalized too quickly and too naïvely. Descartes pitied the Ionians; Descartes in his turn makes us smile; doubtless our sons will laugh at us one day.” But the errors pile up with far greater alacrity than even this suggests, particularly in an age when science presses on at such prodigious speeds. Were it a question of centuries, a degree of faith might be merited. But today, it is a question of years, months, weeks. 

Who can fail to recall the certitudes circulated in the name of science at the start of the pandemic that turned out to be erroneous? Masks were useless, ventilators were vital, the American hospital system would buckle. Some of the more egregious errors, all the more egregious given their disastrous consequences, concerned the forecast rates of infection and death. Perhaps the most infamous of these was Neil Ferguson’s prognostication that over two million Americans would die by October 2020. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, anticipated that 100,000,000 Americans would be infected with COVID by the end of April 2020. When Georgia announced that it planned to start reopening businesses at the end of April 2020, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Georgia Tech predicted that doing so would result in 23,000 deaths within a month. Keeping restrictions in place would reduce that number to 2,000. With callous disregard, Georgia ignored such warnings and began lifting restrictions. The resulting death toll: 896. That such exceedingly inaccurate calculations ever enjoyed any legitimacy is because they were cloaked in the mantle of science.

To be sure, missteps are inevitable, particularly in a time of widespread panic and confusion. But it is not the want of infallibility that disconcerts. What is disconcerting is that so many continue to blindly put their trust in those who delivered such patently false projections. Such miscalculations should not discredit science, but they should engender a healthy skepticism on the part of those who are administered such flagrantly fallacious prophecies. Skepticism of that kind is in short supply, however, particularly among those who really ought to know better: the educated. (The parallels to climate change alarmism are writ so large they need not be drawn here.)        

Heightening the absurdity of this misplaced faith in science is that some of the untruths disseminated were not the result of error but of deceit. It would be one thing if the deceit remained concealed. But the duplicitous have openly professed their duplicities, not in an act of contrition, but in defiance. At the start of the pandemic, Fauci (mis)informed the public that masks were unnecessary. The reason, it turns out, had little to do with their inefficacy and everything to do with their scarcity. Motivated by concerns for those working in healthcare, Fauci downplayed the effectiveness of masks so as to ensure a sufficient supply of them for those who needed them most.

Whether such dissembling is beyond the pale is beside the point. Obviously, exigencies demand sacrifices and anyone who is honest is obliged to grant that during such times honesty need not be the best policy. Edifying falsehoods, salutary myths, and noble lies are not oxymorons. But whatever their merit, noble lies work only insofar as they are held to be truths, not by those who spout them, but by those who imbibe them. Once the ruse is known, the jig is up. It is not just that the objective the lie was intended to achieve is no longer attainable. Admittedly, it may already have been attained. The deeper problem is that a lie, however noble, is a breach of trust all the same. And that breach ought to sow distrust among those who have been lied to and know that they have been lied to. But among the educated, faith in science and its patron saint, Anthony Fauci, remains inviolable.

To trust the science then amounts to this. To put one’s faith in a body of knowledge that is unsettled and subject to periodic regressions and unforeseeable progressions; a body of knowledge that on the whole, largely transcends the comprehension of the public; and whose spokespersons, at least in the context of the present pandemic, have deliberately misled that public. Only in an age as rife with paradoxes as the present could such trust be counted as a mark of wisdom. 

The Religion of the Rubes vs.
the Religion of Ruling Class

It is fashionable, particularly among the educated, to deride the rubes who still, after all these centuries, stubbornly cling to their religion. In an age of scientific wonders, it is a wonder that the inanities that are inherent in the religious perspective—belief in God, in an immaterial and immortal soul, in man’s uniqueness in the great chain of being—still hold so much sway among so many. Such retrograde faiths are facilely explained (away) as opiates that permit the benighted masses who still adhere to them to distort and thereby endure the realities that science reveals. But are not those who accept as gospel the revelations of science the doped-up masses of the secular age?

As Tocqueville noted, every age requires a source of authority. In an aristocratic age, it is the ruling class, the nobility. In a theocratic age, it is the priestly class. The age of democracy is no different, though the source of authority is no longer the few, whoever they may be, but the many. The defining feature of the age of democracy is the democratization or equalization of souls. Those who would scoff at such a notion in view of the gross inequalities that riddle the day might—to glimpse the mindset that was characteristic of an earlier day—contemplate the case of “Mme Duchatelet, who according to Voltaire’s secretary, felt no embarrassment at undressing in front of her servants, not considering it really proven that valets are men.”

Today, the humanity of valets requires no proof. A leveling of souls does not guarantee a leveling of outcomes. But it does help account for the significant numbers of people who have risen from poverty and obscurity to power and fame in the age of democracy; for the absence of any impetus or imperative for the poor to bow before the rich; and for the ability to commiserate with people one never has met who suffer in some corner of the world one never will touch. These fixed features of the democratic age enjoyed no fixed place in the ages that preceded it.

In this age of democratized souls, where each soul has an equivalent value, the traditional sources of authority wither away. If everyone is entitled to be his or her own best judge, it follows that no one is entitled to prescribe beliefs and opinions to others. At heart, democratic man is a Cartesian who calls everything into question and accepts nothing as true without first determining its veracity by the light of his own reason. 

This freedom from all authority would seem to lend itself to an anarchic world where a cacophony of competing views and values perpetually warred against one another. But this could not be further from the truth. The age of democracy is one of mass conformity. How to square this? The answer is that in the age of democracy, the source of authority is the majority itself. This results logically from the equalization of souls. If every individual possesses an intrinsic and equivalent value (an edifying fiction, perhaps?), it follows that wisdom or truth or goodness will be found wherever the largest number of individuals are of one mind. And so, a new authority—the majority—ensures that order will prevail in this new age of ostensibly autonomous beings who answer to no one but themselves. As Tocqueville so marvelously put it, “in centuries of equality . . . faith in common opinion will become a sort of religion whose prophet will be the majority.”

The curious thing about the present is that the source of authority appears to have been cleaved; the majority, fractured. This is not to say that in earlier times, harmony and unanimity were the orders of the day. Factions are endemic to democratic republics, for reasons Madison spelled out in Federalist 10. But though competing interests and values result naturally from “the diversity in the faculties of men,” on matters of fundamental import—the goodness of America, nature of the sexes, role of religion, purpose of education, scope of the state—stable and common ground could be secured. Those times when the majority was divided on matters of consequence so that competing majorities vied for authority and America’s destiny with it, the nation found itself imperiled. One need not liken 2021 to 1861 to contend that America now occupies such perilous times.

In this Manichean moment, a Left that commands the establishment—the media, academia, Big Tech, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, corporate America—collides against a doggedly anti-establishmentarian Right. It would appear the Left enjoys the advantage, insofar as they are much better equipped to control the narrative. But a narrative is effective only to the extent it is accepted. A rejected narrative is like a rejected organ: it does not function as it should. 

The Church could stand at the head of Christendom so long as it was accepted that its apostolic pontiffs served as bridges between God and man. Once that narrative is rejected, it loses its force. To be sure, the narrative sold by the Left is being bought (at a high price) by those on the Left. But to the extent that it is spurned by the Right, it is to limited avail. It would be prudent for those who shape the narrative to reconsider and reframe it, but the progressivist Left, viscerally antipathetic to prudence, only clings more tightly to its claims, with the result of alienating more and more people who, not without reason, can no longer countenance the litany of overwrought claims with which they are bombarded. A non-cisgender boy can cry wolf only so many times before people stop believing zim.  

Warring Factions?

Thus, America is riven between two warring camps, each, for all intents and purposes, constituting a majority. The spirit of compromise, so indispensable to the foundation and perpetuation of the Union, is in distressingly short supply. Part of this has to do with the moral absolutism that permeates the Left, which forgives no transgression (no matter how trifling or dated) and permits no accommodation with the nefarious forces its members perceive to their Right. But part of this has to do with the dearth of common ground that lies between them. In what middle do those who maintain that America is systemically racist and those who think America is worth defending meet? Outside the minds of veritable racists, those positions are utterly irreconcilable.

What is to be done? If you find yourself in the camp that would like to see the union dissolve, in spirit if not in fact—and all those who aver that America is systemically racist find themselves, as a matter of logical necessity, in this camp, for if America is systemically racist today, then presumably it has always been systemically racist and, veritable racists aside, who would deign to defend and preserve such an irremediable system?—the answer is to stay the course. The center cannot hold in a country that has no shared values and visions.

But for those who find themselves in the other camp—those who feel fortunate, even honored, to play a part in the American experiment—it would be befitting to restore education to its true principles and purpose. The success of that experiment presupposes an educated citizenry, just as the communist experiment demands an indoctrinated one. As Jefferson observed, “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” That the American people cannot be trusted with their own government is wonderfully and ironically illustrated in their eagerness to accede to the dictates of elites who cannot be trusted. 

Americans are dreadfully ill-informed on any number of basic facts. Per that Jeffersonian criterion, their ignorance about the workings of their own government is alone enough to justify that they relinquish the reins of power. Just as one would not leave his car in the care of a mechanic who did not know how it operates, so too should one not trust a people with their own government who do not know how it operates. But knowledge of civics aside, Americans are grossly ill-informed about the very matters that sunder the nation. What compounds the danger of this is that whereas they might concede their ignorance about the Bill of Rights or Congress’ enumerated powers, they are certain in their knowledge about the virulence of racist cops and COVID and are willing to sacrifice the rights and liberties of others as well as their own in an effort to combat the one or the other.

To a limited degree, people’s ignorance of these matters can be excused. For it is evident that the people are not simply ill-informed, but that they have been deliberately misinformed. No list of Trump’s achievements in the White House—however long or short one is inclined to make it—would be complete without mention of his unmasking of the media, including, of course, social media. The degree to which Trump deserves credit is open to question; the mendaciousness of those in charge of these outlets and platforms is not. The indefatigability with which the Russian collusion story was hyped and the Hunter Biden story suppressed should suffice to put that charge beyond dispute. 

The Manufacturing of Credulity

But the mendacity of the media does not excuse the credulity of those who reflexively swallow what they are fed. To some degree, in order to be misled, one must permit oneself to be misled, and far too many people are far too permissive on this score. That the control of so much information is concentrated in the hands of so few ought to dismay every citizen. Those untroubled by this arrangement either profit from it or are the dupes of it. Google, to cite the most glaring example, controls more than 90 percent of the search engine market share. Such a monopoly on information conduces more toward despotism than democracy. This would be true even if Google maintained some semblance of neutrality. It is all the more true given how unambiguously that semblance has been shed.   

It is an unthinking mind that does not question what it is told. Regrettably, such are the minds the education system is turning out these days in droves, minds well prepared to know what to think and woefully ill-prepared to know how to think. After four years of railing against the tyranny of an old white septuagenarian, and doing so with impunity (some tyranny!), the products of this educational system acquiescently disclaim their rights—not least those concerning their bodily autonomy—at the behest of an older white septuagenarian who imperiously threatens to punish all those who defy him. The problem is not that such minds are incapable of resolving the paradoxes of the day, but that they are incapable of even perceiving them.

The very people who were inveterately distrustful of a vaccine produced on Trump’s watch permit no room for distrust for a vaccine mandated by the Biden Administration, going so far as to not only impatiently line up to accept the jab, but to cheer the punishment, ostracization, and deaths of those who are reluctant to join them. That is the sort of mindset indicative of fanatical masses, not enlightened ones. That such fanaticism could pass for enlightenment is but another paradox of the day.       

Reflecting on the problem of faction, Madison said there were two ways to remove the cause of faction: destroy the liberty of the people (“liberty is to faction what air is to fire”) or instill in them the same sentiments (in effect, indoctrinate them). Maintaining that the second was as infeasible as the first undesirable, he argued instead that the effects of faction should be controlled by expanding the republic, diversifying interests, and having those interests represented by elected officials. This would allow passions to cool and prevent any one faction from becoming so predominant that it could freely menace the rights and liberties of others. But today’s educated cosmopolites, who increasingly see the world in black and white and insist that other views conform to their narrow vision, appear keen to take the first option; that is, rather than control the effects of faction, they would remove the cause, insouciantly exchanging their sacred liberties—and those of their fellow citizens—for Pyrrhic securities. 

It seems, then, America has reached an inflection point, to use a favored phrase of a disfavored president. Tocqueville, who thought democracy a fait accompli, said it remained to be seen if equality would lead to freedom or servitude. If the path to freedom is recovered, future generations may look back on this moment when the people arrested the advent of despotism and reclaimed the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity that this government was established to secure. If the country proceeds apace along the road to serfdom, this period likely will be portrayed as the time when the people were saved from despotism, from tyrannous demagogues and contumacious mobs. At that point, of course, it will be far too late. Having lost long ago the taste for freedom and the habit of exercising it, the people will rest content in their servitude, steadfast in their belief that freedom is slavery.

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About David A. Eisenberg

David A. Eisenberg is an assistant professor of political science at Eureka College. He received his B.A. from Trinity College in Connecticut and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University. His online writings have appeared at The Fortnightly Review, Front Porch Republic, Merion West, Public Discourse, and Voegelin View.

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