It’s a fascinating aspect of our world that intelligent people are nonetheless capable of saying very foolish things. One of my literary ambitions is to publish a collection of the inane idiocies uttered by our intellectual luminaries, the working title of which is, “If You’re So Bright, Why Do You Say Such Stupid Things?“
I have an inside track for my collection. I used to work in universities, where there’s no shortage of examples. Admittedly, most professors are, by training and inclination, careful with their language and, for the most part, measure their words carefully. And all of them read books, write scholarly papers, and have advanced degrees.
But a Ph.D. doesn’t inoculate the bearer against the saying of stupid things. I once heard a colleague argue that we should rid our university library of books that advanced “the wrong ideas,” a sociologist claim that Canada had, literally, “no history,” and a pair of cognitive scientists maintain that “we now know exactly how children learn.”
It appears the temptation to say something idiotic is a constant of the human condition and a besetting problem for every age. Referring to one of the learned of his own time, Dr. Samuel Johnson remarked: “It must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, sir, is not in nature.”
If we expand our remit to include stupid things said in the political sphere, we’re immediately met with an embarrassment of riches. This brings us to the idiocy du jour, spoken by no less a personage than the U.S. COVID commissar himself, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
I confess that whenever I hear Fauci’s name, I think of the American poet Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” By the poet’s measure, few are larger or more multitudinous than Tony Fauci. But contradiction should be the prerogative of poets, not physicians, epidemiologists, or men of science.
Fauci’s recent interview on “Face the Nation” was a textbook example of what the Greeks called hubris, that excessive self-regard, righteousness, and over-confidence that brings about nemesis.
It’s a most extraordinary interview. By Fauci’s reckoning, there are no, nor can there be, any legitimate, scientific objections to how he has responded to the COVID crisis: “Anybody who’s looking at this carefully realizes that there’s a distinct anti-science flavor to this.” By “this,” he appears to be referring to some conspiracy that has made him a “scapegoat.” In Fauci’s estimation, his critics are “really criticizing science, because I represent science.”
Fauci has discovered a new epistemological standard, making it easy to adjudicate the contradictory scientific claims of these trying times. Let’s name it the “Tony Test.” It’s the essence of simplicity: If Fauci says so, we’re assured that the claim is true, scientific, and in the public interest. Those who doubt or criticize Fauci, or who think there may be a better way of handling the COVID crisis, or who simply don’t know, are “anti-science,” morally suspect, and wrong.
Taking my cues from Fauci, I’ve discovered a new test for journalism. It works like this. Echoing Fauci, I proclaim, “I represent journalism.” Those who find fault with what I write or take exception to this column or The Epoch Times are “really criticizing journalism because I represent journalism.”
How easy to use a bit of sophistry to inoculate ourselves from inquiry and critique. Fauci has provided an excellent example of a knowledgeable individual saying something very foolish. It’s difficult to conceive of a statement that’s more anti-scientific than the megalomaniacal notion that “I represent science.” Logically speaking, Fauci’s claim is at one with Louis XIV’s infamous pronunciamento, L’etat c’est moi.
Back here on Earth, scientific claims, whether emanating from Fauci or anyone else, need to be tempered with Socratic humility. The Delphic Oracle told Socrates that he was the wisest man in Athens. This baffled Socrates. By his reckoning, he didn’t know very much. But after polling the experts, all of whom made spurious claims to knowledge, Socrates concluded that he was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was aware of his ignorance.
Fauci needs to learn from Socrates. All of us, whatever our station, need to approach our field of expertise with humility, open-mindedness, and respect for those who fail to share our views. Any honest and open inquiry into any matter, scientific or otherwise, demands no less. Fauci knows this. He doubtlessly further understands that scientific claims are, by definition, defeasible, which is to say open to objection and revision.
In future interviews, let’s hope Fauci acknowledges these two mundane truths of intellectual inquiry and refrains from slandering his critics as “anti-science.” He knows better.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.