Missouri: 0, Toronto 1

We have too much respect for unsubstantiated opinion

This is the last in my Christmas series: 2005: the missing headlies in which the game is that the headline has to be relevant to IT, and both true and demonstrably false.

Think about everything you've read about IT this year and you should be willing to see a large muddled middle and two extremes: stuff written by people whose motto amounts to "Show me the evidence" and stuff written by people whose motto is "Show me the money."

Write something that's consistent with community views and you'll get lots of support regardless of truth or accuracy. Conversely, go against community views -as in, for example, Maureen O'Gara's attempt to lift the veil shrouding the fabulous Ms. Jones- and you'll be roundly condemned as well as locked out of community markets like LinuxWorld.com

Fundamentally what's at issue here is freedom of speech within a community of interest: Missouri is just not that popular among people eager to share common delusions, hence the headlie awarding the win to Toronto - a city that really would be a world financial capital if hypocrisy in the service of money could be bottled and sold.

That this is a general problem was brought home to me by a passage in a book I got for Christmas: Jack McDevitt's Omega. This is space opera at its finest: not terribly serious, but seriously engrossing. Here's the relevant bit:

"I'm talking about the civilization, not merely this particular city." He fell silent for a few moments. Then: "They have more freedom than the Athenians did. More even than We do."

That annoyed Digger. He liked Whit, but he had no patience with crazy academics making charges no one could understand. "How could they have more freedom that we do?" he demanded. "We don't have thought police running around."

"Sure we do." He [Whit] said.

"Whit." Digger raised his eyes to the overhead. "What kind of speech is prohibited? other than yelling fire in a crowded place?"

"Almost everything" Whit said.

Digger was baffled. "Whit, that's crazy. When's the last time anyone was jailed for speaking out on something?"

"You don't get jailed. But you have to be careful nonetheless not to offend people. We're programmed, all of us, to take offence. Who can go in front of a mixed audience and say what he truly believes without concern that he will offend someone's heritage, someone's religion, someone's politics? We are always on guard.

"Well," said Digger, "that's different."

"No it isn't," said Whit. "it's different only in degree. At my prep school, it was drilled into us that good manners required that we avoid talking politics or religion. Since almost everything in the domain of human behaviour falls into one or the other of those two categories, we would seem to be left with the weather." He looked momentarily bleak. "We have too much respect for unsubstantiated opinion. We enshrine it, we tiptoe cautiously around it, and we avoid challenging it. To our shame." "

McDevitt's novel, by the way, isn't remotely a polemic and I have no idea how heavily the author is invested in this character's opinion - but it's a line that resonates: "We have too much respect for unsubstantiated opinion." oh yeah.

Unsubstantiated opinion is the biggest drag there is - on the economy, on democracy, on our personal lives. Look at history and you'll see that the periods in which it dominates are periods of stagnation, intellectual regression, and social repression.

Right now it may seem to be winning again, but it isn't: political correctness to the contrary, progress continues: Unix is winning the OS wars, democracy is winning the political wars, science and engineering are winning the intellectual wars -the real score is closer to Missouri 1: Toronto 0.

Unfortunately this is a battle that never ends; so, please, when you think about the things you'll do differently in 2006, consider responding more strongly, more publically, and more often to the arrant nonsense you see in the press. It doesn't matter what it is - from creationism to Windows apologia, don't put up with it: check the facts, then hop on the nearest soapbox and weigh in loudly, repeatedly, and in public.

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