We little naked monkeys are so proud, so hubristic, so confident of our rightness: whether deciding to bake our planet beyond tolerance for life itself, or to make war on our fellow but less well-armed humans, or to power our homes with decaying nuclear material we can’t dispose of, or to build amusements stadia that cannot withstand naturally recurring weather phenomena. Bridges fall down, culverts wear out, roofs collapse. Banks fail. Medicine expires. Sometimes things don’t even work correctly the first time, right out of the box!
And our confidence in our fellow little monkeys’ technical abilities spills over into a worship of expertise in all fields. We’re told something (untrue or not) by an authority figure, someone in a position to know, someone posing as an expert — and we tend to believe it. That dictator was a bad man, this resort won’t ever see a tsunami, that atoll is the perfect place to test our thermonuclear weapons, the other guy’s got weapons of mass destruction, those people are coming for our jobs, the world economy will collapse unless this bill is passed.
Not believing is so horrible, it’s hardly worth considering. If this expert is wrong, mightn’t they ALL be? Better to trust everyone’s confident pronouncements.
Our certainty, our confidence, our rightness, our certitude, our hubris — will be our downfall. We simply don’t want to hear the voices of those who say, “Really, are you sure?” or “What makes you so certain, exactly?” or “Are you sure it isn’t too awfully cold for a launch today?” or “Are you confident you designed this to ensure it really can withstand the kind of snowfalls we sometimes get around these parts?” or “Couldn’t we take another moment to examine your assumptions?”
We especially do not want to hear from the guy who says, “Well, I’ve looked and the weapons just aren’t there.” Or from the guy who says, “Look at all these secrets your governments have been keeping from you!” Don’t read the columnist who claims “This didn’t work in Japan; why would it work here in America!?” We have a cute name for them: Henny Penny, Chicken Little. Unless they really threaten the status quo! Then, we brand them The Most Dangerous Men. We want to be sure; we want not to have doubts. Doubt makes us uncertain.
And uncertainty means we have to think. Better certitude than doubt. My grandfather’s club had a wonderful motto: Often in Error, Never in Doubt.
But you know what? No one really is sure, ever. There are people who are more clever at saying “”We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” They can sound stern and correct and sure of themselves. But their convincing manner doesn’t have anything to do with their understanding of the facts.
They are only more persuasive little monkeys. And we other little monkeys are often all too easily persuaded by them.