The integrity of saying ‘I don’t know’ – Kitsap Sun

Posted: April 29, 2020 at 3:45 am


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Kevin Walthall, Columnist Published 11:32 a.m. PT April 26, 2020

Can we trust the media? The World Health Organization? The Centers for Disease Control? Dr. Fauci? Whos fact-checking the fact-checkers? How do we know the earth isn'tflat?

It seems the line between free-thinking and conspiracy theorizing has been blurring. A seemingly healthy distrust of authority has bled over into an unhealthy distrust of authoritative fact, with little room for nuance. The governor and the state legislature, informed by the most qualified medical experts in the nation, have decided on a path that isnt happy, easy or prosperous for anyone. Its bitter medicine we have to take to prevent loss of life. And yet, Im taken aback by the insanity of the quarantine protests, the random individualistic belligerence, and the conspiracy theories Im seeing. How did we get to the point where the average person feels qualified to rebuke and disregard actual experts? And why do average people feel compelled to do so?

In my own lifetime, it seems weve gone from qualifying our opinions with "I'm no expert, but it seems to me like..." to cavalierly dismissing actual experts. The same general sentiments are more irreverent and destructive now that accountability to authoritative truth has been abolished. This hyper-vigilance against institutional bias smells like personal bias -- the desire for control, for answers, and for woke status. Its more comforting to believe seismic forces are under the control of some shadowy cabal than it is to believe the terrifying truth that nobody controls this thing. Conspiracy theories are comforting because they offer the illusion of order where there is none.

Im comforted by some sober truths of human nature: If youve done what it takes to become powerful, you have powerful enemies waiting to protect and publicize any whistleblower with the information to bring you down. Thats a guarantee. And if Bush did 9/11 or Democrats are destroying the economy to make Trump look bad, youd better believe there would be powerful players on the other side of the aisle actively seeking to reveal concrete proof. The fact is, there is none.

The media (which is apparently monolithic) makes its money off scandals. The media outlet that covers up a political or corporate scandal goes bankrupt. You dont have to trust in altruism to trust the media. You can trust self-interest.

When it comes to anecdotes of authorities getting information wrong, our response should be analogous to Russell Wilson throwing an interception -- sure, the person in the spotlight made a mistake, but that doesnt mean someone can come in off the couch and do a better job. The solution to media bias seems to be The media is biased, therefore Im going to believe whatever I want. I think we lose faith in institutions when we expect those institutions to somehow be perfect, but thats unrealistic. Journalism has always been a very human, flawed thing. It historically goes through cycles from muckraking on one end, to borderline propaganda on the other. Its reporting has always referenced an assumed common lexicon of values, but that commonality is disintegrating, and the media is left trying to deliver public health announcements to Babel.

The CDC, WHO and Dr. Fauci represents the worlds most qualified medical expertise -- but if youre willing to second-guess the credentials of the worlds leading experts, youre probably willing to second-guess the people who determine those credentials in the first place. In fact, youre probably willing to second guess everything -- everything except yourself. And thats at the root of the problem. Well go through extremely inconvenient mental gymnastics to arrive at convenient conclusions.

Ive never seen deep-dives into fringe sources result in a more nuanced worldview. Ive never seen a Republican gain respect for a Democrat, or vice-versa through secret revelations for the faithful. Ive never seen a paranoid, distrustful person enter the wormhole of selective fact-finding and emerge with faith in an imperfect system held together by checks and balances. I fear the sum effect of the Information Age has been the ability to find the facts we want to believe. Weve been empowered to launder opinions through a network of shell sources and truths presented with falsified contexts.

To be clear, Im not asking anyone to slide into any one entrenched position, nor am I advocating for total agnosticism. By all means, fact-check and think critically, but embrace some humility before the face of messy reality and absolute -- but often obscured -- truth. Im asking us to address the fact that real life is not a comic book filled with heroes and villains, and if were going to live in real life, were going to live with unresolved tensions. Were going to live with a lack of answers. Were going to live with some frustrations. But hopefully we can all be frustrated and humble together, seeing the human tensions within one another.

The older I get, the more I want to be simple. The word integrity derives from integer, a whole number. This word, often thrown around as a synonym for morality, means a lack of duplicity. It means wholeness and consistency within oneself. I am not a bastion of integrity, but I want to be.

I want to recognize a good idea when I hear it, regardless of who it comes from. I want to be the same person in front of my Bible that I am on social media. I want to be the same person with my daughter that I am with people who annoy me. I want her to master this ethos better than I have.

The Enlightenment places a high value on individualism, the mind, and questioning traditions and institutions. I find it ironic that the Enlightenment is, itself, a tradition institutionalized in our Constitution that often goes unquestioned. While the Enlightenment produced our constitution, it also produced the French Reign of Terror. Many Enlightenment thinkers, James Madison and several notable founding fathers included, were concerned that the American system was too populist an interpretation of these ideals, enabling our basest desires to be preyed upon and politicized in a system that would eventually devolve through sensationalism into mob rule.

As individuals, the Enlightenment creates its own system of honor and shame. How do we prove our intelligence to the world, and thus win honor? I submit that its through expressing opinions. This is where I find the Dunning-Kruger Effect to be fascinating. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people of low ability in a task often overestimate their competency because they dont fully understand what competency looks like. Basically, they dont know what they dont know. Those who have the strongest opinions on a subject often have strong opinions because they dont fully understand the subject - confidence in an opinion is usually a symptom of ignorance.

Believe me, the irony of this coming from an opinion columnist is not lost on me. Wise King Solomon says it better:

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. -Proverbs 18:2

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues. - Proverbs 17:28

Side note: Whatever happened to philosopher-kings?

Theres integrity in the simple words I dont know. Theres integrity in qualifying opinions with based on what Ive learned, this is what I think - but I may be wrong. I have a Bachelors in American History. I know more than the average bear in that department, but if I encounter someone more educated, Im going to listen more than I speak. I might know something they dont. They might be wrong about something. Were all human. But spending several years studying under true experts has taught me that theres a lot I dont know. At this time when knowledge can literally mean life or death, if you are not a qualified medical expert, the time has come to listen to qualified medical experts.

The simple can have honor. It is a moral and honorable thing to exercise self-restraint and humility of thought. It is a moral and honorable thing to examine ones own soul with a scalpel before lazily applying the scalpel to others. It is a moral and honorable thing to topple the tyrant of pride within before assailing tyrants without.

Kevin Walthall is a Bremerton resident and a regular contributor tothe Kitsap Sun. He also writes for the blog Urban Bremerton. Contact him atkswalthall@gmail.com.

Kevin Walthall(Photo: Contributed image)

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The integrity of saying 'I don't know' - Kitsap Sun

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April 29th, 2020 at 3:45 am

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