If a chemist doing an experiment depended on such thought processes as a nation uses in selecting its rulers, he would blow up his laboratory
– Robert H Thouless (psychologist)
Following Trump, Thouless would probably agree that a nation can be blown up also by using such thought processes.
Mixing belief, opinion and truth, as is suggested by the above wise quote, is not a new phenomenon. These three faculties form the tripod upon which our critical thinking is based and it need not be a rickety tripod providing we are aware of its shortcomings. Back in the old days, the Ancient Egyptians had a good debate going. The question was whether the sun they saw in the sky each day was the same sun or was it a different one?
The known facts were not in dispute; the sun rose in the east each day and it was weak at the start then, as the day progressed, it became stronger until, as time wore on, it weakened and finally disappeared into the west sinking down either into the Great Sea or beyond it. Some gave as their opinion that this mirrored the whole life cycle of humans and argued that, even if the sun did not die from old age at the end of the day, then its fire was surely extinguished as it entered the ocean. Others thought that the day of the sun was merely that; it started a bit drowsy, got going, and then tired as night came on. It was then picked up by a four-horse chariot as it went down behind the sea, had a good night's rest and came afresh the next day for its work. And, although its path changed slightly each day, if you took it over the course of a year, it repeated its path. It was, clearly, the same sun.
By the time of the Ancient Greeks, there was no doubt it was the same sun; the
Sun. The Greeks even considered the world as a globe; they observed the Sun and the Moon as globular and that was good circumstantial evidence, but they also noted that the Moon did not quite show the same face to Earth. It slightly wobbled and the features at its edges changed but it still remained a disc in the sky; good evidence that it was globular – so, why not Earth? There was also the evidence of ships at sea. When they approached the horizon, they did not dwindle to a dot but the hull disappeared before the superstructure; again, consistent with a globular Earth. Since the times of the Ancient Greeks, all educated people have known the Earth was globular although, technically, that fact was only proven conclusively in the last century when satellites orbited.
Yet, there still is a Flat Earth Society. Whether these people are in it for a kind of joke or whether they are slightly unbalanced, on the whole it is a harmless idea if anything believed in against the overwhelming evidence can be so considered.
A belief can be defined as a principle considered as true despite their being no sound evidence that it is; an opinion is a judgement which is possibly true based on likely but inconclusive evidence; and a fact is something that can be proven to be true beyond all doubt.
The problem begins when some people consider that their beliefs are true despite little or no evidence and that they have an inside edge on reality that others lack being either too simple or too misled to conceive anything differently. Fine as far as that goes, but these people also tend to consider that the righteous knowledge they alone possess is being supressed by some mystical 'they' for 'their' own real but unstated benefit.
A slight digression; religious beliefs are a little different. Although the religious would consider their code of ethics a 'belief', all religions advocate behaving well and doing good to others as principles defining conduct. Since there is evidence to support that so doing does create a better and more stable (and thus happier) society, by the definitions given above, religious beliefs regarding conduct can be regarded more as religious opinions if not downright facts. Belief in other concerns of religion, such as life after death, the existence of a heaven, the existence of God, are other matters and probably, given the above definitions, come under the heading of 'opinions'.
Linked with all of this is an all too human propensity to hate. Hatred has a place (depending on how you define the word) in society. We hate crime, we hate intolerance, we hate pop music. All understandable; but we also seem to have a need to hate other humans; not in the particular, but in the mass – Jews, people of colour, communists, gypsies, the English! Sometimes, ominously, we blame these groups for the problems and shortcomings we perceive in our lives and in our society.
All dictators or would-be dictators have made use of this, consciously or unconsciously. We have recently witnessed Donald Trump in America use the same techniques; he stirred his supporters against an ill-defined entity called the 'Swamp' which existed, apparently, in Washington. Hitler, at least, was more specific, he aroused his following against the 'Jews'. Both the Swamp and the Jews it was suggested were responsible for a great deal of wrongs suffered by the supporters of both Trump and Hitler, and both these two individuals were considered by many to be going to sort out the evils they had identified.
Beliefs on their own can thus be very dangerous when acted upon. The belief in the Pizzagate Conspiracy led to two bombings in America and a shooting incident. The belief espoused by Trump that global warming was a Chinese 'hoax' led to cutbacks in environmental protection laws and lost years in tackling the climate crisis – years that may yet prove critical.
And, recently, we have had demonstrations in Edinburgh to the effect that, somehow or other, there is a conspiracy concerning COVID-19. What the demonstrators were advocating is difficult to understand as there appears to be many varying reasons for their presence. 'Saving Scotland' was their slogan and saving from what or from whom was unclear. They stated, without facts, that the lockdown procedures were causing more harm than the virus; they were saying 'no' to mandatory mask wearing and mandatory vaccination; and they suggested that the true evidence of the effects of the virus was being buried by 'Big Pharma' and compliant politicians. They linked all this to what they saw as civil liberties and human rights.
Sir Piers Corbyn, their unofficial leader, has compared the lockdown programme, along with the vaccination programme and the restrictions on our freedoms that they necessarily impose (necessary or there would be far more deaths), to the death camps of the Nazis.
All this does not need refuting; it simply throws a sad light on the mentality of those involved and, possibly, the low opinion they subconsciously have of themselves; seeing themselves as victims of secret and worldwide conspiracies. Fortunately, at the moment, this movement is not significant in the broader scheme of society – but then, neither was QAnon at the start.
The lesson is worth repeating; we must always be sure of facts and separate them from beliefs and opinions. That is actually what Thouless taught.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow