In praise of scepticism


In a light-hearted essay, we take a look at Montaigne, golf-ball crisps and our attitude towards climate change sceptics.

What do I know? Montaigne asked himself, and in answering that question during the course of several volumes of great essays he touched on many subjects. But he never touched on the subject of the golf-ball potato crisp.

As far as I know, this essay I am writing now is the first ever devoted to the subject of Montaigne’s relationship to the golf-ball potato crisp, and my essay starts from my certain knowledge that he never ate one. Or anyway my almost certain knowledge. There’s a difference, which I shall try to bring out.

But more of the golf-ball potato crisp in a moment. Let’s get back to Montaigne and his attitude to knowledge. He was a sceptic. He didn’t want to take things just on trust. As it happened, there were lots of things he did take on trust.

If he liked the sound of an ancient legend, he would refer to it as if it must have been true. He thought astrology had something to it, and his position on the religious quarrels of his own time was that all this Lutheranism could undermine the church and lead to atheism, substance abuse and the contemporary equivalent of reality television.

From our viewpoint, he often doesn’t seem very sceptical at all. But at the time he seemed sceptical enough to excite a whole generation of readers with the idea that some falsehoods might masquerade as facts, and that an enquiring, critical attitude was the one to have.

Shakespeare was only one of his many readers who caught fire at that idea. Shakespeare knew Montaigne’s writings inside out. They helped set the standard for the way our greatest playwright separated what he knew from what he didn’t know. But not even Shakespeare had an opinion about the golf-ball potato crisp, because it had not yet arrived in the world.

Or it had probably not yet arrived in the world. There may well have been, at the time, some form of sliced and roasted potato, specially prepared for the king, that you could have called a crisp.

And there was possibly some primitive form of French golf already in existence, in which a ball of some kind was hit with some kind of stick towards some kind of hole. Peter Alliss, then in his first days as a commentator, might have said something like: “Typically delicate stroke there from the Duke of Guise. Finely judged. Taking full advantage of the new oblong ball, and it does roll much more smoothly than the old square one.”

But the chances against the existence of an actual golf-ball potato crisp were overwhelming, because it needed a particular conjunction of circumstances.

The golf-ball potato crisp had to wait until our own time before it could come into being. What you must have is a golf course, and, nearby to the golf course, a potato field in which potatoes suitable for making crisps are mechanically harvested.

Potato errors?

And part of the mechanism must be an enormous machine that sorts through the plucked-up potatoes and removes any stones or other roughly potato-shaped objects that are not wanted. Apparently this machine, though highly sensitive to the presence of foreign objects, is not yet sensitive enough to detect a golf ball that has flown in from the adjacent golf course and settled among the potatoes.

The mistakenly harvested golf ball goes to the crisp-making factory along with the correctly harvested potatoes and in the factory it encounters another machine which, also unable to tell a potato from a golf ball, slices the golf ball as if it were a potato.

Apparently a golf ball yields precisely 18 slices. All 18 slices of the golf ball, along with the thousands of slices of potato, go into the cooking process and emerge at the other end as something hard to distinguish, visually, from crisps.

Indeed statistics indicate that some people, when they chance across a golf ball crisp in a packet of potato crisps, eat it, thinking, well, that one was a particularly crunchy crisp. Why don’t you try one, darling? They’re the ones with the dimpled edges. Really, really chewy.

I am not certain whether I myself have never done this. Famous in my family for eating anything, I usually think something is alright if I can swallow it. But some people have complained, with the result that the more responsible crisp manufacturers are now faced with the task of further developing the initial potato-sorting machine, the one out in the field, so that it can detect a golf ball.

The machine might need visual sensors, so it can read. If the object bears the brand name Tiger Woods Ultraflite Thunderball Mk 56, plus a short paragraph explaining how it was designed to be simultaneously long off the tee and responsive on the green, the machine will toss it back onto the golf course.

Such a development is not only possible, it is likely, in line with the standard progression by which the unforeseen deleterious effects of technology, once they are detected and protested against, are cured by further technology, just as it was the cleaning up of industry, and not the abandonment of industry, that brought fish back to the Thames.

Terminal trouble

If anyone said the infestation of packets of genuine crisps by golf-ball crisps was unstoppable, I would be sceptical, just as I would have been sceptical about the existence of a golf-ball crisp until I was presented with solid evidence.

Indeed, as I have suggested, I would probably have remained sceptical even after I ate one, thinking it to be the kind I like best, with a bit of tough skin in it for extra texture. But once I heard the facts – from a friend, who has important contacts within the potato crisp industry – I altered my opinion.

What remained constant was my scepticism, which is surely, as a human attitude, more valuable than gullibility. In fact, in everyday life, everyone is sceptical. Even if they believe that the Supreme Being is watching over them personally, they still want to read the fine print before they sign their house away.

In Montaigne’s day you could get into terminal trouble for taking scepticism too far, which is probably one of the reasons why not even he pushed it on the subject of religion.

Since then, a sceptical attitude has been less likely to get you burned at the stake, but it’s notable how the issue of man-made global warming has lately been giving rise to a use of language hard to distinguish from heresy-hunting in the fine old style by which the cost of voicing a doubt was to fry in your own fat.

Whether or not you believe that the earth might have been getting warmer lately, if you are sceptical about whether mankind is the cause of it, the scepticism can be enough to get you called a denialist.

It’s a nasty word to be called, denialist, because it calls up the spectacle of a fanatic denying the Holocaust. In England there are some prominent intellectuals who are quite ready to say that any sceptic about man-made global warming is doing even worse than denying the Holocaust, because this time the whole of the human race stands to be obliterated.

Really they should know better, because the two events are not remotely comparable. The Holocaust actually happened. The destruction of the earth by man-made global warming hasn’t happened yet, and there are plenty of highly qualified scientists ready to say that the whole idea is a case of too many of their colleagues relying on models provided by the same computers that can’t even predict what will happen to the weather next week.

In fact the number of scientists who voice scepticism has lately been increasing. But there were always some, and that’s the only thing I know about the subject. I know next to nothing about climate science. All I know is that many of the commentators in newspapers who are busy predicting catastrophe don’t know much about it either, because they keep saying that the science is settled and it isn’t.

Speaking as one who lives at sea level, I don’t relish the prospect of my future children spending their life on a raft 30 feet above where she now plays in the garden, but I still can’t see that there is a scientific consensus. There are those for, and those against. Either side might well be right, but I think that if you have a division on that scale, you can’t call it a consensus.

Nobody can meaningfully say that “the science is in”, yet this has been said constantly by many commentators in the press until very lately, and now that there are a few fewer saying it there is a tendency, on the part of those who still say it, to raise their voices even higher, and harden their language against any sceptic, as if they were protecting their faith.

Sceptics, say the believers, don’t care about the future of the human race. But being sceptical has always been one of the best ways of caring about the future of the human race. For example, it was from scepticism that modern medicine emerged, questioning the common belief that diseases were caused by magic, or could be cured by it.

A conjecture can be dressed up as a dead certainty with enough rhetoric and protected against dissent with enough threatening language, but finally it has to meet the only test of science, which is that any theory must fit the facts, and the facts can’t be altered to suit the theory.

The golf-ball crisp might look like a crisp, and in a moment of delusion it might taste like a crisp, and you might even swallow the whole thing, rather proud of the strength it took to chew. But if there is a weird aftertaste, it might be time to ask yourself if you have not put too much value on your own opinion. The other way of saying “What do I know?” is “What do I know?” That shade of different meaning wasn’t there in Montaigne’s original language, but it is in ours.

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