Arguing With Idiots

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”
These words, by Mark Twain, reveal a truth we should all consider from time to time. While democracy is a good thing, or at least, the least worse system that we have so far tried out as Churchill said being in a majority is not the same thing as being right or in the right.

One thing you can say for certain when you are on the side of the overwhelming majority – there must be plenty of ignorant idiots agreeing with you for reasons which just don’t follow. On the other hand if you are in a minority, especially in a very small minority, there is a strong possibility that there are no unthinking idiots on your side at all.

Lord Kelvin

People on YouTube, and let’s be fair here I’m mostly talking about men, are far too quick to call people that they disagree with idiots. Just because somebody has reached a different conclusion to you it does not follow that they are an idiot. Everybody is wrong about something and people who speak their mind a lot have more opportunity to be shown to be wrong than those who just go along with popular opinion. I like people who are prepared to say what they believe and stand by it, even if they get proven wrong on a few things later. One of the great opinionated arseholes of the nineteenth century was also one of its greatest scientists, Lord Kelvin. He confidently stated that heavier than air flight was impossible, in the year before the Wright Brothers first took off, and the earth could not possibly be as old as the geologists said it was because it was still warm inside, if the earth was older it would have cooled down to a uniform temperature. He was wrong of course. He was wrong on the idea of heavier than air flight because he lacked the imagination to conceive of lightweight lift-generating wings and efficient lightweight engines and he was wrong about the age of the earth because he didn’t know there was fresh heat being generated within the earth via atomic decay. On the issue of heavier than air flight, he was surely rather more than just a bit wrong. We have got models of heavier than air flight from birds and bats and insects. Surely that would be enough to suggest that ruling it out as completely impossible was a little unreasonable.

He was wrong – there were factors he did not consider, but he was no idiot.

When you disagree with somebody do not automatically assume that is because they are ignorant or stupid. They may know something that you don’t. The Victorian geologists didn’t know about the ultimate source of geothermal heat but they knew that the huge weight of evidence that they had gathered provided a very strong case for an earth that was dozens, hundreds or thousands of millions of years old. Neither the geologists nor William Thompson, who was made a Baron for his work in physics were stupid. They had a disagreement. I doubt that you are as smart as William Thompson and I know I am not. Can we all just try to debate with people without calling them idiots just because they have reached different conclusions? There may be some new evidence which comes in which throws your beliefs onto the scrapheap as surely as the idea that the maximum possible age of the Earth was forty million years. There was nothing wrong with his calculations as far as they went, they just didn’t include a vital factor that he was unaware of, and at the time he was without a doubt one of the best scientists the world had ever known.

Everybody can get it wrong, and people can have disagreements without either party ignoring evidence in a shamefully wilful manner. Many of the geologists listened to Thompson’s lectures and followed his argument but at the end they still had to say “No sir, your theory must be wrong, I can’t explain how it is wrong but my evidence says it must be wrong.”

Can we please show some respect for people who espouse different views, believe in different hypotheses and come to differing conclusions. The fact that you state a different opinion is not proof that you are ignoring my evidence, you may be fully aware of it but also be aware of other evidence which suggests a different conclusion to you.

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