Straight Thinking & Free Speech

About the time the second world war was entering its final phase educational psychologist Robert Thouless wrote a valuable and influential book called Straight & Crooked Thinking. He wished to illustrate the many spurious tricks of argument that were deployed to win debates and discussions in politics, or in the public bar. I remember poring over it as a sixth former with intellectual pretensions, and a General Studies and Use of English paper to tackle. I’m not sure what happened to my own copy. I may have given it to my eldest daughter at the start of her own rather glorious A level or university courses. In this totally changed world you can obtain it without charge through the internet:

I don’t wish to recapitulate the author’s work, although if you don’t know Straight & Crooked Thinking the book would be an easy and profitable afternoon’s read. But I did wonder how Thouless’s arguments looked more than 70 years later, and whether he might have found any additional targets for his rather gentle criticism. Words still have factual and emotional meanings as he described; interestingly the author wished to substitute ‘coloured’ for the N-word yet both have passed into unspeakability. Our friends still show ‘wise severity’ while our enemies ‘commit atrocities’. Does ‘a person of deep and sincere faith’ differ from ‘a bigot’ in any way other than the degree of our approval? Politicians still try to portray themselves as occupying the middle-ground and, most of all, good principles can still be supported by bad arguments.

It is a truism to say that we now live in an age of information. The problem is that much of this information is totally without value. You will all, I am sure, have heard a lecture being defined as ‘the means by which information passes from the notes of a lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the brain of either‘. Today the same effect may be attained by re-posting a worthless item, a spurious medical cure perhaps, on some form of social media via the internet. All your friends then receive a striking picture and some partial information, the accuracy of which you have not have even bothered to check assuming you were ever competent to do so. Rational thought is a wonderful tool, too wonderful to be wasted on this type of dross. How can we make our thoughts more healthy and, well, straight?

Reversing the point of view, and assuming that no-one reading this is quite so promiscuous with half-formed opinions, then we still have another problem which I will illustrate with a quotation from Marx, but Groucho rather than Karl: ‘they said Newton was mad, they said Einstein was mad, they said my uncle Louis was mad, of course uncle Louis was mad‘. How might we establish which thoughts are valuable and healthy and which are not, when at first sight they appear so similar? How is a truly original thinker to be distinguished from a glib debater who simply ‘makes it up’?

Naturally I welcome freedom of thought for no human institution is so perfect as to be beyond examination. Most citizens of western democracies would consider it a fundamental human right to make such an examination. This, of course, still leaves us with the difficulty of those institutions which their supporters claim are not human in origin. Necessary progress in many areas of knowledge has been initiated by those unwilling to accept the established orthodoxy of thought. For example Andreas Versalius’s unwillingness to believe that Galen had said the last word on anatomy, or Galileo considering that he knew more about the practical effects of gravity than Aristotle. Both these cases bring us back to non-human institutions since, for reasons I don’t fully understand, what Galen and Aristotle believed had become part of what the medieval church believed. Alternatively, at first it would appear that George Fox and John Bunyan were vilified and imprisoned because they wished to promote Christian belief as they conceived it. But possibly it was the effect of their beliefs on contemporary society that made them appear to be dangerous revolutionary free-thinkers?

Free-thinkers are often unpopular because, for most of us, free-thought involves free-speech. There are many parts of the world where this is still highly unwelcome. The degree to which free-speech is, in fact, truly free has come under critical scrutiny in the last few decades. As an individual I am quite happy to accept restraints upon my freedom on the basis of it not being free-speech to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema. But I also understand that accepting restraints ‘for the greater good of society’ uncovers a number of grey areas. There are political regimes which would oppose criticism of their leaders on exactly this basis. Personally I am happy in my speech to avoid a number of descriptive words when applied to minority groups which those groups find deeply humiliating, nor do I object to restrictions on my freedom to stir up acts of violence. Finally I accept that in speaking there is a requirement to consider the laws of libel and slander; yet as I write a dissatisfied dental patient is being sued for £125,000 for publishing an unfavourable review on a website called Yelp. The dentist involved claims that the review was not factual and to have lost income as a result. There may, possibly, be a case to answer here, but I feel uncomfortable that the threat of expensive litigation might hinder members of the public from issuing honest warnings. I am doubly uncomfortable when bodies devoted to alternative medicine attempt to use litigation when criticised, on accepted scientific grounds, by respected science journalists.

Many interesting areas of knowledge: human psychology, history, medicine, physics, theology and creative literature are actually rather difficult to understand. I think we may congratulate ourselves for even attempting to learn about them. Is it still possible that amateur scholars could make a real contribution to our understanding of these mysteries of life and the universe? Thomas Young who investigated wave interference and the relationship between stress and strain in materials, but who also had a decent crack at interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphics has been described as ‘the last man who knew everything’. It seems improbable that any human being could now rival this reputation, although I suppose that one day a computer might. My point is that it may not be straight thinking for me to publicly express opinions on subjects of which I know very little.

It is probably best if I explain my position by making a number of suggestions. I would submit that the application of straight thought and reason is beneficial to most problems. I have no difficulty with individual acts of faith although I think it is useful for us all to be unambiguous when ideas are credited on this basis. Personally I am very likely to be persuaded by those thinkers whose work contains testable predictions; statements that are completely untestable seem to be of very little value. Most proposals in the fields that interest me, like history or archaeology, have both supportive and contradictory evidence. I would always expect straight thinkers to provide their readers with both. A useful sign of the crooked thinkers are those who provide evidence only to support their views.

An interesting phenomenon is represented by people who the late Patrick Moore once called ‘independent thinkers’. In my view these are generally obsessive amateurs, usually with little or no higher education, who assert that a mainstream area of knowledge has taken a wrong turn, and devote themselves to constructing alternative theories of reality. I sympathise with their insistence that the deepest secrets of the universe ‘ought to be understandable by an ordinary person, who’s willing to do some thinking’ but I don’t share this belief. Fields of knowledge such as physics, mathematics and medicine are now difficult enough to require rather gifted individuals to undertake original work, and even those individuals need years of specialist training. Inevitably the rest of us must take most of their conclusions on trust. You won’t be surprised to learn that I feel rather the same way about archaeology and medicine. If any of you have irrational new ideas about the Bronze Age you are unlikely to do much harm; unorthodox medical theories are usually, at best, cruel deceits against the vulnerable and at worst deadly. Independent thinkers invariably portray themselves as lone heroes contending against academic orthodoxy and privilege. Personally I consider that if anyone wishes to put themselves up as an expert on Chinese culture it is incumbent on them to learn Mandarin first. To insist on this is not to impose an unreasonable restraint on unconventional thinkers from a position of privilege, but to require that an enthusiast takes time to undertake necessary background research.

Essentially then I enjoy using my right of free-speech which allows me to comment on some issues of science, history, culture, science, or religion. But in making statements in these areas I will obey legal restrictions and further ensure that my remarks are considered, measured and temperate. In return I expect that by so-doing I will avoid the three common responses to free-thinking, namely: murder, imprisonment and personal abuse. But I will always try to be reasonably straight.


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