Freedom of Inquiry

I was reading about Baruch Spinoza, and how in his own time he took issue with the lack of democratic investigation into subjects, instead having to reduce oneself to the consolidated power of some clergy. A.C. Grayling was quoted in his book The History of Philosophy to a greater or lesser extent as saying, “Thank God Spinoza showed up when he did, as he influenced so much of the enlightenment with his commitment to independent thought.” And for a long time I was convinced, because when people got sick, most went to a doctor first, and then a priest.

I was totally wrong.

Recent reports express concern over Anthony Fauci being barred from testifying before Congress. I’m concerned too, and I will be the first to admit that after a long span of getting sucked into the news for far too long, I took it upon myself to stay away for a while. So the only things that I have heard between Fauci and President Donald Trump is that they gave conflicting information during White House Press Briefings, some embarrassingly so for Trump over the past couple of weeks.

But just as equally as I gave myself some disclaimers earlier does not mean I am going to sugar coat this. I am an English teacher, but even I understand the massive importance of the sciences in human history, to such an extent that my focus on reading and writing was to get students to achieve higher levels of scientific literacy. The reason for this is that I understand just what an incredible boon the Enlightenment was for our health and well-being. I would highly urge you to check out Factfulness by Hans Rosling or Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. There are minute cases worth critiquing, but the overall picture is very clear: before we were blind, and now we…have prescriptions.

So it comes as a great shock to hear that a key member of the coronavirus task force is being barred from giving his opinion about…COVID-19…at all. Forget about politics for a second, just consider the implications of an expert being unable to give his expert opinion, and you have the sort of whiplash that American citizens feel over not trusting expert opinion.

I am of course aware that our nation’s history has a very particular and stubborn problem with expert opinion. We are more prone to individualism and skepticism from top to bottom. Teachers in other countries have respect given to them freely. In America, a teacher has to earn it. That difference alone in one institution has similar ripples elsewhere.

This is an eerily similar report to Doctor Li Wenliang only months before, who spoke up about the dangers of coronavirus and was told to back down. Is this really the coupling you want to have: between the United States and China? Most people would say no, that the freedom from thought crime so necessary in our country is constantly under attack in the “People’s Republic.” Unfortunately, when leaders are shoved by harsh circumstances, the truth is far more unnerving.

We are going to have to make a multitude of choices as voters and involved citizens. Through popular sovereignty, are we really content with schools becoming a safety net to thwart child poverty? Are we honestly going to let health companies and telecommunications companies price gouge the citizenry after such a debilitating recession? Do we honestly think that muzzling scientists is the correct response to a medical emergency?

Malcolm Gladwell was on Joe Rogan’s podcast several months ago, going over his new book Talking to Strangers (which I would recommend). They were making fun of Donald Jr. for giving his own interview for his new book Triggered, yet not staying for the “Question and Answer” period.

“Let me just say,” Gladwell, “As an author who does these sorts of things all the time. You have to do the Q & A.”

And that in a nutshell was what Spinoza was advocating for the whole time.

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