Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Wisdom of Mike Tyson

I bet Iron Mike has an IQ around 80 and couldn't find Mexico on a map. But as a public figure interviewed about his life for such a long time, he has had ample opportunity to reflect. His Id clearly dominates his Superego, and like Yogi Berra his quotes are sometimes inadvertently deep (he once said "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face"). In the latest Tyson documentary he discusses his life with a touching amount of self-awareness. He realizes he is not very smart, that people can easily take advantage of his impetuosity and poor judgement. More importantly, he knows his vices cause him to hurt himself. That doesn't erase his flaws, but there's something profound about someone keenly aware of their limitations.

Socrates spent a lifetime learning and at the end remarked all he learned was that he was ignorant. Yet it's highly misleading to think that merely proclaiming your ignorance is profound, as clearly Socrates knew a lot of things, and he was aware of that. The wisdom of his statement is that he did not confuse the extent of his vision with the extent of reality; he knew there was a lot more out there.

In contrast, I note many of today's full-time intellectuals, those writing about ideas, have no such humility. They think everything they believe is simply true; there is no legitimate argument against their beliefs, in the way no one can argue for child porn. In a recent Blogging Heads, Michelle Goldberg states flatly that she can't imagine how anyone in good faith can oppose the public option in health care. Highlighting this stance, she noted that while she loves Whole Foods she will now never shop there again (their liberal CEO wrote an opinion piece skeptical of the public option, thus revealing his bad faith). She makes her points with straw man caricatures of her opponents, such as those at tea parties with Confederate Flags, or the idiot who said 'keep government off my Medicare', as if an opinion is defined by its most outrageous advocates.

In Chris Mooney's book The Republican War on Science (discounted to $3.99 at my local Barnes and Noble), the book jacket lists several examples of 'war' on science. Alas, I find myself sympathetic to all the arguments he thinks are self-evidently unscientific, so I guess he's arguing that I need to be re-educated. That is, anthropogenic global warming, evolution, stem cells, environmental regulation, all have some problems that I'm either skeptical about, or think don't matter. For instance, environmental regulation covers a vast set of laws, each with their own costs and benefits. Is it inconceivable there is a principled opposition to some of them? Is it really a huge problem that the US federal government does not fund all stem cell research, given that several states have earmarked hundreds of millions towards these select lines, and several other countries are massively funding this unproven thread?

For a professional pundit to think they write each day on issues as plain as the assertion that the Earth is an oblate spheroid strikes me as deserved punishment in itself. Their daily task seems absurd, but this is merely because they do not understand the issues as well as they think. They could learn something from Iron Mike.


Anonymous said...

Eric, Your best post so far.

fboness said...

"No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy." Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke

Yeah, a punch in the face is contact.

Anonymous said...

Brings to mind Lamaze/ Pregnancy /Birthing classes. A silly waste of time and money -- all the tactics they teach go out the window once the struggle heats up.

Noah Smith said...

Eric, when assessing these seemingly self-assured public intellectuals, you might want to consider the Hegelian dialectical issue. There are a lot of people getting paid to loudly put forth certain viewpoints (e.g. the oil-industry hacks who get paid to deny anthropogenic global warming). When writing about global warming, one must ask oneself the question: "Should I write a nuanced, self-reflective piece, or should I make some attempt to balance out the uni-directional noise of the mercenary opposition?"

Some pundits surely think every word they write is true. But others are simply frightened that being fair will hand the battle to the enemy. Such is the lamentable nature of mass media.

Noah Smith said...

One more comment...

Is it really a huge problem that the US federal government does not fund all stem cell research, given that several states have earmarked hundreds of millions towards these select lines, and several other countries are massively funding this unproven thread?

The actual funding is not the point; it's the precedent. We don't want to become one of those countries where state deference to religion really does stifle science in a big way (currently, all of those are Islamic countries, but not historically). We are not yet close to becoming one of those countries. Good. It's worth fighting to keep us from getting any closer.

Anonymous said...

"The actual funding is not the point; it's the precedent."

The precedent was set many years ago buy the first politician to throw a bone to their supporters. The more fuss the other side can be persuaded to make, the bigger the bone appears to be.

Anonymous said...

The CEO of Whole Foods is a well-known libertarian, not a liberal.