Kingwell: The science of denial

Good commentary on ignorance and denial, the importance of expertise over ignorance, and that free speech should not give license or credibility to “Hate speech, plagiarism, pseudoscience, cynical falsehood, and self-serving nonsense:”

Peter denied his association with Jesus three times before the cock crowed, at least as Luke tells it, but nowadays denials are a lot easier. Just one will do, and you can make it at any time of day on Twitter or Facebook, or some other dependency-creating interface. Deny science, deny experts, deny social and legal norms, and above all deny responsibility for any ethics scandals, cronyism or accusations of bad governance.

Denial does feel life-affirming. It places me against the man, or the mob, or the whoever. But it is also the first of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages for dealing with grief. You have some work to do. Denial ain’t just a river, as Mark Twain probably did not say.

Sure, you can always adopt some Trump-era version of “never apologize, never explain,” and thus secure your membership in the current version of the 19th century know nothing party. Insincere performative apology is another attractive option.

Lots of people know nothing. Some of them know that they know nothing, and make that a guiding principle in life. This is the good kind of ignorance.

The record indicates that Socrates, directed to the Oracle at Delphi, was told that his fate was to be the wisest of Athenians. Since he, a simple soldier and cobbler, knew that he was ignorant, it seemed clear that wisdom might reside in knowing that he knew nothing. Michel de Montaigne struck a medal with the sceptical slogan: Que sais-je?—what do I know?  In philosophy class, we sometimes call this de doctrina ignorantia. We start from a lack of knowledge, but with lots of questions, especially for those who claim to know.

Things get tricky when knowledge becomes increasingly complex, however, demanding individuals who devote their lives to one special subfield in order to advance it. Non-experts in turn resent and fear these individuals, who sometimes tell them what to do or correct their errors. So people refuse to wear masks even months now into a global pandemic; they won’t take a state-sponsored vaccine even when it becomes available, because it may be infected with government software; and they are led by a president who says he “disagrees” with Anthony Fauci, a doctor who actually knows what he’s talking about. Trump disagrees, from his vast knowledge of medicine?

Sure, why not. I disagree when my doctor tells me I should stop smoking cigars and ordering Manhattans, but I also believe he is correct. That’s on me.

Denial is a deeply human act, hardwired into our feeble brains, and actually not a function of ignorance. Fauci was recently chided by one writer for neglecting, as a scientist, the science that illustrates how prevalent denial is in the species. This seems, at the least, extremely unfair. Fauci’s specialty is epidemiology. He’s not a social psychologist. And even if denial is common in us, does that make it okay? Hate is rampant in human affairs, and violence, and torture, and irrational prejudice of all kinds, and host of other behaviours that are “natural” yet abhorrent. We don’t, at least in our better moments, simply give them a free pass.

But the criticism does highlight two salient features of current COVID-dominated political culture. The first is that expertise, always a fragile property, has become suspect. The old saying has it that an expert is a person who has read one book; these days, you don’t even have to do that much work. A few hours on websites and you are surely the smartest person in the roomeven if the room is just your basement office.

The second is that calling people stupid is not the best way to make them act smart. You don’t rehabilitate an addict by calling him or her names. You need structure and therapy and support; also nudges, incentive schemes and social scaffolding. And more information will mostly not help.

Trust in experts has been eroded for good reasons and bad. There good include fake science journals, institutional arrogance and aggressive scientism wielded as moron-bashing ideology (yes, I mean Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and their fellow “Brights”). But reflexive and comprehensive suspicion of elites, East Coast elites, Laurentian elites, or whatever is the going version right now, is just doubling down on dumb. That denial tactic may workit may even get you elected to high officebut it is harmful, immoral, and sells short the stocks on the human-potential market.

In the best case, expertise represents a preponderance of evidence and accumulated scholarship, rather than simply flashing credentials or invoking institutional heft. That’s good scientific method: this is the universal truth, the best explanation so far. Sane people can work with that. But other people will still deny because of confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, fear of cognitive dissonance, the pleasures of solidarity, sheer contrarianism, and maybe a misplaced, harmful belief in “individual freedom” over community safety.

So then what? Well, how about large doses humility, more education and a great deal of open discourse? John Stuart Mill was rightin the marketplace of ideas, good ones can eventually drive out bad, but this is painful, costly and bloody. It’s not me or you or some other person with an M.D. or a Ph.D. who matters, it’s good arguments that should prevail. This is creative destruction. If science teaches us anything, it’s that previous thinking never lasts. Philosopher of science Karl Popper influentially argued that every scientific proposition must be falsifiable—not wrong, rather open to being shown wrong on its own terms. Otherwise it is faith, ideology or madness.

Falsifiability is a baseline standard of all good discourse, yet it’s often misunderstood or distorted by media positioning and political posturing. For example, take note, in this political moment, that determining the meaning of “free speech” has become its own species of luxury good. A lot of hefty, credentialed, big-platform people (most of them experts in nothing except sounding off) are squawking about cancel culture and ideological targeting, not really on principle but because their special privileges feel threatened. But using “freedom of speech” as a conceptual cudgel in your ideological battles against “mobs” is not classical liberal thinking. It’s just a dog whistle in the culture wars. Denial is as denial does.

Hate speech, plagiarism, pseudoscience, cynical falsehood, and self-serving nonsense are not free speech. They are toxins to be eliminated by the clean air and sunshine of reason. At the same time, a lot of what is called censorship these days is actually vigorous disagreement, calling out bulls–t, and speaking truth to power. (We have to leave room for self-serving nonsense, since without it there would be mostly silence.)

There will always be deniers, of anything and everything, just like there are conspiracists, demagogues and witch-hunters in every historical moment. They can’t be eliminated, they can only be made outliers. Maybe at some point, like all responsible people, they will admit that they were wrong. The willingness to acknowledge error is, rather than our top-of-the-food-chain smarts, what makes us homo sapiens.

I might be wrong about that, or dishing up some self-serving nonsense. What do I know? I’m sure lots of smart people will now tell me.

Source: The science of denial

Immigration lawyers report Canadian Muslims being denied entry to U.S.

Of note:

A number of Canadian Muslims have been turned away at the Canada-U.S. border in recent weeks, immigration lawyers say.

Those denied entry include a prominent Guyana-born Toronto imam who serves as a chaplain with the Peel Regional Police and an Iraqi Turkmen community leader who has family members fighting ISIS in the Middle East.

The two men — who were denied entry at different border crossings and were not travelling together — are among at least six Canadian Muslim men who have been denied entry at the U.S. border over the last two weeks.

The men and their families, all of whom are Canadian citizens, were given little in the way of explanation by border officials for the decision to deem them inadmissible.

Neither Guyana nor Iraq are among the seven Muslim-majority countries subject to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order, which essentially blocks refugees and visitors from those countries from entering the U.S.

Both men were told to apply for visas at the U.S. consulate in Toronto before returning to the border to seek entry — an unusual process for people who hold Canadian passports.

The six men are represented by the Toronto-area immigration firm CILF — Caruso Guberman Appleby. Lawyers there say that if they’re seeing this level of activity at their law firm, there may be many other Canadian nationals facing similar problems at the border.

“We’ve seen a lot more in the last few weeks and we don’t know what to attribute it to. We know the climate there in the U.S. has changed, it’s a bit different, but at the same time there are processes and procedures and people should be afforded opportunities to challenge a case,” Daud Ali, a lawyer at CILF, told CBC News.

“But it’s hard to know what you’re going up against when you’re not told why you’re denied entry. The fact that they’re all Muslims, that raises some concerns about whether these people are being targeted or if this is a new form of some sort of ban …”

“Having worked as an immigration lawyer for over 40 years nothing surprises me anymore but, in all my years, I have never seen such a Kafkaesque scenario,” said Joel Guberman, a partner at the firm.

When asked if there has been a new directive in recent weeks with respect to Muslim travellers from Canada, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the agency “has not had any new policy changes.”

While unable to speak to specific cases because of privacy laws, the CBP spokesperson said “applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome all grounds of inadmissibility.”

No Canadian citizen has a “right” to enter the U.S.; entry happens at the sole discretion of the U.S. customs officers on duty — and they have a lot of latitude to ask questions to determine the admissibility of a foreign national.

CBP lists more than 60 grounds for inadmissibility divided into several major categories, including health-related reasons, criminality, security reasons, illegal entry and immigration violations, and documentation requirements.

Two of the six men denied entry have agreed to share their stories with CBC News to warn other Muslim Canadians about the complications that may arise when travelling to the U.S.

Imran Ally, a resident imam at the Toronto and Regional Islamic Congregation (TARIC) mosque for the last 20 years and a chaplain with Peel Regional Police, was travelling with his wife and three children to attend his best friend’s daughter’s wedding in the New York City borough of Queens. He was set to officiate.

Ally and his wheelchair-bound, special-needs son were held at the Peace Bridge crossing near Fort Erie, Ont., for more than five hours. They faced three separate rounds of questioning by plainclothes and uniformed officers. Some of the questions centred on his charitable endeavours related to resettling Syrian refugees.

Ally, a native of the South American nation of Guyana, was questioned about his work as a religious leader, photographed and fingerprinted and ultimately denied entry because he was told his name “matches that of a bad guy.”

He was driven back to the Canadian border by a police cruiser, cancelling his long-planned wedding role.

“I knew going to the U.S. for the first time wouldn’t be a red carpet welcome, I (knew) that I’d probably have to answer questions, I might even have to spend a long time. We were prepared for all of this, but never in my wildest dreams did I think they’d say I’m inadmissible because of my name,” Ally said.

“The way it was done — they really at the end made me feel like I’m a criminal.”

Nejmettin Vali, the vice-president of the Iraqi Turkmen community group in Toronto, was also denied entry at the Windsor-Detroit crossing in early August when he and his family were on vacation celebrating Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest of Islamic holidays.

Vali was travelling to Detroit for some cross-border shopping with his wife and children when he was pulled aside by American officials for a secondary inspection that went on for more than four hours.

Vali said he felt violated by the officers, who seized not only his cellphone but those of his wife and Canadian-born children. While being questioned, Vali said the officers refused to let him fetch food and medicine for his autistic daughter.

“I looked like a terrorist or something,” Vali said. “I have no criminal record, no jail, nothing. I’ve been a Canadian for twenty years and no problem, so I want to figure out what’s going on. I want to fight it — I feel like I have a bad name now because they didn’t let me inside.

“It’s sad. Everybody was just happy to go to the U.S. for, like, two hours for the shopping. That didn’t happen.”

Vali said the border guards didn’t tell him why he was denied entry but he said the officers were concerned about his semi-regular trips to Iraq, the country where he was born.

Vali said he travels to his native land often because he’s been supporting his three grandchildren there since his son — a former Iraqi police offer — was killed by ISIS forces.

Source: Immigration lawyers report Canadian Muslims being denied entry to U.S.