Asking Questions Doesn’t Make You a Relativist

Hello friends. If you are a regular reader of my blog, I want to thank you. I’m not writing as much lately just because, you know, life and stuff. I’m also working on another project that is taking a lot of my writing time. If you are not a regular reader of my blog, there is a non-zero percent chance that I’m married to you, so I’ll just say that I love you.

Anyway, it’s a snow day today, so instead of doing something productive like grading papers, I decided to jump on the blog real quick to address something that has been nagging at me a little over the last several days.

Recently, I was called a relativist. It was implied that people like me were “the postmodernists your pastor warned you about” on social media. Now, I’ve been called a lot worse on social media, and as a rule, I almost never take disagreements personally. But I’ll admit this charge annoyed me. It didn’t annoy me because being called a postmodernist is some big slander. I don’t believe that it is. Postmodern is a word variously understood, and I know many committed followers of Jesus who would characterize themselves as postmodern to some degree or another.

No, what annoyed me was that I was called a relativist for having the audacity to ask questions of those who have set themselves up as public authorities. We were discussing public health bureaucrats. The implication is that good citizens should not question the dictates of “experts” because they after all know more than we do. Intelligent people who follow the science don’t “conduct their own research.” Instead, they simply believe scientists. I pointed out a problem with this disposition. What do we do when the experts disagree? Which scientists do we listen to, if we are committed to listen to science? Shouldn’t we be curious to know if our expert class is actually telling the whole truth?

I wish that it weren’t so, but the last two years have done significant damage to the credibility of experts especially in public health. We don’t need to catalog everything that led to this loss of credibility. The experts got some things wrong for completely understandable and defensible reasons. Science is always evolving especially when it comes to a new virus. There were other times when the acceptable experts were deliberately working to censor dissenting positions from other experts. Then of course there was the study just released by Johns Hopkins that found the lockdowns were completely unnecessary, ineffective, and destructive. I don’t mind experts getting this wrong at the beginning. I would have preferred that they be honest with us about the lack of scientific justification for such dramatic action. But we were told that even questioning the lockdowns in 2020 was selfish and anti-science. Pardon me for not forgetting. And pardon me for wondering what other certainties we’ve gotten wrong. We were certain, until we weren’t, that cloth masks “work.” We were certain, until we weren’t, that natural immunity wasn’t robust. And don’t you dare ask questions about Joe Rogan’s “horse dewormer.” We were so absolutely certain that the lab leak hypothesis was a conspiracy theory. Please, I’m asking you. Watch this video and tell me that there is no justification for questioning the self-labeled experts.

Can you really blame people for being skeptical? I agree that skepticism has made many people cynical, too cynical and too susceptible to nonsense especially regarding the vaccines. But this in no way means that all skepticism is just cynical relativism. Are you kidding me?

Again, getting things wrong is one thing. Of course we will all get things wrong and change our views accordingly. I’ve changed my mind on many things related to COVID. New information showed that I was wrong about many things. I was wrong to believe that a cotton neck gaiter would protect me from getting sick. I was wrong to believe that getting vaccinated would protect me from infection. I was wrong to believe you couldn’t catch COVID twice. I was wrong to believe we would reach herd immunity sooner rather than maybe not at all. And on and on.

But shouldn’t this fact cause us to ask MORE questions not LESS? This is the point. Curiosity is an intellectual virtue. Asking questions in the pursuit of what is actually true doesn’t make you some postmodernist who has thrown up his hands and given up. It’s actually much the opposite. The truth demands that we don’t just shut up and comply. No, we dare to raise our hands and ask whether or not we are being told the truth. We ask whether or not there are other experts who we also need to listen to. We ask about the credibility of those who are regarded as experts. (It’s good to remember that one of the common manifestations of postmodernity is not free-floating relativism, but actually the execution of control by those with power. Rather than convincing people of the truth, we merely endeavor to control and manipulate often through the use of propaganda.)

I know the rebuttal. Aren’t we turning the questioner into the final arbiter of truth instead of those who are experts in the field? Isn’t this then a definition of relativism? Yes, I agree with this. Constructing our own truth independent of or in the face of verifiable facts is at best subjectivist. At worst, this mindset causes real damage on individuals and groups. This is a huge problem, I agree. This is why we need a revival of intellectual virtues which includes not only curiosity but also humility. Humility is in short supply pretty much everywhere you look. The conspiracy theorist who believes there’s a microchip in the vaccine lacks the humility to listen to reason because he’s “done his own research.” But the CNN anchor to aggressively mocks anyone who dares to disagree with the CDC also lacks the kind of humility that should be much more common in journalists.

We need neither the stifling of debate nor cynicism. What we need is a revival of intellectual virtues especially curiosity and humility. We also probably need to stay away from social media debates of all kinds, Chad says to himself.

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