Saturday, December 20, 2014


In his review of a documentary about famed physicist Stephen Hawking, film critic Stanley Kauffmann addressed the ever-expanding distance between the knowledge of laymen like himself and people like Hawking: "Bernard Shaw says somewhere that there is a law of the conservation of credulity. At one time, people believed that a million angels could dance on the head of a pin. We scoff at them, yet we believe that the Sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. Most of us have as much reason of our own to believe one proposition as the other: We take the word of experts."(1)

Here is what Shaw said:

"I have pointed out on a former occasion that there is just as much evidence for a law of the Conservation of Credulity as of the Conservation of Energy.  When we refuse to believe in the miracles of religion for no better reason fundamentally than that we are no longer in the humor for them we refill our minds with the miracles of science, most of which the authors of the Bible would have refused to believe.  The humans who have lost their simple childish faith in a flat earth and in Joshua's feat of stopping the sun until he had finished his battle with the Amalekites, find no difficulty in swallowing an expanding boomerang universe."(2)

The intellect of Stephen Hawking is dauntingly bigger than the average person's, but I think that Kauffmann was being coy. He was perfectly capable of understanding the fact of the distance from the Earth to the Sun from an explanation of how hundreds of years of observation allowed us to measure the distance. If the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was able to look down a well and extrapolate from the reflection in the water a remarkably exact measure of the circumference of the earth, then certainly Eratosthenes's method can be repeated and his findings confirmed. The same certainly cannot be said of belief in divine beings and miraculous events.(3)

But Kauffmann's point brings up a much broader issue. To what extent should we take the word of experts, and to what extent is this a kind of cop out? In another article from The New Republic, art critic Jed Perl wrote:

"I don't know enough. When a discussion about classical music demands even a rudimentary understanding of music theory, I am lost. And I lack the skills necessary to follow even a moderately demanding newspaper or magazine account of developments in science . . . I wish this were otherwise. I doubt there is much I can do about it. But there is one thing that consoles me. I know there are people who know about these things - who can speak about classical music in technical terms who can make judgements about the latest developments in microbiology or astrophysics . . . And I do not need to understand exactly what they are saying or thinking to know that it matters."

Perl goes on to criticize the current condition of the media, which seems to cater and contribute to the general shallowness of contemporary culture. "When did people become so unwilling to get in a little over their heads?" he asks. And he concludes that "It is always good to be reminded that I don't know enough." But isn't it also frustrating and disappointing? 

It was said of Leonardo da Vinci that he came closer than any other human being to knowing almost everything that his age had to know. Obviously, to Leonardo da Vinci, knowing everything - or as much as it was possible to know in the 16th century - was paramount. In 2014, such comprehensive knowledge is no longer within reach for a single human being. Our greatest polyglots can only glimpse the totality of the knowledge of our age. And yet this should neither trouble nor surprise us. There are people who are experts in their various fields whom we can consult when there is something we need to know about physics or music or mathematics or history. But, unlike religious mystics or mullahs or bishops, we don't have to simply take our experts' word for it. 

What Bernard Shaw said was placed comfortably into the mouth of a fictional character. Ordinary people can't be expected to understand the most complex theories of advanced physics, but they can understand it, if they wished, by educating themselves. It is quite true that "we take the word of experts" when it comes to knowledge as refined as Hawking's, but the fact that the "experts" became so knowledgeable from years of concentrated study in their fields demonstrates to us laymen that such knowledge as they possess is quantifiable and attainable. People wanting answers to the Big Questions never get the answers they wanted from science because it either simply can't answer them or wasn't designed to do so. Many people, though not nearly the majority that one might expect, now reject such religious notions as angels, without necessarily rejecting notions of the divine. But we no longer have to take the word of experts. If the distance from earth to the sun is 93 million miles (which really isn't very far), all one has to do to verify it is read about how people - not all of them astronomers (4) - arrived at that figure.

(1) "State of Mind," The New Republic, 28 September 1992.
(2) George Bernard Shaw, "The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles: A Vision of Judgment."
(3) Eratosthenes was also said to have measured the distance of the earth to the sun.

(4) In 1769, while in Tahiti, Captain James Cook saw the planet Venus cross the face of the sun through a telescope (see photo).

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