Passing Bull 235– Intolerance


The discussion about George Pell is like that about climate change – and, as it happens, you tend to see the same people on each side.  It is like watching a collision between Collingwood and Carlton supporters – you are either IN or you are OUT.  There is no middle ground.  People crave certainty – that is why they are suckers for simplicity – like the inane edicts of Donald Trump or the superficial nostrums of people like Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.  (The twentieth century versions were much, much, worse.)  Too many people lack what Keats called ‘negative capability’ – they feel threatened if they are left in doubt.  We go to the footy because there we can be irrational – but we are looking for deep trouble if we go the polls with that mind-set.  Talking to such people is like addressing a brick wall.  The insecurity of these people makes them clam up.  The result is both unseemly and unsettling, but this poisoning of our public life just seems to keep getting worse.

Leafing through An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published by David Hume fifty years before white settlement here, I read a word perfect description of this condition.

The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments. To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passion, and suspends their action. They are, therefore, impatient till they escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy: and they think, that they could never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief. But could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state, and when most accurate and cautious in its determinations; such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists. The illiterate may reflect on the disposition of the learned, who, amidst all the advantages of study and reflection, are commonly still diffident in their determinations: and if any of the learned be inclined, from their natural temper, to haughtiness and obstinacy, a small tincture of Pyrrhonism [scepticism] might abate their pride, by showing them, that the few advantages, which they may have attained over their fellows, are but inconsiderable, if compared with the universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature. In general, there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.

The Scottish philosopher compares the reaction of the ‘illerate’ to that of the ‘learned’, and that reaction reminds us of the dour immovability of a spoiled child.  As it happens, a mistrust of experts also infects our public discussion.  We got used to it with climate change and we now have to put up with the same dummy spit on a pandemic.  We might wonder whether anything more than jealousy is in play here – but we are in deep trouble when a general mistrust of expertise – that is, advanced knowledge – may infect decisions of life and death.  If you have to rely on a pilot to bring you down safely during an electrical storm over Hong Kong, you are not inclined to belittle his tally of hours flying.

And for the removal of doubt, this intolerance of doubt is lethal in a professional person like a doctor or lawyer.


Malcolm Turnbull’s term as prime minister ended because his personal convictions were at odds with core Liberal Party values, and it showed.

The Australian, 20 April, 2020, Jennifer Oriel.

Offhand can you imagine bullshit more certifiable than ‘core values’?

4 thoughts on “Passing Bull 235– Intolerance

  1. Sorry Geoff,
    In your introductory comments regarding George Pell, you morphed into another bashing of Trump, Johnson etc.
    And your critique at the end regarding our recently dumped PM, somehow morphed into a criticism of the Australian newspaper.
    For an intelligent, educated person such as yourself, I feel you too easily display your political bias.

    • Please don’t apologise. Trump is the lowest form of life that has ever crawled out from under a rock.
      And that is on a good day. That is not bias . It is reasoned disgust.


  2. That is a good quote especially given that our highest court is being spoken of with contempt by so many for finding that there should have been doubt about the Cardinal‘a guilt. Here’s a more prosaic one from Taleb, suitable perhaps for these Black Swan times:“ When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.” This a perfect Black Swan event.

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Yes – but all the evidence for the accused came from witnesses for the Crown. The Crown case held what is called the defence form the start. Why did it take so long for someone to see it?

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