Consider the following statements:
- Neil Armstrong never landed on the moon but was bouncing around in a TV studio on July 20, 1969, with Walter Cronkite in a nearby booth to report on the alleged event.
- The baby baptized as William Shakespeare on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-on-Avon grew up illiterate and thus never wrote any of the works attributed to him.
- The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were brought down on September 11, 2001, not because two planes, gorged with jet fuel, flew into them but because the federal government had planted explosives in them at strategic locations.
- Jesus Christ never existed.
- The Holocaust never happened.
Strange to relate, each of these sentences has found advocates somewhere in contemporary society. Now of course there are varying degrees of moral turpitude involved in subscribing, however sincerely or disingenuously, to these sentences. Despite that moral variety, however, they all have at least this in common, besides their flagrant falsity: It is impossible to convince those who propound these statements of their falsity, partly (but only partly) because the events being denied lack analogies to the everyday world of predictable events.
These denials, in other words, are not solely due to malevolence, although in many cases ill will must be present in the person who voices such views. My concern here is more with the epistemology (loosely defined) that lurks behind the inability to refute such statements. In other words, I want to ask: Why, besides obvious mendacity, does contrary evidence never count with people who claim they sincerely believe these assertions?
The reason I wish to describe these five sentences (needless to say, I could generate a larger list) as “epistemic pathologies” can best be seen from an incident in the life of Albert Einstein. After the Nazi takeover of the German government in 1933, over two hundred German scientists signed a public letter condemning relativity as “Jewish physics,” which for that reason had no place in the science curriculum of the Third Reich. To which Einstein dryly retorted: If these advocates of “German physics” were right, one signature would have sufficed.
True enough, and brilliantly riposted. But what an ironic comfort his retort must be to contemporary Holocaust-deniers! What does it matter, they will retort in turn, if far more than two hundred historians say the Holocaust happened? One would suffice if it had really happened. So here I stand contra mundum, brave Holocaust-denier that I am, forthrightly facing the world of false consensus! (continue reading)