Monday, November 19, 2018

'And Made Himself a Jest to the Bystander'

Global-warming true believers and other enthusiasts of Big Ideas were satisfyingly disposed of more than two centuries ago by William Cowper:

“Discoverers of truth are generally sober, modest, and humble; and if their discoveries are less valued by mankind than they deserve to be, can bear the disappointment with patience and equality of temper. But hasty reasoners and confident asserters are generally wedded to an hypothesis, and transported with joy at their fancied acquisitions, are impatient under contradiction, and grow wild at the thoughts of a refutation.”

Cowper is writing a letter to his friend the Rev. John Newton on this date, Nov. 19, in 1781. His context has nothing to do with politicized science. Rather, it’s a more obscure crackpot theory propounded by Martin Madan (1726-1790) in Thelyphthora, or A Treatise on Female Ruin (1780). In short, though a staunch Methodist, Madan was advocating polygamy. Cowper, his first cousin, published an anonymous refutation, “Anti-Thelyphthora.” In his wonderful 2005 novel about Cowper, The Winner of Sorrow, Bryan Lynch touches on this controversy. Cowper almost pities Madan: “Never was an air-built castle more completely demolished than his is likely to be.”

Once they have fabricated or adopted a hypothesis, people will defend it against logical argument and all contradictory evidence. The truth value of what they believe becomes less important than vilifying dissenters. Dogma must be defended. Cowper writes:

“Surely the poor lunatic who uses his blanket for a robe, and imagines that a few straws stuck whimsically through his hair are a royal diadem, is not more to be pitied, perhaps less, than the profound reasoner who turns over shelves of folios with infinite industry and toil, and at the end of all his labour finds that he has grasped a shadow, and made himself a jest to the bystander.”

1 comment:

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I assume that true believer reference applies to exponents and opponents equally. I share that sentiment wholeheartedly.

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