I had a friend years ago, a man much wiser than I, which wouldn’t be hard, since I was only a lad, and he gave me a fine piece of advice. He was a world traveller, passing though our little country on his way elsewhere, while my horizons barely stretched as far as our neighbouring island, and he was a man of erudition. He’d been to India. He’d been to Afghanistan. He’d been to China. His beard was plaited and his needs were few. He introduced me to many things, including cookery and classical music — something my parents had abandoned in despair — but he also introduced me to the idea of critical thinking.
Virgil was a scientist, a musician and a free spirit.
I met him as a student when I rented a room in a filthy, suppurating hovel owned by a fine upstanding Catholic landlady who didn’t approve of carry-on or shenanigans. I don’t know what he saw in a stinking, spotty, long-haired rat of a student, but Virgil took the time to debate with me, and I suppose I might have given something back, in my own limited way, since we shared a love of Flann O’Brien and I was able, in those days, to quote full chapters of the man’s work verbatim. I’m not proud of that confession but at least I wasn’t quoting entire Monty Python sketches, complete with accents. Besides, Virgil had acquired a fascination with the land of his ancestors, and in particular, an obsession with the work of Percy French, so we often stayed up singing the Woods of Gortnamona when we grew tired of cosmology.
Those were the days of the Great Dryness, when nobody could afford a drink, and so we sat in the darkness, drinking real tea made with real tea-leaves and talking about real things. We had no sink in our hovel, only a toilet, and that’s why there were two lines of dried tea-leaves caked into the crusty old carpet, one from each chair, as we tossed the dregs of our cups towards an old bucket in the corner.
I liked Virgil very much. He was a good man, and I was very young — more passionate and idealistic than I am now. I cared about things like truth, logic, discovery, curiosity, knowledge, honesty. I wanted to know about art, about science, about the Universe, about what it all means, just as young lads should. It mattered to me much more than drab utilitarian concerns to do with business or even politics. In those days I cared nothing for such matters because I was an idiot, but that’s allowed when you’re only nineteen and still think you can change the world through rock ‘n’ roll.
One night, as we sat in the dark and contemplated the appalling, squalid nature of our lodgings, Virgil offered me a bit of advice.
Bock, he said, you can’t argue with an idiot.
How strange. Until that moment, I had assumed that everyone worked things out, and that when I got into a debate, the other guy had thought his position through in good faith, but apparently not.
Let’s call that Virgil’s First Law.
I didn’t listen to Virgil, because I was still young and naive, nor did I understand that his Law had several sequelae, including Bock’s First Corollary: You can’t argue with a cynic.
It was only in later years I began to realise that while some people are stupid and others are just cynical, some are both cynical and stupid. Damn! I always took people as they came, so who was the real fool?
And then what happened? The internet. A place where every cynical halfwit on the planet has a chance to push their agenda, if they have one, or more likely, simply to spout nonsense. That’s fine: I have no objection to people talking rubbish as long as it does no harm, but every now and then, fools need to be confronted, and I can think of no better example than fake medicine like homeopathy, where gravely ill people are persuaded to seek a cure in tap water when they desperately need the intervention of real professionals.
I hate that, and recently I’ve tried to challenge such quacks, because I’ve lost too many friends to fatal illnesses, and I don’t want to see these frauds fooling people into pursuing fake remedies. This is where we come back to Virgil’s First Law: never argue with idiots, but this is also where we find the real truth. Those behind the scam are not fools. They know perfectly well that they’re selling magic tap-water. However, just as L Ron Hubbard managed to achieve with the Scientology scam, the people making the real money have succeeded in persuading a great phalanx of bogus practitioners that their treatments are effective, even though homeopathic remedies consist of nothing but water.
Now, I wouldn’t mind that either, if they were able to argue facts, but my experience is that these people have no interest whatever in facts. I’ve encountered more personalised attacks talking about dodgy medicine than I ever met anywhere else, and that in itself is very revealing. In our modern world, magic still exists, dressed up in quasi-scientific language. Thus, the homeopathy industry appeals to quantum physics,while at the same time understanding precisely nothing about that science.
People don’t listen. How many times has someone replied “What you’re really saying is ...”?
No. What I’m saying is what I just said. Don’t put words in my mouth.
This goes back to a favourite topic of mine a few years back: critical thinking. Teaching our children in schools to dissect a problem and identify the core issues, instead of turning everything into an emotional attack on the opponent. If we did that, maybe we wouldn’t have such a huge economic problem in this country today. Maybe we’d be more like those capable, logical, efficient Scandinavians, who seem able to run a decent society for their citizens with little or no fuss.
There’s a fallacy in our society, fostered by the touchy-feely industry, that analytical logic is incompatible with emotional intelligence. This lies at the heart of the money-making movement generating so many self-help books and self-help gurus, and it is entirely spurious, since the complete person is one who is entirely in touch with their emotional being and at the same time, entirely in command of their logical faculties.
To conclude: down with Big Pharma and down with Big Magic. We don’t need Gordon Gekko and we don’t need Shamanic Homeopathic frauds telling us how to exist. We don’t need people with no practical experience of anything telling us how to run our lives. We don’t need frauds using fake scientific terminology telling us how to detox. We don’t need the likes of Dr Gillian McKeith, or to give her full medical title, Gillian McKeith, telling us what to eat.
We don’t need any of this fake scientific waffle when we have real science, which is nothing more than clear thinking. We just need to trust our own selves and be as intelligent as we can, within our personal limits.
So what do you think? Should Kevin Costner play me in the movie, or is he a bit old? What should it be called — Dances With Idiots, or Argues With Wolves?