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Friday, June 25   2:15 PM

On Honesty in Thought

It's become a habit of mine to judge the sentiment in a book by its supposed "honesty." As you would expect, this is basically a Trojan horse that lets me smuggle my gut feelings about a work into what should be an objective critique, just as some of my God-Squad friends used to criticize the "cinematography" of Pleasantville in order to hide their prudish disgust with its immorality.

But I stand by my measurement. There's a difference between "dishonest" syrupy glurge and "honest" earned sentiment. I don't want to be romanticized into feeling something, I don't want to be swayed by blind pity or purple prose.

If this sounds unobjective — and indeed several Fiction Writing students have been baffled by my "honesty" distinction — well, English as a discipline has very few terms that aren't subjective, nowadays. That's my fall-back argument.

And I treat thoughts in the same way as sentiment. I think that we should all be on guard for the intellectually dishonest — the pundits who slam oversimplified versions of their opponents' views, the regurgitated opinions of the unthinking dittoheads on the Right and the protest lemmings on the Left, anyone who disguises his own prejudices as concern for children or the elderly, and the wide acceptance of unproven, unscientific claims.

I consider my growing interest in skepticism one of the better changes I've undergone in the past year. I'm no longer merely wishy-washy on the issues; I'm informed and wishy-washy.

Which is why I've grown to dislike Michael Moore. I dislike him even more than I dislike crazy Ann Coulter, that shrill blond Republican who defended McCarthy.

After watching my beloved Jon Stewart tiptoe around Moore on yesterday's Daily Show (Moore has reportedly announced that he won't even appear on TV shows where he might face hostile questioning), I'm out for hypocrite blood.

Forget the neocon hacks at Moorewatch. Really I'm just waiting for gems like this one: Hitchens, a liberal columnist whom I have different issues with (though I think it's funny that he takes a swipe at Kissinger in every essay of his I've read), presents a reasoned criticism of Moore and his latest film in his latest Slate essay.

There's nothing more satisfying than seeing an intellectually dishonest profiteer exposed for what he is.

The other issue that a respect for intellectual honesty (via Penn and Teller) has given me a strong view of is passive smoking. Numerous smoking bans and annoying commercials, as well as my own school's campuswide crackdown on smoking, are based on shoddy evidence.

I'm not arguing that smoking itself doesn't promote lung cancer — that connection has been well-documented for almost fifty years — but I'm callous enough to allow my fellow students the right to slowly kill themselves as long as they do no harm to me.

And do they do harm? A recent column in Spiked, a review of John Brignell's The Epidemiologists: Have They Got Scares For You, offers the latest response to the unjustified passive-smoking scare:

A topical example of this is passive smoking, and in particular what Brignell calls 'the greatest scientific fraud ever'. In 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency published a meta-study, bringing together many other studies on passive smoking. Unfortunately, the results were negative. It appeared that passive smoking was not a health risk at all. Mere facts could not be allowed to get in the way of a health scare, so some imagination was applied to the problem. One negative study was removed — but the meta-study still produced no statistically significant result.

[Statistical stuff…]

The increased risk of lung cancer they found — 19 per cent — was frankly too small to have been conceivably detected given the methods they used. There are lots of ways in which inaccuracy could have crept into this final result. For example, is it really possible to merge the results of many different studies, all with different methodologies and subjects, accurately?

So it all comes down to honesty. I think I'm in danger of inflating the term's connotations far beyond its humble common usage, but so be it. It's a good term to grab onto.

I'm just shocked at how widely intellectually dishonest types like Moore and most passive smoking advocates are accepted (with some notable exceptions — Roger Ebert has withdrawn his praise of Bowling for Columbine after being informed of some of the more sloppy errors). Then again, the dishonest sentiment of The Majestic was popular too.

I didn't expect critical thinking to make me an outsider. Thank goodness I have cynicism, to keep my raging ego in check.

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