This isn’t a space where we normally report on stories like the sudden collapse of the rape case against Dominque Strauss-Kahn. But Bret Stephens’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal struck an unexpected chord, relevant to the issues we do cover here at ENV.
Just after Strauss-Kahn was taken into police custody on charges of sexually assaulting a chambermaid at a luxury Manhattan hotel, our friend Ben Stein, writing on the American Spectator website, raised the possibility that DSK might well ultimately prove to be not guilty of this crime while his accuser would thereby be revealed as a liar. For daring to say this, Stein was harshly abused across the media. Even the Daily Show‘s smug host Jon Stewart took a shot at him. Now Ben Stein looks almost prophetic.
Of course, the implosion of the legal case doesn’t mean the ex-IMF chief is innocent of other offenses or that he acted like a gentleman in this instance either. But in the Journal, Stephens notes how just about everyone in the American media, including himself, jumped to believe the maid’s accusation because it presented an appealing parable. Which just goes to show, concludes Stephens, that these types of pleasing parables and sympathetic stories require a good dose of skepticism. He gives some examples:
In the case of People v. Dominque Strauss-Kahn, each of us — inveterate Francophobes, knee-jerk victimologists and so on — had a reason to idle our brain.
So this is as good an opportunity as any to ask where else we might be committing similar blunders. The climate change obsession, with its Manichean concept of polluting corporations versus noble eco-warriors? The Wall Street obsession, with its belief the boardroom boys were criminally guilty of the financial crisis? The China obsession, with its view that the Middle Kingdom is destined to overtake the U.S. in global economic and political clout? The Israel obsession, with its notion that if only Jewish settlements were removed from the West Bank peace would break out throughout the Middle East?
Those are all good points from Bret Stephens. But do you notice anything missing from the list of topics judged to be worthy of second thoughts? Ben Stein isn’t a prophet, but more than most figures in the media, including in the conservative media, he’s been willing to think independently, sometimes earning harsh ridicule for it. Remember Expelled?
“What on earth has happened to Ben Stein?” exclaimed National Review‘s ever-faithful John Derbyshire back in 2008, in a review of the Darwin-doubting, pro-intelligent design film of which Derbyshire frankly admitted, “No, I haven’t seen the dang thing.” This didn’t stop John from offering the summary judgment: “It’s pretty plain that the thing is creationist porn, propaganda for ignorance and obscurantism. How could a guy like [Ben Stein] do a thing like that?”
Bringing Expelled together with Strauss-Kahn, Forbes blogger E.D. Kain cited Stein’s support of intelligent design as a confirmation that his “shameful” skepticism on Strauss-Kahn was yet another instance of his being a “fool.”
It’s interesting the way an opinion, a way of construing the evidence, can one day be widely judged to be absolutely watertight, so that questioning it renders you shameful, foolish, ignorant and obscurantist — yet the very next day, the case for it blows up and everyone scrambles to explain why they didn’t see this coming from miles off. Go ahead and read Bret Stephens’s fine column. The appeal to fresh thinking and genuine skepticism makes a lot of sense.
His language echoes the plea we have long made, on the case of Scientific Evidence v. Charles Robert Darwin, to those who ought to know better. Writes Mr. Stephens (who will forgive our severe redaction, for argumentative purposes, of his words):
Almost from the beginning, there was something amiss…More than a few people must have pondered the one-word question — really?…Then again, who would have dared ask this in print or on air?…There are, also, the habits of mind that seem to have prevented…journalists…from quickly following the threads of what ought to have been a common-sense suspicion…[T]he media (broadly speaking) has too often been guilty of looking only for the evidence that fits a pre-existing story line…[A]necdotes are not data.
To “journalists” and “media,” add “scientists” and “academics.” One can only wish the appeal will be heard widely, in many quarters and on other topics as well.