Helen Thomas, Christopher Hitchens, and being wrong

By Felix Salmon
June 7, 2010
forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it's still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one's opinions. I find that sad.

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The forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions. I find that sad.

Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in the subsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.

But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling: I’d much rather live in a world where people should be able to change their minds and should be allowed to be wrong on occasion. For surely we are all wrong, much more often than we like to think.

A couple of years ago, Tyler Cowen, in conversation with Wil Wilkinson, said something quite profound:

Take whatever your political beliefs happen to be. Obviously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that something like 60-40, whereas in reality most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of probability that it is correct. Or if you ask people what is the chance this view of yours is wrong, very few people are willing to assign it any number at all. Or if you ask people who believe in God or are atheists, what’s the chance you’re wrong – I’ve asked atheists what’s the chance you’re wrong and they’ll say something like a trillion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest arguments for atheism are correct, your estimate that atheism is in fact the correct point of view shouldn’t be that high, maybe you know 90-10 or 95 to 5, at most.

My view at at the time was that this was not only true, but was much more true of men than of women, and that women, being more rational and more sensible than men, tend to be less sure of their own opinions.

This morning, I had an interesting conversation with Christopher Hitchens, who’s in town plugging his memoir. He professed to be a man of few beliefs, political or otherwise: “my only commitment is to a group of skeptics who are not sure of anything,” he said. But when I asked him what he wasn’t sure about, he started talking about galaxy formation, of all things. He said that “my greatest delight is being proved right in my own lifetime”, and said that he couldn’t think of the last time that he was wrong about anything. In other words, he’s highly skeptical of others, but utterly incapable of interrogating his own opinions with the same kind of approach.

Hitchens, in other words, would make an atrociously bad trader. He has the cocky-and-arrogant bit down, to be sure — in order to beat the market you have to think that you’re smarter than the market. But you also have to be incredibly insecure, willing to change your mind and your opinions very quickly.

At the beginning of the conversation, Hitchens expressed a certain amount of intellectual pleasure in noting that the statement “Christopher Hitchens is dead” is false now, but will be true in the future. But that’s trivial. When it comes to the opinions he expresses in his columns and books, he’s much less willing to admit that any of them are anything but certainly and timelessly true.

I try hard to believe the opposite: that many if not most of my opinions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most interesting and useful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkinson noted to Cowen, an easy intellectual stance to hold: he calls it “a weird violation of the actual computational constraints of the human mind”.

But I think it’s undoubtedly worth working on, and, as I say, I think it’s one which is more common in women than in men. And I think it’s a serious weakness of Hitchens’ that he places so much importance on his being right.


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Well said. If more writers/bloggers/pundits adopted this approach we’d have a solution to global warming due to a strong decrease in the production of hot air.

Then again, what you describe as “insecure” and self-critical thinking takes some form of pratice and some theoretical background knowledge. I’m guessing most people are simply not willing to bear the costs of second-guessing one’s thoughts. (It is hard for me to believe that Hitchensian people actually DO think they are right most of the time while everyone else isn’t.)

For all those who are willing to bear the costs of second-guessing, I can only recommend the writings of Socrates, Karl Popper, or Nassim Taleb as a theoretical foundation.

Posted by ru_nijmegen | Report as abusive

Is there empirical evidence that women hold their opinions less strongly than men?

Posted by absinthe | Report as abusive

“My view at at the time was that this was not only true, but was much more true of men than of women, and that women, being more rational and more sensible than men, tend to be less sure of their own opinions.”

Correlation does not imply causation. Women are, on average, just as rational and sensible as men. Socialization is what causes women to hem and haw in public and act like they are less sure of their own opinions; please do not frame that learned behavior as some sort of inborn trait that women possess.

Posted by quivo | Report as abusive

The day may come when somebody somewhere manages to have a serious conversation with Christopher Hitchens when he’s sober. But I doubt it.

As for Helen Thomas – well, PC retractions be damned, at least the old dame went out on a high note. Bless her heart and spirit. The oil slick she’s leaving behind her is not of her making.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Doesn’t seem fair to needle Hitchens, one of the most pompous creatures on this planet, about the possibility of being wrong. But funny nonetheless. Well done.

Posted by clawback | Report as abusive

I don’t think it adds much utility for most people to be indecisive about their political opinions or religious vies. Much of the value of holding these beliefs is not generally to inform some Bayesian decision process, but rather as ex post justification for actions and events to serve other purposes such as strengthening social bonds with others who hold similar beliefs.

In terms of societal benefit, it is valuable to have a diversity of opinions. It would seem that you’d be more likely to get this if you have several distinct groups that hold their own internally consistent sets of beliefs quite strongly, with some chance of switching between groups, rather than one group with a bunch of wishy-washy centrists.

Posted by angna | Report as abusive

Or, to paraphrase Isaac Bashevis Singer: most of us are doing pretty well to be right half the time, and to be 70% right is something really special. What, then, are we to say to claims of 100% right? And yet that seems to be the standard in public debate.

BTW, the Sunday NYT had one of those mini-interviews of Hitchens by Deborah Solomon that ran along lines similar to yours.

And quivo: I don’t know that I agree with it, but Felix’s statement about women was merely an observation, with no cause identified. It is you who has assumed the conclusion by asserting without evidence that socialization is the cause.

Posted by Greycap | Report as abusive

Your more general point makes sense, but I can hardly see its relevance to what she said. The point isn’t that Thomas was wrong on a “hot button issue.” What she said was essentially more extreme than anything I’ve ever heard from Khaled Mashal. She really *did* say the equivalent of “blacks should go back to Africa.” That’s not just wrong, it’s so offensive that you can’t just apologize for it and move on.

Posted by HoustonEuler | Report as abusive

Is there no statement of opinion that, even if retracted, you’d consider so abhorrent that the person deserves deep and ongoing public ostracism? How about ‘gays caused Katrina’? ‘American blacks should all go back to Africa’? ‘Women who are raped all deserved it.’ If no, well, ok… but I think you’d be in the extreme minority. If yes, then your point is really about the substance of Thomas’ particular statement and how bad it was. So perhaps that’s the discussion we should have, instead of comparisons to mistakes in finance blogging.

Posted by MickWeinstein | Report as abusive

Thought-provoking post. The fascinating thing about this subject is how inconsistent (dare I say capricious?) we as a culture are in applying the “unacceptable to be wrong” standard.

Consider, for instance, the case of the Iraq war. There were many media figures — including otherwise consistently progressive ones — who in the runup to the invasion were vocally supportive of it, only to find later that the reasons they had given for their support were simply factually untrue: there were no WMDs, there was no connection to al Qaeda, etc. etc. etc.

(Josh Marshall and Matt Yglesias would be two examples from the blogosphere, though to their credit they both readily admit today to have been wrong back then: example.)

That’s a pretty big thing to get wrong. And yet it’s not like anyone is running them out of town on a rail. They didn’t even have to go through a period of atonement in the wilderness. I’m sitting here scratching my head trying to think of any commentator whose career suffered in any way from having been wrong on that issue — even though it was one of the most significant policy decisions of the decade.

So it’s not necessarily true that “it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions.” It is only *some* issues where it is unacceptable to be wrong. And the unacceptability of error on an issue has little to no correlation with that issue’s significance to the public debate, which is disheartening.

Posted by jalefkowit | Report as abusive

Felix, I disagree. If being wrong were grounds for dismissal from public discourse, every single pundit would be unemployed right now. Especially the ones that work for the major American media organizations. Someone like Bill Kristol actually manages to be wrong many more times than he is right.

No, what matters is what you are wrong about. Helen Thomas might have been ok if she just said Israel should get out of Palestine. By adding that Israelis should go back to Poland and Germany (where millions, including most of my family, were murdered before the rest went to places like the US and Israel), she crossed a line.

“But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society.”

Please name some other examples.

Posted by Snyderico | Report as abusive

What about excommunicating Hitchens or, at least, deporting back to Blighty?

Posted by xyz70 | Report as abusive

Oh, and regardless of the fact that you are wrong on this hot button issue, I will continue to read your stuff and enjoy it immensely I’m sure. That is, if you’re not excommunicated from polite society.

Posted by Snyderico | Report as abusive

Snyderico makes an excellent point — and it could be taken a step further: rather than “what matters is what you are wrong about”, perhaps what matters is HOW wrong you are.

Maybe wrongness is a continuum; on one end is wrongness that happens accidentally, because you were exposed to bad information, and on the other end is wrongness that’s embedded in the way you think, that colors your perception of every bit of information you come across, true or false. The latter is what made Thomas’ comments so particularly offensive, because they indicated not so much that she had been misled (which is forgivable) but that her basic attitudes about Jews and Israel were poisoned by prejudice (which isn’t).

Posted by jalefkowit | Report as abusive

Women more rational and sensible than men? Less sure of their own opinions? Remember what Orwell wrote about the women of the Party.

As for retractions being sufficient — well, some targets are implacable.

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

Being wrong despite your best efforts to be right is one thing. This is something else entirely.

Posted by chernevik | Report as abusive

@MickWeinstein — better that one sinner repenteth, etc. If someone who used to believe that blacks should go back to Africa, or gays caused Katrina, etc, then repents of that opinion, that’s good news, to be welcomed.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

Does it make any difference if you hold an opinion at 60% likeli vs 99.999%? I like this appoach as a plea to tolerance and the virtues of an open mind. But minds shouldn’t be universally open: bad ideas tend to leak in.

Take the example of atheism. If you hold (per Cowen) that atheism is 90% likely to be right, then a 10% chance exists that you will go to hell forever. Given that (infinite time *lots of pain), you will certainly go to church and convert. no logic in being the exception. At least, presuming rationality.

On the positivie side, moderation in belief can lead to more careful action. This is only likely to be true in multiple choice options (when there are >>2 choices), and in those cases, this admonishment effectively means ‘do what you feel’. We know that everyone is irrational, and this only gets worse with excess choices.

A likely (51% confidence) net result of all of this is limited change in critical cases, and overall, fewer rational choices.

Finally, how is any of this any different than the on-the-other-handism endemic to economics.

Posted by Brennan | Report as abusive

@Greycap: “And quivo: I don’t know that I agree with it, but Felix’s statement about women was merely an observation, with no cause identified. It is you who has assumed the conclusion by asserting without evidence that socialization is the cause”

You’ve got a good point there. My own cause is just as much of an unproven one as Felix’s is, and I shouldn’t have jumped to slam his down :P.

Posted by quivo | Report as abusive

It’s not only that what Helen Thomas said was wrong, and morally offensive; it’s that we, the public, can’t help but wonder about her private beliefs. Was this a one-time screw-up, or merely a public expose of an anti-Semite? We can’t be sure, and all her apologizing in the world can’t answer that question.

The situation reminds me of Sen. Trent Lott’s scandal a few years ago. He made one statement in support Strom Thurmond’s racist presidential bid, and all of a sudden, we started to wonder — was Lott always a racist? Was it commonplace for him to privately express racist views to close friends and colleagues? Again, it’s the asymmetrical information between public and private beliefs that drive our conclusions about the speaker.

Posted by bjr26 | Report as abusive

“At the beginning of the conversation, Hitchens expressed a certain amount of intellectual pleasure in noting that the statement “Christopher Hitchens is dead” is false now, but will be true in the future.”

Based on his comments, it sounds like he’s intent on passing that pleasure on to as many other people as he can.

Posted by DonthelibertDem | Report as abusive

What ever happened to the notion that one should be held accountable for their action/speech? I thought the honourable thing to do is to resign in these situations. Ya, she f*d up and is certainly anti-Semitic (most people 70+ still really are – that’s why America didn’t enter WW2 until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and Germany declared war as well) but she did the right thing in the end – resigning. I don’t see that she was really forced out, just saw that she made an unpopular statement that caused outrage and made her decision to leave, much like the German president not long ago.

Posted by CDNrebel | Report as abusive

Listen Up, Helen:
It’s time for you to go. You are confused. Perhaps it’s the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
Just go, please. It’s enough nonsense.
Don’t delay for your own sake…

Posted by Ulitka | Report as abusive

Wrong in our blogospheric intellectual culture is taking an unpopular position. To wit, there is no distinguishing between “Boers out of South Africa” and “Jews out of Palestine.” Or Anglo-Saxons” out of North America. Not to mention that Thomas herself traces her recent ancestry to people who suffered at the hands of recent in migration of European settlers. I rather suspect her statement wasn’t mere antisemitism.

She’s quite lucky she wasn’t lynched.

Posted by xyz70 | Report as abusive

It would appear that my fear of being wrong may be justified. More than anything else in a conversation, I dread the inevitable “Are you sure?” question when I express an opinion or even make a statement I believe to be factual. In either case, I respond that I am not “sure” about anything. Certitude is a disease of the young, and I can no longer claim that status.

I have always been extraordinarily put off by Christopher Hitchens, while at the same time enduring fits of jealousy over his self-assured, absolutely confident manner. In actuality, I believe him to be an arrogant, pompous, self-centered horse’s arse. But then, I can’t be absolutely SURE of that.

Posted by netdoc44 | Report as abusive

Felix…you miss the obvious. She didn’t retract anything. Read the press release, she regrets her comments. Well duh, she got fired because of them. She regrets getting fired. A 90 yr old anti-semite still spewing out the same old crap she’s been spewing out for decades. What other industry celebrates/employs fools in their dotage? And as for Hitch, well, Hitch writes beautifully and after much thought, so, take some time, my boy.

Posted by GregL | Report as abusive

Sorry, Felix..Helen said what many many people think..how many might suprise ya..the Israel apologists need to get over it..and let’s hear it for free speech as well..

Posted by gramps | Report as abusive

The “anti-semitism” cottage industry is having a field day over the infamous video clip of Helen Thomas. But have they actually watched it?

The guy behind the camera switches the question from being about “Israel” to being about “the Jews”. Bait, switch, match. No Pulitzer for him, or for anyone who blindly buys into Israel, Palestine and The Jews being one and the same… thing.

Because them that do are yer Middle East problem right there, in a nutshell.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Surely, this is the apotheosis of the politically correct movement where you have to be sure not to upset anyone. Does anyone believe she would be treated any differently if she said a similiar statement about blacks or hispanics?

Personally, I would prefer my bigots to be out there in plain view rather than pretending they have some made-up concern for one of the least lethal conflicts in the Middle East.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Also, not sure this falls under the “being wrong” category. If she had said something like “most Israeli Jews are from Poland or Germany and should go back there” then she’d be wrong, she didn’t say this she said an out and out bigoted comment with no basis in fact and I seriously doubts she has changed her views; views which she is perfectly entitled to in a free democracy.

As for journalists, actually I would prefer they weren’t allowed to be “wrong” as often as they are. Most people get their news from journalists assuming there is at least some form of rudimentary fact checking and there is at least a non-zero probability of what they are saying is accurate.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Thought-provoking post

Posted by Arkadaslik | Report as abusive

I would agree with those who point out that we have the modern non-apology apology. It seems apparent to me that she was sorry that she caused problems for herself, not that she reassessed what she said and determined that it was wrong.

Again, we come to the idea of how much tolerance and for whom. Trent Lott is a good example – was he just trying to butter up an old man, or did he truly believe that the country would have been better off had a segregationist party won the presidency? I suspect the latter, just as I suspect Thomas does not believe the state of Israel should exist (I think Thomas uses “Palesine” as a lot of mid-east zealots use the term – the area from the Mederteranian to Jordan).

Finally, it is kind of interesting how ideas evolve. The creation of the state of Israel at the time, I think it safely could be said, was seen as a great victory for liberal or progressive action. In many circles, questioning the creation of Israel and the implications for the people already there would have been thought beside the pale.

Now however, it is RIDICULOUS to believe that one could abolish a country and move the entire citizenery somewhere else. The problem with silencing Thomas is that her foolishness doesn’t get exposed.

People can certainly disagree about Israeli policies. Indeed, I think we can look back and debate whether Israel should have been simply legislated into existence – a very good example of governmental action wtihout buy in of the locals. But it now exists, and it simply shocking to think that the person who has been thought of as this great White House correspondent is so abysmally …dumb.

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

Sorry Felix, but you are WAAAAAY off base here. The issue isn’t just that Helen Thomas was wrong. No, that would be nice and simple. It wasn’t just that Helen Thomas said that Jews should “get the hell out….” When she said the line of “going back to Germany and Poland,” there is an implication that Hitler should be allowed to finish what he started. And not only is it factually inaccurate that all Israelis come from Europe, no Jew willingly and happily left Germany and/or Poland, even after World War II.

My Mother was born in Warsaw in 1954 and lived in Poland until her family was forced to leave in 1968. The Polish government used anti-Semitism as a rallying cry and a way to mute the 1968 political upheaval that had been spreading in Eastern Europe. Had it not been for Israel, without a question my family would have never made it.

To say that “they should go back,” especially the way in which she said it, is to say that they should return to a purge, massacre and Holocaust. Afterall, that is what most European Jews fled from. Felix, I can’t believe that you would call this merely the “expression” of an opinion. This is WAY beyond that. And please don’t even bother mentioning the retraction. Thomas’ only guilt was with the consequences of what she said, not the statement itself. This is not about rightness or wrongness, or opinion vs. fact, this is about pure hate for one race/ethnicity of people.

Posted by offpeak34 | Report as abusive

There are fundamental beliefs, and derived beliefs. Should I hold the belief that ‘all men are created equal’ to 60-40 certainty? Obviously some people at the time of its writing held it to be certain at 0% There also beliefs that are founded on evidence. If the evidence shows something – self-regulation doesn’t work – shouldn’t that impact your belief probability? I guess you’d have people arguing the evidence.

There is more to just opinion to determining what is right.

Posted by winstongator | Report as abusive


I think we need to be careful about opinion and gross ignorance and incorrectness.

If Helen said that Isreali’s should quite Palestine because they are in essence “occupiers”, as offensive as this might be to some, it is still can be seen as a rational opinion.

The fact that she appears to show wanton disregard for the wellbeing of Isrealis by suggesting they just disperse haphazardly back to Poland and Germany and whereever else, shows great ignorance or callousness about a sensitive issue.

Now given that she is 89, I think we all understand we need to cut her some slack and her retirement seems apropos.

As for forgive and forget, come on Felix. Yes, because she regrets her statements and that she is 89 and perhaps more prone to slips, she should not be persecuted for this. That would be wrong of us.

But it would be equally wrong of us to just “let it slide”. We should be responsible for what we say in public. Now if we can only get Washington to be responsible for what we DO in public, America would be a better place.

Posted by Marcus180 | Report as abusive

Felix, you are wrong about being wrong for reasons most commenters here have likely never considered. To channel Keynes, it is perfectly acceptable to be wrong, as long as you are conventionally wrong. Mike Huckabee, as pointed out by Glen Greenwald, has said that the Palestinians should all be forced to live in other Arab countries. Why Huckabee both has his job at Fox and is still a serious possibility for President is beyond me, what he said is at least as incendiary as what she said. But it is wrong in the conventional way it will go almost totally unnoticed.

Posted by SadForHumanity | Report as abusive

I am not sure that arrogant-but-insecure is a good description of a good trader. I think the best way to be is personally confident (not swayed by the opinions of other people *on account of who they are*, and not cast down by the thought that the market must be so much cleverer than you are) but intellectually flexible (willing to change opinions very quickly, if and only if there is a good reason to do so).

Posted by JDB | Report as abusive

I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Helen Thomas’ situation as a by-product of political correctness. I suspect this might be because a liberal paid the price this time. The truly unfortunate consequence of PC is not that Helen T. and her ilk get canned but that PC often prevents intelligent discussion of problems. If we can’t even open discuss facts that deal with race or ethnicity (e.g. Hispanics have an extremely high dropout rate), how can we ever expect to arrive at effective solutions?

Posted by jackindallas | Report as abusive

Helen Thomas, Christopher Hitchens, and being wrong!
Why is it wrong to express an opinion?
She has not asked all to agree or disagree. Basically all she said was an opening gambit for discussion and was then promptly drummed out of the brownies.

Posted by The1eyedman | Report as abusive

fresnodan, Israel was in no shape or form “legislated in existence”. What actually happened is that Israel fought a war against the locals backed by outsiders and then formally against outsiders – three of whom were puppet regimes of the British – whilst placed under a UN arms embargo enforced by the British and Americans whilst relying on the USSR for vital weaponry. Then they won and have continued to win. This is the sole reason why Israel exists.

offpeak34, well technically most European Jews didn’t leave because they were killed including over 95% of your compatriots which is one of the reason it is a bit hard for Jews to “go back” to Poland and Germany.

SadForHumanity, from what I can see that is not actually what he said. What he said is that they should not have a country in the West Bank and Gaza and people have helpfully extrapolated this to mean that Arabs should be forced out of Israel to some other country. Bit like saying that Thomas said Jews should be massacred in Germany and Poland.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

The1eyedman, no one is stopping her “opening a discussion”, just that she should not be someone who reports news. If she wants to start a blog jewjewsjewsoutoutout.blogspot.com – assuming it is not already taken – nothing is stopping her, just stop pretending to be someone who merely reports the news.

Maybe you are confusing what has happened to her to what happens to someone who objects to certain Arab and Iranian dictators – http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/05/11/ir an-executed-dissidents-tortured-confess

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

While it is certainly OK to be wrong about certain subjects and at certain times, there are times, events and circumstances in which public figures cannot be wrong.

If they are wrong on certain subjects, they cannot continue to serve in public roles:

1.) While it is OK to discuss and debate policy with respect to Israel, one cannot believe that “Sending the Jews back to Poland and Germany” is a valid solution. Under the circumstances, it is the moral equivalent of advocating another holocaust.
2.) One cannot believe the world is flat.
3.) One cannot believe that the CIA created HIV to kill the gays and blacks.
4.) One cannot believe Hitler was misunderstood and a great leader who made mistakes.
5.) One cannot think the west should take over control of their former colonies.
6.) One cannot think women should not have the right to vote.
7.) One cannot think blacks were better off under Jim Crow.

Any public figure who is wrong on any of the seven items mentioned above is simply unfit for public life because they don’t get it.

Posted by Boyardee | Report as abusive

HBC, would like to partake in more of your wisdom. I can see how you could make a [weak] argument that the “anti-semitism cottage industry” is the root cause of the deaths of less than 9,000 people in 10 years. Could you explain in detail how it causes – amongst others:

1) The death of 1 million Algerians in the war against France or the more recent death of over 300,000 algerians in the civil war of the 90s.
2) The death of a million Iranians and Iraqis in their war
3) the death of over 100,000 Kurds in the Anfal operations
4) The regular bombing and killing of Kurds by Turkey
5) The attempted invasion of Jordan by Syria in 1970
6) The actual invasion of Lebanon in 1975 by Syria
7) The killing of upwards of 15,000 people in Hama by Syria
8) The ongoing occupation of Syrian land by Turkey
9) The ongoing occupation of around 5% of Lebanese land by Syria
10) The war in Sudan – currently over 250,000 dead
11) The invasion of Chad by Libya
12) The invasion of Western Sahara by Morrocco
13) The ongoing embargo of Armenia by Turkey, which weirdly doesn’t get as much attention as another embargo does….

etc etc etc. By my count there are less than 150,000 dead in over 100 years of Zionism in all the Arab-Zionist wars which to put in perspective is at most twice – and possibly equal to – the number of Kurds killed in one year by Saddam.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

I think Native American Indians have suffered enough. The European, African, and Canadian immigrants, especially Helen’s family, should go back to where they came from.

Posted by tergen | Report as abusive

Truth, you see Felix, has two issues:

1. There is no objective truth. It is at best described as a consensus viewpoint.
2. Hence most ‘truths’ are tentative. Over-and-above, weighed against the passage of time truth is even more tenuous (and this includes such incontrovertible facts like Newton’s conception of time being constant or that before Galileo that Earth was the centre of the universe.)

Posted by DoubleLiability | Report as abusive

DoubleLiability, there are plenty of objective truths which is why most people don’t rebel against the consensus and levitate.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Someone once noted that women use more qualifiers when speaking or writing. Instead of announcing that the economy is certain to rebound, a woman would be more likely to put it that – in her opinion – the market will rebound.

Someone in a discussion at Digby’s site last week pointed out that it is the media that keeps the right wing in power by smearing and visiting professional death upon even the most prominent journalists or politicans who presume to oppose the fascist oligarchs. If they can ruin Helen Thomas or Dan Rather, that let’s all the lesser american journalists know what to expect if they don’t spew the party line. Serves ‘em right for taking things like responsibility to the public seriously.

Not to worry. Our grandchildren won’t even believe such things as widespread prosperity or secular democracy really existed.

And isn’t it interesting how, when venal despots rule, only the jesters can risk speaking truth to power – http://fafblog.blogspot.com/

Posted by someofparts | Report as abusive

someofparts, so making up evidence and bigotry are what the left stands for now? and Obama is a fascist oligarch? He can’t be a puppet of the Jews, they are too busy bleeding babies to make Matzeh and spreading the black death.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

If your issue with Helen Thomas is her failure to literally specify “the West Bank settlements” “East Jerusalem” “Gaza” and possibly “Washington DC” in every single sentence intended to designate some of the places unlawfully occupied by IDF agents provocateurs and human shields, then a technical victory may belong to the censorious hyenas. But a hollow one it is.

Fact is, there’s plenty of other places for se’uh’lers to go, just not there. Even the Israeli government knows this, but keeps pumping them in to bolster its relentless imperial land-grab campaign.

Fact is, hawkish Israeli propagandists unctuously contend there’s no such place as Palestine when they’re occupying it, but still recognize its existence at the drop of a hat anytime they can squeeze, contrive and twitter out the semblance of insult having been leveled at them or “their” people. Israelis are the poorer and less secure for being represented by such knaves.

Fact is, in a free country, you have to be able to say this without fear of material consequence. It’s right there at the top of the Bill of Rights.

If Helen Thomas is wrong, it must be Tuesday and this isn’t America.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

I believe “Paul Krugman” can be substituted for “Chirstopher Hitchens” here without any loss of generality.

Posted by Mesa1234 | Report as abusive

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Posted by ghosalisuli | Report as abusive

Females can be as stubborn in their opinions as males. What differentiates females from males is that females are more likely to believe normal things. If a female believes some normal, standard thing and someone shows her some evidence or arguments which to a rational person should suggest her opinion is in error, she will (compared with a man) be much less likely to believe the rational evidence. It is a noble trait to more think for oneself–to succeed or fail according to one’s own understanding–such a trait encouraging evolution of understanding, a special quality. By nature, though the vast majority are still largely conformist, males more tend to think for themselves, because females (and more particularly young females) are such that thinking for himself is unusually useful to a male in attracting them. Females don’t so much think for themselves unless a male ultimately forces them to, which fortunately males whose nature is such as to be loved by females tend to do because it is much more impressive to be loved by girls whose love comes from within rather than from having copied other girls, and of course males like to impress girls. It’s not so much that girls are such simple conformists as to want a male whom a scene wants, maybe just on account of some arbitrary decision made by some possibly clueless star maker at MTV or Disney. No, girls want a male who is with lots of girls who want him through thinking and feeling for themselves, and if girls get a sense that a male can’t convert the merely scene girls close to him into girls who love him for what he seems to their inner natures to be rather than just for his having a scene, it won’t take much for his popularity to crash like happened to Fred Flintstone in the episode, “The Girls Night Out” where he was mega rock star for a short time. Very rarely one might meet a girl who would think for herself just to be nice to a male she naturally loves, but she still probably would more respect the male she loves if he demands her being herself.

But actually, to be strictly correct, with respect to virtuous girls it is not so much that they don’t think for themselves or acquaint themselves with their own natural feelings, but just that they ignore those feelings if odd, behaving under the assumption that general opinion is more correct. For it’s the most effective way of judging character surely to see whether others can judge oneself (and more particularly, in those respects that are different from those in other girls), and it’s a pretty standard opinion that such a procedure is a good way to go, and so pretty much all girls want to be understood as they are, they just don’t typically want to be what they are unless they are forced to be so. Anyway, since a good girl wants to love him who understands her, it pretty much forces her at least to understand herself sufficiently to be able to evaluate this understanding.

Some might say that, what since mostly girls naturally are conformists, a girl is properly imitative when she is true to herself. But there is nothing complicated or intricate about imitating others. A gene causing a tendency to be imitative is probably a little more complicated than (say) a gene causing toenails to be present, but it is closer to a toenail gene than to a gene governing important traits such as thought or the totality of genes that govern those natural inclinations not involving conformity. Saying that a girl can be herself while obeying the conformist part of her is, therefore, like singling out some small part of her that is far from special and saying that is what she is. Indeed, when someone is conformist she isn’t all the special things that otherwise she can be, but only a very small and unimportant part of herself, and she is turning off all the special parts that more constitute her being and (on average) preventing those special parts from evolving well inasmuch as their success will less depend on their characteristics. Unfortunately, people have evolved largely to be conformist because mostly a gene doesn’t care about risking to evolve to the extent it should inasmuch as gains in other genes will not be shared for long and yet gains in itself must be shared with all the many alleles of other genes that its descendants possessing itself will contain; the conformist part of the genome has evolved a power beyond its worth, because the other genes mostly don’t get in its way.

Posted by step314 | Report as abusive

Certain wrong opinions will get one cast out of polite society/punditry. I challenge you to name one pro-Iraq-War pundit who can no longer get printed or invited onto to the political talk shows.

Posted by DRickard | Report as abusive

HBC, the issue isn’t with her freedom of speech. Just like you she has the perfect right to hold stupid, clearly false opinions and articulate them on a regular basis. The issue is that she has a position of trust as a journalist, a gatway holder to the news.

As for pumping in settlers they still represent less than 5% of all Israelis and virtually all the growth has come from the religious section who have lots and lots of kids and given that since 1982 the one-way trend has been for Israel to give up territory, bit hard to argue that relentless land-grab claim for the tiniest “empire” in human history. Luckily, you live in a free country where you can spout nonsense freely.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

If I were ever unfortunate enough to need to be interviewed by Mr Salmon in order to further my career, I would experience an unconquerable urge to take the Michael.

Perhaps we should try to assign a probability to the proposition that Mr Hitchens succumbed to the same urge?

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Helen Thomas should not have apologize for speaking her mind i.e. exercising her right to speak freely against zionist murderers.

The UN, in 1947, did not have the right to partition Palestine or assign any part of its territory to a minority of alien immigrants for the purpose of establishing a state of their own, without the consent of a Palestinian majority. In international law, only the soon to be illegally dispossessed Palestinians could give israel legitimacy and recognition.

The UN resolution in 1947 was non-binding, unless or until it was approved by the Security Council. This partition plan was pure propaganda.

Attacking a humanitarian convoy of ships with excessive force without irrefutable proof of smuggling weapons into Palestine is murder. Point blank and simple.

To hell politeness, decency and delicacy when criminals feigning righteousness, take all the passengers video equipment and believe they are the only ones who have right to use force. Zionist murderers and their supporters are the only ones who are to trusted. The rest of the world is inhabited by children.

All I have to say to zionist bullies and apologists is if I see you on fire, I going let you burn. You are not god and your not immortal. That means you are not mightier than anyone else. Which is way your bullying punk murderers sustained injuries.

When you kill on the sneak netanyapunk, you fornicate with your family every week to make you feel good. The only way to shut me up is to do the aforementioned.

Posted by obamamurders | Report as abusive

DRickard, and being wrong about the Surge apparently gets you elected to the most powerful post in the world… Guess life isn’t fair.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Wow, what a pathetic hack job.

It started as a criticism of social shaming of unpopular ideas, and turned into a social shaming of atheism/skepticism.

Please ask the Catholic church about the certainty of their beliefs, or ask a Mormon about the certainty of their faith in Joseph Smith as a prophet.

Instead of questioning the obvious peddlers of certainty, you attack those that question a widely believed hot-button issue (god) and do the very thing you are criticizing.

Salmon, I am a big fan of your writing, but this was just plain hypocritical and bad.

I look forward to your attack on the certainty of religious belief.

Posted by GenericHuman | Report as abusive

60/40 so if there were 41 different logically sound arguments against your belief you would have to give it up.
Fair enough. Provide me with 41 logically sound arguments that God exists and I will recant my heathen ways and embrace theism.

Posted by pastblast | Report as abusive

Please be careful in generalizing across gender with no real data or research. I’m not even sure why you felt the need to address the gender issue here (it is certainly not central to your point), but you might want to look into studies like the one I link to below before you make sweeping generalizations. In short, this study finds that on a group level, women rate their own IQ lower than it actually is, while men rate their own IQ higher than it actually is. This effect could explain why you feel that women are more flexible in their opinions. On a group level, they are less confident that they know enough to be correct.

However, the authors of the study make clear that this effect is not driven by differences between all the women and all the men in the study. In fact, most of the women and men rated their own IQs in very similar ways, but a few women rated their IQs way below the true value, and a few men rated their IQs way above the true value, causing what looks like big differences between the two groups, but is actually just big differences between a few select members of each group. Most women are very similar to most men. Some women and some men behave very differently from each other, and this makes us all see a giant chasm between these two groups of mostly similar people.

Wide generalizations give people excuses to dismiss each other as stereotypes, when in fact most of us simply don’t conform to those stereotypes.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob =ArticleURL&_udi=B6V9F-3Y6PG3W-1X&_user= 10&_coverDate=02%2F28%2F1995&_rdoc=1&_fm t=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=& view=c&_searchStrId=1367088298&_rerunOri gin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_ver sion=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e679 ad6c2b189efdc9d62f50359aa67d

Posted by LHM | Report as abusive

Thank you for an interesting article. i enjoyed pondering the issues being raised but have difficulty seeing what the real objective is here.

If we strip away the side issues of gender and theism, the central argument appears to be that it should be acceptable to be proved wrong. Being proved wrong, and being prepared to change that view if better evidence comes along, is a sign of capacity to grow, and that should always be encouraged.

That is the case when considering factually correct/wrong issues but it is difficult to take the argument any further, as attempted in this article. If correct/wrong cannot be proved then we are dealing with opinions, and in that area emotion will count as much as any degree of logic or validity of propositions.

Introducing side issues of belief (theism, deism, atheism or any other ‘ism’) and gender we encounter broad generalisations that cannot be proved. In the case of belief there can only be opinions on any angle of the argument. Gender issues will always be open to statistical interpretation or misinterpretation.

On this basis, perhaps the objective of the article is to identify a possibility that Christopher Hitchens is ‘wrong’ somewhere or everywhere and that he should admit this? If so, this cannot be successfully tackled using the arguments raised.

Somewhere in amongst this is a good story to tackle further – but to be used correctly in this instance, you’d have to prove that Christopher Hitchens is wrong first or at least identify areas where he could be.

Posted by iambemused | Report as abusive

Hitchens seems to object only to the implications of religious belief when it is misunderstood. I don’t think he imagines that he is smarter than Moses and Jesus, does he? Heaven help him if he does. The original ‘desert storm’ would make continental breakfast for the multitudes out of him. The only reason he has not been struck by lightning so far (that I can think of) is that he helps to enlighten infidels who have run even further afoul of God than he has.

Posted by oldyeller | Report as abusive

Felix, you apparently didn’t read Christopher’s memoir; in it he mentions several times when he discovered he had been wrong about things and changed his views. He discussed those experiences in detail. One of the important points of his book was that it’s folly to take a stand until you understand all the relevant issues, and in most cases it takes a lifetime to understand all the issues.

I strongly suspect you misunderstood his statement that he couldn’t remember the last time he was wrong. He was not denying ever being wrong; he just literally couldn’t think up an example. Try it yourself and you’ll find it’s not an easy task; the human mind erases memory structures that led to mistakes, so as to reduce the chance of making those mistakes in the future.

Posted by gh1 | Report as abusive

The issue isn’t that she’s wrong, the issue is that she was wrong and advocated the relocation of 7 million people from thier homeland– a crime against humanity. If someone denied the holocaust and then took it back, would you be so forgiving?*

If I recall, a while back there was a big Republican politician who advocated that Palestinians in the West Bank move to Jordan, which is a lot less drastic than what Thomas advocated, even though it was still ethnic cleansing. He got hell for it, and probably should have gotten more, but the difference is he was an established politician and Thomas was a reported who was at retirement age anyway.

*(Unless you happen to be a member of the PA and would elect such a person as president.)

Posted by ZPT | Report as abusive

Being right at the cost of united balance is not only dangerous in business or politics, it is short sighted and arrogant. Learning together through shared communication that remains open and honest is the key to a healthy outcome regardless of situation.


Posted by AlbertSparks | Report as abusive