A call on parliamentarians and leaders to employ doubt.
I have become aware that life cannot exist without skepticism. I don’t know much about the experiences of other life forms but as humans, we are confronted daily with the burden of skepticism, whether in our economic life, social encounters, religious beliefs, political and security matters, et ce tera. We tend to exert varying degrees of skepticism depending on how close to our hearts the subject matter is. For example, we take it as a given that we look both ways before crossing a busy intersection. It’s also easier for instance to be skeptical about the quality of a good when the price is lower or higher than market prices. In this modern era, we are even skeptical about some of the calls or texts we receive. However, emotionally charged issues such as religious and political beliefs, and matters of health seem to catch a lot of us on our blind side.
There have been countless efforts to write about this subject in the past but my mind recollects one famous American physicist, Carl Sagan, who wrote, in the Journal of Skeptical Inquiry in 1987 about The Burden of Skepticism. It is in his voice I relay that burden unto you.
Skepticism has been a subject applied in all academic and social disciplines but especially dealt with within philosophy. Let me use this opportunity to point out that I am interested in more of how this subject within our very practice brings to bear the essence of progress, understanding and decision making which affects our well-being. I will therefore not deal with the theoretical aspects but focus independently on what our society can benefit and appreciate from skepticism by exploring the past and looking to the future.
It is common for parliament to be saddled with many bills from the Executive arm of the Government, with added urgency and pressure mounted behind them due to their political nature. These bills are often tabled before the House after undergoing drafting from the Attorney General’s office with approval from Cabinet and consultation with the appropriate agencies of Government. However, there have been on many occasions where, had it not been for skepticism on the part of some persons or groups, pertinent issues in these bills or contracts, would have been missed, and parliament swayed into passing laws or approving contracts which would have been problematic. Mistakes have passed without scrutiny several times, where bills or contracts have been allowed to run through all the stages of the Parliamentary process without a hint of suspicion about them. For instance, many failed to realize in the case of the Ghana Telecom-Vodafone Sales and Purchasing Agreement, that the term of 99 years of transfer of ownership of Ghana Telecom to Vodafone was smuggled into the contract. Without assuming malice on the part of the honorable members, some of whom are still in this house, we can conclude that their skeptical lens must have been off during proceedings.
I am not saying Parliament was or is weak, but I am saying that the burden of skepticism on members of the Committee should have provided the need to detect lapses in the contract.
Between 2001 and 2008, the Ghana Water and Sewage Company was placed on the divestiture list by the State. Civil society, having gathered a monumental experience of past divestiture programmes under Structural Adjustment in the 1980s, felt that this attempt to sell GWSC will be of a colossal damage to living conditions just like past divestiture policies. Water is essential and a primary necessity which should not be allowed to be in private hands. Civil Society were skeptical of the Government’s move and so carried out campaigns to stop the transaction.
Recently, parliament detected an over bloated figure in the Appropriation bill of the Ministry of Special Development where in it was a bill in the sum of hundreds of thousands of cedis for a website. That was neither detected by the Cabinet nor the Budget Committee at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. Luckily, a skeptic saw it and drew the attention of the House and the general public.
Skepticism in practice requires nuance and situational awareness. Sometimes being too skeptical impedes understanding and progress and not being skeptical leads to grave errors, and grave consequences. Sometimes also, cynicism masquerades as skepticism. Citizens have seen leaders and institutions they trust fail them so many times that they tend to hold the view that all persons in authority are motivated purely by self interest. The anti-GMO campaign is a prime example of skepticism born from cynicism. Big corporations have consistently lobbied for and owned the intellectual property to essential goods, controlling the price of those goods and in the process, causing a widening of the inequality gap. In the case of Big Pharma and Big Food, several loss of lifes and lawsuits have cemented the hatred of these institutions as well as the governments that have oversight over them, in the minds of the people. Failures in the past also by the scientific community have added a mistrust of all things we don’t understand. So laws like the Biosafety Act and the Plant Breeders Act will face opposition from civil society, not on the validity of the science of genetically modified organisms, but cynicism of Big Food and Big Pharma. A lot of time and energy is spent on fighting the wrong enemy and the result is years in delay of valuable research and implementation that will go into ensuring our food security. Anti-science is not only fueled by cynicism of big corporations and governments but also by our sordid colonial past and imperialistic moves by the world superpowers. We find ourselves in a time when people don’t trust authority. The people of Ghana do not trust our parliamentarians or our leaders. But who is to blame them? Have people in power been open with people without? Skepticism is not a one way street. It is a relationship.
Of governance, the Nigerian Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka said, “And gradually they’re beginning to recognize the fact that there’s nothing more secure than a democratic, accountable, and participatory form of government. But it’s sunk in only theoretically, it has not yet sunk in completely in practical terms.” What he speaks of is that even though we have realized that our destiny can be realized through democracy, we are yet to explore the full practical implications of what that means. Democracy can’t exist without accountability. Democracy needs the participation of the populace, and in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” What does an informed citizenry consist of? Certainly, skepticism will be at the core of that!
Let me return to my earlier assertion that skepticism is a relationship by correcting myself. Skepticism is a matrix of relationships. First, at the highest level, it is a relationship between a person and the facts. It is a willingness to question everything including ourselves and more importantly, the capacity to change our positions when faced with new and better information.
Secondly, it is accepting that not knowing is a viable and healthy position to hold. In our culture, we have come to always expect an answer from authority and authority has survived by making one up when it doesn’t readily have the right one. I remember a latin phrase I was introduced to in Secondary School, “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” – False in one, false in all. This may sound extreme but it is in human nature to think in extremes. If a person in authority is caught in one lie, we begin to suspect that all they have said or will say is a lie. How do we overcome this perception? By being brutally honest about our ignorance as much as we are about what we know. Are we a government by the people, and for the people? Then let us act like it. Let us be accountable to the people. Let us be open about our failings. I assure you, this vulnerability will be appreciated and respected by many of us citizens who are interested in a better Ghana. The Akans have a proverb that loosely translates as “Those who sell their illness, are certain to get a cure for it.” Let us, the people, participate in our own destinies. Besides, recognizing our ignorance is the right motivation to ask better questions and find answers that will reduce or mitigate the impact of our ignorance.
Finally, and most importantly, skepticism is a relationship between each other. We agree to doubt each because we know that that will make us better. If indeed we understand the value of skepticism, we will not be offended if someone doubts us. Instead, we will take it upon ourselves to provide them with proof that will clear their doubts away. In so doing, we will recognize our arguments and claims for what they are and let them survive or die on their own merit. We can not progress if we allow bad ideas to survive. Skepticism and scientific enquiry is the sure way to rid ourselves of bad ideas.
There are a few more issues of note that require our skepticism and I will like to point them out quickly.
- The current attempt by the Electoral Commissioner to use only the Ghana Card and Passport as required instruments for obtaining a Voter ID card. Consider that the average Ghanaian does not have a passport (which requires money to obtain) while the issuance of the Ghana Card has not achieved the coverage necessary to make it a requirement to vote. Many people only have their previous voter’s card. Our skepticism should prompt us to whether we are disenfranchising a swath of our population.
- The attempt by the corporate elites to maintain a microstate where the duopoly of the NDC and NPP keeps on growing. Why should we be skeptical of a duopoly? History has shown that they connive in their class interest and play the ball according to those interests.
- The attempt to elevate monarchs and the clergy as instruments of promoting our democracy. Why should we be skeptical? Monarchs and Clergy undermine the purpose of a Republic. It is convenient to use the clergy for political expediency, however, when the people begin to question the veracity of religious claims, the house of cards on which that politically expedient relationship was built will crumble. In the end, the people will not become just cynical of governments but about their faith as well. In this regard, separation of Church and State becomes politically expedient.
- The attempt to suppress the rights of women and LGBT persons in Ghanaian daily life which happens even within the nature of political conversations. Why should we be skeptical? This shows that Patriarchy and misogyny has a stronghold in our institutions. How do we progress as a society when we fail to utilize over half of our population? How do we create an egalitarian society when we marginalize so many?
- The proliferation of untested medical practices and pharmaceuticals including herbal mixtures, etc. When there is a crisis of faith in our medical institutions, people become less skeptical of extraordinary claims made by pseudoscientists. From homeopathy to chiropractic treatment, we are bombarded with untested ideas that put our citizens in danger.
- The proliferation of multi-level marketing and pyramid schemes. Many of you are aware of the burden that institutions like ADK financial services and Menzgold have placed on the state.There are many more who offer our youth an opportunity for employment. Given the high unemployment rates and a growing discontentment with the government’s failure to improve the economic conditions in the country, many easily fall prey to these sweet talking organizations. Note that skepticism is a direct consequence of economic conditions. When one does not have hope, one is open to all possibilities including fraudulent ones.
- The attempt to be dependent on multilateral development aid from the West and the East. To be Skeptical about this helps in giving energy to a rising self-reliant country.
According to Carl Sagan, “Skepticism is dangerous”. In his view, that is how it functions since it is the business of skepticism to be dangerous, and “that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in the schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy?” I believe that Europe is what it is today because they placed Skepticism in the central seat during the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. The pillar of every society is its level of interest in Science and Arts, and as we know they triumph on a skeptical path. To know is by inquiring, by thorough doubts on illusions and vagueness, and by faithfully being truthful to what is understandable.
Kwame Nkrumah, the beloved son of Ghana said, “Thought without practice is empty; and action without thought is blind.” So as you think about these words that you read today, you are reminded to heed and practice. That all your actions will be well thought out, and thoughtful. As humanists, we do not pray. The best equivalent we can offer is hope. We hope that you, our leaders will embrace Skepticism and prove to the cynics that you are truly actors of honor worthy of your titles.
Thank you very much.
From your humanist citizenry and the organization they belong to, The Humanist Association of Ghana.