This episode of the Raising Freethinkers podcast was originally written and recorded in the first week of May 2020, the beginning of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The last week of April [2020] included three coronavirus highlights for me. On Monday of that week, I was tested for the virus; on Wednesday I got my results—positive—and started a seven-day basement isolation that I’m just now finishing. And in between those two, on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence toured the Mayo Clinic without a mask on, despite being told that it was the policy of the Mayo Clinic that everyone wear one while on site, and despite the fact that every person around him, without exception, was wearing one.

The Mayo Clinic is one of those places that are emblematic of pinnacle achievement in a particular area of human life. Like Carnegie Hall. Imagine Pence in the front row at Carnegie Hall, telling Yo Yo Ma that his bowing is all wrong. Same thing with not wearing the mask—he was asserting, with absolutely unearned arrogance, that he knew better than those skilled professionals at the top of their field.

When the backlash began, he offered three reasons for ignoring the protocol. First, he wanted to “look these heroes in the eye,” which makes me very much want to see a picture of him wearing the mask. Second, he said he was following CDC guidelines in rejecting the mask. And finally, he said as Vice President, he is tested frequently.

The first is silly; the second is a lie; the third is irrelevant. The principle that overrides them all is this: The decision to wear a mask or not wear a mask is based on science he will never know. It’s also science I will never know.

The science you will never know can kill you, and it can save your life. And it can kill and save other people. And it can end one kind of misery or create a hundred new ones. Knowing science, getting scientific answers right, is more important at this point in history in countless ways than it has ever been. You and I might be productive contributors to scientific conversations. But we cannot be productive contributors to every scientific conversation, except in one way: by pointing, on a given issue for which we lack expertise, to the people who do know what the hell they’re talking about. Citing them. Amplifying their voices. When the required expertise is beyond my own grasp, that is my role: to defer to the experts.

The science you will never know can kill you, and it can save your life.

Now defer—that might sound like the opposite of freethought. I have my opinions! I should be able to voice them freely! That’s a cartoon of freethought. Freethinker as a concept and a word, Freidenker, was born in the 17th century in what is now Germany. It was a declaration of independence from the forced authority of the church. A Freidenker could form and express opinions and knowledge without having to conform to religious dogma. That didn’t mean freethinkers were on their own, unable to draw on any authority or expertise. It meant I could discern. I could decide. I could now choose which voices merited my confidence, which voices I could defer to in matters beyond my own grasp—whose opinions I could then take as my own.

That sounds strange, doesn’t it. We are very fond of saying—and by “we,” I mean we skeptical science-minded types—we’re fond of saying that our opinions, our convictions, the things we hold true, are all based on empirical evidence.

Let’s talk about that.

I understand what is meant by that, but it’s not always true in the way we think. When I say the things I hold true are the result of evidence, the implication is that I’ve assessed the evidence myself. Right? That is true, at best, for a fraction of a sliver of a splinter of the things I actually hold true. For all the rest, I have outsourced the evaluation of evidence to other people who I’m confident will do a better job at it.

Listen to the full episode, or from 5:13 to continue

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.