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Critics' Corner
11 June, 2009  
On Doubt

It’s Just One of Those Things … As Abelard said to Heloise, ‘don’t forget to drop a line to me please’ ... Uncertainty has it’s virtues … Or does it? ... Stephen Estcourt QC* reviews Leigh Sales’ essay On Doubt

imageLeigh Sales (seen here) is a journalist known to most as the anchor of ABC’s Lateline in the latter part of each week.

Her first book Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks won the 2007 George Munster Award for Independent Journalism and was shortlisted for the 2008 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize.

Sale’s latest offering is a short but thoroughly engaging polemic entitled On Doubt.

Published by Melbourne University Press it is the newest in a series of “Little Books on Big Themes”.

This 90 page essay joins 12 other “little books”, which include Germaine Greer On Rage, Julian Burnside On Privilege and Robert Dessaix On Humbug.

On Doubt begins with a frontispiece quotation from the 12th century French philosopher and theologian Pierre Abelard.

Abelard, who doubted everything except his life long passion for his love Heloise, wrote:

“The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Using this as her theme, reflecting as it does her personal experience and conviction from small child to grown up journalist, Sales examines the impact of a complete absence of doubt in religion, journalism and politics.

Dry stuff you say. Not at all, the book is thoroughly researched, well written and sounds a rich contemporary and topical note of caution.

On religion Sales recounts her own experience of being raised in a Catholic family with an “anti-church streak”.

It was not until after grade 12 that she commenced an interest in religion, which after a few years petered out from lack of faith.

Whatever the reason she says she could not bring herself to say, “I believe in something for which there is no irrefutable proof, yet in spite of that, I am so certain of my own opinion that I can declare that you are going to hell for not sharing it”.

Atheism struck her as equally unattractive for much the same reason.

imageOn journalism, as one would expect from a Walkley award winner, Sales develops her theme.

Of the vitriolic email exchange over Wilfred Burchett waged between Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute Quarterly and Robert Manne of The Monthly, which Sales notes having been described by blogger Jack Marx as “an industrial strength stroke-fest that would have worn the chins off Mt Rushmore”, she expresses amazement that each could have felt so certain of his own rightness and the value of his own opinion.

But it is the influence of “opinion” on the mainstream media – with its basis in certainty – that alarms Sales.

She argues:

“It flies in the face of historical experience, which has shown again and again that the application of a doubtful mind is the best way to wisdom and insight.”

imageSales examines the trend toward openly partisan journalism, sometimes referred to as “viewer cocooning or niche news”, but opts for the view of the late Tim Russert (pic) of Meet the Press, that it is no good thing that the media should emphasise opinion or even advocacy.

She accepts that no reporter can be perfectly objective, but to give up striving for it is to risk close-mindedness and ultimately to arrive at a point where a reader or viewer can no longer trust the reporting.

Sales saves her best bits for politics.

She was fascinated by the self-assurance of Sarah Palin’s acceptance of John McCain’s offer to run with him in his bid for the US Presidency – “I answered him ‘yes’ because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink”.

She also weighed George W. Bush’s claim to Bob Woodward that as President he was a “gut player” who eschewed doubt..

Sales notes a case study in the 2005 bestseller Blink, which recounted top tennis coach Vic Braden’s near 100 percent ability to predict when a player was about to double fault.

Through great experience Braden’s “adaptive unconscious or gut” was said to take over.

She argues that Bush had no relevant experience and poses the question, “Would Bush have been a better President had he occasionally wondered if he were wrong?”

The essayist concludes that she would not trade her doubtful mind, despite the disadvantages of anxiety and the lack of all-consuming passion.

She would like to ask Abelard why he never doubted his passion for Heloise when he relentlessly doubted everything else in his life.

I think that he probably did, but as Sales concludes as to the benefits of her doubtful mind, “I could be wrong”.

imageThis little book is a thought provoking reminder of the pitfalls of certainty in the media and in politics and the cyclical effect each has on the other.

*Stephen Estcourt QC (pic) is a former president of the Australian Bar Association. He practices at the Tasmanian and Victorian bars and is a celebrated cook, art collector and reader.

On Doubt by Leigh Sales, Melbourne University Press. $19.99.