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Abandoning discussion for mere assertion

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor who blogs at "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue" Lord Melbourne, a 19th-century British prime minister, once remarked about the historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay that "I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything."

Frank Wilson

is a retired Inquirer books editor who blogs at "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue"

Lord Melbourne, a 19th-century British prime minister, once remarked about the historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay that "I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything."

I have lately discovered that the world is inhabited by a good number of Tom Macaulays.

In April, I took on a part-time temporary gig at The Inquirer editing the letters to the editor. A fair share of those letters, I quickly learned, were thoughtful, informative, and deeply felt. Many were quite well-written. There is really nothing surprising in that. After all, these are people who not only read the paper, but also take a serious, often passionate, interest in the issues of the day.

I certainly respected these writers, even when I didn't agree with them, but the ones who fascinated me were the Tom Macaulays. Lord Melbourne's term, cocksure, fitted them to a T. They felt no need to do any homework, or even to frame a conventional argument. Their mode of expression was plain and simple assertion. I doubt if any pope has ever delivered an ex cathedra pronouncement with a greater sense of authority. Compared with them, people who recite the Creed on Sunday are gimlet-eyed skeptics.

A typical letter from one of these people would begin by saying that columnist So-and-So wrote such-and-such. But it would continue - and then would follow the writer's declaration of what was in fact the case. And that - except for the occasional smidgen of sarcasm or condescension - would be that.

By no means do I regard these people as isolated cranks. I rather suspect they constitute a representative sample of the population. I think there are lots of people with opinions settled to the point of calcification, oblivious of anything to the contrary.

Among the favorite topics of the Tom Macaulays who wrote to The Inquirer during my brief tenure were the federal budget and gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

Regarding the first, the pronouncements tended to be Democratic Party talking points: a budget needed to be passed, and the debt ceiling and taxes both had to be raised. Cuts to such things as Medicare were reflexively deplored.

All perfectly arguable. But I couldn't help wondering if our correspondents had considered - or even remembered - that in 2006, every Democratic senator voted against raising the debt ceiling. One of them said at the time that "raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government's reckless fiscal policies." That eloquent gentleman was then-Sen. Barack Obama.

As for those writers objecting to drilling in the Marcellus Shale, they invariably drew a connection between Gov. Corbett's budget cuts and his refusal to impose a tax on drillers. But they seemed animated less by partisan politics than by a kind of evangelical environmentalism. They tended, for instance, to be in high dudgeon over the dangers such drilling might pose to drinking water.

Again, I wondered if they knew that the drilling in question involved two technologies that were long established - horizontal drilling, which dates to 1929, and hydraulic fracturing, which dates to 1947. I wondered if they knew that tens of thousands of wells in more than 60 countries have been employing the same technologies for decades.

I wondered if they knew that the aquifers supplying water were but hundreds of feet deep, while the gas was found several thousand feet below that and that the two were separated by solid rock.

I am sure they were not aware that EPA administrator Lisa Jackson - no friend of fossil fuels - recently told Congress that there have been no "proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water" and that the Environmental Defense Fund's senior policy adviser, Scott Anderson, has said, "I think, in the vast majority of cases, if wells are constructed right and operated right, that hydraulic fracturing will not cause a problem."

As for the taxing, well, for one thing, the drilling companies have to pay royalties to the people who own the property they drill on. Last year, in a restaurant outside Tunkhannock in Wyoming County, I overheard some fellow talking about this. "We ain't talkin' chump change here," he declared. Those royalties constitute taxable income, so you can expect the Commonwealth's coffers to benefit therefrom.

None of the facts I've just cited is enough to resolve disagreement over these issues. But neither can those issues be resolved without taking those facts into consideration. Mere assertion is not discussion, and a good many people in our fair land, I fear, have abandoned discussion, preferring instead to toss assertions back and forth.

The older I get, the more comfortable I become with uncertainty and ambiguity. I subscribe to John Henry Newman's definition of faith as "being capable of bearing doubt."

The Tom Macaulays of the world ought to try it out. They might also want to ponder something Oliver Cromwell said to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."