Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Evil, stupid, or neither?

From his yurt near Ulan Bator, the anonyblogger known as "CLS", who largely posts what could be called "human interest" libertarianism on the Classically Liberal 'blog, put up a post today about a tactic he calls "argument from intimidation," an idea he openly borrows from Ayn Rand.

CLS claims that this is a major and perhaps the primary political argument of today. Rather than try to summarize, I quote it below. From Rand:

There is a certain type of argument which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent’s agreement with one’s undiscussed notions. It is a method of bypassing logic by means of psychological pressure . . . [It] consists of threatening to impeach an opponent’s character by means of his argument, thus impeaching the argument without debate. Example: “Only the immoral can fail to see that Candidate X’s argument is false.” . . . The falsehood of his argument is asserted arbitrarily and offered as proof of his immorality.

and from CLS:

What concerns me is that the Argument from Intimidation is often accompanied by the most dangerous political view around: that those who are the object of one's ridicule must be either stupid or immoral. This sort of black/white fundamentalism, in any field, is implies that all dissent is fundamentally immoral, of at best, the sign of a inferior mind at work. Consider the ramifications of that perspective for a moment.

It is an interesting line of thought, for sure--and almost Hansonian in a backwards way--but it's also something that could easily be invoked too often and out of proper domain of applicability to stifle discussion, dodge criticism, or de-legitimize ridicule. There's a time to be logical and meet another as an equal and there's a time to say "pull your head out of your ass" or "don't bother with that guy's take on 'photons' as he admits to not knowing any quantum mechanics." (That is, by the way, based on a real example.) I cannot say whether or not CLS agrees, but I'm fairly certain the would-be philosopher (or, pace John Hospers, the Continental-style "philosopher"/critical theorist) who divided other thinkers into "mystics of muscle" and "mystics of mind" and was known for browbeating people about their supposed irrationality would agree.

The real danger here is invocation of the term by people who are being either fatuous or wicked. Picture the new wanker tactic: the retort to "X is immoral" becomes "yeah you're just arguing from intimidation." Invocation of "argument from intimidation" can be every bit as much an avoidance tactic as the real thing.

I suspect--there are a few cute hints dropped through the post--that I'm the inspiration for CLS taking up this topic, even though he veers away from my personal habits and towards broader relevance in the final portion. In particular, I've browbeat CLS a bit--perhaps in language that's a bit too strong, but readers of Goldwater State and this 'blog know I don't dress things up--lately about modesty, respect for truth, and intellectual due diligence. I also made a statement someplace quasi-private about not being able to tell whether or not the leaked CRU e-mails, like the Geoclimatic Studies hoax, are a test of honesty or IQ or both, which (also privately) seemed to have irked our yurt-dwelling 1970s-era libertarian. (I'm reminded a bit of the account of Emperor Julian writing a play because his beard was mocked...)

If this isn't the case, then I'm being presumptuous. But if it is the case: What CLS doesn't get--and what separates my behavior and that of the many others (see comments on e.g. RealClimate) who see this the way I do from Ayn Rand's "argument from intimidation"--is that we are considering not the conclusion but how it appears the object of our scorn got there.

The Geoclimatic Studies hoax is perhaps the paradigm case. We had a fake paper in a fake journal, written by nonexistent authors from nonexistent academic departments (albeit at real universities) full of obvious nonsense, including mathematical formulae that were difficult to distinguish from random typesetting of symbols. This fake paper happened to claim that global warming had been completely misattributed and was consequently echoed by hundreds of websites (including Reason Magazine's "Hit and Run" in what must surely be the publication's all-time low) and even a few radio shows.

"Stupid and a bit evil" is a more likely descriptor of the hoax's victims than outright evil. Outright evil would be to know that the paper was nonsense but to promote it anyway, for purposes other than exposing the credulous nature of the self-labeled "skeptics". (Whether or not that, too, is evil is a matter for another time.) "Stupid" is to miss that the hoax article was nonsense. Those pseudo-equations were a dead giveaway. The small evil on top of that is to pass the paper on and make a strong claim for it when one doesn't understand. "I don't understand this, but the part that's in plain English supports my pre-determined position, so I will promote it as though it is true" almost epitomizes intellectual dishonesty. "I don't get it" should be a stop sign, not a green light.

I'll admit presently that I have difficulty sympathizing with "I don't get it" as I suspect others experience it. I can't picture how some common mistakes are made. I understand why students often come into introductory physics believing half-consciously in impetus theories of motion. To discern why impetus theories are wrong from everyday experience--or to apply inertial theories to everyday experience--is a tremendously subtle matter. But why someone would even want a classical theory of the photon, or how someone could confuse global warming and ozone depletion is a mystery to me. There are plenty of things in this world I don't understand (from a certain perspective, most things!) and I avoid voicing--I try to avoid holding!--strong opinions on such matters. If I think I understand and I actually don't, I'd appreciate someone telling me, and if I'm arrogant about it, unlike CLS, I'd actually welcome a (metaphorical) brick to the head like Ignatz Mouse would throw at the oblivious Krazy Kat. The most awkward aspect of my lack of sympathy is an inability to understand what it is like to be incapable of understanding or to not know how to bring myself to understand. Skills and arts are one thing, but science, social science, or ability to comprehend philosophers' arguments is another. There are few things I think I would not be able to bring myself to understand were I to care enough--and I know in most instances where I'd start. But I get the feeling that to many, real papers are as nonsensical as the Geoclimatic Studies article. Perhaps in the context of a liberal "democratic" society it is not reasonable to expect someone who thinks he can't understand something or just plain will never be able to understand something to keep his opinion to himself. That's a question I don't purport to answer.

A second paradigm case is that of Ian Plimer, author of Heaven and Earth, which famously claims that volcanic emission of CO2 dwarfs that of human activity. This time around, "not stupid just evil" comes to mind. Given what Plimer does for a living, and the quality of his previous output, one has a hard time thinking it likely that he confused "million" and "billion". Moreover, given that he wrote an extensively footnoted book, it's hard to believe that he didn't know where to look to find information on relative contributions nor to learn the several different ways in which we know his claim is not so. It's more likely that he made the assertion without having researched it at all--something that,being an academic, he would know is wrong! The real problem with Plimer, however, is that even when corrected, he continued in his position, without explanation. To make a mistake is one thing, but to leave it to stand without acknowledgement shows a simple disregard for truth itself.

Plimer's behavior--neither explain nor acknowledge nor apologize for one's mistakes--is fairly typical among climate contrarians, and if I had to choose the reason they're ordinarily regarded as evil, that would be it. As noted earlier, the reason is behavior and not the position.

Perhaps the second is the behavior known as "denialism". There are a few honest contrarians out there, but many will use bad argument just as well as good if it will convince another that the scientific mainstream is wrong. Ross McKitrick, for example, tried to pretend that the lack of abstract existence proofs for solutions to the Navier-Stokes equation had implications against the scientific consensus. That level of sophistication is not needed: so seemingly random and bizarre are the bad arguments that one gets the impression that the average contrarian 'blogger or commentator will point to a baked potato as evidence against AGW if he thinks it will convince someone, especially if he heard someone else do so as well. To a denialist, no argument is bad enough and as soon as an argument seems OK it's ready to send out. An intellectually honest person doesn't stop when he arrives at a result he wants--he's self-critical: skeptical.

Which brings me back to my beef with "CLS". Recently, in reference to the stolen private CRU e-mails, CLS tried to parlay the ordinary process of recommending referees when one submits a journal article into an active effort to corrupt the review process. Moreover he twisted correspondence between scientists concerning the Climate Research scandal into having evil motivation. Scientists standing up for integrity in the peer review process are, to CLS, scientists trying to suppress dissent--a church or religion! That they were protesting the publication of a paper that made claims in its conclusions that could not be drawn from its body is ignored.

It's possible that CLS didn't know the context of these e-mails. In that case, he should have waited, or perhaps just searched using Google as explanations were up by then. But denialists stop and broadcast when convenient, not when appropriate. In this case it was with no regard for the seriousness of the accusation being made. "Forget that reputations could be harmed unfairly, I'm going to stop here and spread my opinion because this is a convenient place to stop." And like Plimer, CLS didn't acknowledge his mistake even after it was pointed out by at least two different people. The lack of acknowledgement makes it seem less like a sincere (if not honest) mistake than like willful disregard for the truth.

Is it "argument from intimidation" to mention this? I don't think so. Is it "argument from intimidation" to recommend the following to CLS and similar characters?: Pull your head out of your ass--it's your behavior, not your position, that draws our ire.

Which is a pity, really, as he's not ordinarily an evil guy. Neither are the folks at Reason who promoted the Geoclimatic Studies paper. There's something about this issue that brings out the worst in many people.

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