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Dennett on Criticism

Here is some (fairly obvious I think) advice on criticism from Daniel Dennett:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Good practical advice, I think.  Facebook comment from someone:

I don’t think anyone can accuse Daniel Dennett of being ‘kind’ when it comes to criticizing the things he doesn’t agree with. When it comes to religion and determinism, I think ‘brutal’ would be a more appropriate word to use. Wish I could think of some concrete examples, but the only one that comes to mind is his critique of Rick Warren in a TED talk.

Maybe he got through the first three without learning anything.

Dred Scott and Godwin

Fig.1 Gay Marriage Analogy

When you’re out of arguments you go full Godwin (proposition p with which I disagree is Nazi).  When you go full Godwin Poe’s law goes into effect (we can’t tell your view from a straw man of your view–essentially).  On this score, here goes some bozo from the Witherspoon Institute, famous for their slippery slopes about Gay Marriage (society will be destroyed, eventually).  Via Talking Points Memo (the source for this kind of crazy nowadays):

In Dred Scott it was the false idea that some human beings can own other human beings, and that a democratic people cannot say otherwise. In the same-sex marriage rulings it is the false idea that men can marry men, and women can marry women, and that democratic peoples cannot say otherwise.

I suppose they’re both court cases of a sort.  In one, rights were recognized, in the other, they were denied.

How to journalism

These CNN types are so obviously wrong it made my 101 students laugh:

Now comes Chris Cuomo, Yale graduate, to their defense:

CUOMO: Also, his tone was angry. He wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it. Look, here’s what you guys were exposing yourself to. This is the state of play in journalism today. The Muslim world is responsible for a really big part of religious extremism right now. And they are unusually violent. They’re unusually barbaric in the places where it is happening. And it’s happening there more there than it is in other places. Do you therefore want to generalize? Of course not. But you do want to call a situation what it is. It’s not a coincidence that ISIS begins with an I. I mean, that’s what’s going on in that part of the world. Doesn’t mean other faiths can’t be violent and other cultures can’t be violent, but you shouldn’t be afraid of the question.

I’m wondering what “usually violent” would be, if the odd f**ktards with knives are “unusually” so.  Perhaps usual violence means you’re not actually angry when you kill someone, or you shoot them from a distance with a model airplane.  That, however, seems pretty unusual.

Inoculation vacation

I find this discussion of a recent book on vaccination (at Gawker, of all places) fascinating.  I mean the comment string actually, where the author is given a chance to answer direct questions from the readers.

To my mind, the author is far too light on the anti-vax crowd (and the readers let her know that).  She’s uncomfortable with them being labeled as stupid, as the anti-vax crowd speaks from a multitude of different perspectives.  A longish quote:

Well, first of all, what we’re calling the anti-vax position is actually a very diverse set of ideologies – thinking of it as one homogenous position is already robbing it of some of its complexity. One of the things that I’ve observed in my own thinking and in the thinking of other people who are vaccine hesitant is a tendency toward wide and sometimes loose association. For instance, we know a lot about the troubled history of paternalism in medicine and the ways in which the medical system has oppressed women – we associate the powerlessness we feel around vaccination with the powerlessness that has been forced on us historically. Or, we observe real and troubling problems in our current medical system, or in our system of government, or in our capitalist system, and we feel concern that those problems may bleed over into vaccination – may corrupt or pollute our vaccines. I think these concerns are legitimate – we have real, pressing problems with our medical system and with our government and with our economy. Do I think the best way to address those problems is to refuse vaccination? No, but I do think we (meaning those of us who care about the public health implications of vaccine refusal) need to be aware that significant social critiques are being made in the form of vaccine refusal. And if we want to enact change, rather than just self-righteously rant, we may even have to address the root problems of medical care, governance, and finance that are troubling some of the people who are refusing vaccination.

I appreciate the pragmatic impulse of the author (let’s worry about the public health issue, not the poor argument and misinformation). I think someone might write something significant about that notion, in fact.  Nonetheless, this strikes me as a bit of an iron man: there’s obviously an implicit social critique (as there is whenever anyone does anything against prevailing norms), but that social critique might be (and is in this case) lame, ill-informed, held by very few people, and dangerous.  It’s also probably not the point.  The point is the science.  And the objectors have, as the author believes, gotten that completely wrong.

The argument from ceded authority

Arguments from authority are typically third-person arguments: X says that p, so p is probably true.  Saying, I say that p, I have qualifications q, so listen up, is less common.  When you make an argument as an authority, you still cite reasons, they’re just reasons lay people don’t get.

Now comes Charles Krauthammer, quondam psychiatrist, who offers another twist on the argument from authority: the argument from ceded authority.  It works like this: I have qualifications q, but I’m not going to invoke them because they would prohibit me from saying p, so I cede this authority, and assert that p.  Here it is via TPM:

“So I decided when I left psychiatry never to use my authority. But let me just say as a layman, without invoking any expertise, Obama is clearly a narcissist in the non-scientific use of the word,” Krauthammer said during an interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” “He is so self-involved, you see it from his rise.”

I’m pretty sure that expertise is not the kind of thing you can just put aside, as you would if you were a pro tennis player playing an amateur.  That expertise, once earned, pretty much stays.  So Krauthammer has offered an interesting variation on the age-old “I’m not a doctor. . . ” it’s “I’m a doctor, but I don’t play one on TV.”

Healthy eating

More tu quoque in the news.  This time, again, perhaps for the nth time, Michelle Obama, advocate of healthy eating.  This from Talking Points Memo:

And how well can she be eating? She needs to drop a few,” Ablow said during Tuesday’s episode of “Outnumbered.”

The comment drew a collective cringe from the same four female panelists who had called the first lady “annoying” for her health initiatives only seconds earlier.

Despite the ridicule from his fellow panelists, the show’s “one lucky guy” dug in.

Well, no, let’s be honest. There’s no french fries happening? That’s all kale and carrots? I don’t buy it,” Ablow said, adding that he would welcome nutrition advice from President Obama.

This guy makes my job too easy.  By the way, this is my job.

I think we’re done here

We’ve been busy sorting our stuff out after a huge move–and it’s all still in boxes.  In the meantime, as we get back up to speed here, please consider this piece in Slate about the general terribleness of arguments against marriage equality, etc.

A taste:

The answer, it turns out, is that there are none—none, at least, that aren’t driven by animus. A review of the failed attempts here is instructive. At various points, conservatives argued that every child deserves a mom and a dad; that gay people simply make inferior parents; that marriage isn’t marriage without penile-vaginal penetration; that legalizing gay marriage would lower birth rates; and, best of all, that somehow, allowing gay people to get married would cause more straightpeople to have children out of wedlock.

We’ve talked about this topic quite a lot here.  In fact, of all topics, it seems to have produced the most commentary.

Perhaps it’s time, as the author suggests (and I think as Colin had argued here a long time ago), to consider this argument over.

Believing is seeing

Nice little piece by Brendan Nyhan at the New York Times’ “The Upshot” about how ideology and factual beliefs collide.  Here’s a taste:

Mr. Kahan’s study suggests that more people know what scientists think about high-profile scientific controversies than polls suggest; they just aren’t willing to endorse the consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views. This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction,health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.

So what should we do? One implication of Mr. Kahan’s study and other research in this field is that we need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues – for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican like former Representative Bob Inglis or an evangelical Christian like the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

….

The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals, especially when political parties and other identity-based groups get involved – an outcome that is inevitable on high-profile issues. Those groups can help to mobilize the public and represent their interests, but they also help to produce the factual divisions that are one of the most toxic byproducts of our polarized era. Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.

All of this seems right to me.   The last point is especially interesting.  It reminds me (somewhat tangentially) of a paper (by Marcin Lewinksi and Mark Aakhus) on polylogical reasoning I saw at ISSA last week.  Though perhaps not the point of the research (I’m only vaguely familiar with it), the problem is that we have fora for dialogues (or di-logues), but none for the poly-logues that more satisfactorily represent the actual dialectical terrain.  This forces ideological alliances such as the GOP one, where you’re pretty much forced to take positions on factual issues in order to belong to the club.  I imagine the Democratic position then forms in contrast (or t’other way round).  If you want to be in the game, you have to be on a team.  Well, it’s a stupid game.