The adversary paradigm

In “The Adversary Paradigm,” (1983) Janice Moulton challenged the claim that the ideal way to examine a view is to subject it to adversarial challenges in the form of  counterexamples. Roughly, I assert p, you assert ~p in an attempt to challenge p.

Among Moulton’s problems with this view are these. First, it’s epistemically limited. There are lots of ways a view can go wrong, not all of them, or even the most salient ones, are revealed by this method.

Second, it tends to institutionalize a kind of intellectual trolling culture. Since to challenge its view is to assert its opposite, we need to refresh the pool of people who will play this role, even if their criticisms have little plausibility. So, for instance, do we need to host Holocaust deniers in a history of the holocaust course? Does answering their charges do much to improve our knowledge of the Holocaust? What’s more likely, is that it obscures the many actually controversial elements to the study of the Holocaust and it gives greater plausibility to a fringe view (among other reasons).

This danger, I think, lurks behind the idea that we need to invite controversial people for the sole reason that they’re controversial. Here’s this from Inside Higher Ed:

As movements to protest and silence controversial campus speakers have become common, the president of a new Harvard University student group intends to “saturate” the campus with those types of talks — to challenge established ideologies that he said administrators there blatantly promote.

Open Campus Initiative was organized this year, its president, Harvard sophomore Conor Healy, said in an interview Friday.

Already, the group of roughly 25 students, Healy said, has secured commitments from two right-leaning, controversial figures to address the campus. One, writer Charles Murray, made headlines in March after his lecture at Middlebury College was drowned out by student chants, forcing him to stop. Murray is often accused of promoting racist ideals. Open Campus Initiative has not yet pegged a day for his talk.

The pick of Murray was deliberate, Healy said. He was horrified by the disruptions at Middlebury and said he wanted to prove Harvard could serve as a role model institution for free expression.

“Most of the community wants to hear from the people we’re inviting, they want to critique them, ask them hard questions, and they’re willing to be convinced,” Healy said. “If they’re not convinced, their perception of the truth can be reinforced by the opposing view.”

Free speech rights and all. But this is college, the challenge in college is to bring students (and others) up to speed with debates among academics. This naturally will not include everyone and every view. The challenge then, for controversial speakers, is to show that they’re part of a live controversy, and not instead just people who are very good at hanging on to discredited views.

Moulton herself was not categorical in her rejection of the adversary paradigm. The problem, she maintained, was considering it to be the ideal of intellectual engagement.

 

3 thoughts on “The adversary paradigm”

  1. Hi John,
    Seems right, and the inclusion of those who do not represent the more viable alternatives in a debate actually is fodder for the thought that there is no reasonable opposition. So including Murray for the sake of free inquiry norms has a long-term drawback!

  2. Hey Scott–

    Call it the “Milo problem. ” You promote a guy with no discernible view or no coherent or accurate critique on the theory that he is strident opposition.

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