Tag Archives: Sophistry

Climate science with the Gorgias

Gorgias

George Will, the world’s worst climate scientist, reminds us of a passage from Plato’s Gorgias as he once again ventures into climate science.  At least this time he isn’t confusing a work of actual fiction with actual non-fiction science.   You can read whatever he says at the link.  Here is relevant passage of the Gorgias:

Soc. Let me tell you then, Gorgias, what surprises me in your words; though I dare say that you may be right, and I may have understood your meaning. You say that you can make any man, who will learn of you, a rhetorician?

Gor. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction but by persuasion?

Gor. Quite so.

Soc. You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gor. Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Soc. Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows? Or must the pupil know these things and come to you knowing them before he can acquire the art of rhetoric? If he is ignorant, you who are the teacher of rhetoric will not teach him-it is not your business; but you will make him seem to the multitude to know them, when he does not know them; and seem to be a good man, when he is not. Or will you be unable to teach him rhetoric at all, unless he knows the truth of these things first? What is to be said about all this? By heavens, Gorgias, I wish that you would reveal to me the power of rhetoric, as you were saying that you would.

Can someone please send Mr.Will a copy of this book?

via Thinkprogress (where you can find a thorough discussion of just how bad Will’s piece was).

Sophistry on the rise

In the Guardian, philosopher Jonathan Wolff argues that the Higher Education industry is creating the ideal conditions for the return of sophistry.

We may well have recreated the conditions that led to the rise of Sophistry. In just the last few years we have introduced significant fees for education; rapid opinion sharing in the form of the National Student Survey (NSS), repeated every year and widely publicised; and increasingly desperate competition between universities.

My anecdotal sense is that this has long been the case here in the US–where we have to battle not even with the instrumental value of logic, philosophy, etc., but with its perceived instrumental value.

Via the Leiter Reports.

How the Rich Saved Democracy

Did Ross Douthat just jump the shark? Yes:

With the Republican primary season winding down, it’s time to celebrate two heroes of participatory democracy, two champions of the ordinary voter, two men who did everything in their power to make the ballot box matter as much as the fundraising circuit.

I speak, of course, of Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess.

Adelson is the casino billionaire whose super PAC donations enabled Newt Gingrich to upset Mitt Romney in South Carolina and give him a scare in Florida. Friess is the investment manager whose super PAC donations enabled Rick Santorum to prolong the race through February and March. Both men are controversial; both have been cited as prime examples of the corrupting influence of great wealth on our politics. But both did more than anyone else to prevent the Republican primary from turning into a straightforward “money talks” affair.

Adelson and Friess, in a paradoxical judo move, have somehow preserved popular democracy and prevented the Republican primary from turning into a "money talks" affair by giving sh*tloads of money to two candidates who, unlike Romney and his "sturdy donor base," can't raise money via popular methods. 

Just is

Yet again, in the can't tell if trolling category, we have Ross Douthat, New York Times Columnist, arguing for the death penalty.  It's the not fact of arguing for it (full and irrelevant disclosure: I think we're better off without it), it's the way he does.  His argument has all of the earmarks of a sophistry challenge:

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.   

That Troy Davis's likely unjust (and therefore actually unjust) execution inspired people to care about his fate is not an argument in favor of the death penalty anymore than the outpouring of blood donation and patriotism was an argument for 9/11.  Some in the public responded in the appropriate moral way to an atrocity.  Good for them.  But the atrocity is not the reason for their being moral.  Take away that atrocity and they can be moral about something else–like prison reform, about which many already care death penalty aside–Douthat's insinuation is a false dichotomy (it's either death penalty elimination or broader prison reform!). 

There's too much that's just awful here to comment on.  Here, however, is the worst of the worst:

Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.

And thus the sophistry challenge.  Eliminating the big injustices would merely (albeit justifiably) undermine confidence in the unjust system.  That would be unjust. 

Agnotology and Sophistry

As I understand it, agnotology, the scientific name for "epistemic closure," could be taken in a couple of different ways (Or, in the words of the Stagirite translated by Moerbeke and pondered upon by the Angelic Doctor, agnotologia dicitur multipliciter).  First, there is the purposeful production of unreasonable doubt:

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

So, Christianists fight to the death on gay marriage but are unconcerned by the emergence of serial divorce and remarriage as a social norm, particularly among the Republican elite. Libertarians denounce gun control as the first step to dictatorship but, many have been unconcerned or supportive of the abrogation of most constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and punishment. Business pushes its own barrow through continuous advocacy of tax cuts, but shows no concern about massive defense spending that is already rendering those cuts unsustainable.

Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

The manufacture of ignorance is most obvious in relation to climate change, where the gullibility associated with ‘scepticism’ has reached levels that would have seemed unbelievable (at least in the absence of the kind of religious commitment associated with creationism). If supporters of science had invented someone like Lord Monckton, he would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.

I think this is far too narrow.  In the first place, it's my guess that not many of those who promote the views discussed above actually believe them to be false.  To this extent I think the Tobacco Industry analogy does not  work.  For on that analogy, the Tobacco companies made efforts to suppress knowledge about their harmful products–they engaged in other words in deliberate propoganda.  

Second, I think what is really at issue in agnotology is the aura of complete unreasonableness associated with a certain set of beliefs or views.  Otherwise science-believing, antibiotic-taking individuals will suddenly seize up when a select set of scientific hypotheses fall under discussion.  Germ theory of disease?  Fine.  Plant Hybridization?  Fine.  Global warming?  Science can't prove anything!

For this reason, I'd say we have a problem primary of selective skepticism.  So the the problem is primarily one of unreasonable ignoring.  This, I think, is a process question.  So agnotology ought to focus on the sophistical mechanisms of ignoring. 

Plato on Sophistry

From the Meno:

How could that a mender of old shoes, or patcher up of clothes, who made the shoes or clothes worse than he received them, could not have remained thirty days undetected, and would very soon have starved; whereas during more than forty years, Protagoras was corrupting all Hellas, and sending his disciples from him worse than he received them, and he was never found out. For, if I am not mistaken,-he was about seventy years old at his death, forty of which were spent in the practice of his profession; and during all that time he had a good reputation, which to this day he retains: and not only Protagoras, but many others are well spoken of; some who lived before him, and others who are still living. Now, when you say that they deceived and corrupted the youth, are they to be supposed to have corrupted them consciously or unconsciously? Can those who were deemed by many to be the wisest men of Hellas have been out of their minds?

Made me think of Bill Kristol et alia.

Plagiarism

Paying a stranger to write a paper for you when you're a college student is called plagiarism.  The other day NPR's On the Media did a story on someone who ghost wrote what he called "model papers."  When pressed about what would justify his actions, he produced a blizzard of sophistry:

BOB GARFIELD: Let me just quote from you here. Quote, “Writing model term papers is above-board and perfectly legal. Thanks to the First Amendment it’s protected speech, right up there with neo-Nazi rallies, tobacco company press releases and those ‘9/11 was an inside job’ bumper stickers.”

So, I mean, I don't want to be putting words in your mouth, but I think what you’re saying is legal but repulsive, sleazy.

NICK MAMATAS: Oh, sure.

BOB GARFIELD: Unethical, morally disgraceful. Am I leaving anything out?

NICK MAMATAS: No, that pretty much sums it up, yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: So Nick, how do you rationalize your behavior? I mean, it sounds kind of whorish to me.

NICK MAMATAS: Mm, well again, I also think that prostitution should be legal, and I've written several term papers about that over the years.

As far as my own work in term papers, basically I felt my other writing was more important. You know, everyone makes these decisions. What about people who work in munitions factories, or who work for defense contractors?

So we all make these decisions. It’s just a cost benefit analysis. In the end, I felt I benefited from writing these papers ‘cause it allowed me to work at home and write novels and short stories and articles. And the people who were buying the papers, well, they – that was their decision. They could take that as a model paper, and many of them did. They could hand it in and roll the dice, ‘cause I was always happy, always thrilled, actually, to hand in a paper to a professor. If the client, you know, was trying to pull one over on me, or was even nasty to me sometimes, I'd just sort of like secretly fax it.

So Mr. Mamatas seems to think that ghost writing term papers is morally disgraceful, yet despite not being morally justified, it's morally justified.  What follows are his justifications and in parentheses what I think is their appropriate interpretation.

(1) He was able to do his other writing with the income from writing "model papers" (I only lied and cheated because it benefited me!something is morally justified if you benefit in some way from it).

(2) Everyone makes cost/benefit decisions (a general and irrelevant rule which doesn't apply to my circumstance in particular applies to it).

(3) Other people work for munitions factories and defense contractors (other people have jobs I have improperly characterized as morally questionable so that makes it ok for me to have a self-evidently morally unjustifiable job).

(4) Whether the paper which was produced for the sole purposes of cheating–otherwise there would be no income, as professors provide model papers all of the time–was used for its stated purpose depended on the person who turned it in, not on the person who profited from that person's attempted deceit (I produced papers for entertainment purposes only, should anyone actually use it for its intended purpose, the purpose for which I produced it and the reason I was paid for it, well, I can't be held responsible for that).

(5) There is no honor among thieves, if you're mean to Mr.Mamatas, he'll turn you in (I'm not only a dishonest person in regards to honest people, I'm a dishonest person in regards to dishonest people–so it's ok).

This American life

Pundits rarely criticize each other by name.  So when they do, it's fun to point it out.  Here's Michael Kinsley on right wing sophistry  punditry re Sarah Palin, John McCain's pick for Vice President:

But that's so five minutes ago, before Sarah Palin. Already, conservative pundits have come up with creative explanations for McCain's choice of a vice presidential running mate with essentially no foreign policy experience. First prize (so far) goes to Michael Barone, who notes on the U.S. News and World Report blog that "Alaska is the only state with a border with Russia. And it is the only state with territory, in the Aleutian Islands, occupied by the enemy in World War II." I think we need to know what Sarah Palin has done, in her year and change as governor of Alaska, to protect the freedom of the Aleutian Islands before deciding how many foreign policy experience credits she deserves on their account. 

And here is the inexplicable David Brooks on the experience question:

So my worries about Palin are not (primarily) about her lack of experience. She seems like a marvelous person. She is a dazzling political performer. And she has experienced more of typical American life than either McCain or his opponent.

There's more to that but it brings up a family issue which no one should give a rats about.  I'm curious, however, how someone could experience more of a typical American life than someone else.  I suppose McCain's career in government and vast wealth and privilege would exclude him from the category of typical, but what about Obama?  Seems like his life–school on scholarship, etc.,–is fairly typical of a vast number Americans.  But besides, how would having an even more hyperbolically typical American life constitute a qualification for the most unique job in the country?

Update, I think this commenter on Crooked Timber aptly captures the issue (the comment regards Harriet Mier's nomination to the Supreme Court)–via Sadly, No!

Surge protector

I heard this on the radio and thought it didn't make any sense.  Even though it's a politician, I'll break with tradition (that's "tradition" by the way, not "rule") and put it up here.  And if you're addicted to "balance," then go find some crazy equivalent howler by Obama so we can talk about that.  It's John McCain criticizing Obama on the surge. 

Oddly enough, my opponent advocates the deployment of two new combat brigades to Afghanistan — in other words, a surge. We're left to wonder how he can deny that the surge in Iraq has succeeded, while at the same time announcing that a surge is just what we need in Afghanistan. I'll leave all these questions for my opponent and his team of 300 foreign policy advisors to work out for themselves. With luck, they'll get their story straight by the time the Obama campaign returns to North America.

The only way this argument would work is if Obama had argued that "surges" (I'm weak on military strategy, but I don't think that's a kind of thing) do not work in principle–which, as far as I know, he didn't. 

I guess I would call this a rather straightforward case of suppressed evidence.  Afghanistan and Iraq are obviously different vis a vis military surging.  Reasons for surging in one place are not reasons for surging in every place.