Brooks on Gore III

Lots to choose from today: Sam Brownback’s evolution confusion or George Will’s “Case for Conservatism” (which is, as one would suspect, the case against his cartoonish liberal with the subsequently unjustified claim that this makes the case for his view–which it doesn’t). But David Brooks’ column the other day still offers some final ignorant tidbits. So far, the reader may remember, Brooks has accused Gore of favoring some kind of vulcan-like existence because he wants people to argue with facts and logic.

The final paragraphs of Brooks piece descend into nonsense. He writes:

> This, in turn, grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

Now the mind is identical to the brain? Doesn’t that make Brooks a determinist?

>The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience.

>Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.

Now we’ve veered far from the discussion of civil discourse, into simplistic (ironically it seems) pseudo-science about the nature of reasoning and consciousness and their relation to brain processes.

>Some great philosopher should write a book about people — and there are many of them — who flee from discussions of substance and try to turn them into discussions of process. Utterly at a loss when asked to talk about virtue and justice, they try to shift attention to technology and methods of communication. They imagine that by altering machines they can alter the fundamentals of behavior, or at least avoid the dark thickets of human nature.

>If a philosopher did write such a book, it would help us understand Al Gore, and it would, as he would say, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.

I don’t think any philosopher would write a book of that sort, as it rests on a confusion between argument and explanation. Brooks can’t bring himself to consider Al Gore’s argument, so he distorts it, and then asks what would explain such a distorted view. Ironically, even Gore’s distorted view is superior, on Brooks’ own grounds, to Brooks’ brain state analysis of human nature.

Perhaps Gore can include Brooks unreasoning response as an appendix in a subsequent edition of his book about the assault on rational discourse.

Brooks on Gore II

David Brooks’ review of Al Gore’s latest book merits another post (at least). Gore argues that the participatory nature of our democracy has been undermined by the one-way media. While that may not be an original idea, Gore has a lot of experience with its consequences. Brooks has no patience, however, for argument (something we have long suspected). He writes:

>But Gore’s imperviousness to reality is not the most striking feature of the book. It’s the chilliness and sterility of his worldview. Gore is laying out a comprehensive theory of social development, but it allows almost no role for family, friendship, neighborhood or just face-to-face contact. He sees society the way you might see it from a speaking podium — as a public mass exercise with little allowance for intimacy or private life. He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions.

It really would suck if people “exchang[ed] facts and arriv[ed] at logical conclusions.” The mysterious thing here is that not only is Gore lamenting the absence of civil discourse–which is, dear Mr.Brooks, a kind of civic engagement–but he can hardly be taken to be claiming that it’s the only thing people do.

What lurks behind Brooks dimwitted review is the classic Brooksian dichotomy: things can only be one way (my way) or the totally absurd other way (whatever your way is). Gore cannot be right about logic, because then we would all be Vulcans–like Dr.Spock (the one on TV). Maybe Al Gore is saying that we need logic at least, or perhaps, also.

Some, maybe like Kant or Aristotle or Aquinas, would agree with Gore.

More on this tomorrow. It’s too horrible for one or two days.

Brooks on Gore I

Al Gore says that there’s an assault on reason, David Brooks writes and a review and shows him why. The first paragraphs of Brooks’s review center on Gore’s sentence structure and word choice–not the facts, the reason, or the logic. For instance:

>As Gore writes in his best graduate school manner, “The eighteenth century witnessed more and more ordinary citizens able to use knowledge as a source of power to mediate between wealth and privilege.”

Maybe Gore doesn’t write well, maybe he does (you can’t tell by a few sentences taken at random), but at least it’s him that’s doing the writing. Worse than Brooks’s Blackwell criticism, is his failure to comprehend Gore’s point. For Brooks, Gore’s history is technological, “determined” by machines. This nicely plays into another of the many Gore tropes invented and endlessly repeated by the likes of Brooks: Gore is a “strange” person, a machine-like person, who needs someone to teach him how to act or dress.

Brooks failure to grasp Gore’s point repeats the now standard tropes of the printed pundit. The internet is bad:

> Fortunately, another technology is here to save us. “The Internet is perhaps the greatest source of hope for re-establishing an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish,” he writes. The Internet will restore reason, logic and the pursuit of truth.

>The first response to this argument is: Has Al Gore ever actually looked at the Internet? He spends much of this book praising cold, dispassionate logic, but is that really what he finds on most political blogs or in his e-mail folder?

Golly-gee. Ever so many political blogs engage in real serious political discourse. The real surprising thing here is that Brooks wants us to think that somehow he knows what reasoned political discourse is.

Memorial Day

It’s Memorial Day. George Will, one-time ardent supporter (“The Case for Bush“) of the man who has created the mess we’ll be in for a long time, reflects on its significance:

>The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says no property shall be “taken” without just compensation. The concept of an injury through “regulatory taking” is familiar and defensible: Such an injury occurs when a government regulation reduces the value of property by restricting its use. But the taxi cartel is claiming a deregulatory taking: It wants compensation because it now faces unanticipated competition.

Taxis in Minneapolis. Sure, immigration has been in the news. But not everything is an opportunity to make such pseudo-libertarian points. As a low-tax, civil liberties kind of guy, perhaps Will might be interested in the more obvious theme of the weekend–the war in Iraq. Aside from the sheer murderous folly of our entire Middle East venture, the erosion of the plain-language civil liberties of the constitution and the executive’s groundless assertions of power seem more pressing than crappy arguments by anecdote against Will’s silly view of “liberalism.”

Probably better for folks to meditate on this:

>Parents who lose children, whether through accident or illness, inevitably wonder what they could have done to prevent their loss. When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at age 27, I found myself pondering my responsibility for his death.

And he was against the war.

Someone with patience

To comment on every problem in a recent Victor Hanson piece. Hanson writes:

>Yet American Cassandras are old stuff. Grim Charles Lindberg in the late 1930s lectured a Depression-era America that Hitler’s new order in Germany could only be appeased, never opposed.

Sadly, No! responds:

>Oop. Oh well.

>It should be noted that:

>a.) You spelled “Lindbergh” wrong.
>b.) Lindbergh was a conservative who had sympathies with hardcore nationalist ideologies, while modern liberals don’t.
>c.) After Saddam was ousted from Kuwait in the ’90s, he never invaded another country again; not exactly the stuff Hitlers are made of. Iran hasn’t exactly been bowling over Poland and France either, y’know.
>d.) The WWII analogies are tired and boring. Look for some new ones. May I suggest my own brilliant essays on the Left’s failure to learn the lessons of Cola Wars and the Punic Wars?

Our problems are solved

Who thought it could be so easy:

>In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

>First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

Wouldn’t it be quicker if we all became Jesuits?

Psychology of believing

While the study of fallacies may help us to uncover defective reasoning, the study of the psychology of believing explains its maddening persistence. Take the following, for instance:

>Psychologists coined the term “pluralistic ignorance” in the 1930s to refer to this type of misperception — more a social than an individual phenomenon — to which even smart people might fall victim. A study back then had surprisingly found that most kids in an all-white fraternity were privately in favor of admitting black members, though most assumed, wrongly, that their personal views were greatly in the minority. Natural temerity made each individual assume that he was the lone oddball.

>A similar effect is common today on university campuses, where many students think that most other students are typically inclined to drink more than they themselves would wish to; researchers have found that many students indeed drink more to fit in with what they perceive to be the drinking norm, even though it really isn’t the norm. The result is an amplification of a minority view, which comes to seem like the majority view.

>In pluralistic ignorance, as researchers described it in the 1970s, “moral principles with relatively little popular support may exert considerable influence because they are mistakenly thought to represent the views of the majority, while normative imperatives actually favored by the majority may carry less weight because they are erroneously attributed to a minority.”

Interesting explanation for the “false equivalence” view indicative of contemporary media. Take any view, no matter how marginal, and you’ll still get the sense that it’s backed by a substantial number of people. The entire article is worth reading. Also on that subject, Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So is worth studying closely.

A question from a reader

I got the following question from a reader:

>”isn’t it begging the question in favor of religious theism to think
that someone with theological training is an “expert” qualified to have
a credible opinion? After all, if there are no gods, then theology
itself is a field of inquiry with no object to study.”

My first reaction would be this. Begging the question occurs in the context of an argument. It’s hard to see what the argument is here. Second, not many theologians are literally “God speakers” as the name might suggest. Many theologians study religious traditions, texts, and histories. Whether these have a supernatural character remains an interesting question, but it’s hardly the only one. And, at least as theology is studied where I come from (The Land of Jesuitica), that’s not one that gets asked in the theology department. Finally, I wouldn’t know either what is meant by “credible” opinion in this instance. The theologian, as any expert, as a legitimate claim of expertise over a certain material–say, a religious tradition or text–that expertise is not diminished by their being no God–that would be. But the mere existence of theologians does not itself constitute an argument for the existence of God. Some philosophers of mind argue that there are literally no minds at all, merely brains and their processes. Would it be the case, then, that psychologists “beg the question” by their mere existence against reductionism? I don’t think so.

Too often charges of “begging the question” are just confused ways of making burden claims: the person who makes the charges claims that it’s incumbent on the, say, theologian, to prove the existence of their object of study, and until they do, they beg the question. Alternatively, some claim that anyone who does not articulate every single assumption inherent in their view–does not prove their starting point–begs the question. Both of those charges are misplaced and ultimately self-refuting. To the second, no one can prove their own unprovable starting point (and this does not mean they’re all the same), so getting my Cartesian than Descartes will only wind you up in the loony bin (as Descartes himself suggested and as Foucault and Derrida–I bet you never thought you’d see their names here–famously discussed). To the first, argument analysis is best limited to specific arguments. If someone assumes something his conclusion to be true then proves it, fails to prove an obvious assumption, or simply restates his conclusion in different words, he begs the question. If he does not address your objection, he does not address your objection. He doesn’t beg the question against you.

More certainly could be said on this topic. Perhaps another time.


E.J.Dionne writes an interview piece on Gore in today’s Post. Gore says:

>”A lot of people were afraid of being accused of being unpatriotic,” he says. “One of the symptoms of this problem — the diminishing role for reason, fact and logic — is that what rushes in to fill the vacuum are extreme partisanship, ideology, fundamentalism and extreme nationalism.”

One can’t help but have some sympathy for this sentiment. What worries me, however, is not the absence of reason (facts and logic), but rather its misuse. In a sense, that’s unreason, but that might be stating the matter in a way that’s only going to alienate your opponent. What they have–and they have them indeed–are bad arguments. But even bad arguments take the form of arguments. That’s more that can usually be said for Dionne. I think the rest of Gore’s interview, in fact, does a remarkable job of impugning Dionne’s annoying failure to engage his opponent on sure and equal footing.

Logic and reason

In the category of questions that answer themselves, Al Gore wonders,

>why logic and reason and the best evidence available and the scientific discoveries do not have more force in changing the way we all think about the reality we are now facing.

Part of his answer is the “serial obsessions” of the media with with Anna Nicole Smith types of stories. And when they talk about politics, they obsess over the irrelevant details of the political horse race. And when they obsess over that, they focus on the most tabloid aspects of the election process.

Fair enough. But this really answers a separate question: why is no one interested in the reality we are facing.