Paging Doctor Analogy

Perhaps there’s an academic paper in what we might call the “Doctor Analogy of Epistemic Competence.”  The basic thought is to treat any epistemic claim as if it were a claim made by your medical doctor.  You undeniably have a personal interest in the accuracy and competence of such claims, so a history of failure or incompetence in this regard is relevant to you.  Here’s an example:

“The analogy I’d draw is the following: You go to a doctor, who diagnoses an ailment and prescribes drugs and surgery,” Landay said. “The diagnosis, however, turns out to be disastrously wrong and as a result, the drugs and surgery leave you crippled for years to come. Are you going to go back to that same doctor to diagnose your next illness? No, you aren’t. In fact, you probably sued him/her for malpractice after the first go-round. Unfortunately, we can’t sue Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Feith and the others for malpractice. But we can stop listening to them.”

Naturally, the virtue of Dr.Analogy is that it’s measurable: certain kinds of outcomes can be assessed very directly.  Yet, somehow, the Doctors who predicted or diagnosed the Iraq situation correctly are virtually invisible, while the ones who got it wrong are everywhere.

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.

Philosophy worthless, says Philosopher

I have some sympathy with the view that philosophy is a waste of time, though I hope it isn’t.  I really fear, however, that normative informal logic might be –though I cannot the basic self-referential problem that judging it to be a waste of time requires using it, therefore, etc.

There is a discussion on the Leiter Reports about the worthlessness of philosophy, as argued in Peter Unger’s recent book (and discussed in this interview at 3QuarksDaily).   Some, in the comments on LR, allege Unger’s thesis is self-refuting (along the lines mentioned above).  Someone responded–anonymously–as follows:

So far, it seems most people are either attacking Unger personally for having a cushy philosophy job while saying philosophy sucks or are resorting to cheap tricks like: If philosophy is empty and his argument is a philosophical one, then that’s empty too, so there. 

This accurately describes some of the comments, but the anonymous author here ought to know that such arguments are not ipso facto fallacious or irrelevant (I’m guessing this is what the author means by “cheap tricks”) because they’re ad hominem.   We’ve discussed this here.  Unger’s failure to apply his thesis too himself may be a sign that he doesn’t find his view credible.  More importantly, the self-referential failure of Unger’s view (if this is accurate), is not really a cheap trick, but rather the entire stupid problem.  Philosophy, in particular epistemology and its various applied fields, studies the question as to what makes for justified belief that something is worthless.  A worthwhile endeavor.

Bad arguments get bad replies

A student of mine is a lapsed vegetarian–with vegetarian parents. They object, for religious and ethical reasons, to his meat eating.   He retorts with the following argument:

If it’s wrong to eat animals because they’re living creatures, it’s wrong to eat plants, because they’re also living creatures.

My student acknowledges that this is a weak argument but nonetheless reports that this is a successful rejoinder to the extent that his parents do not reply.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that this is the case.  Let’s further say, again for the sake of argument, that the parents’ argument is both weak in itself and weakly held by them.

This means that his parents do not have (or do not share) very good reasons for their vegetarianism.  So, the student replies to a weak argument with an equally weak argument.  When I raised this point, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “what does it matter?  It does the job.”

Students of argumentation, in my limited experience, tend to study either bad arguments or bad replies, but not both together.  And in this case, the bad reply is offered on purpose, because a better reply isn’t necessary.

I’m inclined to think this is wrong, and that the student owes the parents (and himself) a better reply to a better argument.   I say this because he’s aware of how bad his own argument is.  On the other hand, his parents haven’t offered a very good defense, and answering a better argument would be iron manning them.