Review: Dick Taverne – The March of Unreason

317 pages. Can be found here. ETA: Apparently, that link got DMCA’d. Here is the book: The.March.of.Unreason.Science.Democracy.and.the.New.Fundamentalism

I thought it was an interesting read. It is one long rant against unreasonable people at various places in life. It has a chapter on: Alternative medicine, organic farming, GM crops, fundamentalist environmentalism, globalization, and reason and democracy. It has made me want to reconsider my views on environmentalism, Greenpeace and the like, so I’ll be doing that in the near future (in a danish essay). Sometimes it would have helped him if he knew a bit more about philosophy or science. Two examples: 1. He does not seem to know that in science the words “theory” and “fact” are used differently from their usage in ordinary english. He should have read something like this.

“There is a consensus among scientists that Darwin’s theory of

natural selection is no longer a theory (whatever the creationists

may say) but a true description of the way species evolved. But

the scientific method itself involves critical examination and test-

ing of every new hypothesis and many hypotheses will be replaced

in time.” (p. 257)

2. He should have learned about Hume, reason and emotion when a critic threw this quote at him

“The National Gallery is a monument to irrationality! Every concert hall is a monument to irrationality!—and so is a nicely kept garden, or a lover’s favour, or a home for stray dogs. You stupid woman, if rationality were the criterion for things being allowed to exist, the world would be one gigantic field of soya beans!” (p. 286)

But overall it’s a good read if you think reason is important and that people are not reaonable enough. People with alternative views will not be convinced by this book because it is pretty one-sided. But then again, not much will convince someone that believes alternative medicine works or some such.

Philosophaster on “Persuasive power versus intellectual integrity”

I found this very nice piece on a forum.

In philosophy, there is something called the “principle of charity.” This is the idea that in a debate, we should address the strongest, most reasonable interpretation of opposing arguments, rather than take the easy way out and knock down a flimsy straw man, or try to make the opposition look idiotic through deliberately slanted or simplistic reading.

A couple of close relatives of the principle of charity are:
(1) Address the smartest, most capable supporters of opposing views, rather than “easy targets.”
(2) Address the most powerful objections to your own views, not just the ones that are easiest to answer.
(3) Concede when your opponents have made a good point, rather than just dropping the subject and hoping nobody notices.
(4) When one of your allies makes a shoddy argument, admit it — or even point it out.
These sound like nice ideals. Nevertheless, they may not make for the most persuasive presentation. Admitting that there can be reasonable objections to your views could be taken as a sign of weakness, and often enough probably is taken so. Taking on the strongest opponent available, you run more of a risk that a fence-sitter will judge in their favor rather than in yours. Critiquing the arguments of allies gives the appearance of disunity, and makes them look bad.
Now we can think about some opposite principles, call them “principles of propaganda”:
(1) Never give an accurate, detailed, plausible statement of your opponent’s views: this might make those views look too convincing, or make your own look worse by comparison.
(2) Don’t critique the argument of an ally, even if the argument sucks: doing that is like shooting at your compatriot in a war.
(3) If your opponent has made a good argument or has refuted one of your points, don’t concede it. Ignore it and hope nobody notices.
(4) Go after the most obviously incompetent and ridiculous arguments and people on the opposing side. Ignore the smarter and more capable ones, or claim that only morons and evil people could possibly oppose you.
Is it accurate to say that there is a fundamental conflict between intellectual integrity (or the principle of charity) and persuasive power? If so, how do you negotiate it?
The answer is “yes”. Which to choose depends on the audience and the need to succeed. For the purposes of serious philosophy and science, I always go with all four ‘charitable’ principles. Needless to say, politicians don’t.