Smoke Gets in My Eyes

If one wanted to know the solution to particular mathematical problem, and found that different groups gave different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of mathematics, rather than based upon which groups seemed most noble. If one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon principles of mathematics, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

Likewise, if one wanted to know the solution to a particular problem of the natural sciences, but found that different groups gave different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of science, rather than based upon which group seemed most noble. If one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon principles of science, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

And if one wanted to know what sort of social policy ought to be applied to some case, but found that different groups gave one different answers, then it might be interesting to hear or to read what each group said about the motives of rival groups, but one really ought to chose which answer or answers were correct based upon principles of science in combination with rational criteria for evaluating ethical philosophies (if, indeed, those criteria are not themselves scientific). And if one lacked the competence to decide the issue based upon such principles, then it would probably be best to resist coming to any decision if at all possible.

Now, all of that ought to be obvious; but consider how much pundits and the major media focus on personalities and theories of motive when it comes both to policy and to science applicable to policy, and how little real science and how little careful dissection of philosophical case is presented. If one party wants one thing, and another wants something different, then we are given some tale of the nobility or at least the level-headedness of one group, and of the knavery or foolishness of the other; accompanying this narrative will be cartoon physics, cartoon biology, or cartoon economics. If ethics are relevant, then one might get cartoon philosophy of ethics, or some ethical philosophy might be implicitly imposed, as if no rival philosophy were conceivable. (If something is treated as good, there generally ought to be an explanation somewhere of what makes it good. If something is treated as bad, there likewise ought to be an explanation of what makes it bad.)

This practice is so prevalent because so many listeners and readers unthinkingly accept it. And I'm not just talking about low-brow or middle-brow people. The self-supposed high-brow folk, more educated and ostensibly more thoughtful, accept this practice. Most of the people who would, if they read them, say that the previous four paragraphs were trivially obvious accept this practice. I don't simply mean that they don't cancel subscriptions or write angry letters to the editor; I mean that they allow their own beliefs to be shaped by some group engaging in the practice. They fall into attending to one narration of this sort, and let it guide them until and unless some crisis causes them to turn their backs on it, at which point they almost always begin to be guided by a narration using the same basic practice to advance some different set of policies.

Sometimes, one must make a decision, with nothing upon which to go except the discernible motives of conflicting parties. In those cases, one should bear in mind that, except to the extent that they are reporting brute fact (rather than interpretation), one typically learns more about the narrators themselves from what they say (and avoid saying) of their opponents, than one learns about their opponents. (And one should not allow the emotional appeal of a narrative to lead one to pretend that one must make a decision that one can in fact defer.)

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.