Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Conceptual Hoax and its Adherents

CUNY slaps Harvard and Oxford!

Been waiting a while for somebody to actually say this:

As a skeptic myself, I am cautious about the constellation of cognitive biases to which our evolved brains are perpetually susceptible, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, overconfidence and belief perseverance. That is partly why, as a general rule, if one wants to criticize a topic X, one should at the very least know enough about X to convince true experts in the relevant field that one is competent about X. This gets at what Brian Caplan calls the “ideological Turing test.” If you can’t pass this test, there’s a good chance you don’t know enough about the topic to offer a serious, one might even say cogent, critique.
But here's the funny part:  it's part of an article about the "Conceptual Penis" hoax, and that hoax apparently caught a number of "luminaries":

As the historian Angus Johnston put it on Twitter, “If skepticism means anything it means skepticism about the things you WANT to be true. It’s easy to be a skeptic about others’ views.” The quick, almost reflexive reposting of this “hoax” by people like Dave Rubin, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Christina Hoff Sommers and Melissa Chen reveals a marked lack of critical thinking about what exactly this exercise in attempted bullying proves.

The links to Twitter there are mine.  Nothing says "high quality peer-reviewed" quite like Twitter, eh?  Such is the state of public intellectuals in America, where people gleefully engage in mocking postmodern theories and anything else they don't begin to understand.  Trump is a useful metaphor here:  after all, if he doesn't understand it, it must not be important, right?  Well, maybe not.  As for the three horseman of the dumbocalypse (credit me, please!), what they understand about Continental philosophy (the roots of postmodern theory) would fill a thimble, yet that makes them experts on the topic.  Their praise of this hoax indicates only that they, themselves, were hoaxed.

The story here, if you haven't heard, is that Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay wrote an article meant to parody gender studies, then found a journal to publish it.  Far from being a "high-quality peer reviewed" journal, as Pinker claims (and the authors themselves claim), they got published in a vanity publication, one where the authors pay to be published.  The authors claim they didn't pay to get their article published, but that doesn't raise the standards of the journal to something reputable or "peer-reviewed."  And then, to really twist the knife:

If anything, the hoax reveals not the ideological dogmas of gender studies but the motivating prejudices of the authors and their mostly white, mostly male supporters against social justice — a term that simply refers to the realization of fairness and just relations among citizens of a society. 

Which description certainly applies to Dawkins, Harris, and Pinker.

The fact is, reasoning is hard, and the basis of reasoning, of logical analysis, of critical thought (and not just "skepticism") is discerning what is true from what you want to be true.  Even religious belief is subject to skepticism, as the believer tries to divine what is from the deity v. what is from his/her own heart.  As the God of Abraham notably puts it to Jeremiah:

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

Jeremiah 17:9-10

The "test" there is not reasonableness, but outcome.  It is a concept separate from critique, but not alien to it.  It relates to the question of certainty, of knowing what is right.  It is a problem we've known about since the "Bronze Age," as so many children on the internet like to call the age of the Hebrew Scriptures (and of Plato and Aristotle, who somehow escape condemnation for that), and yet we're still re-inventing that wheel and re-discovering that fire.  Or at least still discovering it's validity in what passes for intellectual discourse in social media.  Who needs to even pay for an article to be published when you can put your opinion on Twitter for free?

Some of these "public intellectuals" just prove the old adage that you can't shame a whore.

Or, to quote a review I found via Thought Criminal (and it will need a bit of context, but read it first):

Instead, The Swerve’s primary achievement is to flatter like-minded readers with a tall tale of enlightened modern values triumphing over a benighted pre-modern past. It’s no accident, I think, that The Swerve’s imagined Middle Ages bears a strong resemblance to America’s present era of superstitious know-nothing-ism. Or that Lucretius’s secular, principled-pleasure-minded values bear an equally strong resemblance to the values of Greenblatt’s cultural peers — including, presumably, the jurors who awarded him two national literary prizes. The Swerve presents itself as a work of literary history. But really it is a salvo in the culture wars; an effort to lend an aura of historical inevitability to the idea that religious faith has no place in a modern democratic society.
The Swerve is the book under review.   The thesis of the book rests on a badly imagined version of the so-called "Middle Ages," that period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (and named by the Renaissance, which also got to name itself.  How fortunate!).  It's the last sentence that's the key:  the "effort to lend an aura of historical inevitability to the idea that religious faith has no place in a modern democratic society."  Which always rests on ignorance and know-nothing-ism, which is not a condition limited to those you disagree with.  Whenever you set your sights on your preferred conclusion and then go seeking evidence to support it, you're going to find such evidence, whether it's there or not.  Again, the metaphor of Donald Trump and most fact-finding by politicians is instructive.

We can expect better of our public intellectuals, even if we can't often get it.

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