Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Skeptical infallibility

A little bit of knowledge can be laughable. We're all familiar with the newbie who, having learned of informal fallacies of argument, denies true claims because they are backed by arguments that could be incorrect due to their form. If I say that I see the sky is blue, the newbie squeals "argument from authority!" And then there's the guy who's taken freshman microeconomics who knows that the world runs by markets, and the whole world should be understood by perfect market assumptions. A close relation is the victim of "Atlas Shrugged". And most laughable of all, the religious/creationist zealot who has discovered the power of parroting arguments to bamboozle the unprepared. These people all get drunk on the "power" these learnings give them to argue with others less prepared.

The secular counterpart to the religious/creationist zealot is the dogmatic skeptic. (See Denialism for corporate-sponsored examples.) Armed with some preferred extreme position, having out-argued a few particularly stupid opponents by reciting arguments (which are sometimes good, unlike religious/creationist arguments), this sort of skeptic seems to think he is infallible in his pronouncements. The problem is when this sort of skeptic stumbles upon an argument he's not familiar with and attempts to respond.

The syndrome is a familiar one to those who argue with the religious. Some common responses are to:

(1) misconstrue the argument as one he can parrot a response to
(2) attribute strong emotions to the opponent while displaying them himself (psychological projection)
(3) attempt some combination of stand on dignity/sneering
(4) blame his mistakes on the other person's poor writing
(5) conveniently ignore clear refutations and throw out random factoids as if they adequately responded to a point
(6) deny clear misbehavior
(7) attempt to shift the burden of proof
(8) stubbornly insist on false dichotomies when presented with third options
(9) and proclaim himself the winner.

All these are ways of dealing with the harsh, ego-deflating failure to make a good argument, a form of self-delusion. Spaghetti forbid that the dogmatic skeptic should actually question whether his argument was competent, whether he really knows enough to make a good response, whether he has taken a correct position. He is righteous! The opponent must be wrong! He must be infallible!

Let's look at how Skeptico has responded to me for an example. These correspond to the 9 points above.

(1) Skeptico rewrote my clear statement, and now claims that he didn't understand it: how could he rewrite it accurately if he didn't understand it? He should make up his mind. I wrote "Commodity prices drop due to technological improvements such as GM." Perhaps it is too difficult for him to understand that other technological improvements have been reducing commodity prices since the inventions of the horse collar, steam engine, reaper, hybrid seed, etc. Having rewritten it, he made a specific (partly wrong) claim for GM seed, which did not address my more general statement.

(2) Skeptico writes: "angry drivel", "idiocy", "so-called arguments", "what the hell did you mean", "babbling", "Oh give me a break", "an arrogant, angry jerk". Who's displaying angry emotions here? Nor is this the first interchange where he's done this. "Perhaps if you calmed down a bit before you pushed post…" I notice that I thought on my response for 5 days, whereas his went up in two hours or less. Who's not calm?

(3) Let's see: for sneering we have "Wow – pretty desperate tactics. I’ll ignore most of your idiocy...". For stand on dignity, we have "You’re one to lecture about humility. You come across as an arrogant, angry jerk." Somebody needs to tell him the little secret that when you use these in combination, they add up to unconvincing.

(4) "If I misunderstood something you wrote, that would be your fault for being a crappy writer." Could there be a better example of how Skeptico cannot be at fault, because he must be infallible?

(5) When I was pointing out that soybean prices had been falling for roughly the last 25 years (in response to his irrelevant point that they were up this year), he responds that "GM has only been planted for ten. Kind of ruins your complete argument, doesn’t it?" This too is irrelevant.

(6) "I made no strawmen." A clear denial of his rewriting what I posted.

(7) Skeptico wrote "I’m sure it’s true that GM hasn’t (yet) resulted in significantly higher productivity or lower costs." When I pointed out a specific sales pitch that contradicted him and asked him for his source, he turns around and asks me for mine. No response to the request for his own source.

(8) Skeptico seem incapable of realizing more than a dichotomy when discussing why farmers oppose GM. He states the choices as (a) buy or (b) don't buy. But it is obvious that there are at least 3: (a) buy from a monopolist or (b) don't buy from a monopolist or (c) don't allow a monopolistic entry into the market.

(9) And here's the funniest one of all. Skeptico proclaims himself the winner of the debate! "You need to learn not only the humility that you hilariously think I need, you also need to develop a coherent argument and learn how to write it down. Because you haven’t even come close to making your case so far." Ooo, he's qualified to judge me and my argument, despite the fact that he has no visible qualifications at all. And he expects us to believe him. Because he's got to be infallible, no doubt.

We skeptics are not infallible, and when we argue with each other, we cannot make the presumptions we make when arguing with the dogmatic. Dogmatic responses of our own are adequate for run-of-the-mill purposes so frequently that some skeptics seem to feel they must be infallible, and forget the critical reading and thinking skills that are essential to creating new, customized arguments.


Mike Huben said...

Oh, and I left out one of Skeptico's most egregious blunders. He writes: "Oh give me a break. US farmers are not protected by subsidies? Where have you been?"

Perhaps Skeptico is unaware of the greatly diminishing number of family-owned farms over the past century. Which is still continuing in the US, but not nearly as much in Europe of Japan where farmers have real protection.

Perhaps Skeptico is also unaware that subsidies are primarily corporate welfare, and not particularly aimed at family farmers.

Unknown said...

Hey Mike, not directly related to your post, but I've got something you might be interested in. This Sunday on the cable access show "The Atheist Experience," I decided to take on Objectivism from an atheist perspective.

You can watch the show here, but you might just want to skip to the blog thread where all the Rand lovers who are fans of the show (or perhaps "used to be") came out to play.