These days everything is controversial and there’s little certainty about anything. Take for example the endless battles over what constitutes a healthy diet [consider Jordan Peterson and his daughter only consume beef, salt, and water]. A big part of this is, I suspect, because somewhere along the line people stopped believing that it is essential to defer to the greater argument. It can be frustrating to see the same crackpot “theories” and fallacious arguments circulated endlessly even after they’ve already been logically demolished. A major cause of the demise of deference given to the best argument is a misguided war on reason that has been waged in academia and social movements in the last half century. The way forward requires screwing our heads back on straight and adhering — in general and when appropriate — to coming to shared understanding and conclusions through the universal application of objective reasoning.
Today, everything is subjective, and people can find a community online to bolster whatever conclusion they favor, no matter how ridiculous. Thus, in 2020, Galileo Galilei would be shocked to learn that we are still fighting not only over whether the Earth revolves around the sun or not, but if it’s a sphere or not.
For all my adult life, as far back as I can remember, I’ve believed that as a guiding principle one is beholden to accept the stronger argument whether one likes it or not. Reality is something we must grapple with, and we ultimately need to abandon our protective bubbles of reassuring fantasy in order to come to grips with reality and see the bigger picture. This is how science works. You wouldn’t be reading this on a monitor and over the internet if scientists couldn’t agree on things like gravity, or whether radiation, though invisible, really exists. Science is built on a cumulative knowledge base that is accepted as the best working model. As such, it is leagues ahead of other disciplines, which so often get tangled in the starting gate, disagreeing on the most fundamental principles. As people often remarked after the dual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (or the use of napalm, if you prefer) our core humanity lags behind our scientific advancement.
In the arts we are ever so fond of going back to square one, and in the 20th century the most important art was declared to be that which asked the big question, “What is art?” Michelangelo would, I think, be disappointed to learn that over 500 years after he sculpted his interpretation of the biblical David, we can’t figure out what art is. Are we still going to be asking that question in another 500 years? Contemporary artists favor radical revolutions that disavow all that went before and strike out in a new dawn with themselves leading the way, even if it’s just going out on the limb of a futile branch.
Are any of the people who currently despise Western civilization, and particularly the blight on Earth that is American history, willing to go a day, a week, or a month without electricity? I didn’t think so. Internet? No. Netflix?
And so we can learn from the success of science the value of working with cumulative, shared knowledge, and trading in some of our flakier beliefs for the more solid grounding of much better argued and determined conclusions.
But that’s now what we do. Today, our conclusions are not based on the best arguments and evidence, but on allegiance. In America, If you know one or two things someone believes in, you can pretty much guess the rest. Ideas are now weapons in a struggle for power, in which case we keep shooting the weapons we have, even if they are inferior, because they are the weapons of our side. Ideological and cultural warfare doesn’t hold the best argument as sacrosanct, but only its own arguments, its story, its narrative, its ideology.
The news gave up on being objective, and everything is an editorial hammering home the given agenda. News stories are cherry-picked, and the goal is always to corral people into an ideological camp.
Even science is co-opted into producing experiments that will yield a desired result in order to mislead the public. A classic example is the myriad studies that alleged to prove that tobacco was not linked to cancer. Here, we can add business interests to political interests as prime motivators for deceiving the public with seemingly convincing misinformation. When such stories or studies are rebutted, they are allowed to continue anyway, and whichever story is most repeated is generally accepted as true.
Advertisers and marketers know that reality is determined by popular opinion, and popular opinion can be molded through the media. What we believe en masse turns out to be whatever is in the best interests of the select few who cultivate our beliefs. In short, we are being brainwashed by business and politics, and we’ve lost the framework and ability to protect ourselves by being able to find, understand, or even value a much more solid foundation of knowledge.
The Attack on Reason
The quote above by Jean-Francois Lyotard is a very popular view in academia today. Reason is the tool of the oppressor, and the anecdotal experience and feelings of “other groups” who are not “empowered” should be valued above rational argument. This is the genesis of stances such as, “I think we all need to listen to what an indigenous person has to say”. Similarly, a poster recently put out by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture claims that “objective, rational, linear thinking” is an “aspect and assumption of whiteness”.
Lyotard’s argument could as easily apply to technology, or even literacy, since powerful groups have used all these things to maintain their hold on power. This doesn’t mean we should abandon reason, or that less powerful groups can’t use it themselves as a tool to oppose oppression. If guns are a tool of the oppressor, than should the oppressed only fight armed militias with hurled sauce pans? Rather than squelch reason in favor of the feelings of oppressed, marginalized, or minority groups, it might be a lot better to give them the tools of reason to help advance their own causes, and allow them to compete better on the world stage. This doesn’t mean you can’t also, eminently reasonably, give voice to their emotions and experiences.
And if the National Museum of African American History & African Culture believes that objective thought is an “aspect and assumption of whiteness” than that’s hardly a criticism of whiteness. Their list also includes hard work, the nuclear family, delayed gratification, being polite, and decision-making among the presumed deleterious characteristics of “whiteness”. This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
If we shit-can objective thinking, what takes it’s place? What if everyone adopts Lyotard’s emphasis on emotions and experience for themselves and their groups? We all then rely predominantly on our feelings and anecdotal evidence to formulate narratives and conclusions which favor our own group. Nobody is able to communicate using a shared system of assessing arguments and evidence, and everyone splinters into their own tribal communities, repeating stock phrases in confirmation-bias echo chambers.
Examples of the abandonment of reason
As much as I’d like to give very specific examples, it’s now become too dangerous. Some factions don’t take prisoners, and anything you say can and will be used against you in a social media maelstrom. Whatever I say is going to make me enemies on whichever side of the fence I choose my example from, though one side is considerably more likely to go for the kill. I’ll give hypothetical examples instead, to play it a bit safer
Any resemblance between the following fictional examples and real politics is purely coincidental.
Three cats from three separate households disappear within a day in the same community.
The local news reports that the university biology department has been known to use animals as part of experiments, and there’s heavy suspicion that the cats were abducted by people who sell them to the labs. “You’d be a fool to not interrogate the biology department, ” the anchor insists. It turns out that one of the cats returned home, another was run over by a car, and the third ran away from home and prefers to hang out in the local park. The university hasn’t experimented on animals in over 25 years. The news channel never does a follow up, and thus the impression of their initial report that the university is to blame is popularly believed to be the truth. Here we have the double whammy of cherry-picked news, and that while hyping a sensationalist story is newsworthy, dispelling it isn’t.
It is a fact that 85% of lightning strike victims are men, and 89% are white [note, these are real facts according to the CDC!].
A collection of men’s advocates and white identarians form a group called GAPT (Golfers Are People Too) after coming to the inevitable conclusion that bad clouds are attacking white men “out of the blue” for sport. A few harrowing instances of golfers getting struck convinces them that the assault clouds are particularly determined to hurt golfers! It is pointed out that most people harmed by lightning are playing outdoor sports such as fishing and golf, or performing outside jobs such as construction. Additionally, it happens most in the southeastern states. These conditions explain the correlation between white men and being struck by lighting, and that it is their behavior that puts them at greater risk, not the animus of the clouds. GAPT considers those findings as fabricated and sure evidence of a collusion between the general public and the clouds. They continue to repeat their simple statistics, holding their golf clubs high in the air, rain or shine. Here we have people insisting something is true regardless of context which proves otherwise.
A symptom of the widespread loss of respect for the better argument is the prevalence of logical fallacies. The most popular is the ad-hominem fallacy, which is to attack your opponent rather than his argument. The hope is to win the debate by portraying your adversary as a bad or unqualified person, in which case you impugn that his arguments must necessarily also be bad. You can see this everywhere today when someone tries to tell someone else their opinion is not valid because of their anatomy, race, gender, or what have you.
Another popular one is the false dichotomy fallacy, also known as the false dilemma or black and white fallacy. Here the attempt is to give only two choices so that people are forced to choose the desired position. This one is timelessly popular, so I’ll give a couple convenient examples on each side of the political spectrum (and hope doing so cools the wrath of either).
The classic — which George W. Bush spewed in the run-up to the war on Iraq (which was the most protested war in history) — is, “You are either with us or you are against us.” This eliminates the possibility of people having much more nuanced stances, including supporting sanctions but not military intervention, or waiting longer to fully determine if there really were weapons of mass destruction.
“We support our troops” is a related false dichotomy, because it implies that if you don’t support the war, you don’t support the troops. One could easily counter that one supports the troops and thus not sending them off to be injured or die in an ill-fated conflagration.
On the other end of the political spectrum you may have heard recently that “silence = violence” or more specifically “white silence = violence”. Here the underlying notion is that if whites are not vocally protesting against state-sponsored racial persecution and murder of innocent black people, than they support it. This eliminates a myriad of possible middle positions, such as that someone is absolutely against police brutality and racism, but doesn’t believe the whole country is inherently and irredeemably racist, and doesn’t want to pour gasoline on a self-fulfilling prophecy of racial discord.
The very fashionable notion of “white privilege” is also a false dichotomy fallacy because it insists you are either privileged or not, when the vast majority of people are neither. Almost every example of “white privilege” is an example of black underprivilege, but because it’s politically incorrect to call someone underprivileged (because it’s diminutive) the simple solution was to rename the same examples as “white privilege”. However, this is as accurate as labeling all people who are not poor as billionaires. The vast majority of white people are anything but privileged relative to the actually rich and powerful: they are just not historically underprivileged as regards conditions applying to race.
Let me give one more example from the art world. Many argue that all art is political, and that if it isn’t than it supports the status quo. It’s both a false dichotomy fallacy and an ad-hominem fallacy. This is classic art world jargon intended to prop up one kind of art above another without respect to how it looks. Whatever the non-political artwork is, it is inferior because presumably reprehensible. In reality, art can be anywhere on the spectrum from focusing on politics to focusing on pure color, and its quality is largely independent of political beliefs and allegiance.
There are many more logical fallacies, such as the straw-man argument, cherry-picking, anecdotal evidence, the slipper slope, mistaking correlation for causation, and the appeal to authority… I’m sure I slip into my own grab-bag of logical fallacies which I’m as blind to as my own typos; but I think I do a bit better in at least being on-guard for them. When we do zero in on a logical fallacy, we can look for how it might be intended to function, which is usually going to be to try to persuade us of something that is skewed from the truth, intentionally or not, in order to favor the position or standing of the person articulating it.
When it comes to deferring to the greater argument, I’m pretty decent about that because — as I like to say — you are only wrong until you admit your are wrong, and then you are no longer wrong. Often the case is going to be that we were misled, in which case we might be grateful for the opportunity to adjust our sites a little better. But this assumes that we still value facing reality, or engaging in reasonable discourse. To the contrary, everything is now about fighting the oppressive forces, institutions, and people — reality is defined as a perpetual struggle against the oppressor — and hence ideas gain or lose rank in accordance with how well they give ammunition to the cause, and not whether or not they hold water objectively speaking. I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the idea.
Another fallacy is called the fallacy fallacy, and it’s the assumption a conclusion is wrong because the argument behind it includes fallacies. You could say that the Earth is round because it’s a giant fish egg, and fish eggs are round: the conclusion is correct but the argument is atrocious. So, we wouldn’t conclude the Earth is not round (technically an “oblate spheroid” according to my college geography class] because it is not a giant fish egg. It’s still round, but not because it’s a fish egg. We can only say that the evidence doesn’t support the claim. You could also make a complex argument that included a logical fallacy or two or three, but was overall compelling, just as you could win a chess game while making several lamentably poor moves.
Sometimes, just for the record, the greater argument can be against the primacy of reason and logic, such as when discussing matters of taste, a spiritual type experience, or knowledge derived from decades of committed meditation practice. Some things really are subjective. And it is also the case that an approach to life — including religious belief — can give a structure and meaning that allows one to flourish where they might not if they didn’t practice their faith. Consider all the MMA fighters who thank Jesus after winning their matches. That said, there can be a rational case made for practicing meditation in order to set aside the rational mind; or being positive and optimistic as a force to help you succeed even if reason dictates hope is futile. Advocating those reason-eschewing instances could be the greater argument. And so I would suggest that we abandon our weak arguments and gravitate to the better ones, both for our personal and everyone else’s lives. Then, maybe, we could catch up with science, and not let it have the sole advantage of building on the past and working together, even internationally, to come up with the best shared understanding, wisdom, and practices.
Contrary to the claims of some, reason is not a tool of oppression nor does it belong to any biological or cultural category of people. It is a highly successful way of objective thinking which was conceived by the human imagination within a shapeless and colorless mind. It is used globally in the sciences and has raised the standard of living significantly around the planet. All people, regardless of gender, race, culture, and sexual preference or identification can use it, and it is the only kind of thought we can all share. This doesn’t mean you need to abandon other types of thinking and imagining, but just that where reason is most applicable, we give credence to the best arguments.