Monday, December 12, 2016

When Scholars Lie

In 258 days, I will be in my first class.

That number keeps getting smaller. And – no matter how many times I confront it – I am still in a state of denial. I can’t actually see myself as a graduate student. Or . . . I can . . . but in the same way that I can see myself as the citizen of an orbiting city floating in high Earth orbit. It’s a fantasy – not a reality.

My paper on condemnation and punishment has given me a burst of inspiration.

It is the first project I actually finished. Well, I haven’t actually finished it yet. It needs a final proof. It needs me to read it out loud and make a last set of edits. Then, it will be ready to hand out to the public. There will be a second edition as it generates further comments and responses – but, that’s not a problem.

Given that I seem to be able to finish a project of this size, I have decided to start two more.

Yes . . . two. Maybe that is a mistake.

I am giving myself a deadline of January 18 to get a working draft done of both papers.

One paper I am calling “Morality from the Ground Up.” It will begin with one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones) and build up from this to a fundamental set of moral prescriptions – the wrongness of lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder. It will also explain the source of non-obligatory permissions. It is not going to try to build the whole of morality. For example, it will not cover the concept of an “excuse” or a right to freedom of speech. It will leave those for future projects. It will leave off with a simple community governed by basic moral facts.

The second I am tentatively calling “A Template for Revolution”. It is, actually, a project plan for “overthrowing” – in a sense – the current American government. In it, I am inserting some of the themes that I have repeatedly written about with respect to making the world a better place. These include rules governing violent versus non-violent protest, bigotry, “criticizing an idea”, lying, and intellectual recklessness. It will include a rejection of the Lockean concept of property and libertarianism. At the same time, it will include comments about what libertarians get right in their criticism of progressivism – that to which progressive like to do nothing more than plug their ears and shout, “I can’t hear you!”

Towards this end, I have finished Locke’s Two Treatise on Civil Government. I also listened to some discussion of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.

I am wondering if I should get and read Rawls again. I am wondering if I can find the time. I need to return to Sidgwick. And now I have these two other projects to work on.

I also listened to a debate, of sorts, between Roger Pilon - a libertarian political philosopher from the CATO Institute, and Louis Michael Seidman from Georgetown University. It is this type of discussion that makes me upset at many of the things that I encounter on the internet. It is NOT the case that, just because somebody disagrees with you, that they are either a complete idiot or they are out to destroy humanity for the pure pleasure of doing so. Some people can have a difference of opinion and each have a very solid foundation for their beliefs.

Still, Pilon lied at one point. Or, more precisely, he made a claim where either (1) he is, in fact, a complete idiot or, (2) he knew he was making an invalid implication but sought to present it as a sound argument. I think the latter option is the most accurate.

Their discussion wandered briefly into the subject of global warming and Pilon blurted out that the ice sheet had grown by 30% compared to the previous year.

Actually, given that this was recorded early in 2014, we had just past a winter where the ice sheet was 60% larger than the previous year.

However, the previous year was a record low year.

The attached graph shows the extent of the arctic ice sheet every September from 1979 to 2016. You can see a huge increase in 2014 compared to 2013.

Pilon's lie is not that this increase existed. He lied in attempting to get his listeners to draw the conclusion that this increase implies that the downward trend over the previous 30 years did not exist. He lied in making the implicit claim that this 60% increase proved that all of the claims about climate change and its effects on the ice cap that climate change scientists have been making can be rejected.

He has to know that this is an invalid inference. In fact, he has to know that if he had caught a critic of one of his views pulling this type of trick, that he would call that person dishonest. He would accuse such a person of making deliberately misleading statements. Yet, here he is, making a deliberately misleading statement.

This lie brought into question every other statistical claim that Pilon made in this discussion.

As I watched the debate, I wondered how I would have handled it if I had been in a discussion like that and my opponent made such a claim. This debate was being held in a lecture hall with a white board behind the speakers. My temptation would have been to go over to the blackboard, draw a squiggly downward sloping line with a small up-tick at the end, and pointed out how stupid it is to argue that the small uptick at the end implies that the downward slope did not exist. I would then say to the other person, "If a first year undergraduate put this in a paper you would grade him down. You know this is wrong. Yet, this is what you did. Why? Do you not care about the truth? Is it so important to you to get people to embrace a conclusion that you like that you will use any argument no matter how clearly flawed if it has a chance of manipulating others into giving assent?"

I do not care as much about the conclusions that people draw as I do the practice of using clearly bad arguments in defense of those conclusions. When scholars use clearly flawed arguments, they are liars. They are trading on their authority in an attempt to persuade people to adopt conclusions that they must know cannot be supported by the arguments they are presenting. They are contributing to the mis-education of the general public.

I want to repeat - libertarians have some strong points to make against the progressive philosophy, and Pilon ably presented some of those points. He reminded me of the importance of listening to those who disagreed with us - that they are not always wrong. However, at the same time, he lied. He told a deliberate and manipulative falsehood he would have clearly recognized and called another person out on if that person had tried to use such a fallacy against him. Yet, he did not have the moral good sense to refrain from using this misleading and manipulative argument.

For that, he deserves not only criticism, but condemnation.

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