Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sophistry: Engineering False Beliefs

I would like to add another moral crime to our list of common moral crimes.

Along side examples of immorality such as ‘murder’, ‘rape’, ‘theft’, ‘lying’, ‘breaking promises’, ‘negligence’, ‘bigotry’, and the like, I would like to add ‘engineering false beliefs’ or ‘sophistry’ to the list.

I wrote about this last weekend in the post “Discussion: Public Relations”. There, I wrote about an example in which Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA, 48th District)was questioning a panel of climate scientists, attempting to engineer false beliefs about the relationship between human activity and global warming. Rohrabacher asked about the “mini ice age” in Europe that ended in the mid 1800s, and suggested that the scientists were starting their measurements at an artificially low temperature. Rohrabacher insisted that the Europe-only temperature records before 1850 were relevant to the issue of global warming.


What I mean by adding engineering a false belief to be a moral crime, I mean for experts testifying before Congress or even under oath in a court of law to give an answer like,

"Congressman Rohrabacher, I am here to tell the truth about global warming. I live by a moral code that says that engineering a false belief is the same as lying. I trust that the purpose of your question is not to engineer a false belief, so let me say how that can be avoided.

"Europe experienced a mini ice-age ending around 1850. But Europe is not the world. Inferring that our data on global temperature change is wrong because Europe had a mini ice age is like inferring that data on the average human height is wrong because almost all basketball players are over six feet. Frankly, it is an insult to suggest that the thousands of scientists who worked on this project are either too stupid to see the relevance of European temperatures or somehow conspiring to cover up the truth."

Another of Rohrabacher’s attempts to engineer a false belief involved asking the question, "What percentage of the total greenhouse gas emissions are caused by humans."

Again, I would like to propose that the answer take the form of,

"I would be doing a disservice to this committee if I were to tell you a partial truth that would engineer a false belief about climate change. I would be engineering a false belief if I did not warn you that you cannot draw meaningful conclusions about climate change by comparing human contribution to changes in greenhouse gas concentration to changes in global temperature. Humans are responsible for virtually all of the changes in greenhouse gas concentration.

"I can answer you question, Congressman, but I must trust to your honesty and interest in getting to the truth of this matter that you view it as a moral outrage, as I do, for people to try to cloud the issue by making a false inference from this to the human contribution to the change in global temperatures. Pretending that the answer to your question is relevant to the climate change debate is dishonest, and I swore on coming here that I will not be attempt or to help others attempt to engineer false beliefs about this issue."


I need a term to refer to those who engineer false beliefs that can be given the same bite - the same call for contempt - that terms like, 'murderer', 'rapist', 'thief', 'liar", and "cheat' all carry. Towards that end, I thought it might be useful to resurrect the term 'sophist' in something one of its ancient Greek meanings - as somebody who values manipulating others through rhetoric and sophistry. I am, however, not wed to this option and would welcome alternatives

Clearly, we would all tend to be much better off in a society without sophists, just as we will tend to be better off in a society without murderers, rapists, liars, and thieves. In other words, we have many and strong reasons for action for turning our moral sites onto those who engage in this practice.

Clearly, there are times when each of us might profit from a bit of sophistry. Clearly, there are times in which each of us might profit from a lie, a theft, or even a murder. However, these infrequent examples of personal profit are seriously outweighed by the risks of harm we suffer from being made the victims of others. From this, each of us have many and strong reasons to establish a culture with as few sophists as possible, which we can create by turning our tools of condemnation against those who practice this art.

We can see more evidence that we have 'reasons for action' to add an aversion to engineering false beliefs (sophistry) to our list of vices, simply look at the levels of destruction that some sophists are willing to inflict on others.

Sophists are responsible for the costs, in terms of money, life, and limb, from the Iraq war on the ledger. The White House use of discredited evidence to claim that Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy nuclear material was an act of sophistry. When Joe Wilson exposed this, the attempt to discredit him was a second act of sophistry. Sophists, in this case, killed 3,000 Americans, maimed 20,000 more, tore hundreds of thousands of them away from their families and put them at risk, and cost the country nearly $500 billion that could have been put to other use – not to mention the costs they inflicted on the people of Iraq.

We have the death and suffering of smoking attributed to a smoking industry that spread the sophistry that smoking was not dangerous – a campaign designed and executed by sophists.

We have a level of destruction that will make World War II look like a barroom brawl coming from the sophists of global warming, with the executives of Exxon-Mobile and other companies using sophistry to collect billions of dollars in profits by engineering false beliefs that will cost its victims trillions of dollars in damage.

If you have or are concerned about the future of any child, that child faces far more of a threat from the acts of the sophist than from any other group.

Sophistry and Lying

If we are to look at the ethics of sophistry in detail, we will discover that it has much in common with lying.

We need to make room for the innocent mistake. Not every false statement is a lie. Not every bad inference involves engineering a false belief. However, the possibility of innocent error does not prevent us from recognizing the evil of lying and the value of condemning the liar. The possibility of innocently bringing about false belief should not distract us from recognizing the evil of sophistry and the value of condemning the sophist. The possibility of innocent mistake does not change the fact of deliberate deception. It does not change the fact that sophists are killing and destroying the future of innocent people in huge numbers.

Also, we need to allow that sophistry, like lying, is sometimes permissible. For example, just as it is permissible to lie to the Nazi soldier about the presence of Jews in the Attic, it is permissible to engineer a false belief that there are no Jews in the attic. And just as a little white lie can be an act of kindness, there may be some kindness in engineering a harmless false belief.

However, when I talk about the condemnation of sophistry, I am not talking about lies to protect the innocent or to give somebody a benefit at no costs to others. I am talking about people who destroy hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives for personal gain.

Finally, sophistry happens to be a crime of language – of speech. I have argued in the past that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions. There will certainly be disputes over which speech acts are sophistry and which are not. Maintaining the peace requires a prohibition on answering speech with violence.

However, the right to freedom of speech does not prohibit people from collecting damages when they have been lied to. Nor does it prevent us from making conspiracy a crime when it can be proved that those involved were starting to act with the intent of doing harm. Con men are criminals even when their con consists merely of deceiving others into investing in a company that does not exist, or funding a mission that there is no intention to launch. There is no reason not to subject sophists to the same risks as liars when their sophistry deprives others of life, health, or property.

First Steps

What I would like to recommend in the way of turning sophistry into a more highly recognized evil is simply for people to call more attention to it in others. However, I think it would be even more important for people to publicly express their own unwillingness to engage in sophistry. “If I said ‘X’, I would be guilty of helping to engineer a false belief because I know that people have a habit of inferring ‘Y’ from ‘X’, and ‘Y’ is a false belief.”

It would do a lot to turn public sentiment against sophists for those who accept this recommendation to refuse to use sophistry in their own lives and to make noises about the fact that this is a part of their code. In doing so, the people should start to learn who cares about truth, and who does not.

And I would really like to see people take active steps to hold sophist legislators like Rohrabacher as morally accountable for their poor moral character as they would hold to a degree proportional to the harm to others they are willing to engineer, when compared to those who make sexual advances to congressional pages and the like.

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