“I’m the REAL Skeptic”: On Begging the Question


Things you need to stop doing in debates: framing your position as “rational/skeptical” and the opposing position as not “rational/skeptical.” What I’m talking about specifically are rhetorical moves like these: “Some hysterical people think sexual harassment is a huge problem, but I’m going to be rational about this.” or “I’m an actual skeptic, so I’m not going to whine about some so-called ‘rape culture.'”

Of course, some positions are truly anti-skeptical and/or irrational, but in that case, you can show why they’re not with evidence. For instance! “Anti-vax is an irrational position because all the evidence shows that vaccines are really useful, and no credible study shows that vaccines cause autism.” Or! “It’s not very skeptical to say that mental illnesses are just made up by Big Pharma. Have you spoken with people who have mental illness? Have you researched its neuropsychological correlates?”

But it’s not sufficient just to say something like, “I’m a Real Skeptic so I believe X.” or “You only think Y because you’re being irrational.”

First of all, even assuming for a moment that you, personally, are thinking rationally/skeptically, the fact that your opponent disagrees with you does not necessarily prove that they are not thinking rationally/skeptically. Shockingly enough, rationality and skepticism, when applied to the same issue, can still lead to wildly different conclusions! Some people have studied the evidence and think religion is good for mental health in general. Other people have studied the evidence and think religion is bad for mental health in general, or that its good effects are moderated too much by other factors. Some people have studied the evidence and think that it depends. All of these positions may be products of rational thinking. However, one or more of them may still be wrong, because rationality is not a panacea. It’s just a useful process that often produces good results.

Second, by painting yourself as a True Skeptic/Rationalist and your opponent as a hysterical over-sensitive irrational whiner, you’re engaging in a cheap rhetorical ploy that doesn’t actually 1) prove your point or 2) falsify your opponent’s point. It simply attempts to curry favor to your side through the use of buzzwords like rationality and skepticism.

What you are doing, oh person who probably loves to bloviate about logical fallacies, is begging the question. “I am a rationalist and you are not because my position is right and yours is wrong. My position is right and yours is wrong because I am being rational and you are not.”

Somewhere within whatever issue you’re attempting to needlessly obfuscate lie falsifiable claims that you’re simply ignoring. For instance, if rape culture does not exist, you would not expect rape to be treated more leniently than other crimes. But it is. If rape culture does exist, you might expect rape victims to be blamed for their rapes more frequently than other crime victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them, and they are. If rape culture does not exist, you might not expect people to feel sorry for rapists who have their “lives ruined” by being accurately accused of rape, but they do. If rape culture does not exist, you might expect all rapes to be treated as equally “legitimate,” but they are not. The point is not which of us is being “rational” about this and which of us is a “True Skeptic.” The point is, in which direction does the evidence generally go?

And when scientific evidence has not been accumulated yet, there are still ways in which you can think rationally about the issue. Someone yesterday demanded me to find them statistics on the frequency with which white people touch the hair of people of color without their permission. First of all, if you expect such a study to come out of an American research university, you simply don’t understand how underrepresented people of color are as university faculty, and how unlikely white people are to just spontaneously choose to study an issue such as this (although perhaps it’s happened, I’m not a human research database). Second, riddle me this: if it is not the case that white people frequently touch the hair of people of color without their permission, why does basically every person of color say that this has happened to them? Why have many of them written blog posts and articles about this? Do you think people of color just got together in some secret cabal to plan a conspiracy in which they accuse white people of constantly touching their hair without permission? If so, what motivation do they have for doing this? You’re a Skeptic/Rationalist, aren’t you? By all means, propose an alternative hypothesis to explain this!

Calling yourself skeptical/rational is not enough to make you so. Calling your opponent anti-skeptical/irrational is also not enough to make them so.

P.S. This is only tangentially related, but if you’re a man arguing with a woman and you’re leaping to call her “hysterical” and “irrational,” pause for a moment and consider the historical and cultural implications of this.

Comments

  1. says

    ALso calling the other person and/or their position dogmatic/ideological/political, in contrast to your magically bias-free, non-ideological apolitical Vulcan self. This plays out especially poorly from privileged viewpoints because of the false assumption that “not a problem I have to deal with personally” is not the same as “…therefore my position is objective and yours is not.”

  2. says

    Oh fine, I’ll just repeat my comment here instead of on facebook:

    “As a debate coach, yes.

    Also, there seems to be somewhat of a minor obsession with logical fallacies, as if fallacious statements are inherently wrong, forgetting that they can be compelling for all the right reasons.

    Say, the argument from authority fallacy…”

  3. Steersman says

    Good post, although in passing I think it might have been better if you’d started the ball rolling with “Things you we need to stop doing in debates ….”

    But I think your basic argument is relatively sound: it certainly seems to be a rather too frequent occurrence for many of us – present company excepted, of course – to be dismissive of other people’s arguments on the basis of not being skeptical enough. Or atheist enough. Or feminist enough. Rather like, as you suggested, many Christians who throw stones at other Christians for not being True Christians™.

    However, I think you could also spend some time, maybe in another post, addressing why that might be the case. Personally, I think it is largely because everyone, or at least most skeptics, start from slightly different sets of premises and assumptions so it is not at all surprising that many wind up in very different positions on a great number of issues. But what is surprising, and not a little problematic, is the general unwillingness to give some thought to the nature of those assumptions. Daniel Dennett had an interesting comment in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea on that within the context of science itself, although I think it has a much broader range of application:

    There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

    Which one might reasonably extend to skepticism and to atheism. And to feminism.

    But, in any case, you might be interested in this post (1) by the biologist/philosopher Massimo Pigliucci on the limits of reasonable discourse. He uses the biological and evolutionary model of a “fitness landscape” as an analogy to that process of discourse, and illustrates it with this graphic (2):

    However, I think that the wicket gets decidedly much stickier when, even if we manage to elucidate all of the various assumptions, it is not at all clear, much less provable, which assumptions and premises actually correspond to “the truth”, or most likely to lead to the best outcome for all concerned. At which point one might argue that we might need to rely on some degree of faith, although not of the “blind” or “incongruent with known facts” variety.

    —-
    1) “_http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.ca/2010/10/limits-of-reasonable-discourse.html”;
    2) “_http://i47.tinypic.com/2hgdcwj.jpg”;

    • says

      However, I think you could also spend some time, maybe in another post, addressing why that might be the case.

      Personally, I think it’s because people try to use labels as a shorthand. If we know that someone is an atheist, we’d like to believe that they agree with us on all issues related to atheism. If we know that someone is a feminist, we like to believe that they agree with us on all issues related to feminism.

      In fact, of course, “atheism” and “feminism” and everything else are really just general umbrella terms for a probably-infinite number of similar beliefs and ways of thinking. A skeptic who believes that ALL skeptics must reject feminism would therefore be unable to conceive of the existence of feminist skeptics. And some feminist atheists believe that atheism begets feminism, so they can’t comprehend the fact that many atheists are not feminists.

      (For me, personally, the development of my atheism and of my feminism were very much intertwined, but that’s more of a coincidence of my life story than it is an indicator that these two things naturally go together.)

      There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

      Of course. The idea that science is free of bias (or philosophy) is in itself a philosophical viewpoint about the nature of empiricism.

  4. says

    it always amuses me to see people who dismiss post-modernism and critical theory come back and basically re-invent their ideas as if now they were new and serious and suddenly not at all a femicommunist conspiracy to deny the reality of reality. good times.

    • Steersman says

      It always amuses me to see people make cryptic comments as if everyone hearing them are either fellow-travelers in whatever dogma they’re peddling, or mind-readers.

      But precisely who is it that you think is dismissing “post-modernism and critical theory”? And why do you think that is the case? That some in more traditional philosophical disciplines might be questioning the underpinnings of other fields is no justification, I think, for leaping to the conclusion that that constitutes post-modernism. Particularly when many credible critics of the latter see it as little more than “fashionable nonsense”. (1)

      —-
      1) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense”;

  5. says

    i don’t particularly care whether they think it’s “fashionable nonsense”; when they then go reinventing the same thing for themselves, it’s rather obvious they don’t actually think it is, but rather that in order to be a “serious skeptic/philosopher/whathaveyou”, you have to consider it fashionable nonsense.

    That some in more traditional philosophical disciplines might be questioning the underpinnings of other fields is no justification, I think, for leaping to the conclusion that that constitutes post-modernism.

    except that questioning the underpinnings of entire fields and worldviews is precisely what Critical Theory was designed to do. Also, I wonder why you think there’s any “leaping” involved? And why “leaping” is even necessary? It was a simple identification, nothing more.

    And I’m quite sorry to inform you, but “it is not at all clear, much less provable, which assumptions and premises actually correspond to ‘the truth'” is a post-modernist idea.

    • Steersman says

      Jadehawk said (#6.0):

      I don’t particularly care whether they think it’s “fashionable nonsense”;

      Considering the credentials of the people who wrote that book – Sokal and Bricmont, both well-regarded mathematicians and physicists – and the great amount of egg on the faces of the journal that published their spoof, I would expect that there might be some justification for their arguments. And I note that the same article (1) indicates that the “responses from the scientific community were more supportive” of their book. There’s also a choice quote from Dawkins that is indicative of postmodernism’s problems:

      We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the [postmodernist] author [Lacan] of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.

      And then there’s this suggestive section describing part of one chapter in the book:

      For example, [feminist philosopher] Luce Irigaray is criticised for asserting that E=mc2 is a “sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”; and for asserting that fluid mechanics is unfairly neglected because it deals with “feminine” fluids in contrast to “masculine” rigid mechanics.

      Which might justifiably lead one to conclude that those individuals at least are, to be charitable, crazier than shit-house rats at best, or, at worst, egregious charlatans on par with the Benny Hinns and Peter Popoffs of the world.

      But I think the balance of that article indicates that the book makes a quite credible case for their argument that “postmodernism in academia … misuses … scientific and mathematical concepts in postmodern writing”. Those previous quotes being cases in point. But, relative to those misuses, are you going to tell me that, for example, you have more training in physics and mathematics than do Sokal and Bricmont and can tell me that their criticisms of Lacan and Irigaray don’t hold any water? Or is it more likely that Lacan and Irigaray are simply blowing smoke out of their asses? Personally, I’ll go with the latter, based in part on having used non-trivial amounts of physics and mathematics, largely in an electronics engineering context, over some 30 years of my professional life: that stuff actually works as opposed to at least substantial parts of postmodernism which looks more like pseudoscience at best and, at worst, simply “gibberish”.

      However, I think you might do well to consider what Miri sort of suggested in her comment to me (#4.1) with her umbrella analogy: all of these “isms” – skepticism, atheism, feminism, postmodernism, etc. – encompass a rather broad range of premises, assumptions, perspectives and values, not all of which are likely to hold all that much water. Rather much of a stretch to think that all of them are right and true when many of them seem contradictory and mutually exclusive. But that does not preclude there being some of those premises, etc. – some held by some “sects”, others held by other “sects” – which might actually be true.

      And in the case of postmodernism, one might reasonably argue that postmodernism got right the idea, maybe among others, that “it is not at all clear, much less provable, which assumptions and premises actually correspond to the truth” – although my impression is that the pedigree of that concept goes back a lot further than postmodernism – but that it went very badly off the rails and into the weeds, and in a spectacular fashion, in its “misuses of scientific and mathematical concepts”. That you apparently conflate those aspects and try to justify the latter with the former looks rather much like Christian and Muslim fundamentalists pointing to their “holy” books and saying, for example, “look, it says that the earth revolved around the sun. Therefore Jehovah! [or Allah]”. Q.E.D. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

      —-
      1) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense”;

      • says

        Lacan and Irigiray are not postmodernists.

        Postmodern authors draw upon them in many ways, but they themselves are not. Perhaps characterizing them both as post-structuralists would be better. Given that postmodernists tend not to hold themselves to a particular linguistic tradition when dissecting signs and symbols and that post-structuralists do (relying on a dyadic ontology of meaning), the difference is fairly important—dyadic ontologies inform nearly everything Lacan did.

        Given that Judith Butler’s postmodern conceptions of gender and its relationship to sex has ex post facto been confirmed by medical professionals and adopted by the scientific community, I would at least hesitate to paint such a broad stroke when describing “postmodernists”.

        Perhaps imagining postmodernism as an approach (or set of approaches) rather than a set of conclusions would serve us better. Deconstruction, for example, is a valuable tool.

      • Steersman says

        Arif Hasan said (#6.1.1):

        Lacan and Irigiray are not postmodernists.

        Ok, I’ll concede the point. However, as you suggest and as does this article (1), postmodernism and poststructuralism seem to be part of a family with the latter being an evolutionary outgrowth from or response to the former:

        Structuralism was a philosophical movement developed by French academics in the 1950s, partly in response to French Existentialism. It has been seen variously as an expression of Modernism, High modernism, or postmodernism . “Post-structuralists” were thinkers who moved away from the strict interpretations and applications of structuralist ideas. Many American academics consider post-structuralism to be part of the broader, less well-defined postmodernist movement, even although many post-structuralists insisted it was not.

        However, it seems that one of the main points of the article (2) on Fashionable Nonsense is that charges of misusing “scientific and mathematical concepts” are applicable to both postmodernism in general, and to poststructuralism as well as exemplified by the specific criticisms of Lacan and Irigiray described above.

        Given that Judith Butler’s postmodern conceptions of gender and its relationship to sex has ex post facto been confirmed by medical professionals ….

        You have some evidence to justify that? The Wikipedia article on her (3) looks rather less conclusive:

        Others are more critical. Susan Bordo has chastised Butler for reducing gender to language, arguing that the body is a major part of gender, thus implicitly opposing her conception of gender as performed.[44] Peter Digeser argues that Butler’s idea of performativity is too pure to account for identity. Digeser doubts that pure performativity is possible, suggesting that in viewing the gendered individual as purely performed, Butler ignores the gendered body, which Bordo also argues is extremely important.

        Considering the rather wide spectrum of opinions on that question as well as on postmodernism in general – and the apparent dearth of any factual evidence to falsify any of them – one might be forgiven for thinking of the joke that if you took all of the economists in the world and laid them end to end they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.

        Perhaps imagining postmodernism as an approach (or set of approaches) rather than a set of conclusions would serve us better. Deconstruction, for example, is a valuable tool.

        That may well be the case, at least in some circumstances. But I think that hardly justifies concluding that all manifestations of that tool (4) are equally credible and useful, or that all structures built with them are equally sound or able to hold much water. For instance, celestial mechanics, at least portions of it, is apparently used by astrology. How about quantum mechanics and the “quantum flapdoodle” of Chopra? Does the credibility of the tool automatically make the “science” which depends on it equally so? All of which harkens back to the fundamental question on the misuse of “scientific and mathematical concepts”.

        —–
        1) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism#Postmodernism_and_Structuralism”;
        2) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense”;
        3) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Butler#Reception”;
        4) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction”;

        • daniellavine says

          Considering the rather wide spectrum of opinions on that question as well as on postmodernism in general – and the apparent dearth of any factual evidence to falsify any of them – one might be forgiven for thinking of the joke that if you took all of the economists in the world and laid them end to end they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.

          Could you please be more specific? It would make you monumentally more credible.

          For instance, celestial mechanics, at least portions of it, is apparently used by astrology. How about quantum mechanics and the “quantum flapdoodle” of Chopra? Does the credibility of the tool automatically make the “science” which depends on it equally so?

          Astrology’s conclusions do not depend on celestial mechanics (otherwise astronomers would come to the same conclusions) and Chopra does not use any of the “tools” of quantum mechanics (i.e. the actual definitions and mathematics involved). Again, if you can point to specific problems with critical theory your critique will be much more credible.

        • Steersman says

          daniel lavine said (#6.1.2.1):

          Could you please be more specific? It would make you monumentally more credible.

          Well, you could actually take a look at the links I provided above (#6.1.2), notably the one (1) on postmodernism, as well as the article on Criticisms of postmodernism (2). But you might also note in particular this comment in the first source:

          Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, including the assertions that postmodernism is meaningless and promotes obscurantism. For example, Noam Chomsky has argued that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge.

          Given those criticisms and diverse spectrum of opinions on the field, does that look to you like a credible and useful body of knowledge or a science that actually has some real-world applications like mathematics, science and engineering? Or does it look more like pseudoscience and empty speculations?

          Astrology’s conclusions do not depend on celestial mechanics … and Chopra does not use any of the “tools” of quantum mechanics …. Again, if you can point to specific problems with critical theory your critique will be much more credible.

          Your comment above was in response to my analogy between, on the one hand, what I was calling the tools of celestial mechanics (CM) and quantum mechanics (QM), and, on the other, the tool of deconstruction. And my point was that as those tools of CM and QM have some real and credible uses despite being used by flakes and charlatans for discredible ones, so it seemed that deconstruction (3), which Arif Hasan had previously called “a valuable tool”, might well have some credible uses even if other uses were quite a bit less so. Which was, indirectly at least, a response to the original comments (#6.0, #7.0) by Jadehawk which suggested that – as some elements, some tools of critical theory, postmodernism and deconstruction apparently have some credibility – that meant that all of the conjectures and theories built using those tools necessarily had some validity and use. Which most definitely does not necessarily follow – as the CM and QM examples were meant to justify or illustrate.

          But I don’t know enough about critical theory to “point to specific problems”, although, off-hand, I would say that some of the concepts of some branches of feminist ideology – notably privilege and the patriarchy – might possibly qualify as such.

          —-
          1) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism”;
          2) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_postmodernism”;
          3) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction”;

  6. says

    of course, if it makes you feel better, you can keep on thinking of critical analysis of anxiomatic and largely unstated underpinnings of different worldviews as Not-Critical-Theory; nonetheless, that’s exactly what Critical theory does.
    similarly, you’re welcome to continue thinking that accepting that sometimes the real, objective reality of things is simply unavailable to people as not-post-modernist, but again, the idea that no amount of modernity and civilization (and peer review) is going to make humans “objective” and grant them access to The Truth is one of the few things all post-modernisms have in common, to a lesser and greater degree.

    and i will keep on being reminded of all those cartoon faux-heroes who have to be made to think that they came up with a plan themselves, or else they won’t think it’s a good plan. :-p

    • Steersman says

      Jadehawk said (#7.0):

      of course, if it makes you feel better, you can keep on thinking of critical analysis of [axiomatic] and largely unstated underpinnings of different worldviews as Not-Critical-Theory; nonetheless, that’s exactly what Critical theory does.

      Ok, if that’s what it does then good on it. Although you might want to consider that not all theories are created equal – the Copernican and Ptolemaic ones for example. You do actually have to prove that they hold water before people are going to give much credence to them. Otherwise they’re little more than pseudoscience at best, and idle speculations and “Philosophick Romances” at worst.

      similarly, you’re welcome to continue thinking that accepting that sometimes the real, objective reality of things is simply unavailable to people as not-post-modernist, but again, the idea that no amount of modernity and civilization (and peer review) is going to make humans “objective” and grant them access to The Truth is one of the few things all post-modernisms have in common, to a lesser and greater degree.

      Well, I’m glad you at least said “sometimes the real, objective reality of things is simply unavailable to people” as my impression is that frequently it is – at least to a reasonable approximation, you know “through a glass darkly”. Which highlights the objections that many have to postmodernist “gibberish”, not least of which is its apparent support for the idea that “reality is socially constructed” (1). Maybe our perceptions and our cultures colour reality such that they are not always entirely accurate, but it seems a rather problematic if not untenable position to argue that there isn’t anything there apart from those perceptions.

      and i will keep on being reminded of all those cartoon faux-heroes who have to be made to think that they came up with a plan themselves, or else they won’t think it’s a good plan. :-p

      Indeed. And I will frequently be reminded, memory suitably refreshed from the perusal of articles such as these (2, 3, 4), that the roots of postmodernism go back rather far – arguably, at least to Euclid’s work on the axiomatic foundations of geometry – and that those same roots have nourished philosophies and sciences which have provided substantially more benefits to humanity than postmodernism has so far managed. But do keep trying, although I think you’re largely barking up the wrong tree.

      ——–
      1) Pinker, How the Mind Works, pg 57;
      2) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy#Precursors”;
      3) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction”;
      4) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics#Terminology_and_History”;

  7. says

    It’s also worth mentioning that the anti-vax people and mental-illness deniers like to present themselves as skeptical of Western medicine, as opposed to all those people who are just following popular wisdom. The same people who pull the rhetorical tricks you’re talking about recognize it when others do it.

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