The latest burst of inane apologetics to enthrall the poobahs of atheism because it allows them to make excuses for Richard Dawkins and others is this piece from Tom Chivers, “‘Eugenics is possible’ is not the same as ‘eugenics is good’”. In it, he invents a label for people who say thoughtless things about science: they are “high-decouplers”, who are good at isolating ideas from all those troublesome things like implications and consequences and even meaning. They can take a complex sociological phenomenon, for instance, and reduce it to “A → B” without fussing about over the messy antecedents that produce A, or that the relationship also produces C, D, E, F…Z and a few letters beyond that. And this is a good thing?
The analyst John Nerst, who writes a fascinating blog called “Everything Studies”, is very interested in how and why we disagree. And one thing he says is that for a certain kind of nerdy, “rational” thinker, there is a magic ritual you can perform. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y.”
So you can say things like “if we accept that IQ is heritable, then”, and so on, following the implications of the hypothetical without endorsing them. Nerst uses the term “decoupling”, and says that some people are “high-decouplers”, who are comfortable separating and isolating ideas like that.
Other people are low-decouplers, who see ideas as inextricable from their contexts. For them, the ritual lacks magic power. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y,” but when you say X, they will still hear Y. The context in which Nerst was discussing it was a big row that broke out a year or two ago between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris after Harris interviewed Charles Murray about race and IQ.
How useful! Sam Harris wasn’t propping up racist ideas, he’s just a “high-decoupler” capable of postulating a subset of a network of interactions is simple and predictable. Don’t hold him accountable for his supposedly commendable ability to ignore everything except the one tiny relationship he is holding in laser-like focus! It’s those low-decouplers who keep distracting him with messy realities that interfere with his beautiful vision of reducing everything to a series of simple, manageable problems. Eugenics all by itself is simple and doable! If we postulate that racial differences are all due to invisible, untestable genes, all inequities are trivial and explainable!
Back in the day, I would have called such an approach short-sighted, implausible, damaging, and stupid, but now we have this useful term, “high-decoupler”, instead. Instead of saying that Dawkins and Harris are oblivious to reality, narrow-minded, and obtuse, I’ll just say they’re good at decoupling. All the atheist-bros and skeptic-bros will nod along happily, as if I’d just given them high praise.
I think Chivers might have hit on a key trigger for many of the schisms in rationalist organizations, though.
I think a lot of arguments in society come down to this high-decoupler/low-decoupler difference. And while I hope I’ve done a good job of putting the case for low-decoupling, I am very obviously a high-decoupler, so often I find myself thinking “but they performed the magic ritual! They said they didn’t mean Y!” and being really confused that everyone is very angry that they believe Y.
For shameful low-decouplers like myself, though, I am also able to hear the obvious implication that Y is an unimportant complication that they don’t want you to think about, and when Y is something that leads to misery and suffering for large numbers of people, I tend to want to say “But you can’t dream about X while ignoring the inevitable disaster of Y that it will bring about!” It’s like saying that lighting this fuse will lead to some pretty sparks for a few minutes, but I’m not endorsing the horrific explosion when it reaches the dynamite. And this, apparently, is supposed to be a scientific virtue.
Also, falling back on the excuse that there is a magic ritual that can make such context-less, narrow speculation acceptable is not the useful metaphor that Chivers thinks it is. That high-decouplers consider incantations significant kind of undermines the rationality of high-decoupling. I think I’ll stick with the community for whom the ritual lacks magic power.