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The difference between a scholar and an ideologue is that a scholar seeks out the truth while an ideologue is certain he is already in possession of it.

(This relationship is sometimes inverted, when there is overwhelming scientific evidence for something that ideologues want to dismiss. Under those circumstances, scholars are relatively certain while ideologues are conveniently uncertain; however, the latter is not an honest quest for knowledge, but rather a disingenuous obstruction of it. In both cases, one modality focuses on reason applied to evidence, and the other on the insulation of dogmatic belief from reason applied to evidence.)

It is true that everyone has biases, and that biases influence everyone’s perceptions and conclusions. It is untrue that there is no distinction in the degree to which this occurs and holds sway among competing modalities of thought. To put it simply, if scholarship were indistinguishable from other modalities, the accelerating production of subtle insights into the nature of reality that has characterized science could never have occurred.

The reason for this distinction is that scholarship involves an explicit commitment to apply reason to evidence, and to subject all ideas to the scrutiny of others who are doing the same. This can take the form of replicable scientific experiments, or, to explore phenomena whose variables are too difficult to isolate, variations of this procedure adapted to different conditions. The individual practitioners are more or less adept at it, and more or less committed to the systematic reduction of bias that is one of the principal reasons for this methodology, but to off-set that they must always convince a succession of committees of their peers, and then the general readership of their peers, that their conclusions are valid. This begins to resemble legal procedure, with arguments made for competing cases, judged by a jury of peers, though in scholarship it is a jury of peers with similar expertise.

More casual modalities of opinion formation more liberally incorporate bias into their perceptions and conclusions, sometimes developing precisely in a manner to do so as robustly as possible, systematically insulating irrational and counterfactual beliefs from the lathe of reason and evidence. One such modality currently in vogue is particularly fascinating. It involves a clever combination of relativism and absolutism, first to insulate arbitrary opinions from any intrusion of fact and reason, and then to claim that that opinion must be the absolute truth.

Step one in this anti-scholarship modality is to insist that no modality or opinion is any better than any other, and that the products of expertise or systematic investigation merit no more deference or consideration than any opinion held by any lay person. This is the relativism portion of this modality of thought: All opinions are equal, and none can be privileged over any other. This step insulates arbitrary opinions from any threat from reason or evidence, since any application of reason and evidence can only produce another opinion of equal value to the arbitrarily derived one.

Step two involves rejecting any suggestion that the arbitrary opinion must be considered a tentative conclusion rather than the absolute truth, on the basis that to do so would be to commit the error of relativism: There is one absolute truth, and to claim that one must be uncertain about reality is, according to this modality, a failure to accept the fact that there is one absolute truth. Therefore, the holder of the arbitrary opinion feels justified in being absolutely certain that their arbitrary opinion is the one unassailable Truth.

So, in this modality, first irrationality and counterfactuality is insulated from reason and evidence by means of a relativistic argument, and then it is promoted to unassailable absolute truth by recourse to an absolutist argument. Ironically, the very relativism that is used to insulate the arbitrary opinion in the first place is denied to all others on the basis that relativism is a fallacy! By doing so, the arbitrary opinion is promoted to the status of an irrefutable “truth,” since it can’t be challenged first due to the equality of all opinions, and second due to the fact that since only one of those supposedly equally valid opinions can actually be true, it must be the one that has “proven” impervious to all challenges (by fiat)! I’ve seen this two-step dance of insulated irrationality occur over and over again in “debates” with fanatical (generally right-wing) ideologues, usually accompanied by intense belligerence and a flood of ad hominems directed at anyone “pretentious” and “priggish” enough to challenge that modality.

In some ways, these two modalities, scholarship and what I am calling anti-scholarship (the two-step insulation and promotion of irrationality) define the extremes of a continuum, with various modalities falling along the spectrum between them. Obviously, I’d like to promote a shared commitment, by each and all, to do our best to move along that continuum in the direction of the more disciplined and bias-reducing modality of scholarship.

(See also The Elusive Truth, The Hydra’s HeadsThe Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Un-Jamming the Signal, Un-Jamming the SignalIdeology v. Methodology, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Real Political & Cultural Dichotomy, Sacred Truths, The “New” ReductionismThe Tyranny of Blind Ideology, An Argument for Reason and Humility.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

  • sblecher:

    I share your frustration. I don’t know if you have read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt explains in detail how little influence logical thought has over human affairs. Furthermore most people don’t have an understanding of scientific method. I think it’s quite impossible to win an argument or convince an ideologue of anything. It’s been my experience that ideologues hold all their opinions with absolute certainty and will never concede a point no matter how many well-conceived arguments you present. They will only double down, and come up with ever more irrational statements to justify their position. I have never known one of those people to make a conditional statement. If anything the general situation has gotten worse in the past 20 years or so. I don’t remember so many people in the past who were so quick to reject the existence of objective facts. The whole society is gradually seeking shelter in a fantasy world. That’s why “The Avengers” is such a smash hit. Most of the popular movies in the past few years are animated cartoons or pure fantasy. You hardly find a good human drama any more. Evangelical religion is growing rapidly at the expense of mainstream religion, because it’s all emotion and no theology. People don’t filter anything through their higher cognitive centers, thus they are capable simultaneously believing a whole raft of contradictory views without the slightest bit of discomfort. Keep up the good fight. Even though you will never convince an ideologue of anything, there’s a possibility you could influence somebody who is sitting on the fence

  • Some younger evangelicals, at least, are moving away from social conservativism, but not necessarily in the direction of reason. Still, I’ll take compassion and tolerance filtered through irrationality over the current dominant right-wing paradigm, any day….

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