Sunday, June 03, 2007

Be Skeptical of Good Writers



One time I was defending atheism to some friends over dinner. Some of
the more spiritual members of the conversation were complaing that
science was always changing, so you never really knew anything with
absolute certainty. I acknowledged this point, saying that most of
scientific knowledge today might be, strictly speaking, false, but
science provides what is most rational to believe at any given
point. Jen said "So you'd rather have a scientific falsehood than a
spiritual truth?"

Rachel said "Ooooo! Good point!"

Actually it's a terrible point, but damn, it sounded good. Looking at
that argument as a war, I lost some ground there, not because she was
right, but because I'd been bested, momentarily, by her rhetorical
wit.

It's wrong because we have even fewer reasons to believe spiritual
dogma than scientific facts. At least science has a built-in
correction mechanism.

It sounds good, though, for the following reasons:



  • It aligns science with falsehood and spirituality with
    truth. I'd just admitted that most science facts were probably
    false, and that was enough to make Rachel swallow the whole point.
  • It sounds like it's forcing the audience to make a choice
    between truth and falsehood, rather than between science and
    spirituality. I could have just as easily asked "So you'd rather
    have a spiritual falsehood than a scientific truth?", and, in the
    right conversational context, this would have sounded just fine, and
    Rachel would probably have said "Ooooo! Good point!"


If anyone can think of other reasons why it sounded so good I'd love
to hear them.

We all know of smooth talkers who can feed you a lot of crap and make
it sound like gold, but people don't use the same thinking as often
with writers. Well I do.

I was talking with my friend Guen Davies (no relation)about author
Milan Kundera, who wrote The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. She
said something like "He's such a good writer that you're convinced of
what he's saying, and only on later reflection realize he's completely
wrong." Now, I'm not supporting this view of Milan Kundera, but I do
support this argument for Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell is a New Yorker writer, and a damn good one. I
read all his articles, because they tend to be fascinating,
science-related, and, above all, extraordinarily well-written. I've
already complained about one of his articles in my blog entry about
fact checking, and this essay continues along similar lines.

When he's writing for The New Yorker he's kept in check, more
or less, by the fact checkers. It's when he writes his own books he
goes off the deep end. I'm mainly talking about The Tipping
Point
, which is an excellent read and contains a lot of really
sweet-smalling crap.

When I notice that the writing is really good, I make sure I'm a
little more skeptical, because I know good writing can get your
defenses down.

2 comments:

Anthony said...

Well, it depends on the content of the scientific and religious statements.

I personally see scientific knowledge as the repository of our best validated but most fluid knowledge - we have the strongest reasons to believe scientific statements because they're constantly buttressed and factchecked, which means it can be overthrown at any time.

Religious knowledge seems the repository of the most conservative knowledge we need to preserve even if we can't validate it - our reasons to believe religious statements aren't necessarily that good, but they've worked for a long time and we need to be careful about overthrowing them.

The nature of this knowledge affects the kinds of information that science and religion are allowed to shepherd - science maintains statements about our world, whereas religion maintains statements about our proper relationship to it.

Scientific statements thus tend to be about something we can see, touch, test, or check. For example, scientific statements might include "the universe we see was created in a vast explosion like event" or "humans evolved from a different form of life through a process of natural selection". We believe this is true because we have a lot of arguments to support it, but it could be false, and we have to be open to modifying this belief if new evidence or arguments develop. (For example, the redshift that makes us believe the universe is expanding could be explained by different physical principles so there's no expansion to explain, or humans could have been genetically engineered as supersoldiers by chimpanzee scientists, the records of which were lost in the First Great War).

Religious beliefs, in contrast, tend to be more circular and value laden. Examples of religious belief might include "murder is wrong" and "the scientific method is good". You can come up with many explanations of why murder is wrong, harmful, look at all the pain it causes, and so on, but most of them will end back up at the idea that the end of human life is a bad thing and that performing bad things intentionally is wrong, which is essentially part of the definition of murder and a part of our values. You can come up with many explanations of why the scientific method is good, why it's effective, why it enables achievment or understanding, but they all end back up with the idea that facts we can check and test are better than facts we can't.

We can't prove any of these premises - that the end of human life is bad, or that you should check your facts - without introducing new premises that are also unfounded. Even a objectivist approach ultimately depends on the premise that human life is good, which I obviously agree with but can't prove. But just because I can't prove it that doesn't mean we should abandon these ideas: we as people and our society and our civilization as a whole have been very effective by using these ideas at promoting the good human life.

So I think the reason that her argument SOUNDS so good is that implicitly missing in the equation is that the domain of scientific and spiritual truths is not overlapping, and thus someone who prefers scientific falsehood over spiritual truth (or even scientific "truth" over spiritual "truth") is missing something crucial by relying only on science.

But I think the key to the answer is already in your note: you must recognize that it's a false dichotomy. Spiritual "truths" contribute very little to scientific discussions; conversely, it takes a long time, lots of experience and careful argument to have the confidence that a scientific "truth" is stable enough to want to contribute to a spiritual discussion.

In this view, science tells us what the world is, and changes rapidly as we learn more, and spirituality tells us what our relationship to this world is, and changes only when we've seen something scientific over a long period of time. This is why, for example, there are many spiritual people who believe in the big bang and evolution but still believe that murder is wrong even though we're just bags of chemicals or that the scientific method is good even though all of the knowledge it produces can be overthrown at any time. Spirituality gives us a compass to navigate the landscape science shows us.

Or, if you just want something snappy, a better answer might be "no, I *need* scientific *answers* in order to know what to *do* with spiritual *questions*."

Cue said...

I could not agree more Jim. First off that good writers do catch you with your guard down, because you figure someone as engaging and as erudite as the writer can't be full of shit. You align the quality of writing with the quality of the arguement. Second, I think that Malcolm Gladwell's books suck ass! I was deeply disappointed with Blink and Tipping Point, two vacuous books that took precious time out of my life. The thing is it ain't a bad read. I'd offer up Freakonomics if someone wants to read a more substantive book of that ilk.
-MGF