Thursday, 8 November 2007

Argumentum ad Incredulitatem Orthodoxam

It is quite something to take the smugness of one’s own ignorance, bolstered by one’s sure presumption of the ignorance of others, as settling the matter of the stupidity of the words and deeds of one’s enemies, but it is all in a day’s ease for Mr Daniel Davies, scribbler for the paraliterary wing of The Guardian, who feels fit to express incredulity at the likelihood that anyone could find “one single example of a clever thing either [Larry Summers or Enoch Powell] did or said”, given that “both of these famously intelligent men are not famous for intelligent things they did or said . . . [but rather] for actually stupid things that they did and said.” [1] Mr Davies has in mind both the suggestion by Larry Summers that the lower incidence of women in high-end scientific and mathematical disciplines might not be owed solely to social factors, and the assertion by Enoch Powell that mass-immigration might not turn into the picnic of harmony for which happy-clappy liberals hope and which in lieu of fulfillment they pretend to see. It is hard to find any reason given by Mr Davies as to why he finds these propositions stupid, and so it would be unfair to accuse him of having any, unless one should count the appeal to popular ignorance or the belief that vocal heresy against political orthodoxy is inherently stupid. It suffices for Mr Davies to say that, so long as there is ignorance of anything clever that has been said or done by these men, and so long as what is popularly known about them is opined to be stupid, they may safely be dismissed as fit for little else but stupidity. Mr Davies should consider himself lucky that the world is fruitful enough in fatuousness that it has not afforded him any fame thereby.

[1] Daniel Davies, “The wisest fools in ChristendomComment is Free, (The Guardian’s Weblog), 6th November 2007; original emphasis. A conjecture: d2 = di2m3

13 comments:

Larry Teabag said...

It is quite something to take the smugness of one’s own ignorance, bolstered by one’s sure presumption of the ignorance of others, as settling the matter of the stupidity of the words and deeds of one’s enemies...

Quite so, as you amply demonstrate.

The issue is not only the arguments that Powell and Summers were making, but the where, the how, and the capacity in which they made those arguments.

Your talk of "the assertion by Enoch Powell that mass-immigration might not turn into the picnic of harmony..." is one thing. But it doesn't address Daniel's question:

How stupid do you have to be to not only start talking about "the River Tiber foaming with blood", but then subsequently to claim that you didn't realise that it would be controversial?

As for Summers, he's not simply a researcher, nor is he even a researcher in the relevant subject (in which penty of valid research gets done uncensored by the way, and un-dismissed as stupid by Daniel Davies). He's the President of Harvard. Moreover, "The percentage of tenured job offers made to women by the university's Faculty of Arts and Sciences has dropped dramatically since Summers took office, prompting vigorous complaints from many of Harvard's senior female professors."

In this context, is it really sensible, intelligent, for him to start sounding off about gender inequality, based on this sort of careful not-at-all-stupid "research": Summers also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ''daddy truck," and one ''baby truck."

?

Deogolwulf said...

My post does not revolve around whether what Powell and Summers said was right or wrong; it revolves around Mr Davies’ defamation of men of whom he paints a ludicrous picture of their being incapable of uttering little else but stupidities, a picture he paints by appeals to popular ignorance and more strongly to the belief that, “well, they must be stupid ’cos they said things that we all believe to be false and in contexts in which they were likely to prove controversial”, that is to say, an appeal to the kind of group-think that sees vocal heresy against political orthodoxy as inherently stupid. This demand of the “where” and “how” of which you speak, whereby one is not meant to utter possibilities in front of people who might find them uncomfortable, is a demand not to upset the applecart of possibly false orthodox views. As for the capacities in which these men spoke, what is one to say? Powell was a Member of Parliament who took his role as the representative of his constituents seriously, and when he spoke of the fears of his constituents, he was acting properly in his capacity as their representative. I know that is hard to believe now – that an MP would dare to represent the views of his constituents, rather than try to manipulate, misrepresent or even traduce them, but there it is. And what exactly about Summers’ capacity precluded that he speak what he believed to be the truth, especially given that he made his remarks at a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, exactly where the matter was most pertinent? (Now, if the purpose of this conference was meant not to be some honest debate, including the role of women in science and engineering, but rather to be some warm and cuddly self-congratulatory fest, then he picked the wrong words if he wished to contribute to its cosiness. But I presume Prof. Summers has enough earnestness of character not to play along with such drivel and enough self-respect not to bow to the presure to conform to the charade.) The trouble is that you, and Mr Davies, and many others besides, are demanding that people subscribe to a political sophistico-mendacity which sees the utterance of what one believes to be true as always stupid if it causes trouble or damages one’s career or political prospects, and which even has the power to make a man believe to be false that which is not politically expedient. It is a pragmatic strategy for the furtherance of one’s power-interests in a milieu hostile to the utterance of unpleasant possibilities but welcoming to comfortable illusions – and it is a strategy that has become a worldview, a perverse triumph of pragmatism. It is a thoroughgoing, soul-rotting mendacity. Politics truly does have the power to make mush of many a clever mind. I, for my part, am glad that some are still “naïve” – i.e., honest or honourable – enough not to toe the line.

“Your talk of "the assertion by Enoch Powell that mass-immigration might not turn into the picnic of harmony..." is one thing. But it doesn't address Daniel's question:

‘How stupid do you have to be to not only start talking about "the River Tiber foaming with blood", but then subsequently to claim that you didn't realise that it would be controversial?’”

Powell well knew that it would be controversial. From the speech itself: “I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation?” Now, if he did indeed subsequently claim that he didn’t realise that it would be controversial (I am ignorant of whether he did or not), that establishes a typical example of political mendacity, not of stupidity.

“Is it really sensible, intelligent, for [Summers] to start sounding off about gender inequality, based on this sort of careful not-at-all-stupid “"research”: ‘Summers also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ''daddy truck," and one ''baby truck.’”

Of course, Summers is not basing his belief solely on this example, but merely adducing it as his own observation in accord with what he already believes to be true on the basis of research and observation. Why shouldn’t he draw an example from his own life? But then he is perhaps guilty of oversight in presuming that others were similarly aware of what he was aware, and of assuming that all members of his audience were adult enough not to have a tantrum upon hearing what they did not wish to hear; but one cannot always predict the ignorance of others nor the ease of their stroppiness.

Now, for the matter under advisement, it doesn’t matter much whether these particular utterances are stupid or unwise or not, for the crux of the matter is that “[i]t suffices for Mr Davies to say that, so long as there is ignorance of anything clever that has been said or done by these men, and so long as what is popularly known about them is opined to be stupid, they may safely be dismissed as fit for little else but stupidity.” That was Mr Davies’ shoddy purpose, and, I have to say, it wasn’t cleverly done.

Recusant said...

Well I was going to try and say something erudite, profound and, most importantly, laconic; but looking at the size of the comments already here I have been frightened into silence, except for one thing.

Deogolwulf, I meant it the other day when I said you were the most sagacious blogger we have. My favourite. And when it is in my power to dispose of Duchies to my favourites, you shall have one.

Deogolwulf said...

Recusant, regarding my being "the most sagacious blogger we have", you are very kind to say so, but, even taking into account that bloggers as a whole are not exactly noted for their sagacity, I blush to say that I think you're quite wrong, as many people could point out (some with great pleasure, no doubt). Nonetheless I am pleased you think so! A small dukedom will do me fine.

Larry Teabag said...

Except, that dimness and

"...the kind of group-think that sees vocal heresy against political orthodoxy as inherently stupid..."

are accusations for which you've provided scant evidence, as well as being palpably ridiculous ones to lay at Daniel Davies' door, as anyone who'd read much of his writing would be aware. I'll point you at this post as evidence, because I think there's a good chance you'll agree with much of it.

So I conclude that you are as ignorant of him as you say he is of Powell and Summers (which, incidently, I doubt).

But why argue with the real Daniel Davies, when you can concoct a generic, muesli-eating, Guardian hack who's only interest in is furthering his preferred comfortable illusions? What a load of old rubbish.

The trouble is that you, and Mr Davies, and many others besides, are demanding that people subscribe to a political sophistico-mendacity which sees the utterance of what one believes to be true as always stupid if it causes trouble or damages one’s career or political prospects, and which even has the power to make a man believe to be false that which is not politically expedient.

I'm doing nothing of the kind, and I don't propose to defend myself further from random allegations that you decide to invent about me, other than to say that there are many honest, honourable, sensible, non-selfish, non-mendacious reasons to tread carefully when saying things that are liable to to misinterpretation or likely to cause offence. It's perfectly reasonable to ask that people in public life consider carefully not only what they are saying, but then context and capacity in which they're saying it, as well as the language they decide to use.

This shold be an obvious point, particularly to anyone who cares a damn for "politeness", which I assume you do.

Your problem is a kind of opposite to group-think - you assume that everyone who holds views you dislike does so because they're ignorant group-thinking automata. Of course a convenient corrolary to this is that you needn't consider too carefully the particular Guardianista in question: the homoegeneity of the class makes it safe for you to rail against the features common to all Guardianistas. That is to say, you draw a crude, inaccurate caricature, and then throw darts at it.

Deogolwulf said...

"Except, that dimness and

'...the kind of group-think that sees vocal heresy against political orthodoxy as inherently stupid...'

are accusations for which you've provided scant evidence, as well as being palpably ridiculous ones to lay at Daniel Davies' door, as anyone who'd read much of his writing would be aware."

I wrote that it was "an *appeal* to the kind of group-think . . ." along with a sure presumption of the ignorance of his readers that Mr Davies made in his article. The primary evidence *is* his article, freely available for anyone to read, and of which my post produces only excerpts. But if you are not persuaded, so be it.

"[W]hy argue with the real Daniel Davies, when you can concoct a generic, muesli-eating, Guardian hack who's only interest in is furthering his preferred comfortable illusions? What a load of old rubbish."

Was that not the real Daniel Davies who wrote the article? The "concoction", as you call it, comes from the article. (I have made no mention of muesli-eating.)

"[T]here are many honest, honourable, sensible, non-selfish, non-mendacious reasons to tread carefully when saying things that are liable to to misinterpretation or likely to cause offence."

Indeed, and there are many dishonest, dishonourable, insensible, selfish, mendacious reasons to call stupid someone who may honourably, sensibly, non-selfishly, and non-mendaciously decide to tell the truth as he sees it when he believes it pertinent to do so. Powell believed it pertinent to utter the feelings of his constituents because - quite oddly - he felt it was his duty to do so, the very task for which he was appointed. And Summers - I presume - believed it pertinent to suggest the possibility of non-social factors in the differences between the representation of the sexes in the sciences in a speech to a conference touching on that very topic.

"[Y]ou needn't consider too carefully the particular Guardianista in question: the homoegeneity of the class makes it safe for you to rail against the features common to all Guardianistas. That is to say, you draw a crude, inaccurate caricature, and then throw darts at it."

I considered carefully what Mr Davies said. My post attacks *his* words, not some hypothetical Guardianista's. But I am more than happy to generalise about the quality of journalism in The Guardian: it is generally poor. Mr Davies happened to provide a specific example on a particular day. And no day goes by without examples from which to choose.

Dennis Mangan said...

Just as a by-the-way, Summers is eminently qualified to make the remarks that he did. His remarks were not based on the example of his daughter, but on the mathematically certain result that if the standard deviation of male intelligence is greater than that of women, which it is, then there will be both more geniuses and more morons among men. It seems that women (most people actually) are happy to hear about the morons, but demand the head of anyone who mentions the geniuses.

Larry Teabag said...

No, you're backpedalling. In your post you credited Daniel with "the belief that vocal heresy against political orthodoxy is inherently stupid", an allegation which is entirely false, unfair, and unsupported by any evidence. That is what I'm complaining about.

Deogolwulf said...

Thanks, Mr Mangan.

"It seems that women (most people actually) are happy to hear about the morons, but demand the head of anyone who mentions the geniuses."

Just about sums it up, really.


Mr Teabag: "[Y]ou're backpedalling."

Going round in circles, more like.

You were quoting from this bit: "an appeal to the kind of group-think that sees vocal heresy against political orthodoxy as inherently stupid."

The post had this:

"It is hard to find any reason given by Mr Davies as to why he finds these propositions stupid, and so it would be unfair to accuse him of having any, unless one should count the appeal to popular ignorance or the belief that vocal heresy against political orthodoxy is inherently stupid."

That is the belief expressed -- is it not? -- in the following:

"Seriously, how stupid do you have to be to get up in front of a "Women in Science" conference and tell them that the reason you don't employ many women as science professors is that they aren't good enough?"

Mr Davies gave no other reasons for his saying that Summers was stupid to say what he did. Now, whether Mr Davies actually believes it or not is another matter*, but obviously one doesn't make a good job of appealing to a belief if one doesn't seem to believe it oneself. It is, however, the appeal to the belief that is the crux of the matter, as the title of the post illustrates.

(*I doubt anyone believes it when he thinks about it. It is a kind of unthinking group-reaction against the breaking of taboos.)

Larry Teabag said...

is it not?

It is not. You're certainly not entitled to the word "inherently", nor are you entitled to assume that is the "heresy against political orthodoxy" to which he was objecting, rather than (say) the manner and the context of its vocalisation - a point I made in my first comment.

Mr Davies gave no other reasons for his saying that Summers was stupid to say what he did.

...so you made one up to suit your prejudices.

Deogolwulf said...

For goodness sake. This is the only "reason" he gives for finding it stupid:

"Seriously, how stupid do you have to be to get up in front of a "Women in Science" conference and tell them that the reason you don't employ many women as science professors is that they aren't good enough?"

It is *the* appeal he makes to the prejudices of his readers. What is it about "the manner and the context of its vocalisation" that makes Summers' vocalisation controversial -- liable to attack and ridicule -- and Mr Davies' derision of it so effective as an appeal? One cannot just cite context as if it referred to nothing. The most salient aspect of the context -- the aspect that makes it controversial -- is the now orthodox, politically-inspired belief that the sexes are fundamentally equal. The strength of Mr Davies' appeal to his readers to find stupid the remarks of Summers depends on that orthodoxy and its transgression. It could not work without it.

Larry Teabag said...

For goodness sake yourself.

Look, here is Daniel's argument as I understand it:

He is assuming that Powell and Summers did not wish for the consequences that their actions eventually had. [1]

He is arguing that the consequences of their actions were foreseeable. [2]

Therefore he concludes that they behaved stupidly in not foreseeing the foreseeable and undesirable consequences of their actions.

I think this reading of the article is well supported by several of the quotes from the article already given, as well as this one:

Lots of otherwise sensible commentators will regularly admit that a "genius" politician was not very good at politics, or a "genius" academic administrator was a terrible manager, but then continue as if they regarded mere incompetence at one's chosen career to be of secondary importance, compared to the far greater value of being a genius. Wasn't it a shame that Enoch Powell didn't have more or a career in politics? Well no, he was crap at it. Wouldn't Larry Summers have made a great president of Harvard if it wasn't for those academics who didn't like him? Well perhaps, but Harvard's a university, academics are pretty much all there is there, and if you can't manage them, you can't manage Harvard.

In fact I think my reading is far and away the most obvious and right one, and yours that "It is hard to find any reason given by Mr Davies as to why he finds these propositions stupid, and so it would be unfair to accuse him of having any, unless one should count the appeal to popular ignorance or the belief that vocal heresy against political orthodoxy is inherently stupid."

...is therefore downright inaccurate.

Of course you'll also take issue with his argument as presented here by me, but that's a different thing from misrepresenting it, as you have.

I'll even concede:
(a) that he very likely chose examples to illustrate his point which he knew would play well with his audience, and the same fundamental (sound) point, that public figures renowned for their intelligence are often fools, could be equally have been backed up in a way pleasing to conservatives [3];

(b) that the Summers' example is perhaps somewhat harsh. "Ill-judged" would more charitable than "stupid".

All the same, this is what his argument is, and it isn't what you said.

[1] You may believe that it is unspeakable mendacity to consider such things as how other people will respond to your words, and that we should all just speak the plain, unadorned truth and be damned. I think this is nonsense, but this is all not the point.

[2] You seem to disagree: but one cannot always predict the ignorance of others nor the ease of their stroppiness.

[3] This is where your objection fits in I suppose, but do watch out for glass-houses.

And I reiterate that it is something to do with the context and manner of the "heresy" which lead to the disastrous consequences for these "heretics", rather than the anything inherent in "vocal heresy against political orthodoxy". This fact is clear: plenty of prominent people manage to speak out against these orthodoxies, with no dire consequences for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Commissar Teabag is arguing in bad faith anyway.

In a future utopia boys and girls will all show an equal interest and aptitude for maths. The fact that cannot be seen anywhere in history or contemporary societies...

Summers' example was not about girls aptitude for maths. It was to illustrate his view that at some level males and females are wired differently. Any man who has had some passing contact with women would know this was true. Only the most dull-witted egalitarian would deny it.