Saturday, February 09, 2008

Appeals to authority

It is the nature of intellectuals to think that they know better than anyone else. So they rarely defend the status quo. They mostly want to change it in some way that would suit themselves -- mostly to get the money away from those dumb capitalists and channel it in a direction that will be better for intellectuals. In short, intellectuals usually lean Left to at least some degree. Conservatives can take the status quo or leave it, depending on what the particular status quo happens to be. But a loathing of the status quo is intrinsic to Leftism -- so much so that they may often oppose a status quo that they themselves have been instrumental in creating -- with the now-common Green/Left opposition to windfarms (a shout-out to Ted Kennedy here) being one rather amusing example.

One outcome of all that it that Leftists generally find much comfort in the outpourings of intellectuals -- with G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx being early players in that field. So an appeal to authority often suits Leftists. They say, in effect: "All these wise men say we need to change the way we do things so that must be right." The most notable tendency of that today is of course the constant Greenie claim that there is a "consensus" among scientists about the human origin of the slight degree of global warming observed in the late 20th century (but which has been conspicuously absent since 1998). The Greenies luxuriate in having so many authorities on their side and they do their best to discredit the many experts who reject the Warmist view.

Sadly, of course, authorities can often be wrong. Even the smartest of intellectuals can make big mistakes when speaking outside their own field of expertise. Albert Einsten had clearly Marxist views on the economy, for instance. You can read his now mostly archaic thoughts on the matter in the old Marxist publication Monthly Review. And the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, admired Communism so much that he actually emigrated to Russia. He lasted three weeks there and came back with distinctly modified views. Albert at least was wise enough not to put his money where his mouth was.

And experts can even go wrong when speaking WITHIN their field of expertise. Almost all of my academic career was devoted to exposing the flaws in the Leftist theories conventional among political psychologists. I was repeatedly able to show that the reigning consensus was contradicted by the facts. I don't believe I changed anybody's views, however. Ideology is not easily knocked off its perch by mere facts. But for anybody willing to look, I think I was able to show very clearly that the consensus within my own field of expertise was just plain wrong. You can see therefore why I regard ALL appeals to authority as very third-rate thinking -- as a rather pathetic substitute for looking at the actual evidence.

Given that the Green/Left have so conspicuously hitched their wagon to appeals to authority, however, it does on occasion become necessary to reply in kind. If a Leftist says: "All the experts say... " one needs to reply: "But THESE experts deny ..." if one is to have any hope of making a persuasive case. In other words, although appeals to authortity have little objective merit, they do have considerable persuasive power for many people and one has to recognize that and fight back by questioning the authority concerned -- and an easy way to do that is to quote OTHER authorities with different opinions. And I do that often on my Greenie Watch blog.

It is is also because of the Leftist authority-orentation (an orientation which makes it all the more amusing that Leftist psychologists constantly brand conservatives as "authoritarian") that I occasionally make mention of my academic background and the fields wherein I can speak with some authority. I would much rather discuss ANY issue on the basis of the facts but if a Leftist insists on personalized arguments in a field where I happen to be an authority, then I feel that I might as well take the easy way out and squash the Leftist using his own hammer. It might just conceivably teach him something about the inherent inconclusiveness of relying on arguments about persons rather than on arguments about the facts. I do however draw the line at claiming any GENERAL authority. Leftist academics very often do implicitly claim that. They get credit for pronouncements made outside their own field of expertise. A linguist like Chomsky, for instance speaks on all sorts of topics outside of his field and Leftists seem to get great comfort from his "authoritative" misrepresentations. They are fools do do so. Arguing from an irrelevant authority is in fact what logicians refer to as one of the informal fallacies.

I was rather amused recently, however, when a very skeptical reader asked for my list of academic publications. He evidently thought that I must be the sort of fraud one so often finds on the Left. When he was referred to a full list of the relevant citations, he lost that battle but as a comeback complained that many of my publications were quite short. He seemed to think that you could judge the worth of a research article by its length! I am sure that a lot of acadenics wish that were true. Writing reams of waffle seems to come very easily to many of them. If there is any criteriality in the length of a research article, I would tend to think that merit is more likely to lie with short articles. If you know what you are talking about and your results are clear, you don't need to ramble on.

I certainly do strive for succinctness in all that I write. People are more likely to read and understand what one has to say that way. But there are of course some topics that NEED to be discussed at great length -- histories and literature reviews, for instance -- and for my sins I do sometimes write at length in those areas. Most notably so here and here and here.

With my academic background I suppose I could be said to be an intellectual but I sedulously avoid that label. Intellectuals generally seem to me to be a rather miserable bunch who are puffed up with oversimplified theories and who are prone to parasitizing others. By contrast I have always been happy with my lot in life. I have the gift of contentment and "just the facts" will do me fine. And when I do splash out big with money (usually by giving it away. My own needs have always been small), I do it with money honestly earned in business -- not with money ripped off the taxpayer under some pretext. But being someone who has been successful in business as well as in academe does make me an odd bod, I guess.

Update: What is an "intellectual"?

In his usual memorable way, the delightful Dr. Spooner once said: "I have in my breast a half-warmed fish". I suspect that the definition I am about to offer is little better than a half-warmed fish but here goes: I think an intellectual is someone who defends popular ideas in a particularly persuasive way -- which is why the label is usually attached only to people who are much in the public eye. There are many scholars and scientists labouring away at making a contribution to knowledge and understanding but it is only when they get into the public eye that they become "intellectuals". And if the ideas they espouse are complex or difficult to follow they will simply not get into the public eye. The ideas concerned have to be readily comprehended by the intelligent layman.

And one reason why most intellectuals seem to be Left-leaning is that Leftist ideas are the ones most in need of defending. Some Leftist ideas -- such as the belief that you can provide more and better accomodation for the poor by instituting government rent-control -- are so obviously mad that not even an intellectual could defend them (except in NYC of course). But other ideas -- such as the desirability of universal government healthcare -- are attractive enough to warrant defending. And if you have been to a government hospital lately, you will very likely feel that only an intellectual could defend that idea. I am sure that Hillary Clinton goes to private hospitals.

So I think I can safely say that I am not an intellectual. I get no mainstream media exposure at all. Since I would much prefer to be regarded as a scientist or a scholar, however, I feel rather pleased about that. Most "intellectuals" seem to me to be very poor scientists and scholars -- Noam Chomsky, for instance.

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