The tactics of deceit

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Over at The Edge the philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr just had an exchange over Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I am not particularly interested in the details of this debate, rather, on the front page this selection from Dennett’s letter caught my attention:

When I explained then in a private letter to you what I had meant, you conceded to me in your private response that you had not seen my point in the light I intended, and that my claim was not in fact the blunder you had said it was….

What could Dennett mean? I immediately thought back to this:

I did indeed misspeak (p. 126), but the result was ambiguity, not error. The issue is complicated: it depends on whether you’re measuring the (average) speed of departure from a starting point in genetic space, or the speed of attainment of some particular evolutionary product. I meant the former. [Dennett]

Now I’ve been in the population genetics business for some time and, frankly, I have no idea what Dennett is talking about. And-I can find no polite way of putting this-it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Dennett has no idea what he’s talking about, either. Even the most charitable interpretation I can come up with is just plain wrong. [Orr's response]

Dennett’s phrasing was awkward and peculiar to say the least. Orr is an evolutionary geneticist who “was awarded the Dobzhansky Prize by the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Young Investigator Prize by the American Society of Naturalists.” In regards to a technical understanding of evolution Dennett was way out of his league. And only an analytic philosopher could confuse population genetic theory with such lexical opacity. That being said, I did not believe that Orr did not understand what Dennett was trying to say, unpolished though he was. This is how I unpacked it:

1) Because most mutations are deleterious, selection is generally a force for constraint, maintaining the ancestral state.

2) In contrast, random genetic drift operates upon evolutionarily neutral variation, so it exhibits (approximately) equal effect on mutants and ancestral alleles over the long term.

3) These insights lead to the contention of Kimura et. al. that most evolutionary change is driven by the substitution of neutral mutations, with random genetic drift a major engine. Even though the vast majority of neutral mutations go extinct, a small number perpetually substitute themselves over ancestral variants at a constant rate (i.e., the rate of substitution is proportional to the rate of mutation).

4) But, when there is a positively selected mutant, natural selection operates far faster in regards to fixing the variant than random genetic drift and stochastic processes might in the typical population size.

It is more complicated than that…but my point is that though Dennett wasn’t exactly clear, I think a reasonable observer could understand what he was getting at, or at least the somewhat confusing waters into which he had ventured. Orr did not acknowledge this. As I said, Orr is a world renowned evolutionary geneticist (as he implies in his response), so I was skeptical that he was as clueless as he’d let on.

So, when I read Dennett’s full letter, I was not surprised. Here is what he says:

You leveled very serious charges of error and incomprehension in that review, and when I challenged them, you responded with a haughty dismissal of my objections (in an exchange in the Boston Review). Quoting an example, dealing with the speed of evolution: “Now I’ve been in the population genetics business for some time and, frankly, I have no idea what Dennett is talking about. And-I can find no polite way of putting this-it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Dennett has no idea what he’s talking about either.”

Dennett is bringing up exactly what I remembered in The Boston Review! This was 10 years ago, but Dennett obviously still resents Orr mocking him. In private correspondence Dennett states that Orr admitted that he wasn’t really wrong, and Orr’s response to this new salvo from Dennett does not contradict that characterization.

I writing about this for one primary reason: I thought, at the time, that H. Allen Orr was striking a low blow dishonestly when he could have stood on firm ground, though with a weaker impact. I’ve thought about this exchange on & off for several years now, and have considered blogging it, because I think it is perhaps a reflection of H. Allen Orr’s character. Most of the readers of The Boston Review don’t spend their free time reading The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection or Motoo Kimura’s papers, they wouldn’t be able to parse from Dennett’s somewhat confused phrasing what he was trying to get at. In other words, assuming that Dennett wasn’t a moron they couldn’t really map his verbal exposition onto a range of evolutionary models, because it isn’t exactly as if a broadly educated person is familiar with the great Neutralist vs. Selectionist debate of the 1970s. They were relying on H. Allen Orr’s expertise. I just can’t believe that H. Allen Orr didn’t understand what Dennett was trying to say, or, that he couldn’t have seen what he was getting at if he hadn’t prejudged Dennett and his ideas as a whole. If I had been him I would have pointed out that Dennett’s graceless exposition of the relationship between neutral and selective forces in evolution should be a clue that the man doesn’t have the technical competency to engage in such an ambitious meta-project as the one he laid out in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Instead, Orr is implying that Dennett simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and making him out to be the fool. This is rhetorically far more powerful, and I am sure it persuaded most readers of The Boston Review, who are not going to be conversant in the details of evolutionary genetics and trust H. Allen Orr. After all, who are you going to listen to on this topic? A philosopher or an evolutionary geneticist?

To my mind Orr did a disservice to science and intellectual discourse. He went for the knockout, calling an intellectual ignorant is basically undermining their worth. Saying that they are a bit confused lacks a similar punch. But the readers of The Boston Review, or the lay audience in general, is not looking for a legal case where you are an advocate for your position at all costs, because science and intellectual discourse is more than one battle, it is a long war against our moral and personal failings, against pride, against ego, against self-interest and self-aggrandizement. Most of the battles are lost, but slowly the war grinds on and the trenches keep moving inch by inch. Ph.D. scientists make considerably less in income than their intellectual inferiors in law or medicine. But the field in which they operate is one of great prestige, of civilizational significance. Presumably they wish to engage in the adventure of the ages, at the cost of financial status. Scientists are human, as the politics which suffuses any university department would confirm, but, like monks meditating upon the nature of God, abjuring themselves of worldly pleasures and satisfactions, scientists have to err on the side of truth as they see it, and not a short term rhetorical victory. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Addendum: Readers can follow the links and judge for themselves if Dennett wasn’t clear in his intent, even if he was being muddled about it. Perhaps Orr didn’t understand what Dennett was trying to say. But if Orr could comprehend the opaque prose in The Genetical Theory, I can’t see why he couldn’t parse what Dennett was trying to get at. And just to be clear, though I point a finger at Orr on this occasion, rest assured that I understand that we are all guilty of this particular sin, and that includes myself. I simply want to emphasize Orr’s transgression here because I think it is important for us to remember that no matter the satisfaction that victory in one battle gives us, we are not fighting without a long term purpose, and dishonorable victories are fundamentally Pyrrhic.

Addendum II: Also, I understand that in practice science between the bounds of accepted & rejected consensus is quite the bloodsport, and an adversarial & amoral dynamic is common. Though this injects quite a bit of “noise” into the system, I trust over the long haul that the scientific culture will beat expectation in modeling reality. That being said, the issue I am pointing to here is slight of hand by gatekeepers. Orr writes reviews books as an evolutionary geneticist, with all the expertise that that entails. His behavior in this case was repulsive to me because he sacrificed the chance to elucidate the nature of evolutionary change to a broad audience so that he could mock (in, I suspect, a dishonest manner) someone and so win a point in an exchange of letters. I will refrain from an evolutionary psychological analysis of how this was truly “rational” from Orr’s individual perspective….



  1. deceit or obfuscation — different only by degrees I would argue. it’s a serious problem for public discourse about contemporary science.

  2. ageee with rik except don’t believe the two forms are materially different; they’re techniques employed as the situation permits (and the practitioner is able) to achieve the same end. 
    I’d like to be able to say improvement’s likely 
    but that’s far too sanguine. Only advice I could offer is to resist temptation in one’s own conduct (and, relatedly, not to extoll or applaud similar practices by others which might happen to support one’s particular view on a matter. 
    It’s not a problem caused by scientific controversy or even controversy itself–it’s a problem with being human.

  3. Who said that “scientific” arguments have to be fair? 
    Orr used a watered down version of one of Schopenhauer’s many tricks.

  4. that link is great.

  5. Kevembuangga: 
    Dittos to p-ter. If I was educated, I’da known that and said it first.  
    But, since you’re versed in that sort of thing, I’d guess you’d know if old Shope ever listed just repeating the same argument in different words without attempting rebuttal or superior explanation. And, if you’d like an example, see the series under the “irrationality” post above. One never even knows whether those one addresses with explanation are interested in clarity, better understanding, or something else entirely.

  6. that link was worth the post! that is what i mean by value added comments….

  7. >Who said that “scientific” arguments have to be fair? 
    Seems to me the whole essence of science is reasonableness in argument, both in thought and in discourse – that’s how you arrive at the truth. Otherwise you’re just a really well-educated con-artist. 
    I’m not implying a single action makes Orr a con-artist of course.

  8. Realized that that link is a catalog of quite a few actually compact pieces, so went and read (so far) about half–quite enough to realize that there’s a great deal of wit mixed in with descriptions of the techniques. Some of them reminded me, in tone, of Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary.” And, speaking of that work, anybody know what happened to “Upstream,” the site that called itself a “heterodox” magazine? I remember it not only for its articles but for interesting tidbits in the left margin and the page headings of bits from Bierce’s work.

  9. He used this trick too:If you know that you have no reply to the arguments which your opponent advances, you may, by a fine stroke of irony, declare yourself to be an incompetent judge: “What you now say passes my poor powers of comprehension; it may be all very true, but I can’t understand it, and I refrain from any expression of opinion on it”. In this way you insinuate to the bystanders, with whom you are in good repute, that what your opponent says is nonsense. Thus, when Kant’s Kritik appeared, or, rather, when it began to make a noise in the world, many professors of the old eclectic school declared that they failed to understand it, in the belief that their failure settled the business. But when the adherents of the new school proved to them that they were quite right, and had really failed to understand it, they were in a very bad humour.  
    This is a trick which may be used only when you are quite sure that the audience thinks much better of you than of your opponent. A professor, for instance, may try it on a student.  
    Strictly, it is a case of the preceding trick: it is a particularly malicious assertion of one’s own authority, instead of giving reasons. The counter-trick is to say: “I beg your pardon; but, with your penetrating intellect, it must be very easy for you to understand anything; and it can only be my poor statement of the matter that is at fault”; and then go on to rub it into him until he understands it nolens volens, and sees for himself that it was really his own fault alone. In this way you parry his attack. With the greatest politeness he wanted to insinuate that you were talking nonsense; and you, with equal courtesy, prove to him that he is a fool.

  10. mjb : the whole essence of science is reasonableness in argument, both in thought and in discourse 
    In thought, certainly, but in discourse? 
    Not to bring in Feyerabend and his ilk but what do you do when your opponents themselves resort to Schopenhauer’s eristic tricks?

  11. Not to bring in Feyerabend and his ilk but what do you do when your opponents themselves resort to Schopenhauer’s eristic tricks? 
    I cut to the end, largely because I liked the chapter title (Become Personal, Insulting, Rude) but it turns out to have what I consider to be very good advice for blog commenters: 
    The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet, but only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to cherish truth, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong, should truth lie with him. From this it follows that scarcely one man in a hundred is worth your disputing with him. You may let the remainder say what they please, for every one is at liberty to be a fool 

  12. George Weinberg: 
    In your opinion why did Schopenhauer cared to write both the paragraph you are quoting and the various “mischievous” tricks of The Art of Controversy?

  13. Doesn’t that word “frankly” in your quotation from Orr immediately suggest to you that, in fact, he is not being frank at all? 
    I submit that the word “frankly” is almost always a signal of the use of one or more rhetorical trick in argument.

  14. The preamble to Orr’s Edge response to Dennet:- 
    Daniel Dennett seems to think that the author of any review he doesn’t like is obliged to spend the rest of his days debating him? even if the review in question was of someone else’s book, not his. The sort of extended exchange Dennett now seeks can grow unproductive ? especially when the discussion devolves into ad hominem attack ? and, given this, I’m less than enthusiastic about continuing it. I will, though, briefly address Dennett’s main points here. And then that’s it for me. 
    The “high-minded refusal to continue the argument to disguise the fact I’m losing” gambit. Rather inclines me to agree with your view of Orr.

  15. potentilla: 
    I don’t believe it’s quite the “tell” you suggest, though only slightly different. 
    I’ve been sensitive to such usage, to include, “frankly,” “quite honestly,” “to tell you the plain truth,” for a very, very long time. I think I was under 10 when someone drew my attention to the “deceitful-intention-awareness-potential” in such phrases (70 now) and, for at least a while, I thought that maybe I’d come into possession of a “secret decoder ring.” 
    But it doesn’t actually work to identify falsity–not by a long shot. If I were to make my best guess, I’d say that it may tip one off to utterance about which there has been some consideration of other-than-truthfulness. But that’s not really saying a lot when it is understood how thoroughly nearly everyone has been immersed, since infancy, in honing and perfecting deceitful arts. I’d even venture an opinion that the most practiced never use such phrases, simply because of their potential to put the audience “on alert.” 
    We’re born liars–or, at least, almost constant liars from the time we perceive any potential advantage in manipulating those around us. “Body language” experts believe they have secret decoder rings, too, and some professionalize in entertaining TV audiences with analyses of specific conduct. Even here, though, penetration is more apparent than real; where they represent the behavior as relevatory, they themselves betray a certain deceitful attitude (the term body langauge is a more truthful description of what is, when all is said and done, after all, language–meant to communicate, rather than being beyond the subject’s control). So, if they’re experts, they already know this and are actually telling us “we can assume politicians are lying when their lips are moving–but you need my help to tell you whether their lips are moving or not.” 
    A curious conclusion I’ve drawn from such consideration is, that not only is each of us a practiced and reasonably successful liar (at least those of us who do not have a reputation as liars), each of us is the most successful liar of whom he is aware; he knows those instances in which he’s been successful (which are legion) and he cannot know of the instances in which others are successful (because the two conditions are mutually exclusive). Further, the very best liars (most successful, least detected) are those with sterling reputations for truthfulness; such reputation is achieved (in my opinion) by lying far less frequently, providing fewer opportunities for detection–what I’d describe as a judicious restriction of the practice to cases “when it’s really important.”

  16. Kevembuangga, 
    My impression is that Schopenhauer wrote his book not with the intention that the tricks be used, but rather that they be detected when others use them. I think we was arguing for more honest discourse. 
    But almost everything I know about Schopenhauer is second-hand or worse, so that’s mostly a guess.

  17. No–you’re right, George. At least, that’s the clear intention imparted by the (English) translation I read in the link provided. (And if that’s different from original sense–the translator’s doing a job of his own.) As I remarked (above), the sardonic tone is reminiscent of Bierce’s DEVIL’S DICTIONARY to an extent (to my ear) that I’d surmise Ambrose influenced by Schopenhauer. I’d've made a connection earlier (from bits and pieces of Bierce) but didn’t know anything of Schopenhauer except the name. I suppose I oughtta get out more but it’s a little late to start now.  
    Just after that paragraph, I googled and read the Wiki entry. Flat fucking amazing!–not a word of his humorous inclination. Not only reminds me of Bierce but Mark Twain (also of an age to have been influenced), too. Wouldn’t be the first time a comedian used “borrowed” material; the American legend was usually more obvious (necessary to the audience) but occasionally turned his hand to similar stuff (letters to M. Paul Bourget, analysis of faux French translation of his own “Celebrated Jumping Frog…” story, etc.).

  18. gene berman – I agree with what you say about lying, on the whole. But, on the limited evidence avaiable on Edge, I wouldn’t judge Orr to be a very good liar. His attempted disengagement that I quote above is rather clumsy. 
    Maybe a good lair would never use the word “frankly”? Or maybe a really super-brilliant liar would be able to use it effectively as a sort of double-bluff? 
    I don’t think Orr is in that league though. 
    (BTW, an exception to your claim in the first sentence of your last para is when we are “on the same side” as the liar (ie privy to their lies), because then we can know when they are successful. A previous boss of mine falls very neatly into your description of the very best liars.