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April 11, 2004

More than reason alone

Below, in response to a Crooked Timber poster who wondered if I was trying to suggest that the Left as a whole was against evolutionary psychology (EP), I noted that I cited a social democrat and a moderate Democrat as two individuals who did not believe that EP was bad science per se. Based on rational & empirical arguments alone, I think I can make the case that EP has some validity, and is a worthy avenue of research, but I was very conscious in that post of looking to those on the Left side of the political spectrum to buttress my argument.

The key is that I have long been aware that arguments are not won by reason alone. This is the answer to the query that Jason Malloy & others had to why I cited Paul Krugman in my mild take-down of using a Gouldian phrase for Panda's Thumb. Some readers were rather irritated and angered that Krugman was cited as someone who was rational. I noted that the citation was from 1997, a time when Krugman was not viewed as a partisan ideologue, and still basking the after-glow of his John Clark Bates medal (best young economist) and his "prediction" of the Asian Flu. I am not personally a partisan of Krugman's politics, or fan of his column in The New York Times (I have never read it), so my view of Krugman is a bit archaic. Nevertheless, I don't think that just because he is a Left-wing partisan means that everything he says must be incorrect (frankly, I find that sort of thinking on the Left & Right intellectually repulsive), but, I do use that tendency in those who manifest that mode of thought.

Let me elaborate in that specific case: my intent was tear down S.J. Gould's reputation. As Krugman notes, among the intellectual/cosmopolitan set, Gould has a high status as a priest of evolution. But, this is more about style than substance. Today, Krugman is viewed as a Left-wing partisan, and an enemy of the Bush administration. Many who are fans of S.J. Gould & not scientifically "in the know" are often Left-wing cosmopolitans who are likely fans of Krugman's current partisan output. So...I was rather consciously expecting to leverage that reflex to what I percieved was a "good end." As I expected, there was some predictable non-Left-wing backlash against my tactic. But, this audience really didn't need to be convinced as much about S.J. Gould's light-weight status, seeing as how Gould was a red-diaper baby of liberalish inclination who they are already keen on dismissing.

I have pulled out the "Krugman card" many a time, and my intent is always to disorient the world-view of my generally Left-of-Center audience. Many people take their opinions as a whole, and so their politics often dictate their intellectual stances because of consensus opinion. Since Krugman is percieved as a "good guy" by a certain segment of the political spectrum, anything he says will be taken by them as within the bounds of reason, and so can be used as a wedge to fragment their coherent world-view.

To take this perspective further: these sort of tactics are good at shaking the righteous "faith" of true believers (faith is usually impossible to reason with). Since this blog often touches on sensitive topics of race that elicits righteous rage from certain sectors, I have been careful to try & scramble the righteousness module by showing the weaknesses of saints and the shades of grey that infuse all world-views.

Eg; I like to point out how secular Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Hume and Kant were racists. Not only were they racists, they were more racist than "ignorant" religious believers, as they espoused polygenism, the idea that different races had separate origins, as opposed to "superstitious" Biblical monogenism. It is important to sow doubts as to the purity of one's own intellectual pedigree so as to make one wonder if the "enemy" might not be the only one smeared by the blackness of evil.

In the same tack, Maggie Sanger had some views that Planned Parenthood finds it important to disavow. Many of the early "Progressives" argued for the right to vote so as to counter the importance of new male immigrants who had naturalized. Many southern Democrats who have a good reputation with liberals, like anti-Vietnam War senator J. William Fulbright, were segregationists.

Since my friends & acquaintances tend to be more Left than Right, I am far more well versed in using these tactics against liberals. Nonetheless, I do like to point out that some of the early Church Fathers, like St. Augustine had very nuanced views of the "literality" of portions of the Bible such as Genesis that might be seen as at odds with fundamentalism.

There are many gems in this field. The key is to remember that debate on some topics is more than about reason and overall strategy, but that tactics and concurrent points and ideas matter, and that one can leverage psychological tendencies to get points across when A -> B -> C seems not to be getting the job done. Once faith is off the table, the real work of intellectual dialogue and debate can begin.

Posted by razib at 01:45 PM