Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nice things are nicer than nasty ones

Two striking examples of the terrible (I would say chilling, but that's too weak) effects that incivility can have, one in connection with climate change and one in philosophy. I've said nothing about the McGinn case because I have nothing to say that hasn't been said before, but his threat to write a book about the case makes me wonder whether everybody shouldn't say something, so that there is a chorus of opposition that makes any such manuscript unpublishable. Sadly it would just as likely have the opposite effect. Anyway, the New York Times has a story about it (not the possible book, but the case and sexism in philosophy generally), which quotes Jennifer Saul:
In an essay on implicit bias in the forthcoming book “What Needs to Change: Women in Philosophy,” Ms. Saul recalled the terror of overhearing faculty members at Princeton, where she earned her Ph.D., casually sort graduate students into “smart” versus merely hard-working — or worse, “stupid.”
Women, she said, are more likely to be categorized as “stupid,” to the detriment of the field as a whole.
Fear of being labeled not smart “is bad for philosophy,” Ms. Saul said. “It makes you not want to take risks.”
Of course in a free country people can express such views as that this or that student is stupid. But they ought not to do so, especially when there is a chance they might be overheard. And one reason why they ought not is that, as Saul says, it is bad for philosophy. (There are words people can use other than 'stupid,' I mean, and a Princeton graduate student is unlikely to be stupid in fact.)

The second example is from a Financial Times article on climate science. The whole thing is well worth reading, but this part stood out to me:
In the wake of the “Climategate” and “Glaciergate” controversies four years ago, a raft of inquiries eventually found no evidence of serious wrongdoing, let alone anything to raise doubts about the IPCC’s conclusions. But the scientists remain the target of a vigorous group of critics sceptical about their work. They have been branded “criminals” (Britain’s Lord Monckton) guilty of “massive international scientific fraud” (US senator James Sensenbrenner) who should commit “hara-kiri” (US pundit Glenn Beck) for duping the world with “snake oil” (former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin).
This has had an impact on the people doing this latest IPCC assessment, according to several of the scientists interviewed for this article. “I see it in the tension in the author team,” as they check, recheck, then check again all their work, said David Vaughan. “I think there is a point at which that kind of stress can become difficult to manage,” he added, explaining it has made IPCC work “a very cumbersome, slow process”.
Free speech is one thing, but the free market in opinions has an ugly downside (although I don't know that Beck's and Palin's positions can even be called opinions, i.e. things they actually believe). It might be the least bad way to do things, but there is a lot to be said for rational and civil debate (and for good old-fashioned shutting up) rather than the (conscious or otherwise) manipulation of opinion through rhetoric and the abuse of access to a large audience.


  1. how do we conduct "rational and civil" debates when the sides can't even agree on what is happening (what the facts on the ground are if you will) let alone how to measure/judge them? Isn't there something of spades being turned by bedrock at work here?

  2. Maybe so. I can't help thinking that the sides do agree on the facts about climate change, at least more or less, and that one side is simply lying and/or bullshitting. But of course it isn't civil of me to say that, and I might be wrong. Some people really are more irrational than they are malicious. Perhaps what I want there is more emphasis on science and less politics. The same goes for the evolution "debate." More honesty would reduce the amount of open disagreement considerably, I suspect, and then if the remaining disagreements were expressed civilly we could make some progress.

    Bedrock bends the spade. Choosing to bend your own spade rather than face the facts is not hitting bedrock. Some people, no doubt, honestly do not believe in global warming, or don't believe it is caused by human actions. But they are led to have these beliefs by others, some of whom surely know they are lying or, at best, that they are concerned with profit rather than truth.

    1. having lived in TN, KS,and now NE, I have had all too many exchanges with the mad-tea-partiers (FauxNewsCorp audience) and they are not strictly speaking in denial of these issues/factors as the realities at hand never actually registered in the first place, and this is in keeping with the nascent studies of cognitive-biases including the work that shows that directly confronting people with facts that work against their faith-commitments( religious or otherwise) only further entrenches them. Now are some politicians and their corporate masters cashing in on these folk-psychologies no doubt but how many of them are there I don't know, the House looks pretty scarey on CSPAN...

    2. That's a long list! Yes, I know plenty of people who have never known the relevant facts to begin with, but I think of them as having been lied to by people who know better (or who were lied to by ...). It's the cashing-in politicians and corporate masters that bother me most, but anyone calling for "hara-kiri" or calling people they disagree with "criminals" needs, at the least, to tone it down. Or: I wish they would tone it down. And I wish the same with respect to anyone who regularly writes off other people they disagree with. It isn't just the kind of mildly bad behavior that makes one exciting in an Anthony Bourdain kind of way. It's destructive.