Don’t be Misled

by Brian on February 29, 2004

This is what I need more of – theoretical justifications for not reading things.

Neil Levy, Open-Mindedness and the Duty to Gather Evidence; Or, Reflections Upon Not Reading the Volokh Conspiracy (PDF)

At times Neil comes perilously close to endorsing Kripke’s paradox. Assume p is something I know. So any evidence against p is evidence for something false. Evidence for something false is misleading evidence. It’s bad to attend to misleading evidence. So I shouldn’t attend to evidence against p. So more generally I should ignore evidence that tells against things I know.

But Neil’s main point is more subtle than that. It’s that it can be a bad idea to approach a topic as an expert when in fact you’re not one. And that seems like good advice, even if you really should be reading the Volokh Conspiracy (for instance).

{ 42 comments }

1

Rich Puchalsky 02.29.04 at 9:16 pm

I think that there is at least one important flaw in this argument. Although it is true that one can not become an expert in a wide range of (or even perhaps one) expert field, one can become more or less expert in detecting when someone is constructing a bad argument. Levy uses Lomborg’s _The Sceptical Environmentalist_ as an example. I would contend that, even if you have none of the expert knowledge needed to check Lomborg’s expert claims, you still can detect the many occassions where he draws undue inferences from his truth claims. These should, of course, make you suspect his writing in general.

Or let’s take _The Bell Curve_ as another example. In this book it is claimed that some groups of people are innately less intelligent than other groups, and that therefore social welfare intended to aid the putatively lower-intelligence groups should be eliminated. Surely anyone with minimal experience in evaluating sales pitches can see the problems with that “therefore”.

If people really wrote “minimally competent” books (in Levy’s sense of that phrase) that refrained from making obviously bad arguments, then his claim might be true. But in fact they rarely seem to. There seems to be a high correlation between being on the wrong side of an expert dispute (that is in principle settled by current data) and between being willing to make gad arguments. So the arguer tells us how much they should be trusted at the same time as they make their truth claims.

2

Sebastian Holsclaw 02.29.04 at 10:04 pm

“But Neil’s main point is more subtle than that. It’s that it can be a bad idea to approach a topic as an expert when in fact you’re not one.”

I don’t think this is really his point. His point is much closer to: you should not approach a specialty topic at all unless you are an expert.

One of the major problems with his idea is the fact that you aren’t an expert in everything, you can only be a limited expert. He admits this, but fails to address the challenge this represents. His theory strongly suggests that people should avoid engaging ‘expert’ topics where they are not experts. (I note that he makes minimal effort to distinguish between expert and non-expert topics. A suspicious person would probably suggest that expert topics might be one where agrees with the expert and non-expert topics might be otherwise). What do you do with cases where the best challenge to a theory comes from someone who is expert in something else? This happens all the time in the sociology/psychology/economics spheres. It sometimes even happens in the harder sciences.

In a related area, it may very well be that many ‘expert’ topics do not actually require the expertise discussed. I think psychology is an excellent example. Expertise may indeed be required to discuss dramatic outlying behaviours, but it may not in fact be needed to discuss almost all day-to-day psychology.

Further, he fails to address group bias and selective reinforcement. There have been many instances of experts requiring a shake up from the outside to force them to deal with things they don’t like.

It is interesting that Levy’s section on choosing which expert to trust actually works in Lomborg’s favor. Lomborg was far less financially invested in his theories than those who now criticize him.

Rich, have you read Lomborg? He doesn’t suggest that environmental damage does not occur, he suggests that it is overblown mostly by non-expert environmental advocates or by experts who purposely inflate claims because they want to bring attention to their cause.

3

Gil 02.29.04 at 11:23 pm

The entire argument seems to me to be a prescription for remaining comfortable with ones opinions, rather than one for progressing towards the truth.

I think the latter is a more worthy goal, and it requires seeking, rather than avoiding, criticism.

4

Rich Puchalsky 02.29.04 at 11:27 pm

I read exactly as much of Lomborg as I needed to under my version of Levy’s theory; i.e. after I ran into the first couple of obviously malicious arguments, I gave up on the book. This occured, I vaguely recall, a few pages into the first chapter.

Looking back at old notes, I see that these two bad arguments were:

1. The author has a section purporting to point out the “reality” of each environmental group’s claims. There are no sections on any on the industry-funded anti-environmental groups. In any case, the section on Greenpeace contains a story where the author disagreed with Greenpeace about species extinctions. Greenpeace then called a press conference with the new numbers and pulled its report with the incorrect and
inflated numbers. What is supposed to be the problem with this story? Would the author have preferred that Greenpeace *not* correct their numbers? Or that no one ever make a mistake?

2. Cancer deaths from breast cancer. The author challenges the claim that age-adjusted breast cancer incidence has gone up by 1% a year since some year. He claims that if this were true, then the percentage of deaths by breast cancer would also have gone up by some large amount, but that in fact it’s dropped. The author clearly either doesn’t know or is trying to fool us about the difference between a rise in the incidence of cases of breast cancer and the number of deaths from breast cancer. Assuming that our ability to treat breast cancer has grown over the years, one would expect that deaths might fall even if the rate of cases of cancer rose.

5

Brett Bellmore 02.29.04 at 11:37 pm

“Or let’s take The Bell Curve as another example. In this book it is claimed that some groups of people are innately less intelligent than other groups, and that therefore social welfare intended to aid the putatively lower-intelligence groups should be eliminated.”

So, may I take it from this that you didn’t read the Bell Curve? Since I did, and recall no such policy prescription…

6

Neil 02.29.04 at 11:42 pm

Sebastian’s right: my main point (as I just said over at TAR, Brian’s other site) is that if you’re not an expert you shouldn’t approach certain evidence at all. I don’t think the challenge he suggests, when criticism comes from outside the field, is all that serious. This does happen, I agree (though not very often). There are some good examples in evolutionary biology. But these examples – for instance, someone applying a knowledge of statistics and game theory to evolutionary problems – just represent one area of expertise overlapping with another. Moreover, there’s nothing to prevent someone acquiring expertise in an area: you don’t have to have institutional accreditation (though its much more difficult outside the institutions for most people).

Group bias, selective reinforcement, exclusion of different perspective due to prejudice – all these are real problems. A theory had better be messy, because reality is messy. BTW, you misread my point about Lomborg. I never accused him of being prejudiced to having a financial interest in his work. I said it would be nice to think we could discount the wrong side in each controversy using that kind of criterion, but extremely unlikely.

Rich, I think you’re overestimating the ability even of intelligent, educated people to see through unsound arguments. Have you read the Bell Curve? Its wrong, I’m confident in saying, but I did a lot of work to be sure that its wrong. They argue not that social welfare shouldn’t go to the unintelligent, but that welfare does not benefit the unintelligent. There are many things wrong with the book, but they generally turn on arguments in statistics that are beyond most people.

7

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.01.04 at 12:36 am

The biggest problem I have with the suggestion, is that if you happen to currently believe the wrong experts there is no real escape under the ‘investigating outside your field is counterproductive concept’. Can we call it wilfull incuriousness?

Perhaps my biggest worry about this concept is the fact that intellectuals (experts) are smart enough to engage in horrific and complicated self-deceptions. Entire fields, especially in the soft sciences, get mired in things that any idiot outside the field can see are quite wrong. But the field itself sticks to it for years or decades. See for instance repressed memories, or huge swaths of Freudian ‘analysis’. See also most Marxist theories circa 1950-1970, resistant to all evidence. It didn’t take an expert to see how awful the Soviet Union was as a government. But it did take an expert to wrongly explain how it was not. See also ‘deep structure’ which mysteriously still has hangers on.

I guess in reality I accept the incuriousness concept but I believe that the ‘expert’ areas which it involves are far fewer than your examples would tend to suggest. If an expert mathematician claims to have proven Fermat’s therom, I’m willing to trust mathematicians in their narrow area of specialty. If a philosopher claims to have proven that the only rational society is one that maximizes the well-being of its lowest members, I will feel free to jump in about ‘prove’, ‘rational’, ‘maximize’, ‘well-being’, and ‘member’. And I don’t need to study anyone in particular to do so.

8

Rich Puchalsky 03.01.04 at 12:54 am

I fully admit that I did the briefest skim of _The Bell Curve_ before rejecting it as I did Lomborg’s _The Skeptical Environmentalist_, and unlike that book, I didn’t save notes on which specific arguments I found bad. So I retract my claim that the “therefore” argument appears within the book and apologize for using _The Bell Curve_ as an example in the first place.

However, I will point out that, assuming Levy to be correct when he says that The Bell Curve does claim that “welfare does not benefit the unintelligent”, that’s another version of my original example. How do the authors purport to know that welfare does not benefit the unintelligent? Isn’t it a bit unlikely that the authors would not only be experts on measurement of and hereditability of intelligence, but that they’d also be experts on the social effects of intelligence and on the effects of social programs? Claiming too much expertise is just good a giveaway as many others.

As for the general question of whether I’m overestimating the ability of people to see through unsound arguments — perhaps so. But that ability is one ability, rather than expertise in many different fields, so in theory it is more within reach. And I would guess that people these days grow up exposed to a very large amount of advertisements and propaganda, and thus tend to develop some degree of resistance to bad arguments naturally.

9

Neil 03.01.04 at 1:04 am

Herrnstein and Murray apply exactly the same (real) expertise to the claim that welfare doesn’t benefit the recipient to their other claims: statistical analysis. They argue, for instance, that the gains from Head Start programs are small, and disappear entirely as the child ages. Now, suppose you support these programs (as, incidentally, I do). What do you gain from reading H&M’s claims that they don’t work? At best, nothing. At worst, your warrant for your belief (that Head Start programs work) is somewhat undermined.

If you think that people are getting better at detecting bad arguments (and, more to the point, unsound arguments), then you must be living in a different world to me. From where I sit, the last 5 years have been time (in the US, and Australia, and argubaly in the UK) when most of the people seem to have been fooled most of the time.

10

Jim Thomason 03.01.04 at 1:33 am

“Now, suppose you support these programs (as, incidentally, I do). What do you gain from reading H&M’s claims that they don’t work? At best, nothing. At worst, your warrant for your belief (that Head Start programs work) is somewhat undermined.”

That’s an interesting way to put it. I would say that at best you might understand the subject better, while at worst the book wouldn’t be enlightening at all. The way you have described it, learning that your current position may not reflect reality as well as you had thought is a bad thing.

I enjoy being right as much (or more) as the next person. If I’m wrong I’d rather know it so I can modify my opinion instead of remaining blissfully ignorant of my error. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a GOOD thing, not the worst that could happen.

11

Neil 03.01.04 at 1:43 am

“That’s an interesting way to put it. I would say that at best you might understand the subject better, while at worst the book wouldn’t be enlightening at all. “

That’s fine, Jim. If you have the knowledge of statistics to work through and thereby confirm or disconfirm H&M’s arguments, and you already have access to the relevant information against which to check their claims (or are prepared to do the work to gain the knowledge of statistics and the information – which will require a period ranging from months to years, depending on how much background you have) then go for it. Claims must be checked. But what about the rest of us – those who don’t have the relevant expertise and don’t have the time to acquire it (notice, too, that we all belong to the ‘rest of us’ – for many topics we don’t have the relative expertise, and we simply don’t live long enough to acquire it for all domains of expertise). For the rest of us, we don’t improve our warrant by reading the book. Instead we rely upon you (or whoever) to check the facts for us. Many philosophers have pointed out that if we can’t rely upon testimony, then we can know very little.

12

Jeremy Osner 03.01.04 at 2:11 am

Neil — Your argument devours itself. If I, Homo Incuriosis, am faced with competing testimonies from different “experts”, I must decide whom to believe in order to decide what policies to favor (say e.g. Head Start, pro or con). My other options are just to go with my gut instinct, or to be apathetic — both perfectly valid I suppose but maybe not the best way forward.

13

Jim Thomason 03.01.04 at 2:42 am

Neil, I think you need to read more Voltaire: “The perfect is the enemy of the good”.

I’ve never read The Bell Curve. From what I heard of it at the time (from both sides), it’s findings were more or less irrelevent to my views on race (and respective intelligence or lack thereof), so I never bothered.

However, if I HAD read it, would I have needed months (or years!) of statistics classes, access to the same or similar data, to run my own computations, etc. etc. etc. to come to a reasonably informed conclusion? Of course not. You generally don’t have to be an expert in a particular field to be able to spot dishonesty, poor logic, lazy conclusions when they are pointed out to you – and with regard to controversial ideas, one side is always ready to pounce on such mistakes or frauds from the other.

Notice that in just about every field you have highly educated, well qualified and intelligent ‘experts’ … who have wildly divergent opinions in just about every particular. So gaining expertise still obviously is no guarantee of correctness.

And on those areas where there IS wide agreement, why bother to invest the time and energy to investigate such issues yourself when there is no controversy?

14

R.V. Agnos 03.01.04 at 3:08 am

Let us assume that I had never formed any opinion on Head Start until I read this discussion thread. Now, all I know is that one set of data shows that its benefits dissapate over time.

I have now formed a general opinion (as a non-expert) against Head Start.

Where, in this world-view, do I get to change my mind?

On the other hand, let’s say that I read the National Resource Defense Council’s announcement on the EPA’s new mercury policy.

http://www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/031205.asp

The NRDC writes that the EPA will “allow nearly seven times more annual mercury emissions for five times longer than current law.”

7 times more mercury! That sounds horrible. But I read further and see that “current law” doesn’t mean the amount of mercury allowed to be emitted today. Rather, it means the amount that would be allowed at a future time after emission levels were cut to only 10% of their current levels.

Essentially, the EPA is changing from a rule that would require mercury emissions to be cut 90% to one that would require emissions to be cut 30%. (70% of current levels is “seven times” 10% of current levels.)

As a non-expert, of course, I know that mercury is “bad” in some general sense. I have no idea , however, how much mercury is “too much.”

I am faced with the government telling me that a 30% cut is sufficient, and the environmental groups that lead off with scare tactics to make me think that the amount of mercury will be going up.

As a non-expert, then, it appears rational under Levy’s analysis to stick with the “expert” EPA, recognize that the environmentalists (who need to scare the people in order to raise funds) are making exaggerated claims, and be content with that.

——————–

It seems to me that the big problems in the world come from too many people trusting the experts — not too few.

15

Sam Mikes 03.01.04 at 4:13 am

Is Neil’s argument vulnerable to a “turning the tables” defense? I think it is:

I am not expert in epistemology; therefore, by Neil’s argument, I shouldn’t read his paper.

16

Ric Locke 03.01.04 at 4:13 am

An aphorism from software development might be apropos: “Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.”

No given individual is likely to have enough expertise to expose a bogus claim by a person who has specifically developed the ability to make the said claim, or by a person whose ability is less than the claim makes it out to be. But if there are enough people looking at the claims, even if they are not all experts, there is an excellent likelihood that the bogus claim will be exposed, provided that the nonexpert readers discuss and compare notes.

Just as Hayek (or “market efficiency”) may be contradicted on any particular specific transaction while still remaining true for the mass of transactions taken as a whole, if enough people look at any given claim and discuss it with one another, any holes will be found. Note that it’s possible that until something like the Internet came along, effective discussion between readers may not have been possible, and it may not be as efficient as necessary now.

If the thesis that no one not an expert should look at an experts claim is accepted it destroys any justification for democracy, which crucially depends on the ability of the populace as a whole to tease out the meanings and desirability or lack thereof of various things. I realize that Our Host dislikes Hayek and looks for justifications for returning to “The Prince Will Do It For You,” but I call bullshit on this one. It’s correct for any randomly-selected individual. For the People as a whole it had better not be true.

Regards,
Ric Locke

17

Jonathan Goldberg 03.01.04 at 4:14 am

This thread reminds me irresistably of the old definition
“An expert is someone who avoids small errors while sweeping on to a grand fallacy.”

On a more sober note, it was enscribed:

If a philosopher claims to have proven that the only rational society is one that maximizes the well-being of its lowest members, I will feel free to jump in about ‘prove’, ‘rational’, ‘maximize’, ‘well-being’, and ‘member’. And I don’t need to study anyone in particular to do so.

But philosophers have put a great deal of effort into these terms already. Someone who tries to jump in without being familiar with prior work is highly likely (I really think almost certain) to duplicate long-corrected fallacies. It’s actually quite hard to be more perceptive in an area than a whole bunch of intelligent people who have worked on it for a long time. The fact that it may have been done a few times in the past doesn’t change that. Which was more or less the point of the post in the first place.

18

Rich Puchalsky 03.01.04 at 5:28 am

With regard to needing lots of statistical knowledge to disprove a stats analysis; you don’t need anywhere near as much to just be very distrustful of such an analysis. For instance, I distrust any statistical analysis where causation is not well understood, and I assume that in any case where the people doing the analysis do not include experts on the subject being analyzed, that they must not understand the causation involved very well. Therefore, as soon as I hear that H&M have no expertise in what they are writing about beyond statistical analysis, as far as I am concerned their book is “distrusted” and I don’t have to read it, and I can wait at leisure for those who do have statistical expertise to tear it apart, as they have done.

Even if this type of reasoning is rarer among the educated population than I think it is, if it is generally true — if there really are “markers” of bad argument that are much easier to learn to detect than the difficulty involved in becoming expert in a field — then it seems that Neil Levy’s argument is partially invalidated. Rather than suggesting that people avoid expert analysis in areas where they are not expert, it might be better to suggest that they learn how to detect bad arguments and then read widely but be willing to drop any particular text quickly if problems are found.

19

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.01.04 at 5:46 am

“But philosophers have put a great deal of effort into these terms already. Someone who tries to jump in without being familiar with prior work is highly likely (I really think almost certain) to duplicate long-corrected fallacies.”

Actually one of the key problems is that philosophers will use common terms in highly specific fashions. So they may be correct in their own highly specialized fashion, but some pronouncements sound a lot more authoritative than they should to laymen. This rarely happens with mathematics or physics because no one is going to mistake ‘hypotenuse’ or ‘quark’ with something that they have a common understanding of, like ‘society’ or ‘love’. Of course there is the equal and opposite error of taking perfectly understandable ideas and jargonizing them, but that is another topic.

20

John Quiggin 03.01.04 at 6:49 am

In Lomborg’s case the dishonesty is at two levels. On the one hand, this is a fairly standard piece of anti-environmentalist advocacy, not much better or worse than plenty of pieces on both sides of the debate.

Lomborg’s selling point, though, is his claim to be a fervent environmentalist, reluctantly convinced by the facts as laid out by Julian Simon. As I said when I first reviewed him, I first met this rhetorical line in Sunday School, and I’ve been suspicious of it ever since.

To check Lomborg’s story you only need to look at the way he handles the issues where Simon was grossly off the mark (lead, mercury, the ozone layer among others). Although Lomborg is careful to cover himself by not claiming that Simon was always right, he never mentions any of these specific points on which Simon was wrong.

The ozone layer is particularly interesting. Coming late to the debate, Lomborg can treat this as a minor problem that has already been solved. But most of the sources he cites with approval were around in the early 90s, denying it or playing it down in just the same way as they deny and play down global warming.

As several posters have said, you don’t need specific training to recognise this kind of dishonest argument. But Lomborg covers so many areas of science and economics that almost anyone with specific training in any field relevant to the environment will be able to detect particular cases.

21

Matt McIrvin 03.01.04 at 1:58 pm

There are a considerable number of right-of-center anti-environmentalists who are still downplaying ozone depletion– the people claiming to be quasi-experts don’t any more, but the people who get their truth from Rush Limbaugh still do. The same arguments come up over and over like a bad penny.

Which brings up a related point. If you ignore non-expert analyses of esoteric subjects by people with axes to grind, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble trying to judge nonsense. But suppose you don’t just want to have an accurate picture of reality– you want other people to believe and espouse true things as well. Then it may be worth your time to do some public debunking.

That also means that sometimes you may have to push your analyses beyond reasonable bounds. Misleading books and papers on public policy issues often use a shotgun approach with dozens or hundreds of sub-arguments and references, all of them individually weak; and there are always going to be some faithful who say, “Well, his argument 1 was false, but you’ve still got arguments 2 through 356 to debunk.” (And they may have part of a point, since even good sources can make some mistakes, and what looks positively dishonest reasoning to you may look like a simple mistake to a true believer.) There’s always the question of how far you need to push it.

Recently I was pointed to an anti-homosexuality screed by somebody at Gary Bauer’s Family Research Council that was like this; it uncritically cited the “median gay male has had several hundred sexual partners” claim, which I knew had been effectively debunked online in a nice little literature survey by Eugene Volokh (everything comes around to Volokh again, doesn’t it?) Were I just trying to convince myself, that combined with the source would be enough to make me stop reading. But the article claimed dozens of other things about the evil consequences of homosexuality, and I didn’t have time to investigate all of those, though some of them seemed radically at variance with reality as I saw it. So maybe that wasn’t enough.

22

Abe 03.01.04 at 4:26 pm

John — you begin your argument by *assuming* Lomborg is dishonest. Matt — you begin by *assuming* those who think ozone depletion isn’t that big a problem must “get their truth from Rush Limbaugh.”

Who’s grinding an axe, here?

23

Sigivald 03.01.04 at 6:19 pm

Mr Quiggin: So, Lomborg is “dishonest” because he’s an “anti-environmentalist” advocate (that is, against environmentalism, not “against the environment or its preservation”)?

That’s an interesting way to put things. Of course, Lomborg might reply that advocacy is not dishonest, so long as it is admitted (and I think it’s safe to say that Lomborg has not exactly attempted to hide his feelings about the environmentalist movement).

The real question is not “is he advocating something” but “is he correct” (in the majority, at least. Considering the scope and size of his work, it’d be astounding if there weren’t errors at some level, somewhere)?

Secondly, you apparently claim Lomborg can’t be a “ferverent environmentalist” because he doesn’t care enough about ozone depletion to suit you. Well, this is true, if you take “environmentalist” in the sense of monomania about “the environment” and mankind’s Immenent Destruction Therof. If, however, one (as Lomborg more generally seems to) takes the term “environmentalist” in the sense of one who recognises the importance of watching and where necessary taking action to maintain the state of the environment, but still balancing that against human factors (ie, one of the many anti-Kyoto stances compatible with “environmental” concern, but not “environmentalISM”, in the normal use, as the latter is quasi-religious and rarely cares a fig for human factors that might act against any “pro-environment” action), then Lomborg’s lack of a tizzy over ozone depletion is perfectly consistent.

(For that matter, since the developed world has greatly curtailed CFC use, manufacture, and release, I’m left wondering what sort of position Lomborg is supposed to have that would give him the EnviroSealOfApproval on ozone depletion? What, in other words, can be done about it, that he is expected to endorse?)

24

John Quiggin 03.01.04 at 7:50 pm

Sigivald, if you reread my comment, you’ll see that you have missed the point of it completely. It is that Lomborg ignores the errors of anti-environmentalists (like Simon on ozone) while making hay with those of environmentalists (like Ehrlich). This is how he comes to his conclusion that environmentalists have got things systematically wrong, while anti-environmentalists have been right all along.

As I said, this is par for the course for a piece of advocacy, but not for someone who claims to be an environmentalist himself.

25

sean 03.01.04 at 8:29 pm

Rush Limbaugh is the poster child for Neil Levy’s epistemology of non-experts. For Limbaugh, any scientific controversy can be resolved by evaluating the moral/ideological trustworthiness of the experts who promote the theory in question. Studies that support left-wing policies or are brought into public debate by liberals are inherently flawed. Arguments and evidence that contradict these studies fall under the category of, “See, I told you so.”

This is not intended to be dismissive of Levy’s argument. Rather than dither with data collecting, evidence weighing, and general chin stroking and head scratching, Limbaugh’s ideological epistemological sorting engine drops data and theory onto a knife edge, to fall quickly into the true bucket or the false bucket. Subtle details, like truth or unintended consequences, may evade him, but they evade people at all points on the expertise spectrum. Unfettered by open-mindedness, Limbaugh can devote his full energy towards advancing his views, tackling more issues in less time. He encounters hard obstacles from time to time ( cough-rehab-cough ), but makes a case for the evolutionary advantages of this lean, mean theory of knowledge.

26

Abe 03.01.04 at 9:27 pm

John — Lomborg’s thesis is that when the costs of remediation and missed opportunities are considered, the list of “big problems” is quite different from the one the environmental movement are always pushing. I can’t think of any assertion Simon made that’s as remarkably far off the mark as Ehrlich’s silliest claims. Lomborg probably has the same opinion, which explains what he presents and what he leaves out. If Lomborg is advocating anything, he’s advocating a more skeptical attitude toward the claims of the environmental movement, so it’s natural that he has highlighted the errors and excesses of that movement. Lomborg ordinates environmental problems using a different moral compass from yours (or Neil Levy’s, obviously). This is proof of “dishonesty,” or that Lomborg isn’t an environmentalist? “Heresy” seems a better choice of words in this context.

27

Rich Puchalsky 03.01.04 at 9:52 pm

Lomborg defenders who seem to have been attracted to the end of this thread; spare us your BS. Lomborg is known to be wrong on all sorts of issues; you can read about his errors at any length that you desire, just use Google. If you wish to make people believe that Lomborg’s ideas are true, then you are doing them no favor by defending Lomborg himself.

The reason why people haven’t elaborated on the thousands of reasons why Lomborg is wrong is because this thread is not about Lomborg. It is about how to judge the quality of information without being an expert in a particular field, and whether this is really possible or advantageous. Don’t try to suck us into the ever-so-annoying anti-environmentalist spin cycle (Oh, Lomborg was wrong about that claim? Well, you can’t say he was wrong because you didn’t mention this other claim. Oh, he was wrong on that one too? Well, you didn’t mention this one. Repeat until environmentalist realises that he or she is doing all the work and that this could go on forever, then declare victory.)

28

Neel Krishnaswami 03.01.04 at 10:07 pm

The specific inference that Levy advances — “IF a) you know your position is true, and b) you don’t have the expertise to understand why apparently disconfirming evidence doesn’t, THEN you should avoid looking at apparently- disconfirming evidence” — seems correct to me. It is also of no possible relevance to any real-world situation: how can you form a rational belief that your position is true if you cannot properly evaluate any of the evidence for or against it? While the implication might be true, there’s never going to be a way to form the premise — and so the conclusion can’t ever be deduced.

29

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.01.04 at 10:16 pm

“The specific inference that Levy advances — “IF a) you know your position is true, and b) you don’t have the expertise to understand why apparently disconfirming evidence doesn’t, THEN you should avoid looking at apparently- disconfirming evidence” — seems correct to me.”

This seems like a good synopsis. You are right, the only way this would work is if you could know what was true without looking at the evidence.

Shall we call it ‘political fundamentalism’?

30

Abe 03.01.04 at 11:25 pm

Rich — don’t presume to play hall monitor in this discussion. You’re far to small to wear the pants.

P.s. What the hell makes you think I’m a Lomborg defender? Re-read my comment very…slowly…

31

a slightly confused philosopher 03.01.04 at 11:29 pm

Not really at the heart of the topic, but anyway: is the paradox of the knower really Kripke’s? I thought that Kaplan was responsible for it. If it is Kripke’s, would someone mind putting forward the locus classicus for it?

32

Rich Puchalsky 03.02.04 at 3:14 am

abe, I didn’t say that you were a Lomborg defender, or indeed address your post in any way. However, I’d say that your sophomoric reaction means that you’ve nominated yourself as one.

33

Philip Brooks 03.02.04 at 4:05 am

Sebastian: I wasn’t aware deep structure was confined to the same pile as Marxist science and Freudian psychology. What makes you say that?

(We are talking about linguistic D-structure, right?)

34

Neel Krishnaswami 03.02.04 at 4:43 am

Sebastian wrote, “Shall we call it ‘political fundamentalism’?”

No, call it epistemic Alzheimer’s. That’s one of the only scenarios I can think of where this could be justifiable behavior. Suppose you are an expert in some subject X who believes Y for good reasons. Then, you come down with Alzheimer’s syndrome, so that you lose the cognitive facilities necessary to understand why you believed Y. So, in this case, you have a good reason to think Y, without being able to properly the arguments for or against it any longer.

So it’s not totally impossible — though cases like this make me doubt the wisdom of adopting Levy’s rule as a general maxim even more!

35

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.02.04 at 5:37 am

I believe, though I will admit that I’m not an expert, that Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’ has fallen into deep disrepute among linguists in recent years. But like Marixism and Freudianism, it has fanatical followers. It is often refered to closely with deep structure, but my reading suggests that some forms of deep structure have not (yet?) been totally found wanting. But ‘universal grammar’ (which is the popular expression of deep structure) is definitely out.

36

Neil 03.02.04 at 5:54 am

“The specific inference that Levy advances — “IF a) you know your position is true, and b) you don’t have the expertise to understand why apparently disconfirming evidence doesn’t, THEN you should avoid looking at apparently- disconfirming evidence” — seems correct to me.”

I agree that this claim is true, in some circumstances – but it wasn’t the one I was making. Sometimes, we might know that a position is true and therefore feel justified in ignoring contrary evidence. Suppose you know that you were in New York yesterday, all day. Then you’re quite entitleed to ignore any evidence that anyone might advance to show that you were in Moscow. There are two parts to the claim I was advancing. The first is uncontroversial among philosophers. It is this: we have to take a lot on trust because we’re in no position to find out for ourselves (NOT everything on trust, as lots of folks want to read it, and NOT there’s no point in intellectual debate). When a controversy turns on what I called special expertise, then we can’t adjudicate it if we don’t have the expertise. Lomborg’s book was an example only. Suppose you’re right, and you can detect flaws in Lomborg’s work without expertise. Then I am wrong (at most) only about one thing: Lomborg is not minimally competent. First I suspect that’s not right: every extended polemical work contains some flaws. If containing some flaws, even some fairly major flaws (misinterpretation of opponents, fallacious arguments, etc) is sufficient to show that the argument as a whole is wrong and the position false, then all polemical books are wrong and all positions false. But even if you can show (again, without special expertise) that Lomborg is not minimally competent (and I suspect those of you who think they can either have expertise or are plain wrong) you still haven’t shown that his view is wrong. There is a lot of material on the question out there, and finding that one book (or two, or three) that take a position in this debate is not minimally competent will not give you warrant for taking a position in this debate. None of this should be all that surprising (do you really think that you can come to have a justified belief whether the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, by reading physicists?). My second claim is the controversial one: that there is nevertheless a way rationally to take a position in these debates.

I agree that the boundaries of special expertise are vague, and that the point at which they shade off into general expertise (the type that all of us who have average cognitive equipment and are lucky in our education can hope to acquire). If the picture was clear-cut, we could be pretty sure it fails to reflect reality.

37

Sebastian Holslcaw 03.02.04 at 6:46 am

“My second claim is the controversial one: that there is nevertheless a way rationally to take a position in these debates.”

I guess I didn’t see this in your argument. Or do you think there is a way to take a position, but you don’t actually define it in your paper?

It seems to me that the closest you come is a sort of ‘accept the general wisdom of authorities’ concept. Which in my mind only helps with deeply settled issues.

38

Rich Puchalsky 03.02.04 at 12:54 pm

neil: “If containing some flaws, even some fairly major flaws (misinterpretation of opponents, fallacious arguments, etc) is sufficient to show that the argument as a whole is wrong and the position false, then all polemical books are wrong and all positions false.”

I don’t think that this is true as a matter of fact. There are some polemical books that do not contain such flaws, or at least only contain them in “innocent” ways. It is part of my contention that it is possible to tell the difference between the normal flaws present in any work and the malicious flaws in a bad polemical work. I don’t think that it is possible to write with “minimal competence” if you are on the wrong side of many issues; in order to argue for those issues, you must cheat. And the cheating, as least as I’ve observed, does not seem to be confined to expert matters only.

neil: “But even if you can show (again, without special expertise) that Lomborg is not minimally competent (and I suspect those of you who think they can either have expertise or are plain wrong) you still haven’t shown that his view is wrong.”

But it’s a good indication that his view is wrong, because you are allowed to use information outside his book proper. If he is well known as an advocate for his side of the issue, and if others on his side of the issue defend his work, then aren’t those others accepting that, for good or bad, his book represents their side of the argument?

39

Neel Krishnaswami 03.02.04 at 6:46 pm

Neil: thanks for correcting my mis-characterization of your position. I’ll need to think about this some more before responding.

40

Sigivald 03.02.04 at 11:38 pm

John: If that was your point, then I missed it. (Might have helped if you’d simply said it in as clear a way the first time, but I know from long personal experience that that’s always easier in hindsight, and when one thinks one is being perfectly clear, one often isn’t, at least not enough for all readers and contexts.)

Though, why Lomborg needs to address Simon being wrong about some things, because he addressed other people being wrong, I’m not clear on, unless he was proposing that Simon was a fount of Perfectly Correct Prediction And Knowledge…? (I don’t know for sure, since I haven’t gotten around to reading Lomborg’s book.

The point, after all, as I said, was whether or not he’s generally correct in his assertions about the environment and the environmentalist movement; and specifically in your case, whether or not he is, as he claims, a sincere “environmentalist”. That he was, he said, convinced by Julian Simon’s data is not changed in the slightest by Simon being wrong about some things, nor does his sincerity as an environmentalist take a hit because he doesn’t mention Simon being wrong about those things (since his book is, er, based on his own examinations of the publicly available data, not on Simon, right?).

That you immediately disbelieved his claims to “sincere” environmentalism does not, as far as I can tell, reflect on his actual beliefs at all. (I simply don’t see why it’s difficult to accept at all, unless one has the assumption that any sincere environmentalist would necessarily have a certain set of beliefs regardless of the environmental data they are aware of.)

But that’s me being an advocate.

41

Kriston 03.03.04 at 4:55 am

Echoing the slightly confused philosopher above, but I’m not familiar with that paradox of Kripke’s. I don’t think it’s from WRPL. Source?

42

Brian Weatherson 03.03.04 at 5:36 am

Kriston, I’m not entirely sure of the source of the paradox, but I’ve heard it attributed to Kripke enough times that I’m pretty sure it’s his! Off the top of my head I think the initial discussion of it is in Gilbert Harman’s __Thought__ where it is credited to Kripke.

Comments on this entry are closed.