Annals of Unfortunate Spellcheck Accidents

by Henry Farrell on April 7, 2009

From the “Chronicle”:

The student-newspaper staff at Brigham Young University removed some 18,500 copies of the paper from the campus yesterday, and reprinted nearly the entire press run, because an embarrassing typo in a front-page photo caption appeared to offend key leaders in the Mormon hierarchy…. The caption described a photograph illustrating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ General Conference, and it referred to the group’s “Quorum of Twelve Apostates” rather than “Apostles.” … A student had misspelled the word “apostle,” and the article’s editor chose the wrong word from among the options offered by spell-checking software.

Against the grain

by Henry Farrell on April 7, 2009

This “essay”: on _The New Criterion_ by George Scialabba (not our own Scott McLemee, thank you very muchmisattribution now corrected) has been getting some recent attention because it says harsh things along the way about cultural diversity. Although Scialabba certainly doesn’t like the culturalist left very much, his discussion of its problems are a class of a diversion on the way to the main argument of the piece, which concerns the problems of the cultural conservatives who criticize them.

the New Criterionists sometimes boast that they and not the multiculturalists are the true democrats, applying to themselves Arnold’s words in Culture and Anarchy “The men of culture are the true apostles of equality. [They] are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of the society to the other, the best ideas of their time.” But it is a hollow boast. Arnold freely acknowledged, as Kramer and Kimball do not, the dependence of spiritual equality on at least a rough, approximate material equality.

in these and other passages Arnold demonstrated his humane moral imagination and democratic good faith. Kramer and Kimball have yet to demonstrate theirs. Finally, there is the complicated matter of disinterestedness, or intellectual conscience. That both Kramer and Kimball would sooner die than fake a fact or twist a quote, I do not doubt. But disinterestedness is something larger, finer, rarer than that. To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponent’s; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problem that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing — this is disinterestedness as Arnold understood it.

Arnold thought he had found a splendid example of it in Burke who, at the close of his last attack on the French Revolution, nevertheless conceded some doubts about the wisdom of opposing to the bitter end the new spirit of the age. …I wish I could imagine someday praising Kramer and Kimball in such terms. But alas, I know nothing more un-New-Criterion-ish.

This, and other essays, are collected in Scialabba’s new book, which is just out (I got my copy yesterday), and which I can’t recommend highly enough. This bit, on Robert Conquest, has the quality of the best aphorisms:

It may be a delusion, as Conquest repeats endlessly, to imagine that state power can ever create a just society. But one reason some people are perennially tempted to try is that private power is generally so comfortable with unjust ones.

I’d enjoyed Scialabba’s essays very much when I read them individually, but to be properly appreciated, they should be read together. NB also that Scott, while entirely innocent of the essay quoted above, did write the introduction to the new volume.

Making a hash of it

by Henry Farrell on April 7, 2009

“Julian Sanchez”: on climate change debates.

Sometimes, of course, the arguments are such that the specialists can develop and summarize them to the point that an intelligent layman can evaluate them. But often—and I feel pretty sure here—that’s just not the case. Give me a topic I know fairly intimately, and I can often make a convincing case for absolute horseshit. Convincing, at any rate, to an ordinary educated person with only passing acquaintance with the topic. A specialist would surely see through it, but in an argument between us, the lay observer wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which of us really had the better case on the basis of the arguments alone—at least not without putting in the time to become something of a specialist himself. Actually, I have a plausible advantage here as a peddler of horseshit: I need only worry about what sounds plausible. If my opponent is trying to explain what’s true, he may be constrained to introduce concepts that take a while to explain and are hard to follow, trying the patience (and perhaps wounding the ego) of the audience.

Come to think of it, there’s a certain class of rhetoric I’m going to call the “one way hash” argument. Most modern cryptographic systems in wide use are based on a certain mathematical asymmetry: You can multiply a couple of large prime numbers much (much, much, much, much) more quickly than you can factor the product back into primes. Certain bad arguments work the same way—skim online debates between biologists and earnest ID afficionados armed with talking points if you want a few examples: The talking point on one side is just complex enough that it’s both intelligible—even somewhat intuitive—to the layman and sounds as though it might qualify as some kind of insight. (If it seems too obvious, perhaps paradoxically, we’ll tend to assume everyone on the other side thought of it themselves and had some good reason to reject it.) The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”

This is both true and smart (as is Julian’s work more generally; in my opinion, he is by far the most consistently interesting and intelligent of the young sort-of-libertarian opinion journalist set).