How Not to Read with Charity

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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116 Responses

  1. Avatar Pete says:

    Two points: firstly, pointing to a book for the lay audience, written in the 60’s about a theory developed around a hundred years ago, does not support your claim that relativity is a hard to understand subject; secondly, so what if there is “cognitive dissonance,” one shouldn’t handle with care a persons misconceptions about basic biological topics that arise form misguided early education.
    While I agree that I am not able to solve the equations that prove the truth relativity, I can certainly understand that there is no privileged reference frame to measure speed from.This leads to an acceptance of counter intuitive results around the interaction of light, time and space. This is no more a (quasi, demi or micro) religious dogma than the perfectly rational belief that the Red Sox will be the best team in baseball this year. To foist the mystic mantle of super-naturalism on a very well described natural explanation, based solely on your ignorance, is wrong. To compare the intentionally censored life leading to the acceptance of creationism to the expansive and challenging education required to understand not only physics a century old but biology almost two centuries old, is wrong.
    Where do these other reasons for believing in a creation come from? You say that there are reasons beyond evil and stupidity. I challenge you to come up with one that doesn’t reduce to “my parents and pastor told me this was the way things worked, I believe them.” Cognitive dissonance reduces easily to that, group loyalty does too. What is more stupid then mis-educating a child? What is more evil than making that child believe your love or acceptance is based on the maintenance of stupidity.
    Sorry if this feels un-charitable, but you are wrong. To rebuke you and exhort you to see the truth is the best I can do.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pete says:

      I am grateful for the rebuke. I hope you will not mind one in return.

      First, relativity is proverbially difficult to understand. That’s why I chose it. I suppose I could have mentioned QM instead, but I can’t say I’ve made much of a serious effort to understand it. So I let it alone.

      While I agree that I am not able to solve the equations that prove the truth relativity, I can certainly understand that there is no privileged reference frame to measure speed from.This leads to an acceptance of counter intuitive results around the interaction of light, time and space. This is no more a (quasi, demi or micro) religious dogma than the perfectly rational belief that the Red Sox will be the best team in baseball this year.

      You may be right. Yet I don’t feel I have a proper explanation of relativity in my head in quite the same way that I do for evolution. There are equations in population genetics, too, and I’ve derived them and understood how they work. This was back as an undergrad, and while my memory is a bit fuzzy right now, I’m confident that with only the shortest refresher, I’d be back at them again. This is science I feel I’ve understood thoroughly. I can’t say the same about relativity.

      To foist the mystic mantle of super-naturalism on a very well described natural explanation, based solely on your ignorance, is wrong. To compare the intentionally censored life leading to the acceptance of creationism to the expansive and challenging education required to understand not only physics a century old but biology almost two centuries old, is wrong.

      But this was not my aim at all. I intended only to try to keep dialogue open, to make it easier, as it were, for creationists to come in from the cold. I wouldn’t teach the controversy in schools — certainly not. There’s just no meaningful controversy to teach, except maybe in a class on the history of science in the nineteenth century.

      What I’m saying is that if you go around calling people stupid or evil, you won’t convince them. You’ll just end up in a shouting match. We’ve been lately involved in far too many shouting matches here at the League, and I’m trying to think our way back to civility. That’s all.

      I’m sorry if civility is tantamount to surrender for you. I hope you will consider that this might be mistaken. You can be civil even in the midst of the profoundest disagreements.Report

      • Avatar Pete in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Thank you for the reply, civility and discourse will always win the day!

        I will say that I would love to be able to convince skeptics of the modern synthesis that it is a joyous and powerful truth. Here I argue that the root cause is mis-education and dogmatic belief, because I feel commentary here can be more blunt. To a believer I would talk about the harmony of nature and God, the joy of discovery, and the freedom of conscience.

        It is not surrender to try to understand people’s motives and respect them, it is surrender to allow false notions either intellectual cover or no challenge what so ever.

        We must judge weather someone is a recipient of a lie, and can be reasoned with, or someone is the teller of lies and must be confronted. I agree that an antagonistic approach is not the only answer, but it is sometimes the best.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Pete says:

          “We must judge weather someone is a recipient of a lie, and can be reasoned with, or someone is the teller of lies and must be confronted. I agree that an antagonistic approach is not the only answer, but it is sometimes the best.”

          And it’s so much more satisfying to jump and scream and throw shit, isn’t it? You don’t have to do any of that empathy stuff, you can just get your rage rocks off and not have to feel guilty afterwards, right?Report

  2. Avatar Aaron says:

    The statement, “the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics…” can be true even if the Theory of Relativity remains complex, confounding, and difficult to understand. It’s an assertion that modern physics is harder.

    It’s a bit like arguing, “You may think algebra is difficult, but wait until you take calculus.”Report

  3. Avatar Ben JB says:

    This seems like one of those instances where the example/metaphor has run away with the actual argument–why are people seriously arguing whether or not relativity is easy to understand? We might very well ask the same question about quantum mechanics or evolution or combustion or transistors or penicillin. If a) you have no reason to study a topic or b) you have no opportunity to study a topic or c) you obtain some advantage by not understanding a topic (e.g., getting along with your religious and political precepts), then you probably won’t understand any particular scientific topic.

    Jason, you’ve argued that there’s some way to parse lack-of-understanding that will help us get to the root of why some people refuse certain parts of science. (If I’m reading you write.) What I’d be interested in seeing is, let’s say, the results of this parsing–if I’m talking to someone who I realize is primarily motivated to reject evolution because of X reason, how should I approach that person?

    What gets me annoyed in this argument is that I think there are many things that are complicated and hard to understand by non-experts–but that many non-experts go about their day enjoying what the experts have developed without worrying about whether they understand it. For instance, the internal combustion engine–it’s not too hard to understand on the surface, but there are complex chemical processes involved. But your average driver isn’t thinking about the air/fuel ratio or why oxygen is important here–and the average driver doesn’t demand the teaching of phlogiston theory in school as an equally valid theory.

    And yet, when it comes to evolution or global warming, suddenly we have to worry about the understanding of people who don’t understand combustion but drive cars anyway.Report

    • Avatar Ben JB in reply to Ben JB says:

      (Ugh. “If I’m reading you write”! Once in a writing class, the teacher gently called out a student’s misuse of “its/it’s” and she immediately cried out, “please don’t tell my mother.” I understand that feeling.)Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Ben JB says:

        We’ve actually identified the part of the brain where that mistake happens, called Wernicke’s Area. Turns out sentence assembly is its own task: like a railroad marshaling yard and it obeys language rules. In this case, you picked “write” instead of “right” because Wernicke’s Area preferentially uses the auditory connection route.Report

        • Avatar Ben JB in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Nerd alert: I actually wrote a short story in college for my senior project involving the degeneration/overuse of a guy’s Wernicke’s and Broca’s regions. It wasn’t scientifically accurate, but it was not a terrible pastiche of Borges, which was the real goal.Report

    • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to Ben JB says:

      And yet, when it comes to evolution or global warming, suddenly we have to worry about the understanding of people who don’t understand combustion but drive cars anyway.

      Politically, the result of society completely accepting the truth of evolution could be a) eugenics, or b) the end of Christianity, or both. Believing in the phlogiston theory, or the aether theory of light propagation, or whatever, just doesn’t carry the same kind of existential baggage that evolution does.

      What’s more, the practical effects of the theory of evolution and an old Earth on people’s everyday lives is essentially nil, especially if you’ve got no problem accepting that DNA is the physical medium for genes. The main political arena where evolution is important is environmental conservation. Well, to the devout Christian, the environment is God’s purview. As long as we continue to expand our mastery of the Earth as God commanded, God won’t let anything bad happen, at least until the End Times, but then it’s all moot.

      If huge swathes of the population are unengageable on issues of environmental conservation, where does that leave us?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Boegiboe says:

        I couldn’t disagree more. The Bible is not a biology textbook, nor did God tell Adam to achieve mastery of the earth. Though man was created in Genesis 1, God blesses all male and female things, telling them ??????? to rule and ???????????? to subdue the earth, in Genesis 2 man is told ??????????? to serve the garden.Report

        • Avatar Will H. in reply to BlaiseP says:

          I’ve read statements from people that take the position that Boegiboe refers to. Those people tend to be fairly vocal.
          But among the people I know and talk to, stewardship seems to be the predominant position.
          I think it’s just a bad take based on first impressions.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Blaise, it’s Genesis 9 where God gives Man dominion.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

            Not according to my scholarship, nor of the Talmud on Bereshit. Given that Hebrew doesn’t render here, here’s my reading.

            God is in the midst of blessing the survivors of the Flood. He promises not to destroy life in this fashion and re-institutes the seasons. In Genesis 9, he commands the animals to become wild again. His instructions are not to Noah and his sons, but to the animals themselves:

            ‘et Elohim way-barak hayyat kal al-yih-yeh wehit tekem u-mowra’akem haares. == and God blessed every living being: become the terror and the fear of the earth.

            hayyat, the assembly of all living things, including the congregation. Not just man.Report

        • Avatar Ben JB in reply to BlaiseP says:

          I really enjoy BlaiseP’s later post (mmm, translation), but I’d say let’s take a step back before we engage in a long discussion over stewardship v. dominion.

          Because, from where I sit, it doesn’t really matter in regards to evolution whether God said “take care of the Earth” or “whatever, this is your place”–both readings clearly allow for the possibility of evolution.

          Unless your reading is so literal (and ahistorical) that you somehow think that God experienced a day’s length of time that first day.

          (And this is going to get into a pet peeve of mine, which is that many people who point to Genesis as a source of information have no problem with eating shellfish or cheeseburgers.)Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ben JB says:

            (And this is going to get into a pet peeve of mine, which is that many people who point to Genesis as a source of information have no problem with eating shellfish or cheeseburgers.)

            Many are opposed to homosexuality, though. You’ve got to give them that!Report

  4. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    I’m pretty sure physics stopped being intuitive after Newton.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      After Galileo, really. (What do you mean, heavy thing don’t fall faster than light ones?)Report

    • Yeah, and that’s the prevailing history of science narrative. I have to agree with Jason that the people who are saying relativity is easy to grasp intuitively are not wearing any clothes. They’re also a bunch of uncharitable assholes who would not be welcome at my poker table.

      I would actually go even further and say that Darwinian evolution by natural selection is unintuitive and extremely difficult to understand. Even most highly educated people probably intuit something more like Lamarkian evolution. Even many Humanist evolutionary theorists secretly believe in purposes. The underlying purposelessness of our existence is something that no one can grasp intuitively. We probably wouldn’t even be here if we could.Report

  5. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    And the larger problem with science education is that science is one of those fields where the boundary of “established truth,” as in those theories which seem pretty rock solid, are very hard to understand without tons of work in science and mathematics.

    What I hated most about science in high school, despite absolutely loving the subject itself, was how every year the curtains were drawn back a little further, to say, hey, everything you thought was true about the world, is actually much more complicated.

    As a result, 90% of the science (science as in the knowledge created through scientific means) that people are taught is some watered down version caricatured for mass consumption by people who don’t have time to devote further study.Report

    • Avatar Katherine in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      I remember my first-year university classes being largely made up of statements like, “In high school, you would have learned [insert basic explanation here.] That’s not actually true. [Insert new, more complex explanation.]” I understand the need for teaching that way (there’s a limited amount of time available in high-school sciences classes, and clarifying one complex topic can take up a lot of that time – and there are a LOT of complex topics), but it creates a lot of confusion for people who don’t take university-level science.

      Which may be part of the reason for people rejecting the theory of evolution – they’ve got a very cursory understanding of it, and thus mistake gaps in their knowledge for fallacies in the theory.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      Most of the science scientists and engineers use in their day to day work is the watered down version for mass consumption too. We don’t use the equations of general relativity when putting satellites into orbit, or quantum mechanics when computing the delays of transistors. We use classical approximations which, aside from the fact we use Leibniz notation, Newton would have recognized.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to Simon K says:

        Yeah, I was thinking about how we use numbers that we know are off to perform calculations.
        It doesn’t mean that it’s invalid, but there’s a margin of error in there that you might have to come back to sometime.
        In most cases, nobody really wants an accurate number.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics

    This combines truth (Relativity, especially Special Relativity), is far simpler and more intuitive than QM) and pointlessness in equal measures.

    By the way, Jason, you’re entirely capable of learning to understand relativity if you want to put the time in (Einstein’s book on it is a good suggestion. So is Bertrand Russell’s.) I’m not saying that you should, or that you’ll necessarily feel a great sense of accomplishment if you do. But if you choose to, you can.Report

  7. Avatar Chris says:

    Anyone who thinks General Relativity is easy to understand has taken way too many math courses (well beyond what’s needed for econ), or doesn’t have a clue what they’re talking about.Report

  8. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    way too many math courses (well beyond what’s needed for econ)

    That’s a horrifying way of looking at the world.Report

  9. Avatar Chris says:

    I mean too many to have a sense of what’s easy to understand. I use fairly complex, graduate level math in my work and even thinking about thinking about GR geometry makes my head hurt.Report

  10. This is an off-topic question, but I’m not sure where else to ask it: Why do some posts at League of Ordinary Gentlemen show up when I type the url and others do not?

    I found this post only by looking at the “Gift of Gab” recent comments section or by clicking Mr. Kuzinicki’s name up at the Masthead.Report

  11. Avatar Pithlord says:

    *You* aren’t reading DeLong charitably. He’s saying relativity is (relatively) intuitive — compared with quantum mechanics. As someone who abandoned an undergraduate physics degree and became a lawyer, I have to say he’s right on that one. Even Einstein refused to accept QM because it makes no damn sense at all.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pithlord says:

      The word “relatively” would have cleared things up nicely, yes, but it would have undercut DeLong’s opportunity to cast doubts on my intellect. When something is relatively easy compared to QM, that’s not saying much, is it?Report

      • What DeLong said was, “let’s not tell Jason that the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics…”

        The other branch of modern (i.e. twentieth century) physics is QM.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pithlord says:

          Did you deflate a little writing that?

          I ask because I would have.Report

        • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Pithlord says:

          The Theory of Relativity doesn’t exist. There is a SPECIAL Theory of Relativity, and General Theory (which came later) of Relativity. Any kindergartner could understand, with ease, both theories–if your students are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sir Issac Newton, and Werner Heisenberg.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pithlord says:

          What DeLong said was, “let’s not tell Jason that the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics…”

          The other branch of modern (i.e. twentieth century) physics is QM.

          Understood. Now would you agree that relativity is easy? Because I wouldn’t.

          If he’d said that relativity was the relatively easier branch, he’d have been right. Or even if he’d said it was the “easier” branch.

          But neither of those would have proven the point he was going for.Report

          • It goes without saying. Everything’s relative except the speed of light in a vacuum.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pithlord says:

              Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. So what DeLong actually said was

              1. Relativity is hard, but relative to QM it’s easy.
              2. Because Jason doesn’t understand it, he’s probably pushing some creationist agenda.

              Wow, and I thought it was a non sequitur before.Report

              • Avatar Crusty Dem in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Actually, what he’s saying is that if you think relativity is the trickiest part of Physics, you’re so ignorant that you’re unaware that in the realm of complex Physics, it is the easy stuff (because it’s not nearly as complex or counter-intuitive as QM)… That’s not a non sequitir, it’s an insult.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Crusty Dem says:

                Understood. But can you point out to me where I said relativity was the trickiest part of physics, or the most difficult, or something similar?

                No, you can’t. Because I didn’t say it. I didn’t say it because I don’t believe it. Relativity is more or less where I gave up on physics, that’s all, and I wanted to talk about a subject I’d at least attempted. It wouldn’t have served my argument to talk about one I was almost totally unfamiliar with.Report

              • Avatar Crusty Dem in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I should have said “tricky” instead of “trickiest”, in any case, it’s still intended to be an insult.

                My issue would be that relativity isn’t a good comparison for evolution; while not easily, directly observable, evolution isn’t that complicated. The basic components can be seen all around (antibiotic resistances in bacteria, animal breeding, etc) and aren’t rationally deniable. Instead of relativity, I’d compare it more to gravity, in that maybe you don’t understand all the details, but denial is ridiculous..Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Crusty Dem says:

                Good to know where I stand, in any case.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Pithlord says:

              Everything’s relative except the speed of light in a vacuum

              Not quite “everything”, e.g. the spacetime interval between any two events is independent of the observer.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        He’s right: a charitable reading would actually have assumed that DeLong meant “easier,” and did not intend to question your intellect, but only the quality of your analogy.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

          The problem here — I think you’re almost with me on this, because you’ve gotten so far — is that this reading doesn’t challenge the quality of my analogy. Plenty of DeLong’s own commenters have noted as much already.

          And if that was really all he was after, then why the hostile phrasing? Why the “Let’s not tell Jason” bit? I submit the only reading of that is an insinuation of ignorance.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            It may not, but that’s really his problem, isn’t it? It doesn’t follow that a charitable reading can only read the post as a serious challenge to your intellect.

            On the other hand, I would certainly admit that a fair reading (and perhaps a charitable one as well) would read the “lets not tell Jason” bit as a propositional, sarcastic one that can be taken as earnest only insofar as we think that you are actually confounded by relativity. At least, that is how I read the post when I read it, which was via your link but before I fully engaged and evaluated your response to it.

            A fuller explanation of how I took the rhetorical approach of DeLong’s post is posted as a separate comment below.Report

  12. Avatar RTod says:

    “All I’m saying is that other explanations exist for creationism besides stupidity and evil”

    Jason, why do hate puppies so?Report

  13. Avatar jfxgillis says:

    Jason:

    “And if we do, they might even change their minds.”

    Nope. Ain’t never done happened yet.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to jfxgillis says:

      I was a creationist, born and raised.

      I am no longer a creationist.

      The folks who treated the subject like it was two tribes arguing did less to help me see “the light” than the folks who patiently explained how science works without mocking me (or affecting a fake southern accent while disagreeing).

      For the record.Report

      • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to Jaybird says:

        Jaybird:

        Interesting point, and not at all outside the realm of my experience.

        The tone with which we argue or not with Creationists (i.e., the tonal “charity” Jason calls for) has nothing whatsoever to do with it, and does not change minds.

        Every single person I’ve seen change their mind has not done so out of argument, they have done so to resolve the contradiction between the methodological naturalism that governs every other aspect of what we call “science” with the superstitious fairy tales with which they had been inculcated as a child.

        Simply learning science is what does it. Being nice to dumbkophs or charlatans doesn’t help. In the latter case, it’s counter-productive. I should add, when I do encounter a dumbkoph, I’m impeccably nice. When I encounter a charlatan, I’m not.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to jfxgillis says:

          Well, coming from where I did, I can explain the following:

          Creationism was something that my “tribe” did. Is was sold as something that we *KNOW* to be true because we *KNOW* that Jesus was true and we can trace Jesus’s lineage back to Adam.

          Duh.

          And, from there, the arguments were something to the effect of “they only argue for evolution because they want the following things to happen” and they set everything up as a cultural dialectic.

          And, wouldn’t you know it, when I’d talk to “evolutionists” who were my age, I’d see that they were not particularly well-read or well-versed in their theory but were parroting facts that were spoon-fed to them. There were a handful of tools taught me by my elders (“ask about Piltdown Man! Ask about Nebraska Man!”) that were fairly effective when arguing with people who were just repeating statements hammered into them by rote. At this point, quite regularly, the conversation turned into one where they would stop arguing and start mocking me.

          This did a great job of re-enforcing the idea that this was nothing more than two tribes arguing.

          Once I got to high school, I dealt with two types of teachers.
          The first type mocked me.
          The second type patiently explained science, the scope of science (with special emphasis on the limitations of science), and hammered the *METHOD*.

          The tonal “charity” you mock?

          I was taught that that was how Science works. No sides, no tribes, no mockery. Just patiently explaining it again and standing up to repeated testing.

          If your experience is different, I’d re-examine it. Seriously.Report

          • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to Jaybird says:

            Jaybird:

            I don’t see “charity” and “lack of mockery” as synonymous.

            And I don’t see where what I said and what you said are mutually exclusive. Those teachers who did not mock you also did not argue with you, either, they taught you–hence, no need for a charitable tone.

            They taught you the principles of methodological naturalism. They could otherwise be nasty, or brutal graders or whatever other noxious personality traits you can imagine, but ultimately, you weren’t argued out of Creationism except to the extent that you argued yourself out of it.

            Whether you were charitable to yourself is an intriguing question.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to jfxgillis says:

              I don’t see “charity” and “lack of mockery” as synonymous.

              Imagine being on the side of the folks used to being mocked.

              A lack of mockery presents very much like charity.

              I say this from personal experience.Report

              • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to Jaybird says:

                Jay:

                Fair enough, so let me try another angle which I’ve been trying to articulate.

                I got the impression from the original post, DeLong’s response, and the post above, that Jason was concerned with the civil discourse, that is, the argumentation that goes on between observers and actors of politics and society concerning the controversy about Evolution and Creationism. Call that the “argumentative discourse.” And let’s go with “dialectic” for rhyming reasons that will soon become clear.

                Nobody. Ever. Abandons. Creationism. Through. Argument.

                That was my original point, and I stand by it. Hence, a charitable tone has no bearing on the outcome of the discourse. Hell, substantive content has no bearing, let alone the style Jason was pleading for.

                What I was trying to describe, and what you did in fact describe, is didactic. The didactic project and argumentative dialectic are quite different processes.

                Teacher engaged in the didactic owe their students charity and patience, and it seems as if you were lucky enough to encounter at least one such teacher. But as a party to a dialectic, I owe my adversary nothing, not charity, not patience, no benefit of the doubt, in fact, if I feel that ridicule and mockery would be an effective rhetorical device, ridicule and mockery they get.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to jfxgillis says:

                Insofar as very few of us will actually conduct the experiments, nobody’s going to be convinced except through some form of argument.

                The God-believers are annoyed by the simplistic reduction of Creation to credulousness and obstinate stupidity. You may make of Creationism what you wish: I recommend Bill Hick’s Dinosaurs to everyone. If that level of unscientific idiocy is where someone’s starting from, perhaps they deserve more than your ridicule. There’s no particularly good reason to view such ignorance as anything but a teaching opportunity: nothing is so important it’s worth being a snot to defend.Report

              • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Blaise:

                ” There’s no particularly good reason to view such ignorance as anything but a teaching opportunity”

                I’m sorry, but conversing about Evolution with some adult faux-intellectual armed with Discovery Institute hogwash is simply not now, never has been and never will be a teaching opportunity.

                Whether you’re charitable or contemptuous, shrill or soft, short or patient, has no bearing on the outcome. For whatever reason, they have obviously chosen to give their metaphysical construct precedence over empirical knowledge.

                That’s fine. Like I said, whatever gets you through the day.

                But that means that not only is the call to charity pointless, in certain circumstances, charity is positively destructive, as when you know your interlocutor is perpetrating a fraud. Many times that fraud is to sucker money out of poor rubes, like Ben Stein and that loathesome movie he produced.

                Those folks don’t get charity. They get the opposite.Report

              • DeLong read Kuznicki “uncharitably”: assuming the worst rather than the best. In doing so, he insulted not only Jason’s intelligence, but his own.

                As for jfxgillis’ approach to conversation, discussion or joint inquiry, I find the adversarial approach largely unhelpful. We watch too much Law & Order.

                This is not to say we won’t use every trick in the book to win a debate. But the target audience in a debate is a 3rd party [a jury if you will], not one’s interlocutor, “opponent.”

                We also know that one can win a debate dishonestly, rhetorically, sophistically—especially by attacking the weakest and not strongest parts of the other guy’s argument. [This is a corollary of the “straw man” argument, BTW.] Winning, therefore, is not a vindication of the solidity of one’s own position. Think of it as winning a chess game from an inferior opponent even as the winner makes numerous errors himself. There is no glory, no “truth,” no “game for the ages” in exploiting a patent blunder.

                In other words, if one wants to truly “win” a debate on theism, he must beat the best, the Aquinases, the Bonhoeffers, not the Jerry Falwells. I find the New Atheists and their “victories” over fundie fish-in-a-barrel to be quite “charlatanish” myself.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Bonhoeffer’s one thing, but Aquinas is quite another. Theology is not a science, however much it might wish otherwise. Nor can God be approached through Reason alone. At some point, every man must leave off defending his arguments with other people’s names on them and take up the cudgels himself.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                In arguing God-as-sustainer, you were touching on Aristotelian-Thomism yrself, BlaiseP. But it would be better to avoid the tall scholarly weeds, I suppose, although I’m just now enjoying looking up your very nice bit on Paul of Tarsus and Aratus, for which I thank you. Mars Hill is a good place to explore theism, or at least better than the Trinity Broadcasting Network.Report

              • Tom:

                I don’t think you quite understood my point. I too believe that the adversarial approach is useless, frequently, WORSE than useless in the Creationism/Evolution discourse.

                When I get involved in a Creationism “debate” (always, later, I realize, against my better judgment) I do NOT use every trick in the book to win the debate because there’s no possibilty of “winning” when one side is propounding a metaphysical construct while the other is proposing an empirical hypothesis.

                Mostly I just go with my mood. If I’m feeling angry, I get insulting. If I’m feeling mischievous, I’ll cite the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll cite a gentle rebuttal from Discover magazine or something.

                But I don’t expect to “win” and I never expect to argue because people can’t be argued out of a metaphysical construct.Report

              • Appreciate the clarification, Mr. Gillis. Invoking the FSM is indeed a conversation ender, and I do not award debate victories for a reductio that includes the nuclear option. Upsetting the chessboard.

                The frustration you mention also extends the other way [as you have seen on these “pages”] when one party rejects the possibility of anything beyond the physical and empirical, i.e., even the possibility of metaphysics let alone “God.”

                For at their core, science and philosophy [and I’ll submit theology too but let that pass] are attempts to describe reality. It has been the modern notion that for the sake of “knowledge,” we must assign each to their role, but this is to assign the other to a sterile ghetto and claim the floor.

                WillH touched on a very interesting point, that the need for certainty in his “scientific” work served to exile all speculation, induction, call it what you will—any “knowing” that is not certain. It may quack like a duck, but absent the DNA sample in your hand, you may not say so or give any indication that you suspect it’s a fucking duck.

                [And, epistemological skepticism being what it is, the provenance of the DNA will still be at question even if you assert it’s a duck.]

                What a drag. Such a sterile and oppressive way to go through life, “knowledge”—scientia—as bloodsport. Wondering, speculating, is half the fun if not 99% of it.

                To jump ahead [and I wish I’d have ventured a guest post on this extremely fruitful discussion], if God is indeed a reality, then any attempt to describe reality must take he/she/it into account, or at least the possibility of he.she.it. [Them?]

                For the origin of man is more a “liberal arts” thing than a matter of science when you come down to it. A creationist could invent something useful, be an astronaut, discover new planets, find a cure for cancer, whathaveyou. Be a good citizen.Report

              • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to jfxgillis says:

                Tom:

                I do not reject the possibility of metaphysics or God.

                What I object to, indeed, what utterly offends me, is only when those proposing a metaphysical construct demand that their construct be treated as an empirical hypothesis.

                If you want to do science, do science. If you want to do God, do God. Just don’t do God and tell me it’s science.Report

              • Mr. Gillis, your objection is noted. But that would take us down to the second tier, that of people not ideas. People suck.

                My core argument about “ghettoization” stands.Report

              • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to jfxgillis says:

                Tom:

                “But that would take us down to the second tier, that of people not ideas.”

                Actually, No. It takes us up a rung to ideology.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to jfxgillis says:

                Know this:

                The existence of the dialectic is a tool used by your opponents to defend the validity of Creationism.

                Acting like it’s a thing of two tribes makes it very easy for someone to just say “well, I’m going to pick the tribe that I like”.

                You’ve, apparently, picked the side that you like.

                Hey, knock yourself out. I’m a Libertarian, after all, and freedom to think whatever you want is very important to me.

                But know that that is not Science.Report

              • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to Jaybird says:

                Jay:

                “The existence of the dialectic is a tool used by your opponents to defend the validity of Creationism.”

                Quite right. Which is why I reject it in these circumstances in favor of the didactic.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to jfxgillis says:

                Which is why I reject it in these circumstances in favor of the didactic.

                These circumstances? Like when you’re discussing with people who argue for the dispassionate use of the scientific method?Report

              • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to Jaybird says:

                Jay:

                I don’t have an argument with people proposing dispaassionate use of the scientific method.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to jfxgillis says:

      Jack, what are you doing over here? It’s trivial to convert the Creationist to a sounder basis of thinking. I’ve done it many times.

      Unique among the creation myths, the Judaeo-Christian version is a progressive one. Light divides from darkness, which seems to square quite nicely with cosmology. The parallels are astonishing: live begins in the sea and moves to the land: sentient man appears last. It’s easy to convince a Creationist: they aren’t entirely devoid of reason. They just want God the creator and sustainer at the heart of their cosmology. Let them have that and they’ll go along with pretty much everything else.

      Monsignior Georges Lemaître was a Belgian priest and trained cosmologist who taught at the University of Louvain. Using Edwin Hubble’s data, he derived what he called The Day without a Yesterday, or the Big Noise. Fred Hoyle, another important astrophysicist, scoffed at it and called it the Big Bang and the name stuck. Fred Hoyle believed in a steady state universe.

      As Lemaître’s theory gained widespread acceptance, the Big Bang entered the civilian lexicon and Pope Pius XII got wind of it, declaring this a vindication for the Genesis account. The Vatican astronomers (also Jesuits, as was Lemaître ) privately seized the Pope by the ear and firmly told him the Big Bang was no such proof.

      The Creation is rather like one of those functions where you’re not quite sure if it reaches the asymptote at first glance. There are ways of telling with such functions, but it’s not really important for any practical consideration. If some Creationist idiots refuse to even consider the scientific evidence, they are to be distinguished from those who do.Report

      • Avatar jfxgillis in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Blaise:

        “Jack, what are you doing over here?”

        Tee hee. You forgetting I recommended this place whenever that was?

        In my personal experience, your conversion generally functions as an intermediate cognitive exercise between purely imaginary metaphysics and rigorous naturalism. Lots of folks stop there (Catholics especially, as you strongly imply) and I’m okay with that: You do what you gotta do to get through the day and live a happy life.

        So long as the net result is that when a question of fact arises, empiricism prevails, the rest of the metaphysical frame is fine with me. If the answer to the question “Did He who made the Lamb make thee?” is Yes, I’m cool with that, or No, or Maybe. If the question is: “Are Lambs and Tygers the product of the common decsent?” any answer but Yes is unacceptable.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to jfxgillis says:

          The whole left hemisphere of the brain seems to be obsessed with finding answers and explanations. When it runs out of facts, it’s surprising the extent it will go to in search of an explanation.

          Part of our problem, as I’ve said upstream, is our mind-body dichotomy. Some problems, in fact most problems, if we’re talking about Lambs and Tygers and what it takes to get through the day and live that happy life, don’t have anything to do with nice tidy facts. It’s all about squishy stuff, down in our guts, which is why the haruspices cut open all those hapless animals in search of conclusions via omens. Omentum, Latin for guts.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

        BlaiseP clarifies what I was getting at, at least a workable, reasonable and principled approach to the problem:

        “It’s easy to convince a Creationist: they aren’t entirely devoid of reason. They just want God the creator and sustainer at the heart of their cosmology. Let them have that and they’ll go along with pretty much everything else.”

        Well done, sir. As prev acknowledged, leaving that door open might not be enough for some fundies, and leaving it open atall might be too much for some anti-theists, but we should not surrender the issue—and our polity!—to the unreconcilable extremes.Report

  14. Avatar Al Caltabiano says:

    I’ve been a fan of Delong’s blog for years. Does he have something against you? His post and his follow up were both out of line.
    The comments over there were equally off the mark. He used to allow at least a few contradictory opinions in but not for this post. Really weird.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Al Caltabiano says:

      He used to allow at least a few contradictory opinions in but not for this post.

      Does this not set off klaxons in your head about the rest of his blog?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

        It’s a sovereign test for intellectual rigor in any endeavor: does the proponent countenance any criticism.

        If something’s worth believing, it will stand up under the strain of contradiction. In point of fact, that’s the only way you’ll ever be able to tell if it’s worth believing.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Al Caltabiano says:

      My understanding is that he rather routinely deletes comments that disagree with him, although word has it he may leave them up if the dissenter looks foolish enough.

      We’ve tangled in the past, including one particularly nasty dust-up in which he concluded that I opposed women’s suffrage. (Don’t ask.) I’d thought we had since made up, but I guess I’m wrong. Oh well.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Al Caltabiano says:

      This is the follow-up post (unless there is another I missed):

      Jason Kuznicki misses my point completely:

      How Not to Read with Charity — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: Brad DeLong is a seemingly limitless source of uncharitable readings. He doesn’t disappoint in his latest:

      First, let’s not tell Jason that the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics…

      Let’s not tell the economist that physicists disagree with him. It really is hard…

      My point is not that Relativity is easy, intuitive, and consonant with everyday human experience.

      My point is that Relativity is easy, intuitive, and consonant with every day human experience when compared to Quantum Mechanics, which is the other branch of twentieth-century physics. Quantum Mechanics is genuinely mind-bending, is genuinely incomprehensible in a way that Relativity is not. It is so incomprehensinblr that physicists’ standard advice to their students when they try to make sense of Quantum Mechanics is that they should stop: instead they should just “shut up and calculate.”

      As Richard Feynman used to like to say:

      What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school…. It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see my physics students don’t understand it…. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does…

      That’s out of line?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

        a challenge to your forthrightness in representing your own intellectual relationship to matters of scientific consensus as compared to that of other laypeople who claim such an understanding – i.e. that laypeople who claim to understand the part of relativity theory you are talking about likely don’t understand it greatly better than you, but that they are right to say that they do, and you are wrong to say that you don’t, understand it at a legitimate lay-level. I don’t believe that DeLong actually has a low opinion of your intellect; rather I think he judges you to be of far higher than average intellect

        See this is where I stopped following you. I am increasingly sure that DeLong has a low opinion of everyone’s intellect, with the sole exception of J. Bradford DeLong. It’s nothing personal whatsoever.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          And I am now increasingly sure that this is absolutely personal for you, and regret that I have wasted time trying to sort out what is being said by whom. Clearly what I wrote is mostly gibberish; I just needed to leave off trying to f make it better at some point after hopefully having made it vaguely readable if you happened to be inclined, and perhaps I didn;t make it that far.

          What I just don’t get is why you found it necessary to invoke imperfect public understanding of science as a reason to be charitable toward Creationists. That tends toward legitimizing those who want to say that science is less established than it is, merely because the average person can’t make a convincing case for relativity at a cocktail party. Or even because scientists in one field disagree on particulars. You know the arguments; it seems to me you make an unforced giveaway to them here. I see that to be the point that DeLong, in his noxious way, is trying to make.

          It seems to me that charity recommends itself; we don’t need to advance it in ways that tend to undermine science-in-public-understanding-and-acceptance more than is necessary. I also am unclear on what was said to provoke this from you; or in terms of your comment on DeLong’s forst post, what it really is you’re talking about when you contrast seeing them as “creationists-via-stupidity-or-evil” to seeing them as “creationists-via-cognitive-dissonance.” I don’t know who’s calling them evil, but it seems to me that seeing them as stupid (which I don’t necessarily, but I think at some point it has to come down to either cognitive limitation or lack of access to facts, or else self-dishonesty, responsibility for which, after some number of years, has to come back to the person themselves in way that it comes to amount to bad faith) isn’t at all exclusive of also understanding that their failure/refusal to accept what is Accepted Scientific Fact is driven by cognitive dissonance.

          None of which means I endorse being rude or dismissive of people: I endorse Jaybird’s prescriptions for talking with sceptics of science. But I don’t see why this need be borne out of humility relating to the fact that we do not all hold degrees is physics and evolutionary biology, and cognitive studies, and etc. We’re all laypeople in all save one (maybe two) fields. It doesn’t make public understanding of science, or indeed scientific knowledge itself, any less established than it is. Everyone is in a position where they have to take science to some extent on authority. If you make the argument for why to be charitable toward Creationists (even if not saying that Creationists have any better a case than they do) that we are all limited in our understanding of most scientific theories, I think that goes further than you realize, and far further than is necessary to make the case for charity, toward undermining the basis for the authority of science in public in general. It is enough just to say (if you think enough people think otherwise, and I don’t know where you see this, but in any case) that we shouldn’t think Creationists are evil, shouldn’t assume they are stupid, and should be polite to them. Not because we don’t all understand all the latest theories on the expansion of the universe, but because that’s just how people should treat each other.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

            If you want evidence that what I’m talking about really is a personality tic of DeLong’s and not anything particular to me, consider this by Greg Mankiw:

            when I write a column for the New York Times, I am not good at predicting how much it will get people talking. As a result, I monitor the subsequent blogosphere commentary to judge if the article is a snore (like most things that get published) or if it is commanding attention. At the very least, I expect my articles to be noteworthy enough that within a few days Brad DeLong will call me a moronic hypocrite.

            As to this, from you:

            What I just don’t get is why you found it necessary to invoke imperfect public understanding of science as a reason to be charitable toward Creationists.

            It’s very simple. I routinely see gross misunderstandings of evolution even from people who are highly sympathetic to it. The other side, it must be said, understands even less.

            Perhaps I’m wrong about the public’s level of understanding, but I don’t think so. Even if I’m accidentally being kind here and there to a few genuinely mendacious folks, I don’t think that overall I’m either factually or tactically mistaken.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              I’m not suggesting your response to the guy is abnormal. Only that it is clearly personal in part.

              Beyond that, I’m kind of lost. I still don’t get what these observations you make about the public’s level of engagement with science have to do with the argument for charity. They seem to more to a point to a general case for humility about scientific belief, but you don’t want to make the case for humility, because perhaps you see how that does tend toward undermining science’s public authority, so you instead want to say that this is your case for charity. But wouldn’t we want the case for charity to apply even to a theoretical person with a perfect grasp of all of science as it is currently understood by top practitioners? Your disdain for those who express superiority per their scientific beliefs as compared to (eg.) Creationists while still displaying yawning gaps in their own understanding, seems at best incidental to whatever a compelling case for charity might be, if we think that charity should be extended by all those who profess belief in science toward all those who struggle with reconciling the findings of modern science with other parts of their worldviews.Report

  15. Avatar Calton says:

    “First, let’s not tell Jason that the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics…”

    Let’s not tell Jason that he doesn’t understand the normal use of the definite article. Also, that he should have read the Time-Life Library of Science when he was in junior high, as this would have laid things out for him in cartoon form.Report

  16. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Continued from an exchange with Jason above: [ed: This became much, much longer than I intended, so I don’t particularly expect or recommend for you (Jason) or anyone to read it in its entirety, or even beyond this point, unless you are very interested in my thoughts on this exchange between DeLong and yourself.]

    I would say this, Jason. A fair (as opposed to a charitable) reading of DeLong could take his post as a challenge to your intellect, but, more plausibly, it would read it as a challenge to your forthrightness in representing your own intellectual relationship to matters of scientific consensus as compared to that of other laypeople who claim such an understanding – i.e. that laypeople who claim to understand the part of relativity theory you are talking about likely don’t understand it greatly better than you, but that they are right to say that they do, and you are wrong to say that you don’t, understand it at a legitimate lay-level. I don’t believe that DeLong actually has a low opinion of your intellect; rather I think he judges you to be of far higher than average intellect — easily as high as most educated people he knows in his life who express no problem understanding (at a lay level) Special Relativity. I think he’s saying you’re either (a) disingenuously under-representing your understanding of (Special, at least) Relativity, or (b) overstating the level of understanding that the layperson needs in order to be able to express a layperson’s acceptance of a Scientifically Accepted Fact (or both), and thereby doing unneedful rhetorical damage to the place of such “Fact” in popular discourse, all in the service of something for which none of that is necessary: a call for charity as to what drives people away from a layperson’s acceptance of Scientifically Accepted Fact as accepted scientific fact.

    On this reading, DeLong, in saying, “lets not tell Jason[…],” was questioning whether you chose an example of a ‘difficult’ scientific concept which you have found yourself unable even to acquire a lay-understanding of on par with the one you have of evolution that went somewhat beyond actual believability in your case. I.e., that raising quantum mechanics might have made the point well, but that it’s just not plausible to think that you’ve made an effort to understand Special Relativity (at least), but find yourself unable even to arrive at a layman’s understanding of it that is in the ballpark of your layman’s understanding of evolution.

    But you claimed as much, so what choice do your readers (including DeLong) have? If it is really true, then the only possible things to conclude (other than that you have claimed in inability to understand relativity, when in fact what is the case is that you have not made a real effort to do so) are these: that either, (1) you are intellectually unable to understand relativity at a lay level, which would indeed make your intellect, by your own admission, below that of DeLong and most people he knows who have made an attempt to gain a lay-understanding of the subject (including hundreds of high school students a year), or (2) that you are in this argument implicitly, and for a rhetorical purpose that didn’t require it, making an argument that the quality of understanding at which a critical mass of the public must truly understand a scientific concept in order for society to legitimately make acceptance of it a social more’ is much higher than we commonly think it to be, with the effect of such argumentation being (if it were widely exposed and accepted) that public acceptance of scientific understanding would be thrown open to question, in a way that DeLong very much doesn’t want to have happen, with various motivation, including ones other than honest desire to come to lay-understanding of the best thinking to date on a given question, – i.e. to include wanting to find ways in which the portion of scientific understanding that also enjoys wide social acceptance as “scientific fact” in the popular mind can be made less inconsistent with worldviews conceived outside of science.

    In this reading, faced with these choices, DeLong in his response preferred to give this latter reading no credence, even though he may indeed have thought it was the one you intended, because he thought it would have negative rhetorical consequences if it were to become accepted. And so he structured his response so that it took you up on the other possible reading of your post, i.e. the one in which you claim not to be intellectually equal to a lay understanding of the theory of relativity – but did so in a way that only propositionally questioned you intellectual ability, and only truly did so to the extent we think it diesnt simply question whether you are accurately representing yourself has lacking that ability. (FWIW, your inability on legitimate effort to gain such an understanding, if it were actually real, would cause me for one, in any case, to have to reassess my prior estimation of your intellectual prowess, but be that as it may,) I think a charitable (and indeed merely an alive) reading of DeLong would have read him not to be questioning your intellect, but rather merely(?) your ingenuousness in your representation of your intellectual capacity, or else your efforts to date to understand Special Relativity — or else to be arguing for a standard for lay-understanding that is a great deal higher than what we tend to think of it as being.

    I think a charitable reading of DeLong sees that, given the choice between an unacceptable concession that the fact that lay-understanding of most scientific knowledge is, in general, less-than-scientifically-airtight syntheses of theory and evidence should have a bearing on how we interact with people making extra-scientifically-motivated inquiry vis-a-vis science; accepting your self-portrayal as unable to grasp a concept that many high-school graduates can and do; alleging that you claimed that inability when in fact you have simply not made a serious effort at it; or concluding that you are misrepresenting either your own intellectual ability or else the level of understanding that is typically understood to constitute a valid lay-understanding of a scientific concept; that concluding the last of these and subtly suggesting that you may have chosen a poor example about which to perhaps feign such inability (or else argue for a higher-than-is-typically-understood standard for lay-understanding) by propositionally (arguably with tongue in cheek) taking you up on the claim — given these choices, a charitable reading does not necessarily conclude that DeLong can only be interpreted to be disparaging your intellect. Indeed, I think the most plausible reading doesn’t read him that way; rather it reads him to be questioning your forthrightness. This doesn’t that his reading was charitable, but then that’s your standard, and, having read his blog for a year or two now, I can say, not his. But his lack of charity is not the claim of yours I’m addressing; it’s that he unduly disparaged your intellect. I think a number of other readings are available, and if a low assessment of your intellect is a particularly odious thing in your mind for him to have written, then, charitably speaking, I can’t agree that no other interpretations were available to you.

    Reflecting a moment more, though, it strikes me as a superfluous question in any case whether DeLong in particular disparaged your intellect. You laid your intellectual cards on the table, at least where relativity is concerned. You don’t *really* get relativity – or at least much less than you “get” evolution in any case. There it is. We can all judge for ourselves whether that makes you dim or not, based on our experiences trying to understand relativity ourselves. I tend to agree with DeLong’s (and some commenters’ here) propositional assessment about that. But then, I also tend to agree with DeLong on his assessment (that I read him to be making, in any case) of whether you are representing yourself fully accurately in that claim, at least in proper comparison with what is the average level of public understanding of relativity among those who claim to understand it in a lay context. And everyone else can judge that for themselves as well. And, most importantly, we can all judge for ourselves whether you are making a point about what should constitute legitimate lay-understanding of science that would have dangerous, snowballing implications for pubic acceptance of science if it came to be generally accepted: to wit, that the more people in society lack a proper lay-understanding of science – which raising the quality of what a lay-understanding entails would bring about – the more those hostile to science could claim that it was a realm of belief that was being pushed socially as “fact” by elites, that the lack of public belief could legitimate those claims, and that as a result we would all have to be all the more charitable toward these claims the more this process ensued.

    Bottom line: DeLong (plausibly) doesn’t think you’re dumb (indeed: that’s his beef); he thinks you’re concern-trolling without regard to potential destructive (if unlikely) consequences if your maxim here were advanced beyond this small arena; and he even suspects that you may be misrepresenting your own intellect to do it. If that interpretation in your view is less objectionable than some other one, then it seems to me that, if you want to be charitable, you are at least loosely bound to make it (or another one you are now spurred to conjure perhaps as a result of reading this one) the one you adopt.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

      It is difficult to charitably read anything by DeLong which ends with the conservative wing of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bullshit detectors. That working hypothesis has served me very well for seventeen years now..

      Let us be frank: the language of General and Special Relativity is mathematics, specifically the language of statistics. The language of Evolution, to wit, genetics, is the same language. Statistics. And it doesn’t take all that much statistics to reach a good long way into either Evolution or Relativity. It is more a process of correctly phrasing the question.

      Every attempt to render either theory in Words will produce nothing but metaphors.

      Words strain,
      Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
      Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
      Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
      Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
      Always assail them. The Word in the desert
      Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
      The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
      The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

      If ever there was a disconsolate, loudly-lamenting and uncharitable chimera, insistent upon attacking the Word in the Desert, it would be J Bradford DeLong. In all my long years, as I progressed from the aforementioned Conservative Wing of the Republican Party through to what can only be described as a Progressive Democrat, I have never met anyone whose bullshit detectors was completely turned off. I do notice some people do not use an omnidirectional antenna, preferring to focus upon potential bullshit emissions from far away with exquisitely tuned dish antennas.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I was addressing the question of whether it, in a charitable interpretation of the portions of DeLong’s post that were directly about Jason, one could read them as possibly other than a direct, earnest disparagement of his intellect, as I clearly said. I also clearly said that I did not claim that DeLong was making a charitable reading of Jason.

        Also, Jason said that we should read others with charity. He did not say that we should do so, “except when it is difficult.” If that had been what he said, I think he would agree that he might just as well have not said anything about reading with charity. It will certainly be difficult at times. His point seemed to me to be that we should still do it.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

          DeLong has spiced his chili with hot peppers and nobody will eat it, least of all himself. I have respect for my intellectual and political opponents. If Jason believes we should read these unscientific Creationists with charity, perhaps you will not be overly offended if I wax prolix on the subject of charity itself:

          Though I speak with the languages of men and of angels, and have not charity, I have become a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

          It little matters what we say. What matters is what people hear. The truth exists, quite independently of our view thereunto.

          I do not feel I have the liberty to treat even the lowliest, untutored, un-mathematically-inclined zealot with anything but charity. As the old wag put it: “Never get into an argument with an idiot: a bystander might not be able to tell the difference.”

          The summa of Brad DeLong has been a vicious, often unprincipled and usually uninformed harangue of those with whom he does not agree. I conclude, based only on my reading of his “Teaching the Controversy” festschrift of assbitery, he is proceeding true to form.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I never say this, but: Whatever, dude.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

              Well, as the statistics joke goes: In China, even if you’re one in a million, there are thousands more like you.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Sure. Absolutely.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Come around here with intricately begged questions and run-on tautologies of this sort:

                whether you are making a point about what should constitute legitimate lay-understanding of science that would have dangerous, snowballing implications for pubic acceptance of science if it came to be generally accepted: to wit, that the more people in society lack a proper lay-understanding of science – which raising the quality of what a lay-understanding entails would bring about – the more those hostile to science could claim that it was a realm of belief that was being pushed socially as “fact” by elites, that the lack of public belief could legitimate those claims, and that as a result we would all have to be all the more charitable toward these claims the more this process ensued.

                and you will have cause for more Whatevers. DeLong, and hopefully you, have enough statistics under your belts to make a far more cogent argument about what the general public is capable of understanding without resorting to snide condescending. Conservative Republicans deserve more-informed criticism than DeLong has put forward of late. These people are not distinctly hostile to science or fact-based arguments. They are, however, insistent upon a little respect, a quality distinctly lacking in what I see from DeLong’s pen. If, in their hatred of what passes for Liberal Thought these days, they cannot see past the manifest Liberal rudeness, the whole endeavour seems a bit pointless.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I’m not sure how clear I can make it: I was addressing Jason’s claims about what that post had to say about Jason in particular. I have absolutely nothing to say about what DeLong has to say about Conservative Republicans.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Allow me to seize your ear with a firm grip and direct your attention to the following sentences:

                First, let’s not tell Jason that the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics…

                Second, I don’t see quite where Jason is going with this.

                Is he suggesting that high school physics classes “teach the controversy” about Einstein-Lorentz-Fitzgerald-Minkowski-Poincare?

                This is condescending twaddle and you very well know it. Do not pretend otherwise. In the first sentence, he has summoned up not only an Appeal to Authority, but snidely observes we ought not tell Jason about its obviousness.

                The second sentence is simple obtuseness: Jason’s point was further clarified:

                But it might mean that we can talk to creationists with some measure of charity, yes. And if we do, they might even change their minds.

                The third sentence ought to be answered Yes. We might include Newton in that list as well, for Newton knew gravity was only observable. Hypotheses non fingo.

                Perhaps, in your squishy topological wonderland there exists some charitable reading of DeLong’s analysis. I do not see it.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Have I said DeLong’s post was not broadly condescending to Jason?

                My whole point is that, broadly, public acceptance of science is to a large degree based on appeals to authority. My question is just whether Jason really wants to move in the direction of unraveling that acceptance in order to make the case for charity.

                And that’s a yes, we should teach the controversy, and not the final conclusion, regarding the ether? Clearly, the controversy is how the conclusion is commonly taught, no? The question is whether we teach the conclusion, whether on evolution or the ether.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Once again, excuse me while I engage the old Cut ‘n Paste Engine:

                Bottom line: DeLong (plausibly) doesn’t think you’re dumb (indeed: that’s his beef); he thinks you’re concern-trolling without regard to potential destructive (if unlikely) consequences if your maxim here were advanced beyond this small arena;

                Science has still failed to present a working hypothesis for gravity. We have some remarkably ugly String Theories afloat here and there, which my son the theoretical physicist declares to be as wrong as the Ptolemaic epicycles, based solely on the ugliness of the underlying mathematics. Such is an actual Appeal to Authority: those who are educated enough to understand the problem do not appeal to authority. They appeal to beauty: ugly math is bad math.

                If Jason says he doesn’t understand, wherein lies this Unravelling? Gnothi Seauton. In some sort of reverse dogmatism, you seem to demand of the general public what we do not demand of the scientists themselves.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Does any of this contradict anything I’ve written?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Insofar as there is no possible charitable reading of DeLong, therein lies the crux of my argument. In 1607 words at #95, arguendo you seem to imply one possible reading might be that Jason has misrepresented his own position.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                If by ‘position’ you mean ‘level of understanding of relativity theory,’ then I would maintain that I don’t imply but instead very clearly say that I think it is a possibility that Jason misrepresents it, and that it is a plausible reading of DeLong that that is what he meant to imply as well. Certainly one that a person interested in being charitable could arrive at without too much trouble, if one sees a direct attack on Jason’s intellect as the least flattering possible meaning that DeLong could have had. But neither do I claim that the questioning of Jason’s forthrightness would itself reflect well on DeLong, nor that it would be anything other than condescending to Jason in its own way. but I never claimed that the post is not condescending one way or another. A “charitable reading,” in Jason’s terminology, is not a verdict we do or don’t arrive at about a piece of writing. It’s a choice we make about how to approach it that is in our hands, not the writer’s. It should always be possible to give a charitable reading if we are determined to do so; but this doesn’t mean we will arrive at a benign assessment of the text, and I do not say that one can do that for DeLong here.

                The question Jason posed was whether, via a charitable reading of some sort, any reading at all other than one implying a serious, earnest disparagement of Jason’s intellect was possible. I maintain that I have offered one such. You can of course disagree, and/or have any view whatsoever you like about its topography. That is up to you; I can’t anticipate your preferences where that matter is concerned.

                I do appreciate however, that you will refrain henceforth from making any reference here whatever to initiating physical contact between us. Many thanks.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

                A “charitable reading,” in Jason’s terminology, is not a verdict we do or don’t arrive at about a piece of writing. It’s a choice we make about how to approach it that is in our hands, not the writer’s. It should always be possible to give a charitable reading if we are determined to do so; but this doesn’t mean we will arrive at a benign assessment of the text, and I do not say that one can do that for DeLong here.

                Quite so. We read with charity when we attribute only the best possible motives to the author of a text. Sometimes, though, even the best possible motives can be unpleasant.

                With that, I’m going to Godwin this thread in the hopes that it will go away: Have you ever actually read Hitler? You can read him with all the charity in the world, and he’s still repulsively evil.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Isn’t that the point I’ve just made here about DeLong? I’m not saying I can arrive at a version of what he’s saying that’s nice. Only that, if we want to deploy charity, we’ll be able to avoid concluding that he meant the one particular thing that we would think would be the ugliest.

                At the same time, some things that are ugly to say out loud are also not unreasonable (such as thinking that it is not inconceivable that you might have overstated your actual difficulty in reaching a common lay-level understanding of relativity, perhaps without thinking that you did, in order to make the point that you wanted to make about charity via a [in my view gratuitous] point regarding common levels of popular scientific understanding.)Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Fair enough. My honest efforts to understand relativity usually get shot down by my husband, who has a degree in physics and has taken college-level classes treating the subject.

                Similarly, though I don’t have a degree in the life sciences, I have done some coursework treating genetics and evolutionary theory. As a result of that work, I commonly notice mistaken understandings of evolution. (Like this one.)

                It is possible that a better understanding of evolution on the part of the lay public would bring greater acceptance. That, anyway, was what I meant to suggest.

                Of course, it’s possible that a better understanding of evolution would just send them all running back to the first chapter of Genesis. I hope that’s not the case, but as I’ve thought about it these last few days, it could be.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I now recall you mentioning that about him before, and had I recalled it during the foregoing, I think it would have given me all the explanation for the position you take that I needed in order to understand why things in this discussion that seemed clear to me seemed equally clearly not the case to you.

                It’s not that I fear what conscious resistors (for lack of a better term) might do if implanted with a fuller understanding of evolution. Rather I fear what we would find, and what the state of public acceptance of science would then become, if we performed an audit on the quality of the internal bases for belief in science among those who profess such belief, and removed Authority from the foundation of the house of cards on which that acceptance is largely built. I prefer a faith-based popular norm of profession of belief in an approximation of scientific fact, if that is the best we can do, to a more honest general admission of scientific illiteracy that results in the loss of the scientific method (which in fact undergirds the thing that the popular profession approximates, and the current findings of which are available to anyone with the interest in finding them out) as the normatively accepted route to the best approximation of scientific fact that we have. And I think that that result would be far more likely than I want to risk were we to insist on such an audit. Maybe that is paranoid.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP says:

                And that passage in particular was addressing what I see to be certain implications of Jason’s argumentation in the first instance, having nothing at all to do with any of DeLong’s posts, period. And certainly nothing to do with his comments about Republicans and the status of the on-off switches on their bullshit detectors, which I was not in any way, shape, or form addressing.Report

  17. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    …And with that being said, I’ll say that I am also quite receptive to the idea of calling a hard end to this discussion. As is implied in a comment above, where I say that I think something that it doesn’t reflect well on DeLong to have said, I think I have arguably not represented myself all that well in it. But that has been in the service of points that in my view needed to be pressed, so I’m going to consider it a worthy trade (esteem of peers perhaps for important arguments placed). Oh well; perhaps I am not a Gentleman today.Report

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