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The Perils of Pop Philosophy 484

Posted by kdawson
from the bloggers-beware dept.
ThousandStars tips a new piece by Julian Sanchez, the guy who, in case you missed it, brought us a succinct definition of the one-way hash argument (of the type often employed in the US culture wars). This one is about the dangers of a certain kind of oversimplifying, as practiced routinely by journalists and bloggers. "This brings us around to some of my longstanding ambivalence about blogging and journalism more generally. On the one hand, while it's probably not enormously important whether most people have a handle on the mind-body problem, a democracy can't make ethics and political philosophy the exclusive province of cloistered academics. On the other hand, I look at the online public sphere and too often tend to find myself thinking: 'Discourse at this level can't possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place.' This is, needless to say, not a problem limited to philosophy."
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The Perils of Pop Philosophy

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    • by Anonymous Coward

      "blah blah without philosophical background blah blah you won't understand any of this blah blah blah takes thousands of words and dozens of paragraphs blah blah" I mean, get to the point already, man!

    • by linzeal (197905) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:08AM (#28179845) Homepage Journal

      For those still in school; or people like me who never left, I would suggest taking philosophy courses for social science electives if they allow you. A nascent Philosophy of Computer Science is developing and looking for help with the foundations [google.com] (PDF File).

      Philosophy and a sense of direction, often errant is all you got at the borders of any field. WV Quine and Popper have become interlocutors that after many readings I have access to when working on an intellectual task. Reading philosophy for me has brought great minds into contact with my own and given me a bit of humility and a shared sense of purpose I wish I had in my 20's.

      • by postbigbang (761081) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:35AM (#28180025)

        But that's not often the ethos here.

        You're supposed to react with your gut, prejudices, and empirical sense of I'm smarter-than-you tact here.

        Failing that, say something funny or troll with goatse.

        Failing that, add in something pithy, or something that whores karma points.

        TFA makes the improper assumption that in various contexts, people give a crap what you think. They blurt out stuff randomly, and look for allies to justify their boorishness and prattle. Having found a mob or a tribe, they then evolve the idea in to a cult like status, reveling in the success of whatever their pseudo-punditry delivers. Blather at best. Hate at worst. Then the idea must be defended, and everything mushrooms with chest pounding and the attempt to stick other crap to the original idea to make it have gravity.

        Welcome my friends, to the show that never ends. Come on in, come on in, come on in.

        • by pieisgood (841871) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @08:59AM (#28180771) Journal
          Giving this a +5 insightful is kind of ironic don't you think?
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.

        --H. L. Mencken

      • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @09:40AM (#28181205)

        I was a philosophy minor and even I find these arguments to be silly. Most of the upper-level philosophical arguments I've seen against "bias" were usually written by scholars who just didn't realize their OWN bias. There is no such thing as an "unbiased" argument or perspective--even in hard science (much less something as "soft" as politics). In history, we used to call the pursuit of objectivity "the noble dream" (after Peter Novick's excellent critique That Noble Dream [amazon.com]).

        As for the "one way hash" argument: while it's certainly true that laymen can be duped by impressive credentials (pretty much anyone can be duped under the right circumstances, layman or not), the whole argument reeks of a peculiar variety of arrogant elitism (really more a kind of paternalism) which has plagued academia in general and philosophy in particular for a very long time. In the field of philosophy, this whole argument reminds me of one of the great masters himself, Plato. Plato argued in the Republic (through Socrates) that only philosophers were suited to be rulers. This was, of course, a very convenient argument for Plato and his fellow academy members. And it was also evidence that his own arrogance had clouded his vision of his OWN biases (though he could still clearly enunciate in great detail the biases of the tyrant, democrat, oligarch, and monarch).

        When he almost laments that "a democracy can't make ethics and political philosophy the exclusive province of cloistered academics," Sanchez seems to critique democracy in the same way that Plato does. But anyone who has ever been a part of an academic department can damn well tell you that the politics among scholars is every bit as silly and immature as the politics of the rest of the world (perhaps more so). Sanchez's hidden assumption that cloistered academics would naturally make the better leaders or judges in arguments is as ultimately deluded as Plato's contention that only philosophers are suited to be kings.

        • Wow, we read that differently. I understood him to mean, "if it wants to be successful a democracy can't make ethics and political philosophy the exclusive province of cloistered academics," The one way hash argument isn't elitist, it says it is hard to explain certain things, and when those things are simplified, they aren't being explained. Sanchez is not saying that philosophers would make better leaders, in fact, you've flown off on an anti-elitist tangent that simply does not relate to the arguments being presented, while ignoring the gist of what the author is trying to say.

          I'm interested in discerning the bias behind this tangent. What is your position on mind-brain dualism and identity? Is it, perhaps, contrary to the author's view of same?

        • The only way to be unbiased in your writing is if you are sincerely trying to discover the truth. If you are saying, "at this moment, these are what I know the facts to be, and these facts indicate X to be true. Of course, things may change as time passes." This type of writing is more common among businessmen like Warren Buffet, who has strong motivation to be unbiased (because being biased towards anything but the truth will blind you and make you lose money: you will feel the pain of your bias), or g
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Abcd1234 (188840)

          As for the "one way hash" argument: while it's certainly true that laymen can be duped by impressive credentials (pretty much anyone can be duped under the right circumstances, layman or not), the whole argument reeks of a peculiar variety of arrogant elitism (really more a kind of paternalism) which has plagued academia in general and philosophy in particular for a very long time.

          Well, while that's a lovely sentiment, it doesn't actually qualify as a counterargument. Would you care to actually provide one

        • Plato argued in the Republic (through Socrates) that only philosophers were suited to be rulers.

          Sorry, but I feel the need to interject something here. If you're reading Plato and thinking that Plato is making clear positive arguments through Socrates, you might want to go back and reread with a more critical eye. There's a lot of evidence all around to suggest that, not only did Plato not agree with a lot of things that he had Socrates saying in the dialogs, but also, within the dialogs, Socrates didn't even believe a lot of things that Socrates was saying. The whole thing makes a lot more sense if you consider Plato's dialogs to be almost like plays, in which Socrates is a very sarcastic and tricky character.

          In this particular case, it's not clear that Socrates actually believes that only philosophers are set to be rulers. He's setting up a sort of perfect/utopian society that a philosopher might dream up, and then following through on the logical conclusions and reducing the whole thing to absurdity. In many ways, what he's showing is that dreams of utopian societies eventually lead to horrific situations.

          I think the whole "one way hash" argument in the blog post is a little too clever and glib, but it is pointing at a very old and troublesome philosophical question: When a bad/false argument is more seductive than the truth, how do you convince a mass of people of the truth?

          Of course that raises other questions about truth and its value. Elsewhere in the Republic, this sort of question proposes the idea that leaders should be willing to lie in such a way so as to lead their people to a good end, at least in those cases where the truth is not persuasive enough. However, this proposition is also shown to be problematic.

    • Nope, you don't (Score:2, Offtopic)

      by Colin Smith (2679)

      You missed out "The Fuck?"

       

    • by shadow349 (1034412) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:35AM (#28180023)

      What?

      Blogging; never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.

      (Apologies to Despair [despair.com]).

    • by Phreakiture (547094) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @08:36AM (#28180541) Homepage

      What?

      He said that the sort of debate that often takes place in public forums is useless, because it grossly oversimplifies things.

  • In the end, a hive mind is only one mind.

  • 'Discourse at this level can't possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification . . .

    Well the guys obviously wrong, or at least guilty of a typo - I think he meant stimulation of justification.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      I don't if he meant "simulation", but a simulation of justification makes sense (something appears to be justification even though it is not).

  • by syousef (465911) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:30AM (#28179293) Journal

    Locking up knowledge so that only specialists get access is a stupid, destructive, elitist practice that is self defeating (who do you think funds most work???) and detracts from the life we're all capable of leading. Those who Suggest that popular accounts can't be good are just making a poor excuse for their own inability to communicate. Over-simplification isn't the whole problem. Poor communication is.

    Most people over the age of about 12 (well 16 in some places) understand that you won't get all the detail from a popular article. Popular articles are about giving us the flavour of what's being discussed. Without them a great deal of human knowledge is complete inaccessible to the masses. Hell, even the most intelligent of us doesn't have time to specialise in every field.

    It can be done, or it can be done poorly. Done well people get a flavour for the complexity of the topic, understand the limitations of the popular description, walk away with an appreciation for the topic and perhaps get to chat to other intelligent people about the wonders of it. Take a look at Sagan's Cosmos, Brian Greene's Elegant Universe (whether or not you think String theory is the way forward), any Attenborough documentary (if you can stay awake - I must confess the man's voice is a cure for insomnia which is a pity because I think his documentaries are so well done)

    Done poorly Joe Schmoe walks way with a misunderstanding based on poor analogies and either thinks the topic is a total waste of time and money or rhat he could do better at the field with no specialist knowledge. See almost any human interest piece on the news, idiotic wildlife entertainment shows like Steve Irwin's tripe, and all reality TV.

    • by DMiax (915735) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:55AM (#28179443)

      Locking up knowledge so that only specialists get access is a stupid, destructive, elitist practice that is self defeating (who do you think funds most work???) and detracts from the life we're all capable of leading. Those who Suggest that popular accounts can't be good are just making a poor excuse for their own inability to communicate. Over-simplification isn't the whole problem. Poor communication is.

      Since the summary clearly states that culture should not be locked up, you completely missed the point. Which is: can an expert (in any field, not just philosofy) divulge and disseminate his/her knowledge without the general public assume they are omniscient experts too?

      Note however that the question arises also in scientific/technological matters. For example most Slashdotters assume to be authorities on any of those. Look at all the bad programming/computer administration advice you can get from the comments. (Sending my karma to hell for implying that slashdotters are less than omniscient on computer subjects)

      In the end, the article is right and probably more general than that. We non-experts know nothing about climate change and we cannot understand the merit of the debate. A seemingly winning argument for us could be a huge logical fallacy if we knew a little more than that. The only remedy is to put trust in those we call experts, which is difficult because everybody pretends to be one. Bonus points for a working solution.

      • by pjt33 (739471) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:36AM (#28179649)

        It's even more messy than that. In many areas (climate change is one, but pretty much any area where people are trying to influence politicians) I know I'm not an expert and don't understand the real issues but I can also see that one or both sides of the debate are depending on invalid or misleading use of statistics. So it's even harder to work out who the experts are, because in their efforts to disseminate their knowledge some step out of their area of expertise and come across as incompetent.

        • by plover (150551) * on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @08:18AM (#28180363) Homepage Journal

          It's not just misleading use of statistics -- those are easier to identify since they do deal in factual numbers. It's the underlying political agendas that get people to mislead through omission, commission, or outright lying. In the end it's not about whose argument is more correct, and not even who has the "more authoritative authority." It's about whose argument swayed the people in power. We can all sit here at our keyboards whining about how stupid Jack Thompson is, or how evil Comcast is for opposing net neutrality, but in the end it's not about convincing us -- it's about convincing Congress (or Parliament or whatever they have where you live.)

          And even though we'd like to think differently about their abilities, Congress is not very different than Joe Sixpack. Sure, they'll stack their offices with competent and smart advisors (we hope) but with the hundreds of bills they have to review, and the fact that a well-reasoned, well-researched letter only puts a checkmark in the "for" column that's equally counted against Cletus' "The TV dun tell me it's bad" means that the philosophical and scientific arguments are ultimately worthless.

          The scientific campaigns can be spun in whichever direction they're needed, regardless of their methods, their science, or their outcome. The real lesson is "Do not waste your time and money on science, but spend it only on the advertising campaigns that promote whichever viewpoint puts more money in your pocket." Pay an actor to wear a lab coat when he delivers your message. Have him wear a hard hat and carry a clipboard. Pose him in front of a very large machine, or a pristine meadow. That's where your dollars have their biggest effect.

          • by TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @09:45AM (#28181281)

            Pay an actor to wear a lab coat when he delivers your message. Have him wear a hard hat and carry a clipboard. Pose him in front of a very large machine, or a pristine meadow. That's where your dollars have their biggest effect.

            Reminds me of a funny story. We got a new shiny 1.3Million dollar mass spec machine. The national news paper comes in to do a story. The ask if we can take a photo with "that machine in the background, because it looks more credible as a expensive scientific instrument...".

            It was the printer.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by mdarksbane (587589)

            And even though we'd like to think differently about their abilities, Congress is not very different than Joe Sixpack.

            I may be stating the obvious, but it was that realization when I was in high school that turned me into a (small 'l') libertarian.

            I was on a job shadowing trip to visit with our local state representative. We got to follow her around all day, talk a bit about current policy issues, and see how the different committee and general assembly sessions worked.

            And that was the strongest impression that I walked away with... they were all so average.

            I had somehow grown up with the idea that whether politicians were

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Curunir_wolf (588405)

        So, you're saying "just shut up and do all these green things we tell you to, pay your carbon taxes and offsets and inflated energy bill - and everything will be fine. We're the experts and we know what's best?"

        I predict that this will work out at least as good as when the "experts" said "just shut up and give us your money to invest - the market will work just like we say it will." And when the "experts" said "just shut up and eat what we tell you and avoid these things we tell you and you will be health

    • Communication (Score:3, Insightful)

      by siloko (1133863)

      Over-simplification isn't the whole problem. Poor communication is.

      You got it right there, if you can't communicate complex ideas to interested parties outside your field then you don't properly understand your field. Intelligence comes into it but only to a point . . . why use three syllables when one will do!

      • by VoidCrow (836595)
        > why use three syllables when one will do! Sometimes you have to use a whole different language. And, some concepts don't transfer well to some people. People are individually *different*.
      • Re:Communication (Score:5, Insightful)

        by VoidCrow (836595) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:10AM (#28179861)

        > Intelligence comes into it but only to a point . . .

        Out of interest, what is that point?

        Are you saying that the vast majority of the human race will have a good intuitive understanding of physics if only the argument is put well enough in sufficiently clear english?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by siloko (1133863)

          If you have an audience that is sufficiently interested in your subject to be reading/hearing whatever material you are presenting and you are still unable to presnt your ideas in such a way that the majority of that audience understands you then things have gone wrong:

          either

          you misunderstood your audience

          or

          you don't sufficiently understand your topic

          or

          you're an inherently bad communicator.

          Of course there can be other explanations but I am talking generally here. Perhaps the ideas ARE actually extremely co

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          I believe Feynman made exactly that point, and created a lecture series to do just that with Quantum Electro Dynamics.

          Apparently it worked, which suggests that the point has some validity.

      • Re:Communication (Score:5, Insightful)

        by moeinvt (851793) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @08:07AM (#28180265)

        " . . .if you can't communicate complex ideas to interested parties outside your field then you don't properly understand your field."

        I think it depends what field you're in, and the background of who you're trying to communicate with. An engineer talking to another engineer or scientist in a different field is one thing, an engineer talking to a dental hygienist is something else entirely.

        Try explaining transient noise analysis, the hot electron effect or negative bias temperature instability in integrated circuits to a non-technical audience. Even if you start out with an "interested party", they'll turn into an expressionless zombie before you've finished.

        It's not always a simple matter of communication skills. Some ideas require a foundation of knowledge, without which, the idea is nearly impossible to conceptualize.

    • by VoidCrow (836595) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:02AM (#28179805)

      > It can be done, or it can be done poorly.

      But the point is that for many ideas, the majority of people are not in a position to evaluate whether the exposition is done well or poorly...

      Even a topic as superficially obvious as evolution benefits from a basic mathematical intuition and a nodding acquaintance with mathematical complexity. Most popular descriptions I've seen of the evolutionary process characterise it as 'random chance', whereas it's a more complex mechanism comprising the following elements:

      • A sieving process - everything that slips through the sieve *dies* or fares less well
      • A fitness memory - the set of genomes across a genetically similar population, or an *individual* genome where fitness in not communicated.
      • Optionally, a mechanism for distributing a subset of working fitness characteristics throught a genetically similar population (sexual reproduction or sideways gene transfer).
      • An underlying randomisation driver in the form of things like cosmic ray damage and other influences that might tend to change the genome data.

      So, option (a) random chance or option (b) the more complex system with its attendant subleties?

      Option (a) genuinely *does* give irreducible complexity, whereas in option (b), the numbers work and you can use the mechanism to practical effect in genetic algorithms...

      Which option sells best when a confident, charismatic person sells it to a typical member of the public? It's the easiest thing in the world to ignore the subtleties inherent to a complex topic. We're set up to do it - if we were not, we'd spend all our time gazing at the intricate designs in the rug and tracing them back to their religious, mathematical, philosophical and social roots. We'd starve or be eaten.

      Is it arrogant and elitist to understand something which the majority of people have difficulty with? In the above instance, no-one is hiding the knowledge, and yet there's no shortage of people who doubt evolution. Finally, it's an argument from personal experience, but I'm from a working-class family. The rest of my family would glaze over and say something rude if I tried to talk about this kind of thing. They don't want to know. Ironically, they *do* believe in evolution, but the keyword here is *believe*. Place them in a different context, around glib people with a different agenda, and they'll believe that the Great Marmoset scooped up its poop and moulded it into a patty-cake, and thus we have the world. Forgive me if my arrogant elitist frustration leaks out all over the floor.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by addsalt (985163)

        The rest of my family would glaze over and say something rude if I tried to talk about this kind of thing.

        I think you are getting to the root cause of what I think the article missed. Most people are not interested in actually striving to find out the truth (regardless of what the truth happens to be). Pop philosophy is helping people justify the beliefs they already have, regardless of what it is. To do that, all you need is a plausible sounding argument.

    • by mario_grgic (515333) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:25AM (#28179957)

      or specialize in every field. Studying math and specializing in it is a safe bet to gain most general knowledge that is still applicable to wide array of scientific fields, and that would allow you to follow quite a bit of science.

      These days majority of science is based on mathematical models, including physics, chemistry (esp. the physical chemistry part of it), biochemistry, computer science, certainly climate and weather prediction, astronomy, engineering of almost any kind, but esp. electrical and mechanical, and lately more esoteric things like psychology and theories of the mind, and less esoteric things like sociology and crowd behaviors.

      True, mathematician is no expert on any of these fields, but is armed with enough mathematical knowledge that coupled with a bit of curiosity and motivation to read and research is enough to give them insight into any of these fields, and sometimes better insight than people who traditionally are bad at formulating theories like biologists, or psychiatrists for example.

      • by Virak (897071)

        Computer science shouldn't be on that list; despite the terribly misleading name, it's not science, it's math.

    • by smchris (464899) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @09:00AM (#28180779)

      Most people over the age of about 12 (well 16 in some places) understand that you won't get all the detail from a popular article.

      Never been to a Mensa meeting, eh? Not to knock a group I belong to, and where I met my wife, but the Expert-on-Everything is common. Really, it's just GIGO at work coupled with a state of mind. Reading widely does not make one literate if the content read is Time, Newsweek, Reader's Digest and Discover. However, the sad thing is that said Mensan can be excused in American culture because reading Time, Newsweek, Reader's Digest and Discover actually is relatively elite. A soc professor I had got off topic many years ago and asked our class what we thought were the most popular American reading materials. Some people were coming up with outrageous answers like the New Yorker. I thought I was being sociologically clever with the supermarket shelf Reader's Digest. I was on the right track but he said it was the National Inquirer. That makes me conclude that a large part of the sociology of the pop expert is that the standard for popular reading is so abysmal in America that a person can feel justified as a lay expert merely by reading faithfully from among a selection of the mediocre.

  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:31AM (#28179299)

    When Planned Parenthood was founded, many people were disgusted at the thought of an agency dedicated to abortion. Worse, though, was the fact that PP was founded in order to control the population of undesirables, and Sanger, the founder of PP, was especially eager to label non-whites as undesirable.

    Now, here's the dilemma. If we take the position that speech itself is relatively useless since anyone can do it, and that only actions are important since only those willing to act will effect true change, then how do we reconcile the good which PP has brought while taking into consideration the completely immoral basis upon which it was founded?

    Sanchez is wrong in his supposition that speech itself is wrong. Speech leads to debate, and debate can bring out the truth. The ancient Greek sophists knew this, and thus we have the practice of oratory.

  • by lxs (131946) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:32AM (#28179311)

    Let's have an international philosophers strike to protest. Let's bring this planet to it's knees!

  • Philosophy of Mind (Score:2, Interesting)

    by etymxris (121288)

    Cutting through the needless walls of text by both Sanchez and Brady, let me summarize the current state of the philosophy of mind:

    1) We are little closer to reading off "beliefs" from human brains than we were 30 years ago.
    2) Media often overgeneralizes the results of neuroscientists.
    3) The brain is still nothing more than a mass of cells.
    4) Religious people have a problem with (3).
    5) Philosophers base their careers trying to argue for or against (3).
    6) More specifically, philosophers think too highly of f [wikipedia.org]

    • by Chemisor (97276) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:04AM (#28179813)

      > 3) The brain is still nothing more than a mass of cells.

      As a programmer, I must point out the obvious analogy: "the computer is still nothing more than a collection of transistors", and reply that if that were so, nobody would have to argue whether it is better to run Linux or Vista. Philosophers would do much better once they explicitly state that there is a difference between hardware and software, that they are, respectively, the brain and the mind, and that anyone trying to conflate the two is either a con man or an idiot.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by etymxris (121288)

        I realize very well what you're saying. That line of reasoning has been around, and readily acknowledged by philosophers, for over 50 years. The whole idea behind functionalism is categorizing the brain as "hardware" and mind as "software". I'm saying too much has been made of this distinction, however. Does this mean that computers will never "think" like humans do? No, not really. But the brain as forged by millions of years of evolution is very different than computational algorithms engineered in 100 or

        • by Chemisor (97276)

          > But the brain as forged by millions of years of evolution is very different than computational algorithms engineered in 100 or so years by humans.
          > We should learn much more neuroscience before we starting where, if anywhere, can we find the dividing line between the brain's "hardware" and "software".

          Just because you don't know absolutely everything about the brain, doesn't mean you can not distinguish its hardware from its software. The line most definitely exists, as should be obvious to anyone fr

    • by SpeedyDX (1014595) <speedyphoenix@NOSPAM.gmail.com> on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:45AM (#28180091)

      You may want to be more specific. I don't think anyone really argues against (3). The issue isn't whether the brain is a mass of cells, but whether (3a) the mind is anything over and above that mass of cells. Both the physicalist and the dualist can accept (3), but they would vehemently disagree over (3a).

      I'm not sure why you think philosophers think too highly of functionalism. It is a philosophy that works for many areas of interest. I personally don't think that functionalism fully captures all the relevant issues in the philosophy of mind, but there is still a coherent and compelling argument from that side. Functionalism can help the physicalist account for subjective experiences like qualia [wikipedia.org].

      I also don't think that it's fair to say that only religious people have a problem with (3) (or more precisely, my revised version, (3a); also, I'm aware you didn't say "only", but given the context, one would likely imply as such). I'm non-religious, but I tend to lean more towards the dualist position. Furthermore, the great empiricist David Hume [wikipedia.org] may have argued against a substantivalist immaterial mind, but given his other philosophical works, I think he would not necessarily disagree with a property dualist position.

      I guess what I'm trying to say is that your post shows exactly the problem with which the article is concerned. Incomplete oversimplifications of the matters at hand will tend not to be very substantially rich. I'm sure you have arguments to support your positions, and I have little doubt that they will probably be good arguments, but because you have oversimplified your position, the arguments become weak and insubstantial. In fact, in previewing my own post, my own briefly extended arguments are very philosophically weak as well. The important questions are as follows: Is it possible to reduce philosophically (and perhaps scientifically) complex arguments to newspaper- or blog-sized articles without undermining the sophistication and nuances of such arguments? Is it possible to do so keeping in mind that the readers or consumers of such articles have little to no background information about the matters at hand?

      I'm currently working on a side project about the ethics of information dissemination and this is exactly the type of question in which I am interested. Is it ethical for a journalist or blogger or what-have-you (hereafter collectively known as "journalist" for ease) to provide incomplete information? This question is somewhat less controversial, because a journalist's job is, basically, to summarize and disseminate. But is it ethical for a journalist to disseminate incomplete information in a way that disproportionately favours one set of arguments over others? For example, if a study shows that a certain compound that is richly found in food xyz is good for you but other studies show that food xyz taken as a whole is bad for you, is it ethical for the journalist just to mention the first study without mentioning the latter studies? We hear about such stories all the time in headlines such as "Red wine may increase your life span!" or "One aspirin a day may reduce risks of heart attacks!"

      To tie it back to your post, was it ethical for you to simplify the issues so much so that it seems to disproportionately favour your conclusion? The article's worries are not unfounded, and your short and succinct post shows exactly why that is so.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by etymxris (121288)

        Having done philosophy for a while, I just got tired of countless intuition pumps that do little more than restate predetermined conclusions. I think it's better to cut away the needless scaffolding of intricate arguments and just state the conclusions we're trying to arrive at. This, at least, is academically honest.

        I would also prefer that "simpler" positions are the default. The mind is just the brain. If it is not, we'd need a good reason to think this. I know it's hardly an argument, but I've yet to he

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FiloEleven (602040)

      3) The brain is still nothing more than a mass of cells.

      Careful.

      I realize that you're probably speaking colloquially here, but you are taking abstraction too far. If the brain is nothing more than a mass of cells, you should have no problem with me scooping yours out of your skull and replacing it with a head of lettuce, which is also nothing more than a mass of cells and therefore equivalent by that standard.

      The cells of the brain (and the entire human body) have characteristics that differ significantly from other kinds of cells, and the structure in which br

  • by tnok85 (1434319) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:44AM (#28179375)

    Discourse at this level can't possibly accomplish anything beyond giving us some simulation of justification for what we wanted to believe in the first place.

    • Have you ever seen anyone persuaded they are wrong? Bollocks. People only ever listen to reinforcing arguments.

       

      • by tnk1 (899206) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @09:58AM (#28181425)

        Certainly people can be persuaded. It happens all the time.

        I used to be a death penalty supporter. Now, I'm not. Of course, I can't put my finger on any one thing that changed my mind, but the arguments were certainly there.

        I also used to be significantly more inclined to see offensive war as a legitimate tool of policy, now I don't. Believe it or not, the Iraq war had nothing to do with that, as I honestly expected that a Mideast war was inevitable anyway. I just wish we had been a lot more justified and a lot better at managing the aftermath.

        So, yes, people can change their mind. It just doesn't happen suddenly, so you might get the idea that no one is listening. They certainly are.

  • by Chrisq (894406) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:57AM (#28179449)
    The guy reckons that people who know least about a complex subject generally think that its simple and that they know a lot about it, whereas experts know that there are many complexities and know that their knowledge is limited.

    Bah, rubbish - what does he know about it?
    • by Sj0 (472011)

      The problem is always that we're presented a boolean decision for a complex, multi-variable problem. Are you for or against? Are you on our side or their side? Even if you try to present a more complicated argument, people will still bring you down to the level of "for/against".

      In reality, we don't do things this way. I almost never make decisions by completely rejecting the options I don't take. Good opinions are more nuanced than that. Even if I need to make a choice, often I'll make it with caveats. I bo

  • Schools. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Celeste R (1002377) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:58AM (#28179455)

    There are things to be said about people being able to be stupid. You can't force intelligence on people (except when they're teachable.)

    If you want people to be intelligent, go into politics and try to change the system. Chances are: you'll be pressured into not doing it. The system is skewed against the educational sector; and the pay that teachers get reflects that.

    Investment in America's future as an intellectual powerhouse is limited at best. Public schools generally teach people enough to -get by-, and not to really understand what's around them. It's only every once in a while that you see a public school that really teaches things like philosophical ethics.

    Over-simplistic arguments are the natural result of people who want to be intellectual about things (while doing so with limited knowledge.) If you want them to have more concrete arguments, they have to expand their knowledge. Granted, some people just don't want that, but the vast majority of people wouldn't mind getting it if it was presented to them.

    "Because they said so" isn't good enough when it comes to thinking for yourself.

  • by lanceblack (969852) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:58AM (#28179459)
    oversimplifying is bad?
  • by Talisman (39902) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:20AM (#28179563) Homepage
    "Discourse at this level can't possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place."

    The problem I've found, even since my first debate class in 10th grade, is that the vast majority of people have no interest in what the 'right' answer is. They only care that their perspective is correct, and if an inconvenient counterpoint is presented, they discount, rail against, or outright ignore it.

    In addition to this, the people presenting the counterpoints often do it in such a condescending manner, any slim hope there was of the other person considering an alternate viewpoint is evaporated in a blast of indignation.

    The most productive problem solving I've ever done, and still do, is when I'm surrounded by smart people who don't believe their personal ego should factor into any decision made. We sit down at a table, drink lots of coffee, joke around, and at the end of the day, have solved most of our problems in elegant, efficient ways. We even laugh at our own dumb ideas when we've overlooked something that should have been obvious. I've also been in groups where you are crucified for uttering something that isn't completely accurate. This environment simply leads to a large amount of CYA, because once a person commits to the decision, he then MUST follow through, even if later he realizes it wasn't the best choice, because the environment he's working in is completely unforgiving. Basically if he admits there was a better option, it costs him his job. It's best to not have that type of fear, because no matter how hard you are on people, they will still make mistakes, even the brilliant ones.

    The same holds true for personal philosophies; solving the problems that being alive presents. When you are listening to other people, you should actually listen to them. Try to see things their way. Don't bash them, even if you disagree. It doesn't hurt. It can often help. And when you're presenting a counterpoint, be genteel about it. Tact goes a very long way.

    The Dude said it best, "You're not wrong, Walter. You're just an ASSHOLE!"
    • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @02:59PM (#28186045) Homepage

      The same holds true for personal philosophies; solving the problems that being alive presents. When you are listening to other people, you should actually listen to them. Try to see things their way. Don't bash them, even if you disagree. It doesn't hurt. It can often help. And when you're presenting a counterpoint, be genteel about it. Tact goes a very long way.

      I agree strongly. One of the things I've learned over the years is that, when someone is disagreeing with you, it's almost always the case that they're thinking about something that's worth considering. They might be misunderstanding a lot of things, mixing up causes and effects, or all making all sorts of mistakes, but if you can figure out what's really at stake in the argument, it's almost always something fairly understandable if not valid.

      Like you look at something really contentious like Intelligent Design. I've talked to proponents of Intelligent Design enough to have realized that many of them aren't even interested in it as a scientific theory. The real essential point of contention is that they don't like people trying to use science to tell them that their beliefs, and even their way of life is wrong. Intelligent Design is often just seen as a way of fighting back, of "beating atheists at their own game." And fair enough, because it's true that some atheists want to use evolution as a wedge issue to claim that all religious people are stupid; I can't blame people for wanting to respond. If you can somehow bring the argument around to an admission that "evolution has happened" is not equivalent to "God doesn't exist," then suddenly you'll find that a lot of religious people are more open to evolution as a concept.

      Of course, other things get involved, too. For example, sometimes a person is just feeling backed into a corner and that person feels like his ego is at stake in the argument. Now that's not entirely valid, but it's fairly understandable. And if you discover that it's the case, then sometimes you can bring that person around to your side by giving him an opportunity to agree with you without sacrificing his ego-- assuming you can invent that opportunity. Or sometimes you just have to disabuse them of the notion that they can hang their ego on this argument, just so they'll give up.

      Anyway, I'm going off on tangents, but my real point here is this: whenever someone is arguing against you, it's good to assume that there's something that person believes is at risk, and that person wants to protect that at-risk thing. If you can't figure out what that at-risk thing is, then you're not very well-prepared to argue.

  • by dplentini (1334979) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:22AM (#28179577)
    I like the quote on Slashdot, but reading his blog I get the sense that he actively practices what he preaches against. Reducing people and complex issues to simplistic (and usually undefined) categories is the heart of the oversimplification that Sanchez laments. We don't need more fights over how to name our problems; we need to understand them, which means we need to understand our selves.
  • The One Way Hash Argument notion applies to Philosophy itself.

    Sure, a communicator may exploit the audience's lack of expertise so that the audience, overwhelmed, agrees without understanding whether any of it is right or wrong. Boo hoo.

    The chance of a long, self-absorbed philosophical tract boiling down to a rather bland-looking lump of food is very high. OWHA may well trigger a reflex that people have evolved to deal with those thinkers among them who can cook all day but end up serving a spoonful of grue

  • than does knowledge.

    Speaking of science, I've noticed for a while now that it's certainly true that many, probably most, religious non-scientists get their facts wrong about scientific theories, but it's equally true that most atheists have at best a shallow understanding of theology. In fact, I'm being charitable on that point, as most atheists I've met are either laughably ignorant of even the most basic theology or will refuse to discuss theology on a level more complex than one dumbed down for a small c

    • Ignorance more freely begets confidence ... than does knowledge.

      I think you're on the right track. I think that knowledge begets wisdom, which begets caution. In the process of gaining rigorous knowledge, most people's horizons are inevitably challenged, and their intuition is inevitably proved fallible. This is a facet of wisdom, if ancient pop philosopher Aristotle is to be believed.

      And Fizzl's comment is pretty damn funny after hearing about ignorance from atheists. :)

  • As the summary itself is filled with enough verbal "simulation" for all ages, I hereby simply declare this article total "wank".

  • Cowards (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DarkOx (621550)

    If he wants see some over simplification here it is.

    There is good, bar, right, and wrong in this world. While not everything is that simply, perhaps not even most things people like him to see nothing but shades of gray everywhere even when their are none. Usually this is because they are afraid to stand up and do the right thing because it might make someone mad, start a war, or God forbid make them appear intolerant.

    I for am sick of people like this guy who bring us all this Politically Correct nonsense,

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Deanalator (806515)

      What is so terrible about political correctness? It is simply a list of terms that have become derogatory to certain people in certain areas. If you don't give a shit about offending people, then you have no obligation to stay informed, but there is no need to deride those that are making the effort.

      Of course you can't please everyone all the time (I personally have no intention of pleasing the feminists that go into a pseudo uproar when you call them Mrs because the letter "r" implies ownership etc), but

  • As a side note (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Aceticon (140883) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:40AM (#28179683)

    Here's something interesting:

    Following a link from the first article we get:

    The Dunning-Kruger Effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning-Kruger_effect [wikipedia.org]

    which in turn leads us to:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crank_(person)#The_psychology_of_cranks [wikipedia.org]

    which pretty much explains the logic behind at least 10% of the posts here in Slashdot.

  • This is a good moment to mention. Doesn't the slippery slope deserves more respect?

    I mean, I understand that logically it does not follow that taking some steps towards an undesirable result necessarily mean we will go all the way to that undesirable result. But wouldn't you say that, under some conditions, it can be useful as an heuristic criteria?

    • by ThosLives (686517)

      You have hit on the true problem here: "logically it does not follow..." The problem (at least in US society) is that people do not have a fundamental understanding of basic logic, so anything scientific or philosophical has no foundation on which to stand.

      The first thing to address in order to help "society at large" deal with "tough issues" is to first get them to understand simple logic, which I think this audience appreciates. The thing which disturbs me most about modern thought is that, at least in po

  • Hey, man... (Score:3, Funny)

    by Ignatius D'Lusional (1010911) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @07:51AM (#28180147)
    Y'know, like... I didn't read the whole article or nothin' but, like... I gotta say that my best philosophical arguments happen while smoking hash, man. So, like... I don't know what this guy's got against hash, be it "one-way" or another but like... oh wait. I forgot what I was saying. Oh well... now where the hell did I put the Doritos?
  • by msevior (145103) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @08:07AM (#28180261)

    I'm a Physicist but essentially I have to demure to the Climate Modelling experts too.

    At first glance it appears that the extra CO2 in the atmosphere will make very little difference to the global temperature.

    Why? Well the best models predict an effective increase of 1-2 watts per/m^2 of energy directed back to Eath from the addition CO2.

    On the other hand the amount of power radiated into space from the Earth is to first approximation, given by the Steffan-Boltzmann equation.

    Power = sigma*T^4

    Where T is the Earth's temperature in Kelvin ~ 283 C.

    The T^4 means you get a lot of extra radiated power for a very little increase in temperature. Roughly a 0.3 degree increase in temperature for a doubling of the CO2 levels.

    To get the 3 - 7 degree increases predicted, you need a really big positive feedback effect from additional water vapour. But additional water vapour also provides clouds which either increase the amount of power reflected back into space or increase the greenhouse effect, depending on where they form.

    It's a really complicated problem.

    So one can only hope that the authorities have got it right.

  • I am stupid... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bartwol (117819) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @09:18AM (#28180969)

    ...and uninformed.

    And I vote.

    That is all.

  • there's a quote (Score:3, Insightful)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare@NOSpAm.gmail.com> on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @10:06AM (#28181527) Homepage Journal

    i don't know who:

    "ideas are like assholes, everyone has one, but most of them stink"

    99% of the people in your life are full of shit ideas. 99% of what you yourself say is incomplete and ill thought out

    the whole point is, only through communication do we develop better ideas. in this sense, the internet is not a step backwards, but a step forwards. that it exposes exactly how awful people's ideas are, this is nothing new or different, its always been this way, probably worse, the quality of people's ideas. what's new and different is that so many people can now work through their philosophical shortcomings on the internet and, if they have an open mind and are not a brain dead partisan hack, they can grow ideologically into a better person

    don't lament that so much of humanity, including yourself, is so unenlightened. rejoice that so many strive to be better. how do i know they strive to be better?

    because they go online, and communicate. this is the first step towards becoming a better person

    if i were 100% certain of my beliefs, i would sit in smug condescension and talk to no one. what would be the point? i already supposedly know everything. only by venturing forth and exposing my beliefs to others are they challenged, and made stronger

    as long as people are talking and arguing and being challenged by others, they are becoming better people

    so, to paraphrase someone else: welcome to the intarwebs. let a thousand assholes bloom

  • natural philosophy? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rlseaman (1420667) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @10:29AM (#28181945)

    "'Discourse at this level can't possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place.' This is, needless to say, not a problem limited to philosophy."

    Or perhaps this is a problem limited to philosophy? Perhaps this non-linear and recursive characteristic defines philosophy? The difference between science and philosophy is that science is ineluctably rooted in physical reality, in the natural world. Indeed the original name for science was natural philosophy.

    On the other hand philosophy - or its varied analogues of religion, politics and economics - is rooted in extremely shallow real world soil. Every word that has ever been spoken on these topics has been thrashed and pounded, mashed and strained through some pedagogue's fevered ontological imagination.

    Ohm's law is demonstrable to a freshman in the first week of school (high school or college) with 19th century instruments. The basis of the argument here is that absolutely no concepts of philosophy can be conveyed so directly. Doesn't this say more about philosophy than it does about communication?

    Much of science is immediately graspable and usable with a brief explanation from a good teacher. It is the aggregate that is a challenge to fathom - the aggregate and the startling quantum and relativistic foundations underneath it all. These are true mysteries.

    Even kindergarten philosophy [amazon.com] presents challenges, however, because the systems being modeled - us and a putative deity - are inherently complex. Rather than suggesting that we need to spend more time wrestling with these ponderous issues, how about simply spending our time more productively by engaging with more tractable material?

  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @10:43AM (#28182207) Homepage
    I simplify, but basically he is saying that anything worth arguing about gets too complex for the layman to argue about.

    No. Wrong.

    The things we argue about tend to be very very simple. It is the application to the real world that gets very very complex.

    Take abortion for example. The real question is "When do we get a soul?"

    The standard arguments make it more complex. You only need to get that complex if you are trying to deal with the real world and counter examples. But the heart of the matter is a simple question, that anyone can hold an opinion on, and can try to prove or dis-prove.

    Another great example is say the rule of the law vs a case by case situation. Do we care about the minutia of legal proceedings more than the right/wrongness of the actual actions. Yes, you can get very very specific about whether or not the fact that a man was convicted on an illegal wire tap, should he go free, or variably, a man convicted but later another man proven to have done the crime. But we really are arguing about a basic concept, not the evidence that people cook up to support their viewpoints.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Abcd1234 (188840)

      Take abortion for example. The real question is "When do we get a soul?"

      Sure, let's pretend that's the question. So, good for you, you just stated it.

      Now what?

      The article isn't about how hard it is to state the question. Hell, that's relatively easy, presuming you can get everyone to agree. The article is about how hard it is to debate the question and come to a conclusion. Because debating the question is precisely the act of applying it "to the real world", as you put it.

      Let's take another example: t

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