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Rhetoric and Dangerous Questions

January 13, 2017

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Adam Gurri

1. Question
Scientists usually begin their journeys with observations that seem strange to them, or questions they come up with following their curiosity. Rhetoric plays a substantial role in this step. What problems are important? What will other scientists be interested in? Once this question is answered, will the world improve? These questions can only be answered relative to other human beings.

– Alexander Fleming say that bacteria didn’t grow around a fungus.
– Louis Pasteur notices that milkmaids didn’t get smallpox.
– Coase noticed that although firms were a central part of the economy, Economics didn’t have a good explanation for them.
– The Great Depression happened and a whole bunch of economists said to themselves “let’s not do that again”.

2. Theory
What is the scientists’ hypothesis of how the world works? These mental models don’t spring from nothingness, but arise as the result of conversations scientists have with one another and storytelling. You’re ultimately trying to convince other scientists that your explanation is better than the previous one, which is squarely within the realm of rhetoric.

3. Test/observation
The scientist does a test and writes down what happens. The rhetorical power of science stems from the verification and replicability of this step. Science doesn’t depend on one authority. It depends on a network of independent people running the same test and replicating the results. This is why psychology had such trouble is that they had fallen away from that model and thus lost their rhetorical power.

Yes, scientific testing is rhetoric, but it is important to note how this sort of rhetoric gets its power. It’s not like the persuasiveness of rhetoric is merely determined arbitrarily or by the artfulness of oratory. Replication is powerful rhetoric because it is independent of the perspective and voice of the scientist themself. Anyone can verify a test. Post-modernists might say “well you’re just saying that because you’re a rich white male and you have false consciousness”. The retort of the scientist can be, well have a poor minority woman run the same test, and they will get the same result. It’s not just like your opinion, man.

4. Reporting results/Teaching/disseminating
Once scientists have convinced themselves that something is true and important, they must go about convincing others. This is the majority of effort spent by scientists and it’s pure rhetoric. They go to conferences, teach classes, talk to other professors, etc. Disseminating knowledge is dangerous if that knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands. Scientists have passive defense mechanisms for this by making their writing boring and obscure to limit their audiences to other intelligent and careful scholars.

Rhetoric and Social Sciences
In my last post, I argued that talking to scientists about rhetoric makes their culture worse by undermining the ideal of truth seeking. The post-modernism that has overtaken the humanities might be more true than a more black and white view of the world, but if taken too seriously it undermines cohesion and enthusiasm for truth-seeking. If everything is mere opinion, people aren’t willing to go to the barricades for it. Science is worth fighting for. It’s worth it even if many mistakes are made, because so many profound advances have been made which allow people to live safer, longer, happier lives.

I agree with him that rhetoric is an inescapable part of what scientists do, whether they want to or not. Those who try to escape the burden of rhetoric wind up marginalized and ignored.

Gurri states that “All reasoning to a conclusion falls under rhetoric”, but I think that’s too broad. Rhetoric is usually used to denote communication with the intent to persuade. Referring to observing the world rhetoric is misleading. Calling reasoning about those observations without communication rhetoric is confusing to a modern audience, although perhaps Aristotle would have used it that way. I think that’s why Sam Wilson breaks it into two parts where Gurri only sees one.

There are countless examples of science being driven by practical problems – “we need to find a stronger/lighter material” “we need to do X Y or Z”. Knowledge is performative. How do we know we know things? Because we can do stuff with that knowledge. Social constructs can’t build airplanes – scientific knowledge can. Rhetoric doesn’t hold bridges aloft. Yes, social science is more touchy feely than physics, but at the end of the day, if a society adopts a certain institution and they become much richer, economists will be convinced it works. When monetarism stopped inflation, economists were convinced. When price controls cause shortages, people are convinced. The proof is still in the pudding, even for social science, it’s just harder to see.

Are there questions which are dangerous enough to justify putting ethical boundaries on science?
I don’t think there is a question – truthfully answered – that has a dangerous answer. There are sometimes horrible moral assumptions baked into questions, but it’s not the discovery of truth that makes the question dangerous.

“What should be done about the Jewish problem?”
The premise is how do you exterminate the Jews. The end is taken for granted. If you want to say that asking questions of the form “How do I perform some horrible crime against humanity” are dangerous, ok I concede that. But I don’t think that has anything to do with science or epistemology or limited inquiry in any meaningful way.

The Nazis would not have been stopped by someone saying “maybe we should limit inquiry into such and such”. The Mongols were perfectly capable of butchering millions of Arabs and Chinese hundreds of years earlier with nothing more than axes and bows. There’s nothing more scientific about the Holocaust than any other of the hundreds of genocides that humans have engaged in since the dawn of time.

Science does have the power to dissuade people that genocide is less necessary. We can discover new crops to feed even more people. We can cure new diseases. We can use social science to try to defuse racial and nationalistic tensions. I have faith that the more humans understand the world, the less they will feel the need to kill each other en mass. I believe that as humans become more prosperous, we will value human life more, as the trend has been in the past. As we communicate with each other more closely, we will learn to empathize. Knowledge is the savior of humanity, and limiting its discovery is the surest path to evil. As Voltaire said ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’ The worst evil of the last century was founded on absurd beliefs and an unwillingness to look for truth to correct them.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2017 4:37 pm

    Thank you for your really serious and continuing engagement on this. It’s been a lot of fun and very thought provoking, I hope on both sides! 🙂

    First, rhetoric vs reasoning:

    You’re quite right to think in terms of goals. I do see two things instead of one, but both are under the umbrella of rhetoric: one has to do with persuading yourself, the other with persuading others.

    To bring in the issue of questions: one simple question, after experimentation or looking at the data or what have you, could simply be “is the explanation X?” and then trying to either make a case that it is or it isn’t, to yourself—with the fact that you’ll need to persuade others later in view, guiding your choices. But not the ONLY thing guiding your choices—your own judgment about what YOU find persuasive is obviously different than your judgment about what you think other people will find persuasive. And so you may opt to satisfy your own judgment on the matter before doing extra work to make a solid case to others. Or perhaps you have stricter judgment than most people and do extra work for yourself!

    Now, on replication and authority:

    No one is capable of replicating every possible experiment, every data analysis–never mind reading every possible interpretation of those things!

    We rely _heavily_ on the authority of established scientists, highly regarded papers, and of course paradigms/theoretical consensuses to fill in the _substantial_ gaps in what any one person COULD (never mind WILL ACTUALLY) replicate for themselves.

    Oh, and there’s the small matter of the problem of induction—just because you replicate it a finite number of times yourself, does not prove that it’s a genuine regularity. That is also a leap of faith.

    I think the bridge and airplane stuff is a misreading of my position. My feeling isn’t that postmodernism shows how weak science is. My position is that faith, authority, and persuasion are our tools for navigating the world—and the fact that we build bridges and airplanes and nuclear reactors shows that those tools are way more potent than rationalists, in they more hysterical moods, seem to think they are! The success of science is not proof of rationalist explanations FOR that success. The postmodernists are correct, or in any event people like Elizabeth Anderson are, about HOW science works, but neither of us are questioning THAT it works.

    As for dangerous questions: the real example that pisses me off is “what is IQ broken down by racial group?” It tells us absolutely nothing useful, and it will just through sheer statistical necessity categorize some group as “scientifically” inferior to another one, regardless of whether the author who asks that question believes that that is what he was doing. I think the social consequences of this question have more than made this point for me.

    • January 13, 2017 5:13 pm

      “My position is that faith, authority, and persuasion are our tools for navigating the world—and the fact that we build bridges and airplanes and nuclear reactors shows that those tools are way more potent than rationalists, in they more hysterical moods, seem to think they are!”
      Interesting. I think I did misunderstand your point, and I appreciate your clarification. There was a Kevin Kelly post a while ago where he gave a bunch of examples of practical inventions that far preceded the scientific knowledge to create them. That is, people built devices that they didn’t understand, but they worked. So that article moved me away from a strict rationalist paradigm a bit.

      Another way of saying what I’m trying to get at is the persuasiveness of rhetoric is dependent on the incentive structure of the people involved in creating it, and “science” is persuasive because, even if you can’t verify everything, there is enough checking that scientists have an incentive to try to be impartial. Maybe it’s a signalling story. The way science is structured is such that it makes it easier for scientists to credibly signal that they aren’t BSing.

      • January 13, 2017 5:28 pm

        Deirdre McCloskey’s big argument is essnetially that institutional incentives underdetermine behavior; at the end of the day you need a widely held ethic.

      • January 13, 2017 5:36 pm

        Hence the need for people like John Duke to tell fairy tales to baby scientists.

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