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Heroes and heretics

June 10th, 2003

Keneth Miles (permalinks bloggered) reports that Lyndall Ryan has finally made a detailed reply to Keith Windschuttle’s attacks on her, conceding sloppy footnoting, but showing that she did indeed have evidence to back up the crucial claims on which Windschuttle based his claims of fabrication.

Also, at Surfdom, Chris Sheil reports on the Windschuttle vs Reynolds travelling circus. I gave my own take on the debate here. You can read ‘Gummo Trotksy’s take on Windschuttle’s ideas about the philosophy of science here.

Looking at the whole Windschuttle business, it’s clear that his general approach is similar to that of Bjorn Lomborg and the cottage industry of global warming sceptics. Although some elements can be traced back to Immanuel Velikovsky (Windschuttle links to a defence of Velikovsky by his mentor David Stove) the crucial innovations were made by the creation scientists, notably Duane Gish.

The archetypal version of the story runs as follows
(a) The official centres of scientific research in field X are dominated by a leftist/environmentalist/evolutionist orthodoxy, maintained by an establishment that ruthlessly crushes dissent
(b) The hero, a person with some academic qualifications in another field, but none in the field in question, formerly accepted the establishment version, but subsequently saw the light and now rejects it utterly
(c) Now, following the methods of academic research (in particular, lots of footnotes), but doing it better than the official exponents, he exposes the contradictions in the establishment version, and proclaims an alternative model.
(d) The anti-orthodox hero doesn’t publish in peer-reviewed journals (peer-review is a device for the establishment to suppress dissent). In fact, he typically doesn’t do original research, preferring to survey the writings of his opponents for embarrassing errors, contradictions between authorities and quotes that can be used to support his own viewpoint
(e) Despite the overwhelming hostility of the establishment elite, the hero manages to carry on, supported only by the largesse of rightwing governments, major corporations and surprisingly well-endowed thinktanks

Lomborg is a perfect fit on all points. Windschuttle does engage in some original research, but otherwise fits the pattern pretty well.

Not surprisingly, there is a fair degree of mutual support among the different practitioners of this approach, even if there are some points of difficulty (for example, it’s difficult to argue about the interglacial warmings while maintaining that the earth is 6007 years old). Quadrant for example, buys the entire package, from global warming scepticism to anti-evolutionism, and has even given a sympathetic ear to Stove and Velikovsky. Similarly, sites like Steve Milloy’s Junk Science mostly either support equal time for creationism or leave the whole subject alone for fear of annoying their supporters.

And, all these ideas are accepted as straightforward fact in the US Republican Party. In fact, as I pointed out a while ago,

there is now almost no academic discipline whose conclusions can be considered acceptable to orthodox Republicans. The other social sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science) are even more suspect than economics. The natural sciences are all implicated in support for evolution against creationism, and for their conclusions about global warming, CFCs and other environmental threats. Even the physicists have mostly been sceptical about Star Wars and its offspring. And of course the humanities are beyond the pale.

To speculate a bit further, it seems that the collective and non-profit orientation of the whole academic enterprise makes it suspect for Republicans. This adds to the attraction of hero-heretics like Lomborg and Windschuttle.

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  1. cs
    June 11th, 2003 at 00:35 | #1

    I’ve recently discovered that historian Cathie Clement has been maintaining a running log on interventions in the Windschuttle kerfuffle on the Australian Council of Professional Historians Association’s website, here. It runs up to May 2003, but Cathie tells me that she will continue to up date it intermitently. I quess that’s one thing you can be sure of when you start a fight with historians – they are going to keep the record!

    Re the archetypal story, I think you could add:

    (f) And despite the transparent political interests in the alternative model, the hero will always declare him/herself the first and only non-political scholar in the field.

  2. June 11th, 2003 at 00:47 | #2

    In the interests of intellectual fairness I must stick up for Stove.
    Despite what Gummo say, I am not in the business of ideological apologetics, still less a Chief Petty officer trying to control Winschuttle’s loose cannonades.
    Stove occasionally said some silly or mischievious things, like his attack on the intellectual capacity of women, defence of “the reasonableness of racism” and his crticism of scientfic attacks on Velikovskian theories of planet formation.
    These were in the nature of parting shots at academe, intellectual suicide bomb attacks by an otherwise good philospher who been driven mad by a liberal arts culture which had, by that stage, gone thoroughly bad: both Po-Mo & Pee-Cee.
    Constantly rattling Stove’s Hills-hoisted ideological skeletons is a pretty cheap form of intellectual shooting, especialy coming from people who pride themselves on being philosophically-fair-to-a-fault Popperians.
    Why not actually be a Popperian and attack Stove at his strong point: his defence of common sense empiricism & the rationality of inductivism? His well-aimed attacks on Popper’s nihilistic skepticism have gone unaswered by Popper’s disciple’s. And his attacks on ultra-Darwinian ideology have been received in stony silence by socio-biologists.
    If irrefutabilty in a theory is a vice am I being a vicious dogmatist by saying that the earth is round and the sky is sometimes blue?
    As if Popper was the first intellectual to stumble on falsificationism as a philosphical method. Mill was onto it a hundred years earlier but declined to give himself a fifty year pat on the back for stating the obvious.

  3. June 11th, 2003 at 12:37 | #3

    John (and anyone who might use the link to my piece): permalinks are bloggered again – scroll down to “Another Waste of Public Library Shelf Space”.

    Jack:

    I don’t recall accusing you of indulging or engaging in “ideological apologetics”. A lot of other pejorative stuff but not that.

    As for Stove’s defence of common sense empiricism: he’s covering the same ground as GE Moore in his famous paper “Proof of an External World” in just the same ham-fisted manner. Wittgenstein’s critique of Moore applies equally to Stove: assertions about what we know, and other declarations about our mental states (or, by extension, the state of a scientific or scholarly discipline) have no status as proofs of anything about the world we live in. Justification comes to an end.

    As for Popper’s nihilistic skepticism – check his paper “Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance” before you go making silly charges like that (why am I defending Popper for crying out loud? That’s Jason’s job).

    Finally, after a quick skate over the Darwin paper, it looks like a straw man attack to me. If he’d addressed himself seriously to evolutionary theory as it is used and argued about by biologists he would have had a much harder time of it. No wonder the socio-biologists ignore it: he’s dealing with ideas that are 100 years out of date. Which is about as useful mounting an attack on the philosophical underpinnings of physics based on the writings of Ernst Mach.

  4. June 11th, 2003 at 14:48 | #4

    Gummo “Solipsist” Trotsky raises doubts about the possibility of reliable scientific proof of the existence of the external world:

    assertions about what we know, and other declarations about our mental states (or, by extension, the state of a scientific or scholarly discipline have no status as proofs of anything about the world we live in.
    [emphasis cruelly added]

    That’s funny, I thought that my (mentally-stated) “knowledge” that walking off the balcony of my third floor apartment would likely break my neck had the status of a scientifically “proven” proven fact.
    But I would have to be mad to argue with a solipsist.
    Oh well, back to the drawing board.

  5. June 11th, 2003 at 15:06 | #5

    good point about the republicans. not only does their skepticism extend to science, but it also does to intelligence.

    on american frontline (shown on SBS cutting edge about a week ago) one had to laugh at newt gingrichs analysis of the intelligence community.

    he was basically saying that the CIA had been got at by the lefties (the CIA!) and was less reliable than the republicans own dogma on missile defense.

    wolfowitz was actually pretty good. he said having a missile shield would just make it more likely that america gets attacked in other ways, but said also that trying some sort of shield was worthwhile. apparently the clinton administration tried this with their hit-to-kill program, which had fairly dismal results.

    the shows website is at
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/missile/

    the documentary was excellent in typical frontline fashion.

  6. June 11th, 2003 at 15:51 | #6

    Jack,

    You thought wrong. Just as GE Moore did when he thought he could (formally) prove the existence of an external world by holding up his right hand and saying “Here is one hand”, then pointing to his left and saying “Here is another”. Moore’s error (and yours) is to equate the internal mental state of certitude with proof.

    As for the solipsism charge: the same notorious Austrian nancy-boy I cited in my earlier comment produced an extended refutation of solipsism in his Philosophical Investigations. It’s known as the “Private Language Argument”, because it’s major premise is that too seriously assert a solipsist position is to implicitly make the absurd claim that you speak a private language. I’ve met very few people who qualify as genuine solipsists on that score.

  7. John
    June 11th, 2003 at 17:26 | #7

    Jack, I’ll come back to Stove vs Popper another time. My point here is that in regard to attitudes to science, Stove’s endorsement of Velikovsky is not an aberration but appropriate recognition of an intellectual precursor.

    I’m trying to describe the style pioneered by Velikovsky, improved by Gish and practised today by Windschuttle, Lomborg, and global warming sceptics like John Daly.

  8. June 11th, 2003 at 19:57 | #8

    Pr Q,

    Stove occasionally made light hearted forays to an “away ground”, where he had a bit of harmless fun poking at the Establishment.
    In that sense Stove was a social precursor of Vkovsky – he enjoyed annoying the top people with his outrageous opinions.
    In Stoves professional work as a philosopher he maintained very high standards, and he was a defender of orthodoxy, sometimes called “foundationalism” which was the very opposite of Vkovsky’s heretical attitudes.
    Stove’s main body of work certainly deserves more attention, and Popper needs to be knocked off his pedestal.

    Gummo-Trot posts continue to defy reason.

    Moore’s error (and yours) is to equate the internal mental state of certitude with proof.

    I did not say that my internal feelings of certitude were equivalent with rational proof. After all, I could be barking mad.

    You are confusing two senses of the word “proof”:
    – logic: where cogitation of internal mental states “prove” a theorum ie validate inferences
    – empiric: where observation of external physical events “prove” a theory ie corroborate beliefs.

    I did equate my understanding of scientific explanations & the sensible observations that underpin them, with my mental apprehension of certain-enough empirical “proof of belief”.
    Although I admit, this does entail making the risky assumption that my mental processes were coherent, or at least that I corresponded with enough persons to keep my madness in check.

    Moore’s attack on solipsism was a bit weak, I will admit. The definitive refutation of solipsism has been made by Stove in his essay “Epistemology & The Ishmael Effect” in “the Plato Cult”.

    I’ve met very few people who qualify as genuine solipsists on that score.

    This reminds me of a remark made by Russell in correspondence with a fellow logician who claimed that she “was a solipsist but was surprised that there were no others”.
    Russell: “Coming from a logician, her surprise surprised me.”

  9. dsquared
    June 12th, 2003 at 19:23 | #9

    From memory, from Wittgenstein:

    Two people are sitting under a tree in conversation. The first says with passion and vehemence “I know that this is my left hand!”. The other says to onlookers “Don’t worry. This fellow isn’t mad. We are just doing philosophy”

  10. June 12th, 2003 at 20:24 | #10

    The from memory quote that came to me on reading Jack’s definitions of logical and empirical proof was the remark about there being nothing in the rules of language that prevents us from speaking nonsense. Haven’t been able to track it down though. And that’s all from me on this comments thread.

  11. June 14th, 2003 at 14:16 | #11

    The only thing proved heretofore is that J Strocchi, who enjoys annoying people with outrageous opinions, is an essential component of any succesful weblog’s comments page. Indeed, the sine qua non.

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