hard heads soft hearts
Tuesday, June 18, 2002
I transcribed a passage from an old book by Douglas Hofstader (a Computer Scientist and the author of Godel, Escher, and Bach) which I thought you might enjoy. He describes exactly the feeling I have when I’m trying to argue something I feel is passionately true, yet counter to Conventional Wisdom (e.g. Price controls were the right solution to California’s energy crisis, Whitewater was a fraud, Kenneth Starr abused his powers for partisan reasons, Clinton is not more corrupt than Bush I or II, etc. etc.) And he argues eloquently about the need for political activism.
Enjoy, and keep up the good work,
From MetaMagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter
Chapter 5, pages 109-14
It is always refreshing to see how magazines, in their letter columns, willingly publish letters highly critical of them. I say “seems”, because often those letters are printed in pairs, both raking the magazine over the coals but from opposite directions. For example, a right wing critic and a left-wing critic both chastise the magazine for leaning too far the wrong way. The upshot is of course that the magazine doesn’t even have to say a thing in its own defense, for it is a kind of cliche that if you manage to offend both parties in a disagreement, you certainly must be essentially right! That is, the truth is supposedly always in the middle – a dangerous fallacy.
Raymond Smullyan in his book This Book Needs No Title, provides a perfect example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. It is a story about two boys fighting over a piece of cake. Billy says he wants it all. Sammy says they should divide it equally. An adult comes along and asks what’s wrong. The boys explain, and the adult says , “You should compromise-Billy gets three quarters, Sammy one quarter.” This kind of story sounds ridiculous, yet it is repeated over and over in the world, with loudmouths and bullies pushing around meeker and fairer and kinder people. The “middle position” is calculated by averaging all claims together, outrageous ones as well as sensible ones, and the louder any claim, the more it will count. Politically savvy people learn this early and make it their credo; idealists learn it late and refuse to accept it. The idealists are like Sammy, and they always get the short end of the stick.
. . .A particularly salient example of this sort of thing is provided by the behavior of the Nixon “team” during the Watergate affair. There, they had the ability to manipulate the press and public simply because they were in power. What no private individual would ever have been able to get away with for a second was done with the greatest of ease by the Nixon people. They shamelessly changed the rules as they wished and for a long time they got away with it.
. . .Amidst all the tumult and the shouting, where does the truth lie? What voices should one listen to? How can one tell which are credible and which are not? . . .I maintain that susceptibility to bad arguments in one domain opens the door to being manipulated in another domain. A critical mind is critical on all fronts simultaneously. and it is vital to train people to be critical at an early stage.
I have nothing against [The Zetetic Scholar] in principle, except that I find its open-mindedness so open that it gets boring, long-winded, and wishy-washy. Sometimes it reminds me of the senators and representatives who, during Watergate, seemed endlessly dense, and either unable or unwilling to get the simple point: that Nixon was guilty, on many counts. And that was it. It was very simple. And yet Nixon and company did manage to obscure the obvious for many months, thanks to fuzzy-minded people who somehow couldn’t `snap’ into something that was very black-and-white. They insisted on seeing it in endless shades of gray.
. . .My view is that there is such a thing as being too open-minded. I am not open-minded about the earth being flat, about whether Hitler is alive today, about claims by people to have squared the circle, or to have proven special relativity wrong. . . And I think it is wrong to be open-minded with respect to such things, just as I think it is wrong to be open minded about whether or not the Nazis killed six million Jews in World War II.
I feel that the Skeptical Inquirer is playing the role of chief prosecutor, in some sense, of the paranormal, and Zetetic Scholar is a member of the jury who refuses, absolutely refuses, to make a decision until more evidence is in. And after more, more, more , more, more, more evidence is in and this character still refuses to go one way or another, the none gets impatient.
. . .What bothers me is that the vexing problems that one attempts to be neutral on have their counterparts one level up, on the “meta-level”, so to speak. That is, for every debate in science itself, there is an isomorphic debate in the methodology of science and one could go on up the ladder of “meta’s”, running and yet never advancing, like a hamster on a treadmill. Nixon exploited this principle very astutely in the Watergate days, smoking up the sir with so many technical procedural and meta-procedural questions that the main issues were completely forgotten about for a long time while people tried to sort out the mess that his smokescreen had created This kind of technique need not be conscious on the part of politicians or scientists – it can emerge as an unconscious consequence of simple emotional commitment to an idea or hope.
Chapter 31: page 757
. . .When there are large numbers of people involved, people don’t realize that their own seemingly highly idiosyncratic decisions are likely to be quite typical and are likely to be recreated many times over, on a grand scale; . . .individual decisions about the futility of working actively toward the good of humanity amount to a giant trend of apathy, and this multiplied apathy translates into insanity at the group level. In a word, Apathy at the individual level translates into insanity at the mass level.