Saturday, August 07, 2010

On Myers on Baber

PZ Myers has an amusingly bad post on a recent column by Harriet Baber. If you know anything about both of them, you know just how far Myers is out of his league in taking on Baber, particularly since Myers has, over the years, shown an increasing inability to apply even basic critical thinking skills to evaluating his own reasoning; but Baber is here working with a hand tied behind her back, explaining a sophisticated technical argument to a lay audience in a popular journalistic space, and Myers is working with every advantage, since he had every chance to look at Baber's argument with however much leisure he needed to come up with a devastating reply, and she's still running circles around him.

One sees the root problem right at the very beginning of Myers's post:

I know Pascal was a brilliant fellow, but his wager is bollocks — it's built on the premise of the unreliability of reason and the deficiencies of evidence, reducing our choices to desperate gambles, where we make decisions only on the basis of the desirability of outcomes — a strategy, by the way, that makes casinos rich and gamblers paupers. Accepting Pascal's Wager is admitting the defeat of reason, a very peculiar position for a philosopher.

What is remarkable about this audacious claim is how obviously false it is. Whenever people are talking about Pascal's Wager, one needs to distinguish between the Wager as actually found in Pascal's fragments, and probable interpretations thereof, and the more common decision-theoretical arguments (of the sort that Jeff Jordan discusses fairly well in his Gambling on God [sorry, that should be his *Pascal's Wager*, which is a different book]) that, while not Pascalian in the proper sense, belong to the same overall family of argument; but one thing that both the properly Pascalian and the broadly Pascalian Wagers share is that they are arguments for the reliability of reason even under the most plausible conditions that maximally favor agnosticism about reason in this area. That is, Wager arguments are, down to every single argument, arguments for the reliability of reason operating on practical considerations in light of the ends of inquiry. For instance, in the Wager fragments written by Pascal himself, Pascal explicitly argues against an agnostic who claims that our only rational option is to suspend judgment on questions of God altogether. Against this, Pascal argues (1) that even under the agnostic's own assumptions practical reason can still identify reasons for not suspending judgment; (2) that it can identify, in terms of the ends and aims governing rational practices of judgment in the first place, reasons for thinking particular options more fruitful; and (3) that it can give, even (again) on the agnostic's own assumptions, reasons for thinking that we should inquire without curtailing our inquiry with those agnostic assumptions in the first place. In Pascal's terms, we can still look for 'inside information' that will improve our gamble. What is more, any look at Pascalian Wagers shows that no one who has actually taken trouble to think through them critically could make the claim that their only consideration is "the desirability of the outcome". In typical Wager arguments, including Pascal's own, the desirability of the outcome is only relevant to determining the value of finding a means to obtain the outcome, if it can be obtained, and even then is always determined with regard not only to how nice things would be if things went well but also with regard to how much is risked and how serious those risks are -- a fact that Myers conveniently overlooks in pretending that the reasoning is the sort "that makes casinos rich and gamblers paupers." Likewise, I find it a bit amusing that Myers evaluates the Wager by taking it to propose a literal gamble, rather than formal structure or (in my own preferred interpretation of Pascal's own Wager) a series of formal structures connected dialectically; I expect him any day now to insist pompously, like some of the less clever internet ID theorists, that Dawkins's Weasel argument obviously fails to support its conclusion because it reduces natural selection to a program; this is precisely the shallow level of evaluative analysis we have here. Pascal, of course, uses the language of a Wager because of his intended audience: reasoning related to gambling was the most rigorous form of practical reasoning with which the sort of cultured skeptic who comes up again and again in the fragments would have been familiar; and other Wager arguments, when they have kept the gambling vocabulary, have done so because of Pascalian tradition. The sort of evaluation Myers gives us is the sort of thing that can be expected only from someone with a very limited acquaintance with Wager arguments, one in which Wager arguments are mostly known only through loose and uncritically accepted second-hand summaries.

But this is actually the high point, rationally speaking, in Myers's post. From this point on, the looseness of the analysis increases and Myers even assumes that Baber's point is that "truth is unimportant to her". But this is not what she says; what she says is (1) that there are many truths (note the plural, which Myers conveniently drops) that are simply not of great importance; (2) that truth is overrated if it is taken to require that inquiry is optimizing of truth rather than merely satisficing; and (3) that, in fact, satisficing is a perfectly reasonable strategy for handling "the big questions". None of these three points imply that truth is unimportant; the only one that is even actually consistent with the claim that truth (no plural) is unimportant is (2), and (2) is the only one with regard to which Baber is insufficiently clear, and thus the only one which Myers has any excuse for missing. Baber, in other words, is (as she explicitly says) arguing that the best strategy with regard to truth when inquiring into "the big questions" is a strategy involving satisficing truth rather than optimizing it. Nor does her argument involve any sort of "casual contempt" towards curiosity about the world; rather, it simply points out that there are truths about the world that a person, depending on their particular background and interests, need not think important. And unless Myers thinks it is somehow a matter of crucial importance -- so much so that he must insist that everyone know it or be accused of contempt for curiosity -- to know how many socks I have in my sock drawer, or the traffic laws governing speed limits along stretches of 183 in Austin, Texas, or the standard Sikh view of the relationship between Islam and Hinduism, or (to use Baber's own example, which Myers, unsurprisingly, completely fails to grasp) the exact state of each and every one of Harriet Baber's teeth (the inquiry into all of which would involve discovering real truths about the world), then he is simply trying to build an argument on rhetoric that he has not properly thought through or else is using through deliberate dishonesty. There is no third option here. No honest person really believes that each and every single truth is crucially important; what determines whether a truth is crucially important is not its truth but its practical value. Likewise, no critical thinker holds that any and every choice between [possible -ed.] truths is equally valuable; and what determines whether a given choice is valuable is not that truth is at stake but practical ends and aims. Serious inquiry into the truth -- that is, inquiry that is real inquiry and does not simply use 'truth' in the incantatory way Myers is using it here -- is a practical activity, and as such is governed by practical goals. It takes no elaborately difficult effort to follow Baber's reasoning, even if one disagrees with it; the only possible way anyone could misinterpret Baber as badly as Myers has done here is if they really and truly do not care what Baber's argument, which (in the form here) is a fairly straightforward argument for a fairly limited conclusion, actually is, and therefore exercise no critical reading skills in handling it.

I said Myers's post was amusingly bad, and, given how completely off he is in his interpretation of a fairly elementary argument (since Baber is only giving a popularized summary of a more technical argument), it can be; but Myers's post is also to some extent a very sad thing, since it shows all the faults that have become increasingly common in Myers's reasoning. There was a time when he was a fairly sharp commentator, and would never have made the amateurish and in some cases, frankly, dimwitted maneuvers that he makes here. But reason is in great measure social, and that means it is heavily influenced by the company one keeps; and any look at the Pharyngula comment boxes or some of the places on the web Myers links shows exactly what the quality of company he has been keeping is. And, very noticeably, his arguments have increasingly taken on some of the worst features of the glib and mindless people with whom he is constantly interacting: the tendency to begin not with the actual arguments but with a simplistic caricature of them; the attempt to build an argument not on the basis of relevant examples but on the basis of vague, incantatory rhetoric; the tendency to assume that if his opponents argue for a qualification of some claim that they are arguing for the complete falsehood of that claim; the increasing framing of every particular point as an either/or between his preferred view and irrationality; the sneering at positions in ways that show clearly that no effort was actually made to understand the position in the first place; the appeals, which were always a weakness of Myers's and have only become more common, to pseudo-history rather than actual historical evidence; the increasingly common failure to consider that if he doesn't understand an argument that it might be better to raise an elucidating objection than to dismiss the argument out of hand. The list could be made much longer. We all have our faults when it comes to rational thinking, because real rationality takes a lot of work, some of it very difficult. But the faults exhibited on Myers's blog have slowly but steadily converged on the very worst traits of the internet kook, namely those that involve laying claim to rationality while showing clear signs of not having even bothered to try to do the work required to make that claim legitimate. There is, I think, hope for Myers yet, and hope that we might again get arguments from him that are actually worth intellectual respect and rumination rather than the laughable junk-food imitations that he has increasingly thrown out. I hope that at some point he again starts making an actual effort with respecting; he used to make them, and there's no particular reason why he couldn't start making them again. In the meantime he serves as a warning of how dangerous the internet can be to one's reasoning skills, and the importance of not being too glib in one's criticisms and of instead holding yourself to addressing the actual claims made by your opponent rather than some cartoon version of them.

UPDATE: Baber shows up in the comments on Myers's post and notes, with the sarcastic brevity she often has, both the ignorance of Wager arguments and the incantatory use of truth I had mentioned:

Hello, PZ--pleased to meet you.

What amazes me about the comments I got at the Guardian site and elsewhere is how pious secularists are. I'm just a simple, self-serving hedonist.

For a nice discussion of Pascal's Wager, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article at

UPDATE 2: Ophelia Benson also has a discussion of Baber's article, and while it's written in her usual drive-by-argument style, it's useful for showing the sort of post that Myers could have written (and which wouldn't have led to my writing an exasperated post). I think Ophelia reads Baber as arguing for a much stronger conclusion than Baber actually is, but even if that's right it's an entirely reasonable error; and she rightly sees that the primary issue with the article is the implicit theory of motivation. The comments discussion, with the exception of one or two dunderheads who have thought that insulting H.E. is an argument, has also been far more intelligent than anything you'd get at Pharyngula, too.

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