Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Epistemology and Intellectual Honesty

EconLog's Arnold Kling wrote a column that raises some epistemological questions that are near and dear to me. While not directly related to medicine, they do cut at the heart of how we come to know the things we know.

Kling talks about the what he calls the Law of Proportionate Belief (which I'll abbreviate LPB): "One should believe in a certain proposition or policy prescription in proportion to the arguments for that position." Essentially the LPB is a formal restatement of what most of us would call "common sense". It would seem self-evident that the more evidence there is in support of an idea, the more likely it is to be true. Who can argue with that?

Kling starts his essay with a vignette where one of two debaters makes what is clearly an unsupportable statement. She violates Kling's law in that she takes an extreme position in a matter despite equivocal data on both sides. If I'm interpreting Kling correctly, he attributes her violation to arrogance, a lack of humility. She used the words "not a shred of evidence" to support a position that undoubtedly has many "shreds" of evidence in support of both sides (in this case, the existence of a "biological factor" that explains men's disproportionate representation in the great academies of math and certain other sciences.)

Personally, I think Kling is too kind. I call it dishonesty.

Now let me clarify. Most people hold at least some positions to be true as a matter of faith. I have no problem with this. If I did, I'd be a pretty self-loathing guy because I recognize that many of the things I believe in, some very strongly, can never be proven one way or the other.

I believe that it is wrong to murder someone because they play their stereo too loud. Certainly many sociological, economic, and psychological arguments can be made to justify this belief. Ultimately however, in my case it comes down to an inner voice (with distinctly religious overtones) confirming its truth.

But if someone asked me to justify this belief, I wouldn't resort to scientific arguments. I'd explain my deep conviction that murder out of annoyance, though perhaps a satisfying fantasy, is wrong and the reason it's wrong is my faith that this is so. I find such a position totally defensible and internally consistent. While technically a violation of the LPB, I have no problem with it as long as I'm upfront about the source of my conviction.

Unfortunately, the world is full many people who hold incredibly strong convictions out of faith but aren't willing to admit this. Instead, they engage in a very dishonest rhetorical sophistry to support their positions in the face of disagreement. It sounds like the woman in Kling's quote at the beginning of his article was coming from that direction. I've not done an exhaustive review of the world literature on the "nurture vs. nature" controversy but I'm smart enough to know that there are arguments supporting both sides. To deny that outright ("not a shred of evidence") is not just arrogant, it's dishonest.

There's a certain brash, loud, media-hungry feminist attorney based here in southern California. She once represented an actress who was fired from her rather minor role in a soap opera. It turned out that she was going to be seriously pregnant when the series was to commence filming. This wouldn't have been a problem except for the fact that her character was supposed to be a sexy, sultry vamp. Her pregnancy wasn't exactly compatible with this character.

Now this attorney was discussing the case on a radio talk show. A listener expressed his opinion that the producers had a valid reason for firing her client because her pregnancy was not keeping within the character for which she auditioned. The actress's attorney went ballistic and made it clear that she thought his position was not only wrong but reprehensible. She then asked him (I'm paraphrasing) "What is it that you have against pregnancy?"

She had her opinion. She could have made any one of a number of reasonable arguments to support it. But instead she chose sophistry and countered her opponent's reasonable statement with a non sequitur. This isn't arrogance. It's intellectual dishonesty.

It is common and is an affront to all reasoned discourse. We see it in varying degrees in all disciplines, medicine, the "hard" sciences, politics and even, as Kling was presumably crushed to discover, economics. All of us need to do a better job in supporting our arguments with evidence, the best that we can find. Likewise we need to be willing to face evidence that goes against our convictions. We need to either counter such evidence with further data, or even adjust our opinions.

If we continue to hold a conviction despite strong evidence to the contrary, we need to ask ourselves why. If we can't come up with a reason, that's OK…as long as we're able to admit to both ourselves and to those whose minds we seek to change, that that conviction is based on faith.

This is the essence of intellectual honesty.

And now, a pop quiz on Southern California culture: Who was the attorney in question and why is her voice like fingernails on the chalkboard?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has to be Susan Estrich.

Isn't she the one that's been on Kinsley's case lately?

(BTW: Please check your email)

May 18, 2005 9:58 AM  
Blogger The Medicine Man said...

Nice TRY Henry. You definitely deserve an honorable mention for that answer!

But no. I don't think Estrich actually has a law practice. She's a prof (but still very grating). And yes, there's no love lost between her and Kinsley.


May 18, 2005 10:19 AM  
Blogger Henry Stern, LUTCF, CBC said...

Alright then, Alred?

She definitely has the voice for it.

BTW, interesting post. I'm not sure I agree that the first lady's dishonesty is comparable to the attorney's:

In the first instance, she is merely dismissing the argument without offering support as to why; as you say, dishonest.

But the attorney is changing the nature of the argument, in a classic straw-man (straw-woman?) maneuver. That's equally disingenous, but in a different way.

BTW: While I'm in general agreement with you re: killing the neighbor with the loud stereo, would it make a difference if he/she was playing Celine Dion? I think one could make a compelling case for justifiable homicide in that instance ;-)

May 18, 2005 10:59 AM  
Blogger The Medicine Man said...

Very good Henry,

You are now a Los Angeles local. Congratulations. Be sure to wear your body armor while navigating our fair city's freeways.

And I've definitely heard WORSE than Dion.


May 18, 2005 11:48 AM  

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