William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Roger Kimball’s Challenge

The famous writer Roger Kimball has issued a challenge:

Name the silliest argument to be offered by a serious academic in the last 25 years and to be taken up and be gravely masticated by the larger world of intellectual debate.

A leading contender is Global Warming. Kimball’s own entry is Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis.

Kimball’s rules of the contest:

I’ll collect proposals for the next week or two and then announce the winner. (The decision, from which there is no appeal, will be determined by a committee staffed, overseen, and operated entirely by me.)

This tournament reminds me of the one issued by philosopher David Stove, who sought to find The World’s Worst Argument. The winning entry was entered by Stove himself:

We can know things only: as they are related to us; under our forms of perception and understanding; insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes, etc. So, we cannot know things as they are in themselves.

By “worst”, according to Jim Franklin, his literary executor (Stove is dead) and student, Stove “meant that it had to be extremely bad logically and also it had to be very widely believed.” (Quote is near the end of the link.)

We’ll discuss Stove’s worst argument another time, but the thing to notice now is this. Since he was so familiar with bad arguments of every stripe, Stove capered to the finish line. All other entries didn’t have a chance. It is probably the same with Kimball: he knows too many appalling arguments so it will be difficult to beat him.

Readers of this blog might also nominate “Global warming” for Kimball’s contest, but the category is ambiguous, there is no specificity to it. Of course there is global warming, and mankind is certainly responsible for some of it (think of thermometers placed in urban settings that have grown in population through time). The entry has to be clarified before it has a chance. I don’t think Al Gore will collect this prize.

It will be difficult, therefore, to beat the “End of History” nonsense. This is Fukuyama’s thesis, first promulgated at the end of the Cold War, that “The end of history as such” has been reached; that we have realized “the evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”; and that “the ideal will govern the material world in the long run.”

(As Russia is clipping Georgia, I realize I should have written “First Cold War” in the previous paragraph.)

As Stove himself (Kimball has edited a volume of his writings) said

[T]he mixture which Fukuyama expects to freeze history forever–a combination of Enlightenment values with the free market–is actually one of the most explosive mixtures known to man. Fukuyama thinks that nothing will ever happen again because a mixture like that of petrol, air, and lighted matches is widespread, and spreading wider. Well, Woodrow Wilson thought the same; but it is an odd world view, to say the least.

It’s a strong contender, this silly argument, and will likely win. But we shouldn’t acquiesce without a fight. Here is my entry (well, it’s a modification of my entry; I clicked “submit” too quickly):

Moral Equivalence

This is the thesis that all ideas are ethically commutable. Moral equivalence often goes by the terms “Diversity” and “Multiculturalism.”

Diversity, as in “we value diversity in our student body.” One major ivy-league university, for example, states that it “is committed to extending its legacy recruiting a heterogeneous faculty, student body and staff; fostering a climate that doesn’t just tolerate differences but treasures them [etc.]” You cannot now find a university that isn’t constantly and loudly devoted to diversity.

However, we can be sure that by this they do not—and should not—mean intellectual diversity. This should be obvious. For if we merely wanted to increase intellectual diversity, we would create classes and recruit subject matter experts in “How to Murder”, “Advanced Pedophilia”, “Creative Robbery”, “Marxist Theory”, or similar idiocies. You often hear conservatives ask to increase intellectual diversity on campuses; conservatives are arguing poorly, because they really mean they want to increase conservative thought.

Diversity, then, cannot mean intellectual diversity. Therefore, to “increase diversity” usually means to “without regard to merit, forcibly manipulate the ratios of student/faculty races so that it matches that of an (unstated) specific goal.” Of course, this implies quotas, which is to say, legalized discrimination based on race. Incidentally, statistically speaking, it is nearly impossible to achieve “diversity” without resort to forced quotas—I’ll talk about this another time.

Multiculturalism is just as bizarre. I have often thought it would be instructive to set up a “Multiculturalism Booth” at a college fair. Participants would take part in common rituals of many different cultures. For example, there would be the stoning of homosexuals, the honorable murder of raped women, the clitorectomy ring toss, a foot race whereby the losers are killed and eaten, and so on. Naturally, the booth’s staff will be equipped with native costumes and pamphlets describing the history and cultural relevance of each topic. This is meant to be educational, after all. At the end of the day, those that survived would be given a survey asking their opinion on the importance of multiculturalism.

How many participants would finally admit that all cultures are not equal, that some are better than others?

10 Comments

  1. You’re right that global warming doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a pretty destructive thesis but nowhere near socialism. Your entry is good but I’m going to go with the thesis that:

    Literary criticism that places the evaluation writings in a cultural context is extensible to the evaluation of scientific and philosophical theories (Post-Modernism).

    (Looking back this is pretty close to the worst argument of of Stove – but I’m sticking with it.)

    This thesis has led to arguments that the conclusions arrived at by the scientific method need to be evaluated in terms of the culture that produced those theories. More idiotically, you have arguments that scientific truth is entirely based on the source culture.

  2. Hello William,

    As a one-time student of David Stove’s I’m going to offer a mild defense of multiculturalism and even of ‘diversity’ in his name. David was nothing if not a compassionate man. I frequently heard him skewer the pompous and the merely wrong. But he was kind, as much as he was impatient of stupidity. So I think he’d disagree with you if you meant ‘multiculturalism’ in the sense that it was meant in Sydney in the 1970s when Stove like many other Australians was hopeful that our then mono-cultural society would be changed by a more humane immigration policy (as it was). The motto of Sydney University, that I think David endorsed was “Sidere mens eadem mutato”: roughly, ‘the same spirit under a different sky’. But it would have been perverse to say it applied only to minds formed by the ‘superior’ Anglo culture that then dominated our society.

    As to diversity. I’m pretty sure David thought of quotas in the same way you do. But then, he was intellectually curious, so I doubt he would have ruled out courses on “creative robbery”.

  3. Briggs

    August 20, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Peter,

    I agree with you that that definition of multiculturalism is to be embraced. Recall Montaigne on custom:

    [T]he principal effect of the power of custom is to seize and ensnare us in such a way that it is hardly within out power to get ourselves back out its grip and return into ourselves to reflect and reason about its ordinances…Nations brought up to liberty and to ruling themselves consider any other form of government monstrous and contrary to nature. Those who are accustomed to monarchy do the same.

    He also said that the habit, which leads to custom, is “a violent and treacherous schoolmistress.”

    And of course, Stove many times reminded his readers of David Hume’s warnings about how easy “is becomes ought.”

    But blind acceptance and adherence to custom is not the opposite of the standard definition of multiculturalism as it’s used today. Instead, multiculturalism is loosely defined as “approbation of any custom that is different than Western because it is different.” As Stove said in The Plato Cult (quoted in the Franklin essay linked above)

    The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no other reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed. (Stove, 1991, 167)

    Thus, multiculturalism does not overly emphasize the adoption of other culture’s habits (hence my example of the fair), but it never passes up on an opportunity to disparage habits of our own culture.

    You’re on the money with the class “Creative Robbery.” I just looked it up. At the Harvard Law School it goes by the name “Tax and Social Policy.” The syllabus states in part

    The tax code is increasingly used as an instrument of social policy…This intensive writing course will explore legal, economic, and political considerations relevant to the formulation and design of social policies implemented, in whole or in part, through federal tax policy.

    If that’s not creative, then I don’t know what is.

  4. Dear Briggs,

    You’re right to point to Stove’s attack on ‘cultural relativism’ as an attack on a sort of cringing parody of ‘multiculturalism’. I withdraw my objection now I better understand your target. You have my vote in Kimball’s challenge: although, I would probably vote for any statistician quoting Montaigne :-)

    Best,

    Peter

  5. I once did a sideshow for a village fete, the theme of which was something French and I made a more or less working guillotine. But the organisers would only let me use it on things like pumpkins, spoilsports!
    I think your idea is great.

  6. I’m going to offer you “The Tragedy of the Commons”, by Garrett Hardin.

    Published in 1968, this article generated, and yet generates, extreme forms of breathing when confronted as prattle.

    One of the crazy assumption posited? “(T)he important concept of a class of human problems which can be called ‘no technical solution problems,’ and, more specifically, with the identification and discussion of one of these.”

    The next statement? “It is easy to show that the class in not a null class.”

    Of course, more compelling, is the final paragraph of his conclusion:

    “the only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. ‘Freedom is the recongition of necessity’–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessityh of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.”

    I’ve posted links to this tripe in this article:

    http://tinyurl.com/5pcbmb

    Let me know what I have won!

  7. How about this one from Wahl and Ammann commenting on the method used to produce the Mann Hockey Stick. Of the behaviour of the bristlecone pines, they said:

    “These results enhance the validity of the MBH assumption that proxies used in the reconstruction process do not necessarily need to be closely related to local/regional surface temperatures, as long as they register climatic variations that are linked to the empirical patterns of the global temperature field that the MBH method (and other climate field reconstructions) target.”

    Get that? The magic bristlecones respond to the “global temperature field” but have no response to local climate!

    Is it magic? Yes!

    Is it peer reviewed science? Yes!

    I despair.

  8. Briggs

    August 22, 2008 at 5:14 am

    @OregonGuy “Freedom to breed”? I had no idea. What was his solution to limit this particular activity? Random forced abortions or free video games?

    To other readers: click on OregonGuy’s link, in which is another link to the original paper.

    @John A Do you also have a link? I had never seen that quote before. I’ve read it three times so far and can’t make anything out of it. I can see that the individual words are English, but when they are strung together something bizarre happens.

    Also, everybody, don’t forget to post entries to Roger Kimball’s blog. I don’t think he’ll see the ones posted here.

  9. The appalling thing about Hardin’s paper is the number of “serious” authors who reference his work, as evidenced at the end of the “link”.

    .

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