In Defense of Dogmatism

In so far as I have a coherent philosophy of statistics, I hope it is “robust” enough to cope in principle with the whole of statistics, and sufficiently undogmatic not to imply that all those who may think rather differently from me are necessarily stupid. If at times I do seem dogmatic, it is because it is convenient to give my own views as unequivocally as possible.

Those, as regular readers might guess, are not my words. They’re from M.S. Bartlett, a big name in statistics from before I was born. I came across this quote (via a link in yesterday’s comments) in a paper by Andrew Gelman, a man whose philosophy of probability differs widely from my own.

For example, his paper embraces Popperian falsification and rejects, as Popper did, induction, views which are the direct opposite of my own (Gelman and I are simpatico on model checking, however). I say he is wrong; he would, if offered the chance, say the same of me.

Ian Hacking, in his Emergence of Probability, amidst much historical analysis introduces his own theory on probability, which takes roughly the same tack as Gelman, but only roughly. Hacking, like Bartlett, drags out the “D” word to describe the behavior of those philosophers (again, like myself) who disagree with his viewpoint. Hacking is sneeringly against dogmatists; people who are defined, or so we infer, as those who disagree with Hacking.

To call a man a dogmatist is to slur him. It is to accuse him of unthinking inflexibility. It is to intimate, as Bartlett and Hacking do, that the dogmatist thinks all others idiots for not believing as he does. To fling this word is to accuse a man of being wrong.

Nobody calls a man a dogmatist who agrees wholly with that man. It is only those who we believe swim in error that we curse (that sentence is courtesy of my having just read this year’s Bulwer-Lytton bad-writing contest; via A&LD). Nobody wants to be called a dogmatist, especially considering that word’s religious overtones, and with religion’s current low standing among our intellectual betters.

Now, it is true, and trivial, that to assert what is false is foolish, and to assert what is false vociferously is idiotic. But in order to claim a man is dogmatically asserting a falsehood, we must have knowledge that what he is saying is false. That is, we must ourselves assert a truth: that the man’s belief is false. This is a long-winded way of saying that we must be dogmatic—in the sense of declaring a view with certainty—in cursing dogmatism.

This must always have been obvious. Consider that the Bartletts and Hackings of the world would dogmatically disallow dogmatism, which is, naturally, an impossible position. There are truths and to assert them dogmatically cannot be a philosophical shortcoming.

Of course, it is not always easy to convince another of a truth (see, e.g., yesterday’s column), so perhaps what Bartlett and others object to is the tone which “dogmatists” use. He doesn’t want us to assume he is accusing his enemies of idiocy—though he has forgotten there are many other reasons some one remains unconvinced of a truth, such as insanity, churlishness, stubbornness, laziness, and so forth. Bartlett nervously warns us that he will write “unequivocally”, yet worries he will be seen as a bully because of it.

Was his concern misplaced? Chesterton said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: the conscious and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.”

Old G.K. was right, but a better word to replace “unconscious” might be “unthinking.” Nobody really minds a thinking dogmatist; it’s the thick-headed bricks who refuse to be taught who annoy us. Note especially that this is “refuse to be” and not “cannot be”.

Of course, many less stalwart folk prefer their arguments served room temperature. At medical conferences, for example, questions always begin with a benediction: “Thank you Dr So-and-So for a wonderful talk. It was great, nearly awesome. An inspiration to us all, and on a topic of the highest importance….” It’s hours before a disapproving questioner comes to the point of disagreement, so afraid they are of offending.

Physicians nowadays, at least those who attend conferences, are not followers of Dr Johnson, who liked to mix it up. “I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight.” In this opinion, I am in complete agreement.

There is no point in being squeamish when offering an opinion. Lukewarm—“I would thou wert cold or hot”—doesn’t sell, is no fun, and, worst of all, is boring.


  1. It seems to me that dogmatism has to do with how and why views are held, rather than with their veracity. Someone can dogmatically assert that the sun rises in the east, because he was taught that as a child and he now takes it as an article of faith, even though he never observes the course of the sun through the skies, and has no notion of the solar system, or even what “east” means beyond some device pointing that direction for him. I sometimes find it quite uncomfortable when dogmatists agree with my views, because the agreement is only on the surface.

  2. Briggs –

    Slightly OT, but I’ve seen you diss Popper & falsifyability on several occasions. I’m an irregular here – have you written a full essay on this? If so, could you please point me to it; if not, how about it in the near future?

    For this non-scientist, Popper’s work has always seemed one of the pillars of the so-called Scientific Method.


  3. Mr Briggs, you surprise me. Surely the point of using the word, “dogmatic” about anyone is to signal our belief that he has expressed his views with too much certainty. Since you repeatedly state, “too many people are too certain about too many things” I would expect you to be against dogmatic people of every stamp.

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