Sunday, August 23, 2015

Is everything political?

Here's a silly little story about Facebook drama that got me thinking about a wider question:

A few weeks ago someone "tagged" me on Facebook, which for those of you who live in a Facebook-free cave, means that he typed my name in a certain way that generates a notification to me to come and see something. The "something" was a rather nasty little session going on amongst some "scholars." (I put the term in scare quotes because of their behavior, though they are credentialed.) The short version, in which I will use no names, goes approximately like this: On Scholar A's publicly visible FB page, he linked with great approval a blog post about the historical Adam by Scholar B (who is a theologian, not a scientist) which took the position that the traditional view of the historical Adam is scientifically untenable. An on-line friend of mine, who happened to be FB "friends" with Scholar A, referred to my post here to give a different perspective. Whereupon Scholar B, together with Scholars C and D, began going on at great length about my lack of credentials in science, which of course I had highlighted at the beginning of the article, and how I therefore had no business writing about the subject at all. The question was raised by a friend or two of mine as to why, in that case, Scholar B's similarly uncredentialed article had been approved, and the consensus was that it's okay to write uncredentialed and even state a very definite opinion as long as what you're saying is that the mainstream view is right, but otherwise you should shut up and not lecture your betters. Um, okay.

In any event, in the course of this my curriculum vitae came up, because it happened to be mentioned (by those recommending my post) that, though I'm not credentialed in the sciences, I am credentialed in philosophy in virtue of my publication record. The implication was, I take it, that at least I'm not just a fool and that I have some claim, however indirect, to knowing something about arguments and evidence.

In none of this was the substance of my piece on the historical Adam ever tackled by Scholars B et. al. It was pure ad hominem, including references to totally unrelated blog posts (e.g., my having recommended halting Muslim immigration) and the use of a "cute" little expression coined by one of their number, the use of which in this context insinuated that I'm a protege and/or mindless follower of William Lane Craig, whom evidently they despise. (I'm honored by the implication, though in fact I'm a scholarly friend rather than a protege or follower of Dr. Craig.)

Here's the even odder bit of the whole thing: When my credentials in philosophy were brought up, Scholar B, apparently unaware that the privacy settings on the thread (which was set to "public") made his comments visible to anyone in the universe with an Internet connection and a Facebook account, began hypothesizing out of the clear blue sky that a) I have flunked out of a philosophy graduate program at some point (false) and, worse, b) I falsify my publication record, do not pull my weight in co-written articles, and somehow induce others to co-write articles with me (or write them for me?) on which I deceptively put my name, sometimes as sole author. All of this was made up out of whole cloth without a scintilla of evidence beyond the fact that I do not have a degree in philosophy but publish articles in the field. When I first came into the thread and challenged it I was told insouciantly to "falsify" the latter baseless smear (not only on me but also on my philosophical friends and associates who allegedly participate in padding my resume with their uncredited work), which evinces, to put it mildly, a rather odd concept of the burden of proof.

Eventually, Scholar B pulled in his horns a bit and graciously (???) decided to grant that I write my own publications. All of this with a good deal of, "Well, you must admit..." and "Your history is a little unusual..." and so forth in his own defense. The really humorous part is that based on his own statement what triggered his reevaluation was apparently not waking up one cold 3 a.m. with the thought, "Omigosh, I have behaved like an unprofessional, childish, irrational, obsessively ad hominem-making twit" but rather stumbling across this other post of mine, which evidently he liked a lot better than the one on the historical Adam and that he thought showed my argumentative chops. As the kids say, "Okay, dude, whatever."

Thus endeth the Facebook drama story. Here is the reflection:

It would be difficult to find subjects more dully apolitical than those in my purely philosophical publications. (Here I am not counting the philosophy of religion.) My most recently accepted article (to appear in due course in the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy) is on the sub-field of Bayesian coherentism and argues that what is known as Bayesian coherentism is not really a species of coherentism in terms of the epistemological structure it recommends. On this point I disagree with a number of scholars who have argued that the various projects discussed under the umbrella of Bayesian coherentism do have something to do with coherentist theories of the structure of justification. Another of my individually published papers from several years ago is about Jeffrey conditionalization. A co-published paper (with my husband) in Erkenntnis is about foundationalist modeling of the phenomenon of mutual support. You get the idea. None of these are about hot topics in either theology or politics. If you aren't interested in the fields of probability theory or epistemology, and even narrow sub-specialties thereof, you aren't going to be interested.

So how in the world did it come about that unpleasant, unprofessional, juvenile, and false conjectures about my authorship of such narrowly scholarly articles featured in a discussion of the science concerning the historical Adam? That is undeniably a hot topic and might fairly be said to be political (in a broad sense).

Well, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? I wrote a post that Scholars B et. al. didn't agree with on a subject they feel strongly about, where neither I nor they have any professional credentials. Wishing to engage in ad hominem reasoning, their first question was, "Who the heck is this person?" Those wanting to get them to at least engage a little bit with my piece on the science of the historical Adam pointed out that, at a minimum, I'm not a fool, and they did so by referring to my publication record in epistemology and probability, and it all went on from there.

So very indirectly, my work in esoteric philosophical fields is sorta kinda relevant-ish to whether an article I wrote as an amateur interested in a scientific discussion should be brushed off without even reading it or engaging with it.

Now, I can't forbear adding that on more than one occasion in my writing career probability and epistemology have intersected directly with real-world topics. For example, the issue of ad hoc reasoning is extremely important in science, history, and even biblical studies. In fact, it's going to be relevant almost anywhere that people make conjectures and compare hypotheses. So the fact that I've published professionally on the analysis of ad hocness has a pretty obvious potential application to my ability to evaluate my own and others' arguments in real-life areas, including those that people get hot under the collar about. Similarly, Tim's and my article in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology on the resurrection of Jesus (an important, real-world topic) makes use of Bayesian modeling, and a Bayesian approach can help to correct certain characteristic errors in the philosophy of religion and in common arguments about miracles.

But I want to be careful about this. Empirical fields are fact-heavy, and if you lack important facts, you're going to mess up. You can't do history, science, or biblical studies from an armchair. The Internet can help, as can sheer industriousness, but even in the information age it does indeed help to know a lot about science if you're going to try to evaluate arguments in science. I don't claim that being an epistemologist makes me an expert on everything. That would be foolish. I of course still have huge gaps in my knowledge of the real world, and it could certainly happen that one of these gaps would cause me to stumble in my evaluation of the evidence about some particular empirical topic.

More: Probability, rightly done, is a model of good judgement, not a substitute for it. Though I speak with the tongues of Bayes and of Condorcet and have not good judgement, I am as a sounding brass or tinkling cymbal. Indeed, one often finds the problem of poor judgement among credentialed experts as well. For example, knowing a lot about biblical languages doesn't by itself make you a good judge of the weight of the evidence concerning whether Jesus really said that he was God or whether Luke wrote the book of Acts.

I think that studying philosophy has helped me to have better judgement. It has helped me most of all to be more self-aware about how I am evaluating arguments. But it is not a substitute for good judgement, and just last week a contractor had better judgement than I did about the source of a leak in my house, as was shown by the event. He found the leak; I didn't.

So here's where I'm going with all of this: I try very hard to be balanced, humble, and careful about what I claim and to separate my persona as rampaging blogger-of-all-trades from my persona as published epistemologist, but there's no getting around it. People are going to think that my knowledge of technical fields is relevant to my ability to judge arguments in many fields in which I have no expertise whatsoever, and there is some indirect relevance, so they aren't entirely wrong.

The uncomfortable outcome of that is that in some sense the apolitical becomes political. I spend time thinking about things like, "How is Wayne Myrvold's measure of Bayesian unification related to the measure I want to write about?" In doing so I pride myself on doing philosophy for philosophy's sake. After all, one can't be a politically incorrect, shoot-em-up blogger all the time. Nor even for that matter does one want to be doing applied epistemology in some interesting field with practical relevance (e.g., biblical studies) all the time. At least, I don't. One wants to have apolitical, impractical things that one does just for the love of it, whether it be cooking, raising caterpillars, or analytic philosophy. And that's very important. In fact, I believe that doing things for their own sake makes the world go round. (The funny thing is that saying that is now considered "conservative" in some circles, which just goes to show how messed up our world really is.) But if one does some intellectual endeavor well, and if one gets some sort of credit for it from an allegedly unbiased source (e.g., accepted publications in refereed journals), this will be brought up, for good or for ill, when one starts talking about hotter, less ivory-towered subjects. Scholar B knew that. With all of his ad hominem-ing, Scholar B went straight for the political jugular: What this Lydia McGrew, whoever she may be, is saying about the historical Adam really ticks me off. I can tell that just from a brief skim. Who does she think she is? Some nobody. Oh, now they're telling me she isn't a nobody because she has published widely in probability in epistemology. Well, better slap that down real fast with a few well-placed (if unsupported) invidious insinuations or else I might have to acknowledge that she isn't a complete idiot, which might require me actually to read and discuss her arguments concerning the historical Adam, which I'd rather not do.

The best way to get around this politicizing of the apolitical (which seems to me sad somehow) would be just to pay attention to the arguments from the beginning. Personally, I favor that approach. After all, if you're interested in the historical Adam (which Scholar B evidently is, since he wrote a piece of his own about the matter) and somebody gives you a link to a blog post, and if you're going to spend time making silly comments about the author (about whom you know nothing), and then defending your silly comments, and then retracting them with an ill grace, you could more profitably spend those very same minutes actually reading the post and evaluating its content--a novel thought.

Still and all, there's probably no getting around it: When I publish in pure technical fields, it boosts my creds in non-technical fields in which I have less knowledge! I'm going to keep trying to publish pure epistemology and probability, because I love it. But I can't pretend that I don't know about the indirect relevance that both my work, and my recognition for that work, have to the many other hot topics I'm deeply interested in and write a lot about. Is that part of why I do it--to boost my creds? To be honest, yes, partly, especially for the sake of my work in Christian apologetics. But I also do it for its own sake, and for that reason I'm going to keep on trying to keep a divide, even if I can't and shouldn't try to achieve a hermetic seal, between my political and apolitical endeavors and even a distinction between pure and applied epistemology and probability. That's pretty important.

Speaking of which, I'd better get back to that 2003 article on Bayesian unification...


steve said...

It's striking how quickly some scientific debates devolved into philosophical debates. For starters, you have philosophy of science. The shades of scientific realism and antirealism. Or the debate over methodological atheism in science. Relatedly, whether scientific explanation should make allowance for teleological explanation in nature. Or the decades-long debate between Einstein and Bohr over the proper interpretation of quantum mechanism. And that debate rages on to this day.

Lydia McGrew said...

That's quite true, though it may be that fundamental particle physics lends itself more to such philosophical discussions than more mundane areas. Of course, a philosopher of science can bring philosophy of science into pretty much anything.

John said...

When I saw the title I thought: "Everything political? Well, is there anything, in theory, that cannot be taxed?"

Then I saw the direction you took and was reminded that in our interactions with people who differ from us, we are dealing not merely with minds, but also with hearts. And hearts notoriously lend themselves to political impulses that are less than cogent and poorly thought out.