Sunday, June 18, 2006

Who Put The Cookies In The Cookie Jar?

One of the advantages, separate from, if causally linked to and the reputation they help to generate, the quality of the teaching and library resources, of being a student at a University like Oxford is the quality of the other students. This often goes well beyond the indirect benefits of an ambient environment rich with the careful consideration of bright and well-read people to quite direct help: I've read bits of a couple of people's theses over the past few years, and a couple of people read my master's dissertation. Obviously, this kind of thing can at times be a little awkward: just because we're all bright and well-read, it doesn't mean we necessarily agree, and so the issue of an ethics of criticism comes up - how, if you think someone is wrong, far should you go both in voicing whatever criticism makes you think they are wrong and in helping them reduce its impact.

It can be hard to navigate those problems: I once wrote back to someone, saying that I had found it difficult to proof a thesis chapter they had given me properly because I thought it was 'systematically dishonest' in its treatment of certain theorists. That was probably a bit much, not so much because it was mud that had no right to stick - it was actually, if hyperbolic, more or less accurate - but more because it shouldn't have been slung in the first place. What had got me aggravated about the chapter in question was, I think, two-fold: firstly, I didn't support the conclusion argued for, and secondly, that I felt that some basic norm of academic discourse, that you interpret your opponents reasonably charitably, had been violated. Although I may be being overly generous about my motives, I think it was actually the second of these two aggravations that was most at work in me losing my temper.

It does matter, that in academic disputes opponents are interpreted reasonably charitably, that their most convincing arguments are given an airing. It matters generally of course, in the relatively simple sense that dishonesty is a vice, but it matters particularly for academic and similar discussions where the ostensible over-riding aim is to find or at least approach closer to truth or some simulcra of it. In the absence of that norm, the possibility of a conversation where disagreements are aired openly and have the possibility of resolution relying on the unforced force of the better argument recedes and perhaps disappears: a retreat to smear, misrepresentation, and the abuse of institutional privilege as the first line of intellectual defence occurs, and the ideal of truthseeking slides further away.

That norm is not only of particular importance to academia, but is particularly instantiated in it. Most academics most of the time aim at it, and that, as well as the structures of anonymous peer-review and so on, tends to support it. It is not some kind of transcendental ideal, but an actually existing practice - perhaps one of a number of actually existing practices, which cut against each other, but a practice, and a significant one at that: its absence would mean a substantial change to the institutions of academia as it currently exists. Were such a change to happen, we would, I would suggest, be much less able to rely on academia to produce work which was at least constrained by the various virtues of the enterprise of seeking the truth.

This line of thought, and ones analogous to it, have been staples of the criticism of Mill's defence of freedom of speech, and various other freedoms, as resulting in the progress towards truth and other ideals implicit in the idea of 'the interests of man as a progressive being', since his first statements of them. De Tocqueville articulated something like it when stressing the importance of the institutions of local government, and the norms of behaviour learnt in them, in sustaining American democracy in the middle of the nineteenth century. What's interesting about Mill though, is that he is making claims not solely about law, but also about various other social sanctions, ranging from rudeness to, presumably, extra-legal violence, and passing through institutions like the organised boycott en route. His harm principle is not meant to be applied merely by the government as it gets out of the way, but by everyone as they all get out of each others way.

Mill, then, was at least alive to the role of wider social behaviour in the seeking and publicising of truth, if unfortunately blase about the institutions, institutions which, because coercive, would have likely violated the harm principle, needed to sustain the sorts of behaviour he would have liked. That seems to be absent from some contemporary theorising about freedom's truth-seeking features. Phil quotes:

Wikipedia entries are nothing but the emergent effect of all the angry thrashing going on below the surface. No, if you want to really navigate the truth via Wikipedia, you have to dig into those "history" and "discuss" pages hanging off of every entry. That's where the real action is, the tidily organized palimpsest of the flamewar that lurks beneath any definition of "truth."

The Britannica tells you what dead white men agreed upon, Wikipedia tells you what live Internet users are fighting over.

The Britannica truth is an illusion, anyway. There's more than one approach to any issue, and being able to see multiple versions of them, organized with argument and counter-argument, will do a better job of equipping you to figure out which truth suits you best.

Phil, earlier in his piece, raises the 'wisdom of crowds' chestnut of the number of jellybeans in the jellybean jar, where, typically, no individual guess will be correct, but, given a large enough sample, the mean will converge on the right answer. As I said in the comments on Phil's piece, most questions aren't like that of how many jellybeans there are in the jar, and discussion of them doesn't follow the same model implied by the jellybean jar with its discrete examples of guessing. In most cases, someone already knows how many jellybeans there are, or at least has a good idea, and what an institution aiming at truth should be doing is identifying that person and then privileging their answer. Otherwise, the noise-to-signal ratio soars, and the truth gets buried beneath a series of claims and counter-claims, an average of which can be difficult to extract, and will anyway be skewed by people's differential willingness to get involved in that kind of mud-slinging.

That's not to say that there aren't other virtues of the marketplace of ideas, or that its products have no relation to truth: people have a right to be heard, authorities need to be questioned, and for some topics, the analogy implicit in jellybean example holds. It's just that that's not the whole story. I substanially rewrote this wikipedia entry (before and after), have intervened again to correct a couple of fairly misleading subsequent edits, and would do it again, if I saw an entry which I thought had the capacity and patience to make significantly better. Doing that, though, depends on expertise and normative commitments imported from a quite different set of institutions, and that, basically, the entry's not particularly controversial, because I'm not willing to engage in a series of flamewars. A lot of the time, the dead white men - and that's a cheap shot, too - are right: however guilty we might and perhaps should feel about it, they put the cookies in the cookie jar.


Ben said...

I've never been too sure what the appropriate level of charity is. Of course, one shouldn't misrepresent and distort one's opponent for quick points. That's just like setting up a strawman.

Conversely, some would say you should be about as distorting to favour your opponent. It seems to me if what they say seems implausible - e.g. Mill's 'proof' of utility - then you should, of course, re-examine your prejudices or other interpretations, but at the end of the day be prepared to conclude it might just be a really bad argument.

I distinctly remember Popper commenting on a passage of Republic where Plato suggests those over ten will be expelled when the ideal city is founded. He cites one translation that makes it sound like they're send away loaded with goods, as if state-funded emigrants, then compares his own translation which suggests they're driven out at spearpoint. The first is certainly nicer, so in that sense more charitable to Plato, but it doesn't settle what he really intended (and maybe he was deliberately vague)

Rob Jubb said...

I suppose I envisage the principle of charity in this context requiring something like:

'interpret statement A so as to result in B, who made it, holding the most coherent set of beliefs possible given basic human capacities and any context provided by other statements by B'.

Obviously, that's quite vague (and circular, in the sense that 'other statements by B' themselves invite treatment in the same way). It would, however, for example, rule out claiming that because liberal egalitarians have expressed skepticism about the idea that some welfare entitlements might be conditional on at least attempting to seek work, they believe in slavery.

Obviously, if a principle of charity was too charitable, it would deny itself any critical power, since it would require that it was charitable about abuses of charity. It has to describe or at least gesture at a boundary or else it becomes empty.