Mistake of the Week: “But even an X says so!”

Consider the following less-than-hypothetical scenarios:

  • Joseph Weizenbaum (who passed away two weeks ago), the MIT computer scientist who created the ELIZA chatbot in the 1960′s, spent the rest of his career decrying the evils of computer science research, holding (perhaps strangely) both that almost everything that’s done with computers could be done just as well without them, and that computers have made possible terrible things like missile guidance systems that now threaten our civilization.
  • Distinguished mathematician Doron Zeilberger argues that mathematicians are wasting their time pursuing chimeras like “beauty” and “elegance,” and that within the near future, mathematics will be entirely the domain of computers.
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was born into a Muslim family in Somalia, and who escaped from an arranged marriage after being forced to undergo FGM, tells Westerners they’re deluding themselves if they think current Islamic practices are compatible with Enlightenment values.
  • John Browne, the Chief Executive of BP, tells the world that urgent action is needed on global warming.
  • A former atheist stumps for Christianity (or vice versa).

The obvious question in all these cases is: how much extra credence does a person gain by belonging, or having once belonged, to the group he or she is criticizing? From a strict rationalist standpoint, the answer would seem to be zero: surely all that matters is the soundness of the arguments! Who cares if the keynote speaker at the anti-widget rally also happens to be past president of the Widget Club?

I can think of three possible reasons for giving extra credence to attacks from insiders:

  1. The insider might simply know more about the realities of the situation than an outsider, or be less able to ignore those realities.
  2. One assumes the insider is someone who’s at least grappled with the best arguments from her own side before rejecting them. (In FantasyLand, one could assume that anyone making an argument had first grappled with the best arguments from the opposing side, but FantasyLand≠Earth.)
  3. When someone relentlessly attacks a single group of people — seeming to find them behind every perfidy on earth — history says to assume the worst about their motivations, and not to accept the refrain “I’m only criticizing them for their own good!” However, it’s possible that members of the group themselves should merit a pass in this regard. (Though even here there are exceptions: for example, if the person has renounced all ties with the despised group, or, as in the case of Bobby Fischer, refuses to accept the reality of his membership in it.)

On the other hand, I can think of five reasons why not to give extra credence to attacks from insiders:

  1. Given any exotic mixture of beliefs and group affiliations, there’s almost certainly someone on earth who fits the description — and is even available for a fee to speak at your next event. If you want an accomplished scientist who sees science as an expensive sham or tool of the military, you can find one. If you want a former Republican hardliner who’s now a Naderite, you can find one. If you want a Jew who renounces Jews or Israel, you can find a stadium of them. So you can’t conclude anything from the mere existence of such people — at most, you can possibly learn something from their number.
  2. Any group of people — computer scientists, CEO’s, Israelis, African-Americans — will consist (to put it mildly) of multiple factions, some of whom might seek to gain an advantage over the other factions by blasting their group as a whole before the outside world. So one can’t simply accept someone’s presentation of himself as a lone, courageous whistleblower, without first understanding the internal dynamics of the group he comes from and is criticizing.
  3. The very fact that people within a group feel free to criticize it can in some cases speak well about the group’s tolerance for dissent, and thereby undermine some of the critics’ central claims. (Of course, one has to verify that the tolerated dissenters aren’t just a sham maintained by the ruling faction, as in Communist regimes throughout their history.)
  4. Some people simply enjoy dissenting from their peers, as a way of proving their independence or of drawing attention to themselves.
  5. Just as most people like to toot their own group’s horn, a few are masochistically biased toward the opposite extreme. We can all think of people who, for whatever deep psychological reasons, feel a constant need to repent the sins of themselves or their group, in a manner wildly out of proportion to any actual guilt. Granted, anyone can understand the conflict a physicist might feel over having participated in the Manhattan Project. On the other hand, when the invention you’re renouncing is the ELIZA chatbot, the question arises of whether you’ve earned the right to Faust-like penitence over the unspeakable evil you’ve unleashed.

So what’s my verdict? Belonging to the group you’re criticizing can give you one or two free starting chips at the table of argument, entitling you to a hearing where someone else wouldn’t be so entitled. But once you’ve sat down and entered the game, from then on you have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

33 Responses to “Mistake of the Week: “But even an X says so!””

  1. Dave Doty Says:

    Although the phrase “in some cases” provides cover, I nonetheless feel obligated to point out that opposing reason #3 (dissent against a group is evidence of the group’s tolerance of dissent) is contradicted — in the most fundamental way — by example #3 (Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s dissent against Islam). From the Los Angeles Times on October 9, 2007:

    After attending the University of Leiden, Hirsi Ali began speaking publicly about the repression of women under Islam, and shortly thereafter she started receiving death threats from local Muslims.

    In 2004, Hirsi Ali collaborated with Theo van Gogh on the film “Submission,” which examined the link between Islamic law and the suffering of millions of women under Islam. The reaction from the Muslim community was nothing short of psychopathic, and it confirmed the necessity of Hirsi Ali’s work and the reasonableness of her fears. Van Gogh, having declined bodyguards of his own, was gunned down and nearly decapitated on an Amsterdam street, and a letter threatening Hirsi Ali was staked to his chest with a butcher knife.

    Hirsi Ali was immediately forced into hiding and moved from safe house to safe house, sometimes more than once a day, for months. Eventually, her security concerns drove her from the Netherlands altogether.

    Read the whole article here.

    It speaks well of a group if it provides, by its very design, channels by which dissent can help strengthen the group. For instance, anyone who has a legitimate problem with the way some scientific field is conducted can usually address this problem and effect a change through scientific channels, such as publishing papers, and typically only the quacks go straight to the newspapers with their “groundbreaking new theories”. But dissent of a group that reacts to dissent with violence is evidence of the courage of the dissenter, not evidence of the tolerance of the group.

  2. Scott Says:

    Dave: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking about when I wrote “in some cases.” I agree that someone who leaves his rebuttal pinned by a knife to his opponent’s dead body in the streets of Amsterdam, could be doing a better job of illustrating tolerance for dissent…

  3. Job Says:

    Dissenters will get extra credibility from individuals who are in conflict or don’t sympathise (even slightly) with the dissenter’s group as well as any individuals who aren’t sufficiently informed to be able to hold an opinion.

    Bias and ignorance are the better reasons to offer someone extra credence. I certainly don’t count myself out of the biased and ignorant – it’s difficult not to be biased against some things and some things i’d just rather not know.

  4. Alex Says:

    I would like to add this thought:
    Criticism of a group X from an insider should also be seen in the context of the nature of the debate and the groups opposing it. In many political and religious debates, criticism from the outside is immediately brushed off as a form of bigotry or racism, hence rendering constructive debate impossible. By using criticism from an insider it might be possible to bypass this issue.
    Consider the fact that defenders of Israeli foreign policy, systematically label anyone who criticizes Israel as anti-semitic. hence Israelis or Jews who criticize Israel might be able to better weigh in on the debate then an Arab or a Muslim would.
    The same goes for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was used by Dutch right wing politicians to cast themselves as not having a racist agenda in the Dutch immigration debate.
    Unfortunately, it seemed that Hirsi Ali herself was totally biased on the subject. She attributed problems specific to Somali society to Islamic societies as a whole, hence leading to violent reaction and disastrous consequences.

    @Dave Doty:
    I think that scientific debate and religious, racial or political debates are fundamentally different. It seems to me that the very dogmatic nature of the later group leads to the impossibility of establishing “channels by which dissent can help strengthen the group”, even though they would be theoretically possible.

  5. Scott Says:

    She attributed problems specific to Somali society to Islamic societies as a whole, hence leading to violent reaction and disastrous consequences.

    I don’t think that’s accurate. FGM (for example) is common in Egypt, Djibouti, Sudan, Senegal, …

    I’m also puzzled by the phrase “hence leading to violent reaction,” as if that were somehow to be expected.

  6. Alex Says:

    “I don’t think that’s accurate. FGM (for example) is common in Egypt, Djibouti, Sudan, Senegal, …”.
    In Egypt only in the southern part, according to what I’ve read. FGM (and general mistreatment of women) is practiced in neighboring African countries which are Animist or Christian. On the other hand it is not practiced in Saudi Arabia or Iran, text book examples pf Islam gone wrong. So the correlation is much more geographical than religious. I guess I was wrong to say specific to Somali society, I should have said non specific to Islamic society,

    “I’m also puzzled by the phrase “hence leading to violent reaction,” as if that were somehow to be expected.”

    Because instead of a constructive point by point criticism (something which we are in dire need of), she did a blanket criticism and rejection of all of Muslim
    society, which seems to me like a surefire way to provoke radicals and extremists.

  7. Irfan Says:

    Without meaning to blow my own trumpet, I’ve explored the issue of internal ‘gatekeepers’ using the example of Ayaan Hirsi Magaan and her Jewish equivalent, Maryam Jameelah. You can read it here …

    http://www.newmatilda.com/2007/07/25/unreliable-narrator

  8. Scott Says:

    FGM (and general mistreatment of women) is practiced in neighboring African countries which are Animist or Christian. On the other hand it is not practiced in Saudi Arabia or Iran

    Mistreatment of women is not practiced in Saudi Arabia or Iran?

  9. Alex Says:

    My mistake. I meant FGM isn’t practiced in Saudia Arabia and in Iran. And you’d be suprised how well women are treated in Iran (although it might be argued that they are too busy torturing gays).
    Sorry if I am extremely ineloquent with a keyboard. The point I am trying to make was that mistreatment of women was something common to several undeveloped societies, and not necessarily inherent to Muslim ones.

  10. Raoul Ohio Says:

    It is widely recognized that the incidence of fanaticism is much higher among converts to religions, compared to those born into it. It is easy to see the same effect elsewhere. For example, once I have mastered (or, at least surpassed duffer status) a new programming language, I am sure it is the greatest thing ever.

    In a different direction, I give my vote to the ELIZA chatbot as the lamest episode in the history of CS. I assume ELIZA was considered CS at the time.

    In the 1960′s, using a computer meant one punched card per line of code, and 24 hour turnaround time to find compilation errors. If that wasn’t bad enough, you kept reading GeeWhiz reports about how the future would be all about programs like ELIZA spouting nonsense. I remember thinking “This is what they are working on at MIT? Bummer.”.

  11. Scott Says:

    I give my vote to the ELIZA chatbot as the lamest episode in the history of CS.

    There are some episodes I’m too young to remember — like the American hysteria over Japan’s “fifth generation” program — that might very well have been lamer.

  12. John Sidles Says:

    These episodes are interesting partly because they often involve an element of regret … “had I only known then what I know now.”

    Regrets can assail entire disciplines, not just individuals. This point of view is eloquently expressed by Ed Wilson’s later writings … “Why did my colleagues and I stand idle while global ecosystem destruction gained momentum?”

    This leads to two of the toughest questions of all.

    What am I/we working on now, that two decades from now will be regarded as a waste of time?

    What am I/we *not* working on now, that two decades from now will be regarded as a lost opportunity?”

  13. Jon Sneyers Says:

    Alex, women are not treated well in Iran. The religious police constantly harasses them. They are not allowed to divorce: when a relation breaks up, the man is allowed to remarry, but if the woman is seen afterwards with another man, she gets stoned to death for adultery. I went to this demonstration (both of them, but I’m talking about the second one on that page), where I met a lot of Iranian women refugees. Believe me, you’d be surprised how bad they treat women in Iran.

  14. Matt Says:

    I remember looking at a pile of documents generated by that ‘fifth generation’ program. The ‘this is bullshit’ moment arrived when I noticed that everyone of them had an identical ‘Figure 1′, purporting to show the way the new computer would work.

  15. Gilad Says:

    As Raoul Ohio says, converts are often more outspoken than “original” members of a group, which may be for a variety of reasons:
    1) The person wishes to prove loyalty to the group.
    2) The convert chose the group affiliation, and didn’t default to it (as most of us do to our religious and political beliefs).
    3) The newcomer may tend to be more radical by nature, as such people may transition more often from one group to another.

    As for mistreating women, I don’t think any fundamentalist religious group tends to treat women well. Female circumcision may be an extreme example, of course. Mind you, I think that while less violent in nature, in our days male circumcision would have been considered an absurd idea were it not advocated by Judaism and were it not so keenly adopted in the US.

  16. AwesomeRobot Says:

    >or, as in the case of Bobby Fischer, refuses to accept the >reality of his membership in it.

    Are you suggesting that Bobby Fischer refuses to believe he is dead?

  17. Scott Says:

    AR, I think my grammar was (is?) OK. Consider a different example: “if, as in Einstein’s case, a person refuses to accept the completeness of quantum mechanics…”

    Even though present tense is used, I don’t see any implication that the “case” being discussed is a current one — or maybe I’m wrong?

  18. Scott Says:

    while less violent in nature, in our days male circumcision would have been considered an absurd idea were it not advocated by Judaism and were it not so keenly adopted in the US.

    Hitchens loves to make that argument also. But while I can’t judge the mountains of evidence on either side, unlike with FGM there’s at least a non-absurd medical case to be made in favor of circumcising boys. Of course, the reply of Hitchens and others is that, while that might be true, one should at least wait until the boy gets older, and let him decide for himself if he wants to be circumcised (just like with any other elective surgery). On the other hand, conditioned on it being done to us at all, I think many of us are happy our parents didn’t wait for us to be old enough to reflect on it…

  19. Tor Says:

    I’m curious about a particular example that you chose of “exotic mixture[s] of beliefs and group affiliations”. How does a Jew living outside of Israel, and who is critical of Israel, differ qualitatively from a Brit who is critical of the United States? Are you merely saying that the former are more rare?

  20. roland Says:

    the claim that there is a non-absurd medical case to be made in favor of circumcising boys is not agreed upon.

  21. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    It is easier, as a matter of human nature, to rotate pi radians about an axis in political space, than to make a major but less complete change.

    Easier to go from fanatical proselytizing for a cause to fanatical proselytizing against that cause, than to cease fanaticism, or to rationally adopt a moderate compromise position.

    I could cite many such examples, but this comment may be more useful if I keep it short.

  22. Scott Says:

    Tor: If Brits who denounced America’s existence claimed that because they were British (and notwithstanding the Revolutionary War and all :-) ), their denunciations were therefore OK, the situation would indeed be similar.

    Incidentally, I think a distinction has to be maintained between denouncing a country’s policies (often a good idea, certainly in Israel’s case) and denouncing its existence (not a good idea, neither in Israel’s case nor in Iran or Saudi Arabia’s).

  23. AwesomeRobot Says:

    @Scott, I wasn’t trying to imply your grammar was wrong, I was making a humorous(?) intentional misunderstanding about what group Bobby Fischer was a part of that he refused to acknowledge.

  24. Gilad Says:

    So here’s a case where I make my claim and say I’m part of the group – not only am I circumcised but I had my son circumcised less than four months ago. Does my case get any stronger?

  25. milkshake Says:

    Hirsi Ali has a point. When you make a movie poking wicked fun of Amish (Kingpin!), the worst you may suffer for it is a mild rebuke.

    The main question – if being insider gives you extra insight – the answer is yes. For example, when you had worked in the pharma industry (and left it, with mixed feelings) you can instantly see through the arguments that one hears in the Congress – in defense of the status quo. And you can also shake your head at the many naive proposals for reforming the system.

  26. Dave, Swiss Says:

    Alex: mistreatment of women was something common to several undeveloped societies, and not necessarily inherent to Muslim ones.

    The fact that there are non-Muslim societies mistreating women, does not conflict with the fact that women oppression is inherent in Islam as practiced today.
    It just shows that Islam in not a necessary condition for women oppression, but only a sufficient one.

  27. Andre Says:

    I was going to mildly disagree until your last paragraph, which I think is dead on. What you’re describing is like the converse of conflict of interest.

  28. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott,

    Thanks for the lead to the web page of Doron Zeilberger. His tilts at the establishment on many issues are sharp, funny, at least 3/4 baked. Most are arguably correct. Check ‘em out.

  29. Scott Says:

    Most are arguably correct.

    And also arguably incorrect. :-)

  30. piers i. lewis Says:

    I have a question that is not germane but I don’t know where else to ask it. In his book, The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved, Mario Livio says two, seemingly contradictory things about supersymmetry: that supersymmetry is a mathematically implied by the symmetries of Standard Theory; a little later he seems to say that that is not the case, that it is derived from String Theory (he doesn’t say which one). Perhaps both of these assertions are correct? He seems to think that the distinction is important however. (I should add that I know a little bit–very little–about Group Theory.

    I also have a question about the equivalence principle in General Relativity, which occurred to me as I was reading Livio’s book. (And again I don’t know where else to ask it.) If the gravitational force is “communicated” like all the other forces, by a particle, the graviton, inertial effects under acceleration must involve the same particle. Does that mean that mass is associated with gravitons–as well as the Higgs Boson? When I push someone on a swing, I’m generating or working against gravitons?

    No doubt these will strike you as dumb questions.

  31. Not Even Right Says:

    Distinguished mathematician Doron Zeilberger argues that mathematicians are wasting their time pursuing chimeras like “beauty” and “elegance,” and that within the near future, mathematics will be entirely the domain of computers.

    What is his ground for saying that?

  32. Scott Says:

    NER: Read the essays I linked to!

  33. Not Even Right Says:

    Thanks Scott. I went to the link and found a lot articles that he wrote. I can’t see his brilliance in mathematics from these articles. The most likely reason is that my mathematical mind can’t be paralleled with his superior one!