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:
- The insider might simply know more about the realities of the situation than an outsider, or be less able to ignore those realities.
- 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.)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Some people simply enjoy dissenting from their peers, as a way of proving their independence or of drawing attention to themselves.
- 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.