Defending Controversial Ideas Against Unfair Tactics
If a controversial hypothesis typically faces an abundance of moralistic attacks, red herrings, and weak arguments, that is at least some evidence in favor of that hypothesis.
The proper approach to reasoning about scientific hypotheses is to start with a prior belief about how likely a hypothesis appears given all one’s available knowledge and then update one’s strength of belief based on the persuasiveness of the evidence presented. Since science goes wrong for many reasons and the world is highly complicated, there is abundant evidence for and against various hypotheses, permitting motivated reasoners to find evidence that confirms their prior beliefs.
Another unfortunate cognitive tendency is to overweight fallacious arguments. These arguments are often better characterized as weak Bayesian evidence. For example, the ad hominem argument is not wholly fallacious because personal information may cast doubt on evidence presented by that person. If an institution’s prestigious reputation relies heavily on producing specific results, it is reasonable to discount their findings to some extent. If a researcher is immoral in their personal life, it is reasonable to have a higher credence that they will be fraudulent in their research. Although these weak arguments will often lead one astray, they are rather crude heuristics that work better than nothing.
Laypeople tend to rely heavily on crude heuristics in evaluating scientific research. Ideologically motivated academics exploit this tendency to their advantage by excluding politically incorrect research from journals while knowing many will use exclusion as a sign of low quality. Researchers with politically incorrect viewpoints are intimidated into silence, fired, or excluded from academia entirely. Potential future academics with controversial views know that these unwanted consequences await investigating politically incorrect topics, so many decide to focus on other pursuits. The resulting silence is interpreted as a near-complete rejection of the stigmatized viewpoint.
Those who discuss controversial research agendas in the face of intense scrutiny will have disproportionately non-conformist personalities. Those who honestly admit to holding offensive beliefs are often either foolish or exceptionally honest. Often, they are both. Some of the harshest stigmas in academia are a product of woke ideology and the progressive ideas which preceded it. Since reality conflicts with egalitarian desires across several dimensions, it is unsurprising that the more honest dissidents hold an abundance of socially undesirable beliefs. Many would argue this is because dissidents are bad people motivated by bigotry across several dimensions, but this is often because taboos around race, gender, sex, sexuality, class, and genetics are intentionally stigmatized through efforts to suppress open inquiry and discussion.
At some point, honest dissidents will violate the taboos around the sacralized categories. Journalists and ideologues will mine for the worst quotes they can find and misleadingly frame them to produce hamartographies—collections of a person’s sins and errors. They are quick to call people pseudo-scientists, racists, racialists, eugenicists, far-right, white supremacists, sexists, bigots, fascists, transphobes, Islamaphobes, and so forth. These terms are used incredibly liberally, and there is no seemingly acceptable defense against these claims; it does not matter how many peaceful and loving relationships you have with people in the category you supposedly discriminate against. Since “racist” have been used so excessively, it has lost some ability to do reputational damage, and thus is often replaced with “neo-Nazi” and “white nationalist.”
Journalists writing hit pieces will include bad associations, even if they are incredibly tenuous. Journalists can then make indirect remarks about people, such as “…who is regarded by many as a eugenicist.” Consider an example of this sort of conduct from a recent article about Simone and Malcolm Collins’ pronatalist and pro-genetic enhancement views:
They both said they were warned by friends not to talk to me. After all, a political minefield awaits anyone who wanders into this space. The last major figure to be associated with pronatalism was Jeffrey Epstein, who schemed to impregnate 20 women at a time on his New Mexico ranch. Genetic screening, and the underlying assumption that some humans are born better than others, often invites comparisons to Nazi eugenic experiments. And then there's the fact that our primary cultural reference point for a pronatalist society is the brutally misogynist world of "The Handmaid's Tale."
Many progressives are driven by their cosmic egalitarian desires to adopt false empirical beliefs. For example, in the same article as the Nazi eugenic comparison, Insider correspondent Julia Black tips her hand, saying, “[t]he field of behavioral genetics, which assumes a connection between genes and character traits, is heavily contested — if not outright rejected for its dangerous societal implications.” She is correct that people reject behavioral genetics because of societal implications, but reality will not conform to our desires. Many disagree with particular views because they do not understand their opponent’s position. Regarding the connection between genes and character traits, it is absurd to think characteristics and genes are unrelated. Could the fact that turtles, fish, lions, monkeys, and humans behave differently have nothing to do with genes?
A charitable interpretation of her point might be that many believe that no variance in psychological characteristics is attributed to genetic differences. But those who accept this viewpoint—blank slatism—are wrong. All psychological traits are heritable. According to Plomin et al. (2016), “The challenge now is to find any reliably measured behavioral trait for which genetic influence is not significantly different from zero in more than one adequately powered study.” It is not always clear what the opponents of behavioral genetics are trying to say because their conceptual confusion leads them to use non-scientific and absolutist terms like immutable, innate, inherent, and genetically determined. Their use of these terms to describe hereditarian positions is often an effor to rephrase their opponent’s view using socially undesirable language.
Debates around controversial research are often sophisticated, and opponents do not take the time to understand the topic seriously. Among scientists and intellectuals, those who put forth more controversial beliefs are held to higher standards and will face more intense scrutiny. Those who oppose controversial views are not as heavily scrutinized, so there is an abundance of poor arguments. When people are highly ideologically aligned, they often do not care enough to criticize the mistreatment of their ideological opponents, and flawed arguments from one’s own side are much less concerning. In Making Sense of Heritability, Neven Sesardić has described how this process can inadvertently create a stronger case for the less widely accepted hypothesis (H), a process Emil Kirkegaard has termed Sesardić’s conjecture:
There are some obvious, and other less obvious, consequences of politically inspired, vituperative attacks on a given hypothesis H. On the obvious side, many scientists who believe that H is true will be reluctant to say so, many will publicly condemn it in order to eliminate suspicion that they might support it, anonymous polls of scientists’ opinions will give a different picture from the most vocal and most frequent public pronouncements (Snyderman & Rothman 1988), it will be difficult to get funding for research on “sensitive” topics, the whole research area will be avoided by many because one could not be sure to end up with the “right” conclusion, texts insufficiently critical of “condemned” views will not be accepted for publication, etc.
On the less obvious side, a nasty campaign against H could have the unintended effect of strengthening H epistemically, and making the criticism of H look less convincing. Simply, if you happen to believe that H is true and if you also know that opponents of H will be strongly tempted to “play dirty,” that they will be eager to seize upon your smallest mistake, blow it out of all proportion, and label you with Dennett’s “good epithets,” with a number of personal attacks thrown in for good measure, then if you still want to advocate H, you will surely take extreme care to present your argument in the strongest possible form. In the inhospitable environment for your views, you will be aware that any major error is a liability that you can hardly afford, because it will more likely be regarded as a reflection of your sinister political intentions than as a sign of your fallibility. The last thing one wants in this situation is the disastrous combination of being politically denounced (say, as a “racist”) and being proved to be seriously wrong about science. Therefore, in the attempt to make themselves as little vulnerable as possible to attacks they can expect from their uncharitable and strident critics, those who defend H will tread very cautiously and try to build a very solid case before committing themselves publicly. As a result, the quality of their argument will tend to rise, if the subject matter allows it.
It is different with those who attack H. They are regarded as being on the “right” side (in the moral sense), and the arguments they offer will typically get a fair hearing, sometimes probably even a hearing that is “too fair.” Many a potential critic will feel that, despite seeing some weaknesses in their arguments, he doesn’t really want to point them out publicly or make much of them because this way, he might reason, he would just play into the hands of “racists” and “right-wing ideologues” that he and most of his colleagues abhor. Consequently, someone who opposes H can expect to be rewarded with being patted on the back for a good political attitude, while his possible cognitive errors will go unnoticed or unmentioned or at most mildly criticized.
Now, given that an advocate of H and an opponent of H find themselves in such different positions, who of the two will have more incentive to invest a lot of time and hard work to present the strongest possible defense of his views? The question answers itself. In the academic jungle, as elsewhere, it is the one who anticipates trouble who will spare no effort to be maximally prepared for the confrontation.
If I am right, the pressure of political correctness would thus tend to result, ironically, in politically incorrect theories becoming better developed, more carefully articulated, and more successful in coping with objections. On the other hand, I would predict that a theory with a lot of political support would typically have a number of scholars flocking to its defense with poorly thought out arguments and with speedily generated but fallacious “refutations” of the opposing view. This would explain why, as Ronald Fisher said, “the best causes tend to attract to their support the worst arguments” (Fisher 1959: 31).
Example? Well, the best example I can think of is the state of the debate about heritability. Obviously, the hypothesis of high heritability of human psychological variation – and especially the between-group heritability of IQ differences – is one of the most politically sensitive topics in contemporary social science. The strong presence of political considerations in this controversy is undeniable, and there is no doubt about which way the political wind is blowing. When we turn to discussions in this context that are ostensibly about purely scientific issues two things are striking. First, as shown in previous chapters, critics of heritability very often rely on very general, methodological arguments in their attempts to show that heritability values cannot be determined, are intrinsically misleading, are low, are irrelevant, etc. Second, these global methodological arguments – although defended by some leading biologists, psychologists, and philosophers of science – are surprisingly weak and unconvincing. Yet they continue to be massively accepted, hailed as the best approach to the nature–nurture issue, and further transmitted, often with no detailed analysis or serious reflection.
This kind of situation cries out for explanation. The sheer level of ignorance, distortion, and flawed reasoning that characterizes the “antiheritability” camp is unprecedented in science and philosophy of science. Could it be that, in accordance with the above description, the drastic decline of standards is here due to the dominant intellectual atmosphere, in which those set to undermine heritability can hope to be praised for their political sensitivity and for opposing a dangerous theory, while at the same time they do not have to worry about being severely penalized for possible shortcomings in their logic and methodology? Could this be an explanation? (Sesardić, 2005, pp. 204-207)
It may be tempting to be persuaded by hamartographic attacks and weak arguments like ad hominem, guilt-by-association, and so forth. This temptation should be resisted, especially if these critiques are not accompanied by serious criticism of a person’s research. Moreover, we can discount them further if there is evidence that motivated activists have distorted legitimate signals of research quality. If there were obvious methodological errors, they would hopefully be highlighted rather than the other weaker arguments. Often critics lack the basic knowledge to provide a legitimate critique. In other cases, perhaps they suspect they are wrong and know a focused discussion would reveal that fact, so they decide to focus on somewhat tangential issues.
When considering taboo ideas, an abundance of these weak and moralistic arguments is so often used in place of more straightforward empirical or methodological critiques that a deluge of these attacks ought to be considered evidence for the opposite conclusion. The conspicuous absence of substantive arguments can be considered more substantial evidence than the collection of weak arguments. It is as if a graduate school recommendation letter had nothing better to say than “this student has good handwriting, always closes the door when they leave my office, and their homework papers rarely have crinkles.” Rather than updating in the student’s favor, admissions would penalize the student harshly for obvious reasons. The goal of the recommender is to say something positive but they are struggling.
Of course, I mainly preach to the choir here, but this is a decent objection to consider when discussing these topics. If you are met with a slew of personal attacks, rather than spending time on the personal attacks, you might consider saying something along the lines of “if you had a substantive criticism of my argument, you would focus on that. Since you are focusing on my personality and associations, should I assume you have no actual rebuttal?” This may aid in keeping a conversation on course. Rather than defending some contrived association, you put the onus on your interlocutor to provide a more legitimate criticism.
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An important observation: "Those who discuss controversial research agendas in the face of intense scrutiny will have disproportionately non-conformist personalities."
This point was made especially well by Geoffrey Miller in The Neurodiversity Case for Free Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWAtE0tahtM
The interesting thing here is that this line of thought probably holds true whether or not the controversial idea is actually true. I mean, when looking at a true idea like heritability of personal characteristics, you would expect arguments against it to be weaker than arguments in its favour anyway (even if it were wholly non-controversial and apolitical) simply because it is true. But the discussion above suggests that you might find ideas with good arguments in favour and poorer arguments against even if they are false. I suppose the lesson is to look for the best arguments on each side, rather than the average argument.
I've been musing on this with respect to energy sources. Arguments in favour of fossil fuels appear, on average, to me, to be better thought out than arguments in favour of renewables. I still think the fossil fuel side is basically wrong, possibly down to this dynamic.