Saturday, May 28, 2011

Intellectual Rhetoric and The Way of Ignorance

Over the past couple of years, I have watched a colleague of mine (I‘ll call her Lisa) first alienate herself from her peers and then received a sadly deserved demotion. She is a bright and friendly scientist holding both a Ph.D. (in the biological sciences) and an MBA. These credentials have served her well in many ways - helping her move up the corporate ladder - but ultimately they have not been able to save her from these recent embarrassments. One of her major stumbling blocks has been the failure to recognize the dangers of intellectual gamesmanship.

Lisa loves a good conversation and is witty. She grasps the meaning of arguments readily and loves to discuss hypothetical solutions to existing problems. She is able to quickly find her way to the limits of known solutions and then propose a course of action that makes intuitive sense. She is a valuable innovator because of this. Lisa is also competitive and, although this is often valuable, in certain circumstances it is a real handicap.

You see Lisa savors verbal victories - to have her solutions carry the day. Unfortunately her hypothetical solutions are sometimes wrong. In fact, in hindsight, it is easy to see that most of her solutions have been at least partially wrong. Over time these errors have accumulated and Lisa has lost credibility. She can still be convincing but she is no longer trusted or taken seriously. She has learned to excel at what I will call the art of intellectual rhetoric, but has failed to show sound judgment. Unfortunately this combination has cost her (and those who work with her) dearly.

Now I realize that scientific arguments are not normally categorized as rhetorical. Scientists, after all, are expected to follow where the data lead them, not to be convincing advocates of any particular cause. In a word, scientists are expected to follow dialectical methods, not rhetorical ones. The two approaches are quite distinct. And yet I choose the phrase intellectual rhetoric in spite of its apparent contradiction because I fear that it is no longer just an anomaly. More and more intelligent people are fitting its description.

In some ways the phrase may seem redundant. Thomas Sowell’s recent book Intellectuals and Society, for example, understands intellectuals to be primarily those talented social scientists that lack an adequate grounding for their proposed reforms. Unlike the data generated by the hard sciences that can be empirically tested, many social scientists propose striking social changes based on studies that cannot be confirmed in the real world. Advocates that fall in to Sowell’s categories certainly fit the description of intellectual rhetoricians.

There are others like Lisa, however, that are not social scientists per se but who are beginning to trouble our society using the same methods. Everywhere we turn there are new “experts” advocating changes that sound appropriate, using assumptions that are expected to be universally true. Biologists, for example, are now telling us that human evolution has fooled us in to believing that families are necessary, that giving to others is an ennobling thing, that God is real. These arguments become quite convenient in the hands of passionate and persuasive intellects seeking change - and all in the name of an unbiased scientific inevitability. We would be wise to use caution when confronted with these convincing “experts“. Many, if not most, of their arguments contain flaws. We may not know what they are right now, but they exist nonetheless. And like Lisa’s many mistakes, they will end up costing us dearly.

Ironically the most reasonable path to pursue given such uncertainty is to follow what Wendell Berry has called The Way of Ignorance. Berry’s title can be a little misleading. He is not suggesting that we intentionally make uninformed decisions. On the contrary, we should inform ourselves as best we can, especially if our decisions are momentous ones. What Berry means by The Way of Ignorance is that we need to act with the awareness that even our best knowledge is probably not perfect - that even with the best data and with the best intentions, we may still be wrong, at least in part.

A few hundred years ago many believed that the sun revolved around the earth. They were wrong. Less than a century ago the brightest minds in Germany (basing their ideas on evolutionary theory) believed that “ethnic cleansing” was justifiable. They were wrong too. Half a century ago many biologists believed that complex biological information develops (and has developed) by chance. They are also most certainly wrong.

Yet it is not the fact of being wrong that is the problem. Most of us are at least partially wrong on our thinking much of the time. It is when we refuse to acknowledge our limitations and arrogantly insist that we are completely right that we blindly set the stage for disaster. This is what the ancients meant by the word hubris. Berry believes that a modern science based on this arrogant ignorance (and I might add displaying itself with intellectual rhetoric) “resembles much too closely an automobile being driven by a six-year-old or a loaded pistol in the hands of a monkey.”

In the 21st Century so many aspects of our lives are globally informed: the markets that drive our various employments, our entertainment, our digital communication, our politics. What scares me (and Wendell Berry) is the troubling reality that most of these far reaching pieces of our lives are managed by “experts” that don’t have all the answers.

Let me offer a bit of advice, if I may: beware of those with all the answers. We may naturally incline to those with seeming expertise. It gives a sense of security. But in most Areas of our lives, there are always exceptions and limitations to our generalizations and professed knowledge.

I work as a researcher in a large corporation. Our sales and marketing groups are constantly seeking answers - usually quick answers - to complicated questions. They want these answers to be straight forward and easily understood. They love it when a researcher, posing as someone with great authority, provides them with an absolute answer that they are happy with. This sort of answer does two things for them. It answers their question, and it also takes the responsibility of having to make a difficult decision. Who, after all, will go against and absolute statement of a scientist?

Yet this is not the wisest path forward. Much more to be trusted is the scientist that provides not only the answers that are supported by the data, but also provides a disclaimer on the limits of what is actually known, or even contradictions to the data (most people would be surprised at how much contradictory data exists for many things we consider to be fully understood). This kind of scientist is often not very popular, not only because he or she requires someone to make a possibly imperfect decision. But such a scientist also requires someone (or perhaps a group of people) to use wisdom. Someone has to be responsible.

This is the kind of person that Socrates pleaded with the Athenians to consider, all those years ago. There were far too many in his day that seemed to know everything, yet in the end they knew very little. Socrates was the only one who recognized that he did not have all the answers. Because he knew this, he also knew that his detractors didn’t know all that they claimed. He made a lot of enemies when this became apparent. In the end it cost him his life. The Athenians did not want to face the embarrassing reality of their own limitations. We are no different today.

Perhaps the most profound example of the limitation of intellectual rhetoric is found in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel. Here it is recorded that Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, upon learning this, were upset. They asked the man accusingly how it happened. They brought in his parents and examined them. Then they re-examined the man and cross examined him. The leading intellectuals of the day were absolutely convinced that this miracle could not have happened. It went totally against the logical framework they had built for themselves. But in the end they were wrong and they knew it. Against all their logic and informed reasoning they could not counter the basic fact insisted upon by this man “that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”

Some years later, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the apostle Peter was faced with another master of intellectual rhetoric. His name was Simon Magus, a Samaritan, who claimed to be a higher god than the Creator Himself. Much of his appeal was due to his quick mind but there was also a compelling shock value that came from his alarming claims. Many who did not like him continued to follow him because of this. Much of his story and the many discussions that he had with Peter are found in the Recognitions of Clement where a version of his abilities can be seen. Simon is a prime example of intellectual rhetoric because he parallels many intellectuals today in the ability he had to out-reason any potential detractors and to go virtually unchallenged. Unchallenged, that is, until he confronted Peter, whose simple consistent and inspired reasoning he could not confound.

Today I worry that we have too few Peters that can stand up to the many clever intellectuals bearing scientific truths. Even knowing that science changes many of its conclusions with every generation, we continue to give the arguments (and their purveyors) carte blanche. As a result we continue facing our many challenges - both local and global challenges - with knee-jerk solutions that end up being far too costly. In the meantime we end up destroying lives, the earth, and the dignity that should be ours to enjoy.

One of Wendell Berry’s answers to this tragedy is that “the arts and sciences need to be made answerable to standards higher than those of any art or science.” Peter obviously had higher standards. Sadly our intellectual community often does not. They often make claims to pursue truth wherever it leads. But this is of little help when decisions are made with imperfect information; or worse, with myopic hubris. If we continue to follow the lead of intellectual rhetoric and the low standards (or no standards) that inform it, we will soon find ourselves being led down a path of complete confusion or complete cynicism - and easy prey to enemies within and without.

Our need for cultural renewal needs to begin now while it is still possible - and while we still have a culture to save. We need to be wise enough to see that this must happen from within ourselves as we make careful, deliberate and faithful decisions – looking both forward and backwards to gain equilibrium even while we look above for direction. It will certainly not come as a sudden gift from smart people, no matter how well-intentioned they might be.


Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society was published by Basic Books in 2007. Wendell Berry’s essay The Way of Ignorance can be found in the thin volume of essays with the same title (and same author) published in 2005 by Shoemaker and Hoard. The story of Peter and Simon Magus and their several debates is in the Recognitions of Clement. My version is in Volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, published by Hendrickson in 1994. Some of the Clementine literature has undoubtedly been modified but Simon was certainly a real detractor of the early Church and I expect that much of his personality can be perceived in what we have of Clement’s account.

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