Saturday, February 13, 2010

Doubletalk Isn't Confined to Religion

I think most atheists and skeptics would agree with the title of this post, but it's always interesting to see where else (besides religion, politics and used car sales) double-talk gets institutionalized as a means to power, by hoodwinking credulous fellow humans. It turns out that as long as you're dealing with humans, just exploiting a few bad heuristics will give you an advantage. Apparently, just saying something with a grave, serious delivery creates truth in humanities departments just as well as it does in churches and boardrooms.

Of course there's no surprise here - if we reward bullshit, we should expect to see more of it, and humanities departments in Europe have rewarded bullshitism in spades. Ever read 20th century Continental philosophers? (The only one I can claim I made it through without a grading gun to my head was Foucault's The Use of Pleasure. For the rest of my attempts I would have appreciated Cliff's Notes, but it's telling that these works are often too incoherent to summarize in outline form.) Bernard-Henri Levy, France's current favorite reality-show philosopher, is in the news for a mistake that would make a high school student blush (a self-inflicted recapitulation of the Sokal Affair).

And then there's everybody's favorite whipping boy, Jacques Derrida. Pascal Boyer's takedown of pseudo-philosophical B.S. in the person of old Jacques might make you smile:
For a sadly funny illustration of [philosophical doubletalk and goalpost shifting], consider Jacques Derrida's extraordinary contortions when persistently nagged by John Searle in a memorable series of interviews. Every time John the mongoose seems to have caught his interlocutor at some dreadful inconsistency (you said that here was no objective truth, then you agreed that this cup of coffee really was objectively on this table, did you not?), Jacques the cobra squirms out of his grip and slithers away into a feeble rewording of the initial claims (… er, I only meant that this would be an existentially impoverished version of reality and objectivity… or verbiage to that effect).

The whole post can be found here. It bears emphasis that the impenetrable drivel and outrage at being questioned or pinned down on any issue that spews forth from these characters is eerily similar to what we see from theologians whose bronze-age postulates we dare question. Boyer is an anthropologist who wrote the excellent Religion Explained and is a connoisseur of crackpot theories of all kinds. Bonus, his pieces are always good for a few zingers.

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