Friday, 8 August 2014

A horror of being wrong

From Wikipedia

Some people, and I think I’m one of them, have a problem with being wrong. It manifests itself as a certain lack of robustness when it comes to attacking almost any social malaise or political stupidity. Almost always there are caveats. Almost always arguments are less robust than they could be. Note the almost.

I’ve been reading reams of G K Chesterton lately, mainly because I think he illustrates the problem very well. He understood the art of argument, the need to ignore the inevitable weakness of any standpoint and play to its strengths. The need to have a robust standpoint in the first place. Take these three quotes as an example.

Surely, when all is said, the ultimate objection to the English public school is its utterly blatant and indecent disregard of the duty of telling the truth.

But no English school-boy is ever taught to tell the truth, for the very simple reason that he is never taught to desire the truth. From the very first he is taught to be totally careless about whether a fact is a fact; he is taught to care only whether the fact can be used on his “side” when he is engaged in “playing the game.”

England is the country of the Party System, and it has always been chiefly run by public-school men. Is there anyone out of Hanwell who will maintain that the Party System, whatever its conveniences or inconveniences, could have been created by people particularly fond of truth?
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

I don't find it easy to write in this robust manner because what Chesterton says isn’t true - there are glaring holes. To begin with, Chesterton himself attended a public school - St Paul's School. So where does that leave his own attitude to truth?

On the other hand, a disproportionate number of our political elite slither out of public schools and adapt to a culture of routine lying like ducks to water. In other words there is at least some connection between habitual lying, carelessness with facts and public schools.

The trouble is, I would not find it easy to ignore the caveats as Chesterton so blithely and persuasively does. The cynic in me says that is because Chesterton is doing exactly that of which he accuses the political classes. Yet it works. The point is made and it lingers - as it is supposed to linger.

But all sorts of things go through our heads, and some seem to linger, and some don’t.


Sam Vega said...

Good point. Possibly the difference between logic and rhetoric?

Another thing that occurs to me about your position here is that you are a scientist by training. You give due weight to the little features in an argument, and tend to shy away from certainty in favour of probability. Chesterton probably had a more robust attitude towards the truth, and thought that a well-crafted argument is one that served his religious convictions.

A K Haart said...

Sam - maybe, although many scientists enjoy rhetoric too, particularly if they achieve a degree of prominence.

It's a significant problem - much wider than the climate debate.

James Higham said...

I have trouble writing robustly too. Just a shrinking violet. :)

As for rhetoric, it is in proportion to fame.

Demetrius said...

I am never wrong. But on rare occasions might be unintentionally ironic.

Anonymous said...

I suppose that the scientific types have been introduced to that ghastly aberration - the experiment. For argumentation in the absence of evidence can easily go either way, that is how lawyer's make their money, why spoil it.

I fear that once introduced to 'the experiment' one's mind is never quite the same - which is why the young must go to a very expensive school in order to see no experiments whatsoever. Thankfully the experiment has nowadays almost vanished from the state school system. Regrettably a few universities and the more old fashioned manufactories still adhere to the experiment. That nasty old 'law of natural cussedness' is almost unknown to the newly trained, they are spared that horrid inconvenience.

A K Haart said...

James - it stirs things up though.

Demetrius - ironic, you!

Roger - yes, experiments are unsafe and best avoided.