Filtering Out the Garbage

So you’ve read your McCloskey and your MacIntyre, and you’ve overcome your first year philosophy student syndrome. You’ve resolved to try and understand a literature on its own terms before making a written critique of it, especially one you intend to get published in a journal. You already feel smugly virtuous about it.

Unfortunately for you, Garett Jones has decided to make an example of you.

“If this method is so great, give me a critique of Marxism,” he challenges you, “after all, they have quite a literature. We can’t just dismiss them because of the fall of the USSR; that’s hardly a peer-reviewed event.”

He is pushing your buttons, because he is cut from a similar libertarian cloth as you are, especially when it comes to Marxism. But you can’t back down now! So you grit your teeth and disappear into a black hole of Marx and Marxist prose.

Ages later, you crawl back out and hand Garett the first draft of your critique before collapsing into a heap on the floor. It was hard work, but you were able to highlight the truths that Marxists were better at identifying than most others, while still maintaining that the framework ought to be abandoned.

“Bravo,” Garett says with a small smile, “now, do creationism. I hear their literature dates back quite some time…”

You stare at him. Like Garett, you are a nonbeliever. But you do not have much interest in this debate. You suspect he knows this, but you refuse to show weakness. At least there are some religious writers who actually know how to write well, though the sheer volume of works you could potentially read is even more intimidatingly large than the last one.

But you see the task through, learning from the last one to be strategic. You focus around the goal of works claiming to be able to overturn the conclusions of evolutionary theory. After a much longer period than the first, you crawl out of your research hole, and stretch your trembling arm up to give Garett your paper.

“Very good, you made very efficient use of your time,” he praised, “now, I’ve found that there’s a surprisingly large literature on leprechauns. And not as a myth, but as purportedly real creatures. Could you debunk this literature for me?”

You stare at him, open mouthed, for a time, before crumpling up on the floor, defeated.

Trade-Offs, Heuristics, and Uncertainty

In the discussion with Garett, I was put in mind of Daniel Russell’s take on “all-things-considered” rationality as an ideal.

Take for instance the idea that ‘the rational person’ acts on all-things-considered judgments. As Davidson says, to accept such an ideal is to accept the rationality of all-things-considered judgments as a principle of one’s own; the charge that one has violated that principle cannot be met with the response, ‘So I have broken your rule; who says I should do things your way?’ By accepting the ideal, one has made the ‘rule’ or principle a principle to which one sees oneself as bound. But committing to making all-things-considered judgments is not the same as committing to the (rather queer) life-project of becoming the best maker of all-things-considered judgments there can be. That project, like every other, consumes resources and opportunities, and can no more be assumed to be a rational one than any other project can. That is a fact about practical rationality: when it comes to making all-things-considered judgments, at some point it is reasonable to stop considering, choose, and hope that the choice is one we can live with, or perhaps grow into. Indeed, trying to become persons who do consider all things before acting is something that we have all-things-considered reasons not to do.

As flawed humans with limited resources, we have to make trade-offs even of how much time and thought to invest in figuring out what the best trade-off is.

Similarly, if there really is a literature for everything, we cannot reasonably expect people to be as thorough as the MacIntyre and McCloskey method would demand in order to determine which can be dismissed entirely. Even for those literatures we do think are worthy of such a response, no one person is going to be able to read every single paper and work in it. This means selectivity, which introduces bias into the sample by definition.

But as with all-things-considered rationality, we must say that there is nothing in the ideal itself that says we must pursue this thoroughness as far as possible. The ideal in advancing is one of due diligence, and of giving the other side credit by default and having a healthy amount of intellectual humility.

But as Sam says, some literatures really are just philosophical circle-jerks. Some, like leprechaunology, should just be dismissed as rubbish without being thorough about it.

Garett says a few simple rules can help here, but I’m skeptical that’s the case. There are definitely heuristics that can help us economize on our scholarly time in this regard. But those heuristics are no more written into the fabric of the universe than human knowledge of any sort.

Consider the following scenario:

There’s a community of rhetoric that is just obviously full of garbage. Everyone KNOWS their literature is a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense. But then one day you encounter a paper by someone you greatly respect who cites them favorably. Incredulous, you track down the cited papers and read them. To your surprise, you find them fairly reasonable, though you disagree with them. You dig deeper and deeper until you are reading the core texts of the literature, and you’re convinced of the value of their framework and central conclusions.

Question: have you just discovered an unfairly maligned but valuable literature, or have you just gone from being a reasonable person to being a crank?

Your answer will probably depend on what I say the literature in question is, which is precisely why I’m going to leave it unspecified.

My point? Nothing more than that it is impossible to judge these things “from the outside.” Sam’s advice for philosophy to become more empirical derives from the framework he is already inside of; a combination of the finite texts and lectures he’s absorbed in his lifetime as well as his judgment. Of course, his judgment of what texts to read in the first place was guided by inferences internal to an already existing conceptual scheme, and so on. There’s no end to the turtling here.

We do need mental shortcuts, and some literatures are more valuable than others, while some are just rubbish. But any shortcut will require substantial trade-offs, and it is my judgment, from where I stand in my conceptual scheme, that humility is a more valuable investment on the margin than additional reasons for people to be dismissive.

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11 thoughts on “Filtering Out the Garbage

  1. I’ve found this to be the case more often than not.

    As for what literatures you choose to engage with, and to what depth; I don’t think there’s any view-from-nowhere set of heuristics that establishes stable boundaries. So you have a “good enough” heuristic and then make notes for when you step outside it.

    1. Just kidding. Seriously though, there are signals of worthwhileness that can be used to determine if a system is worth knowing.

      1. Has many real world problems been solved or explained using this system?

      2. Do its practitioners speak plainly and are they able to explain their systems to non-believers with ease?

      3. Does the Cliffnotes version of their system contain any interesting insights?

      4. Do other intelligent people take the system seriously? (The “Ask Tyler Cowen” approach)

      5. Are its practitioners open to criticism and handle it without emotional outbursts?

      6. Does the system have large gaps in what it can explain, or does it resort to a lot of “underpants gnome” logic?

      One could come up with more criteria, but those are the ones that spring to mind. A flawed system tends to have many red flags simultaneously, so they are pretty easy to spot, IMO.

      1. All of those criteria require conceptual schemes which you are already inside of and cannot judge from the outside.

        Just judging what a “real world problem” is and what it means for it to be “solved” requires leaning on a body of knowledge on such things that you have to trust—that is, that you have to make a leap of faith for.

        Those red flags aren’t projected by you; they aren’t in the literature itself. The turtling thing is real, and inescapable.

        For instance, if you just explained quantum mechanics to someone, in isolation, who had never heard of it before and did not know that respected people—authorities in physics—backed it, they would almost certainly see most of the “red flags” you mention. The real reason we find these things persuasive is because of a cultural background that supports them; from our lonely spot as individuals it’s not really straightforward at all.

      2. But really, my main point is just that we already, cognitively, give ourselves plenty of reasons to dismiss nearly everything outside of our comfort zone. So on the margin, I think there’s more value in trying to lean a little more broad-minded rather than looking for yet more reasons to dismiss.

  2. “…cannot judge from the outside.”
    So, I’m a human being that can sense things and learn from them. I have goals that I want to achieve and I use what I sense to try to come up with patterns that are useful to me achieving those goals. I don’t quite know what you mean “from the outside”, because there is no outside, just other people like me sensing things and trying to discover patterns. It’s meatbags all the way down.

    “judging what a “real world problem” is and what it means for it to be “solved” requires leaning on a body of knowledge”
    Taking a poop requires leaning on a body of knowledge on such things that you have to trust. Does that fact makes the action philosophically fraught? We don’t crumble in on ourselves because epistomology is rough line carpentry, not rocket science.

    Pete Boettke likes to tell this story of a guy he knows who when things get too metaphysical he just bangs his hand on the table is like “this table is real”.

    When I learn of a new field of study, I need to be able to figure out if it’s bullshit within an hour or two. Maybe I make a mistake, but I move on.

    “we find these things persuasive is because of a cultural background that supports them”

    Culture is a subset of past experience, which is the raw material of knowledge. If I think X is true because a college professor says it’s true, that’s not “just” culture, it’s my past experience with other professor’s statements. Truth-culture is an emergent order of individuals doing epistomology. Yeah, you can free ride on other’s judgements, but you can also contribute by evaluating other’s claims and reporting back to others.

    “there’s more value in trying to lean a little more broad-minded rather than looking for yet more reasons to dismiss.”
    I think the margin varies depending on the person. I think Tyler Cowen is a good counterexample. I think he gives BS ideas way too much credit, but he is in the minority. I think you’re right for most people, including myself. It’s hard work learning a new perspective though.

    1. “Culture is a subset of past experience, which is the raw material of knowledge.” <—Huge, huge assumption, well beyond the pooping and hitting on a hard table level of knowledge :p

      I basically share that belief with you. But the rhetoric of "pooping and solid tables" tells you nothing about whether mainstream economics, for instance, has real insights or really is just a bunch of abstract garbage. Or whether sociology is a bunch of lefty bullshit or has a lot of real insights about human social systems. Etc, etc.

      Your response is super, super empiricist of a David Hume stripe, but we "know" (that is, there's a consensus in the psychology literature) that there's a whole of going on prior to any sensed experience, and a whole lot that goes into what is actually noticed and generalized from in any sensed experience. Anyway I'm not trying to be a total skeptic here I'm just trying to say that we're stuck inside conceptual schemes one way or the other, and anything we may write off as garbage may say more about us than it.

      As for your last remark on Tyler—you may be right there. I was talking to someone I respect who made the same remark about McCloskey; that also may very well be true. But I do think that the average person could stand to move further in their direction.

      Also thanks for coming in and giving this thread a kick in the teeth 🙂

      1. Before I continue, I want to say I really enjoyed the article and while I am trolling with over-the-top rhetoric, I’m trying to be good-natured about it.

        There’s a difference between what one things the truth is, deep down, and what are useful rhetorical pretenses to impose on one another. It’s not true that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it, but it is *useful* in the sense that it encourages people to frame their knowledge in ways that others can understand. It may be true that credibility is a social construct that’s all wishy washy and whatever, but at the end of the day, we’re all better off pretending like there are hard and fast rules to what constitutes Truth.

        Think about signals. Let’s take the lie “Anything true can be explained clearly in plain language”. It’s false, probably, but as hard as it is to explain something true in clear language, it’s even harder to explain something false in clear language because the internal contradictions are more apparent. Easier to make up gobbledygook works that have no definition and use those to hide your nonsense.

        The same is true about my “real world problems” test. Its easier to take a true and insightful framework and use it to resolve problems than to take a failed one. If a framework can solve problems, does it even matter if it’s true? Not really. That’s the whole idea behind economic modeling. It’s false, but useful (presumably).

        Why do I study economics and dismiss (some of) sociology? Like really, deep down? Maybe it’s an aesthetic judgement based on whether the methods appeal to me on an instinctual level. I’ve read Thinking: Fast and Slow, and I know that we make decisions before we know why, and then rationalize afterwards, and to some degree everything I’m saying consists of the later.

        “we’re stuck inside conceptual schemes one way or the other, and anything we may write off as garbage may say more about us than it.”

        I agree. It’s like the parable of the elephant. Everyone’s got their insights. But there’s a lot of stuff out there that fails the cost/benefit test. But that’s part of building a culture. You need to have the dead ends in order to also get the good stuff. It’s like an economy. You can’t have a healthy economy without bankruptcies.

      2. Oh and I’ve definitely enjoyed your comments and argued with them as much to flesh this out as because of any real disagreement. It all comes down to the quote about all-things-considered rationality, for me. Trade-offs all around me, just trying to make the best ones I can.

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