Rhetoric and Due Diligence

Featured image is Disputation between Luther and Eck at the Pleissenburg, by Carl Friedrich Lessing

This post has a companion piece the delves further into the details of rhetorical analysis.

I recently argued that scientists ought to take responsibility for the effects of their rhetoric. The response was largely negative. Most simply denied outright that scientists have any such responsibility, beyond arriving at accurate conclusions or generating more information. Many were concerned that such an argument would hold people responsible for the very worst appropriations of their work. If we did that, wouldn’t we say the Beatles were responsible for Charles Manson, given his fixation with Helter Skelter?

Sam half-agreed with me, but thought the burden imposed on scientists would be too great in practice. He also misread the argument—he described it as a two step process, “to seek the truth and, once found, to render it palatable to the public through the use of controlled rhetoric.”

There are not two steps, but one; rhetoric is what scientists practice from the very start. And moreover, what I am asking is not unreasonable, nor will I pretend that the uncertainty around this is any smaller than it is. All I ask is for people to acknowledge that their rhetoric has consequences. I also ask that they do their due diligence. This means nothing more than doing what can reasonably be expected of them, given how little is directly under their control.

Rhetoric All the Way Down

As I have said elsewhere, there is no valid distinction between rational evaluation and rhetoric. The way we evaluate things is by attempting to persuade others as well as ourselves. In a companion piece, I have attempted to demonstrate this at length by drawing on excerpts from academic papers, an essay, a tech blog post, and newspaper articles. That piece focuses on the nuts and bolts of this; here I will focus on the bigger picture.

What is an academic paper, if not rhetoric? The author must invite people to read it, in such a manner that they are more likely to actually do so. She must establish the credibility of her research, to say nothing of her own credibility. And she must persuade readers that her conclusions follow from the results of her research.

How does one go about getting a PhD? The dissertation process requires navigating the turbulent waters of department politics. Ultimately, you have to defend your work in front of a group of department veterans, who have the luxury of taking their time to pick you apart.

The name of the game, in each case, is anticipation. If you can anticipate your dissertation committee’s objections, you can have specific answers prepared. If you can anticipate what will catch the eye of a peer in your field, you can take that into account when writing your abstract. If you can anticipate which technical terms will illuminate rather than obscure the point you are making, or what research methods will be taken seriously, or what caveats will help to defend the ones that aren’t, you will have a better shot of winning your readers over.

And if you can anticipate what moral implications people will draw from your work, you can do your best to forestall the bad ones.

Due Diligence

The creative powers of human beings should not be underestimated. As such, the entire range of meanings that people are capable of reading into the same words or same arguments is impossible to anticipate in advance.

Let us grant that from the outset.

Nevertheless, where does that leave us? Scot free, where responsibility is concerned? I think not.

Let us return to my argument about Charles Murray. In hindsight, I should not have made such an argument without liberally excerpting passages from his work. But never mind whether my criticism was correct, for now. I made it because I thought he was a clear example of a certain kind of problem; it was poor judgment on my part to think that so contentious a subject could ever render “clear examples” without marshaling a stronger defense.

My argument went like this: if you look at Murray’s perspective, which I outlined, certain dangers should be obvious. If someone looks both ways before crossing the street, and only goes after he gets the light, then when a drunken driver comes barrelling through the light from the wrong direction, we certainly wouldn’t blame the pedestrian. But if the pedestrian doesn’t look either way and walks against the light, we would certainly say he failed to do his due diligence, whatever the faults of the driver. Murray was staring very intensely at the politically correct crowd, but from his vantage point he had only to turn his head to see other ways his work could be misused.

The companion piece goes into greater detail on what exactly is entailed in a given standpoint and how it makes certain possibilities easier to see than others. But I don’t think the basic idea is all that complicated: Murray believed that our current system encourages us to think people with less than average intelligence are morally deficient. Thus it should have been obvious that some people could both think that and be hostile to political correctness, and so misread his work on different average IQs by group as an indictment of those groups. Murray was too fixated on making political correctness his enemy to do his basic due diligence against a much, much worse group.

Let’s focus on a more recent and clearer example of irresponsible rhetoric. This past week, Glenn Reynolds was temporarily suspended from Twitter because of the following:


In his post justifying himself, he talks about what one ought to do in a situation where people are rioting and you’re in a car, and so forth. But that’s rather besides the point. Does Reynolds have some special expertise here? Is there some way in which “run them down” would have actually been of help to anyone? Does he delude himself into thinking he was doing anything other than venting, expressing a feeling, and working up his like-minded audience?

“Run them down” is not a contribution, and tweeting it is certainly no way for a public figure with influence to behave. It is not how anyone should behave.

Reynolds and his friend immediately redirect the topic to the issue of how one-sided Twitter and other platforms’ enforcement is. This is a slick rhetorical move, to be sure, and stokes up their side quite effectively.

But it is a side issue. Of course Emmett Rensin and Matt Bruenig also behaved terribly—all the worse, in fact, because they were much more calculated about it. But that doesn’t make what Reynolds did right.

We live in an era that prizes “being yourself” in public and deplores any perceived artifice. Far from being a more worldly perspective, it requires the utterly naive assumption that the rhetoric of what we do and what we say has no consequences. Once you acknowledge these consequences—and we must, we have ignored them for too long—it becomes simply obvious that you should be thoughtful about how you act and what you say.


If you want to take a deeper dive, you can continue to the companion piece.


A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric

Featured image is Still Life With a Skull and Medical Book

This post is intended to be a companion piece to this one

This is going to be a nuts and bolts piece, fleshing out a few technical concepts with examples from a sample of texts. It is meant to be a companion to a shorter, more readable piece. I would suggest starting there, and then returning here if you feel the urge to dig deeper.

Contrary to Sam’s point that rhetoric is an extra skill that scientists would have to learn, I want to demonstrate here that scientists live and breathe rhetoric. A scientific paper is a work of rhetoric; the authors seek to persuade their peers in a number of ways beyond simply accepting their conclusion. This is what Deirdre McCloskey has been saying about economics for decades.

My corpus for this exercise will be the following:

Continue reading “A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric”

Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric

Featured Image is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt

What is the duty of the scientist, the researcher, the pursuer of facts, data, and insights? The consensus in our culture is that the duty of the scientist is to the truth. That is, he or she ought to follow their research, regardless of how it challenges established norms or makes people uncomfortable. We cannot persist in ignoring reality anyway, and so we owe it to ourselves to gaze at every new discovery unblemished by spin or political appropriation.

This, it seems to me, is a deeply naive doctrine. Every discovery can only be understood as a truth in the context of some larger projection of the whole truth. In a social world rife with contradiction, the partial contributions of the researcher will feed into the political struggles of various factions. This occurs at as low a level as the politics of academic careers as well as at the highest level of national politics.

In what follows, I will attempt to demonstrate that academics’ duty is not simply to the content of their conclusions, understood as something neutral and true on its face. On top of what they conclude, they also have a duty to attend to the rhetoric of their work—how they pursue their research, and most of all how they present it. How, they could anticipate, it will be received into existing frameworks. How they can tailor their work to preclude appropriation by some of those frameworks.

Continue reading “Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric”

The Schismatic’s Mirror

Featured Image is Works of Mercy

We live in a schismatic era; the spirit of our age is division, negation, standing against rather than for.

Schism is an act of violence; the schismatic tears their community asunder. Violence is not inherently bad. Surgery is violent, and so is setting a broken bone. Violence, in short, can serve a medical purpose.

But surgery must be conducted under the right conditions if we don’t want surgical incisions to turn septic. If the man with the hammer too often sees everything as a nail, our current situation too often inclines us to reflexively reach for the bone saw. Amputations can be lifesaving. But it isn’t the best way to treat a flu.

When we encounter a schismatic, we are too much like Narcissus encountering Echo:

In Echo he heard himself, but was not able to differentiate himself from her, so he hated her, revealing a self-hatred, making her (and himself) nothing.

Instead we ought to see them for what they are to us: a mirror to ourselves, to the ugliness and the beauty of our shared situation.

Echo’s mom was infuriated, luring him to a reflective pool of water, wherein he saw a reflection of himself. At this point, you’re supposed to “get it.” Ah, Narcissus finally sees himself and realizes that he is lovely.


Nemesis gets her revenge, of course, but what revenge? The higher gods have short-circuited Nemesis’ plan: Narcissus is transformed, becoming the loveliest of flowers, with neck bent in utter humility, which is a love for self. Narcissus loves himself, and we love Narcissus.

The schismatic rejects to protect themselves from ugliness, but the ugliness was a reflection of something already a part of themselves. Their rejection is propaganda by deed; it invites others to join them. And the spirit of our age, impoverished as it is, seems to offer few defenses but to reject them right back.

I believe that we need, instead, to accept them. Most of all, we must accept that we are a part of the world and the age that we share with the schismatics. We must accept responsibility for our part of that world. We must be able to love the schismatic, and what they reject, and ourselves; to be able to take responsibility but also to bend our stiff necks in humility.

Martin Gurri, my father, observes:

Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions.  One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy.  Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations.  A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities:  instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.

In reading this piece, I couldn’t help but feel that he was reaching for the bone saw, too. But some other tools in the medical bag are hinted at, though left untouched.

Why not probe deeper into the nature of authority? Why not search (frantically or calmly) for “higher-level arguments”. Seeking to justify opinions already held can be a great provisional starting point on a longer journey. If we can have the courage to face doubt, and a willingness to press on when the certain becomes uncertain.

The narrowness of the age is rivaled only by the breadth of resources available to us. Most of the great classics are available online, free of charge. Pictures of great art can be accessed that way as well. And an army of scholars and enthusiasts on every topic under the sun are a few keystrokes away, to talk to and to learn from.

Accept the schismatic character of the age. Love the nihilists as yourself. And then accept responsibility for the serious pursuit of answers to your questions. The road to wisdom was never an easy trek, but it’s no harder than it’s ever been.

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Public Spheres

If you play a game by its rules, and can’t predict the moves of the other players, isn’t there a sense in which the game plays you?

Social participation is a far thicker thing than most people believe it to be. After the Lockean turn, we are capable of thinking of participation as only a personal choice. In as much as we feel the pull towards participating, we call it “peer pressure” or “social pressure,” and class it as a type of oppression (however mild in degree).

This thick participation, however, is central to the human experience. It is at the heart of language, art, politics, and commerce. It’s not just how we accomplish things together, but how we reach common understanding, how we fill our lives with a shared joy. It is also, of course, how we dominate and immiserate one another and ourselves.

But I don’t think we can avoid this sort of participation, nor do I think it is wise to try. The project of eliminating all power relations, pursued by 19th and 20th century radicals, has proven fruitless. All relations, from our most cherished and intimate to our most remote and official, have political implications. To eliminate power means never to love, trust, or depend upon anyone ever again. In short, it means isolation and it would result in our extinction.

Continue reading “Public Spheres”