Against warranted deference

There are two popular ways of responding to criticism you dislike. One is to smile serenely and say, “You’re entitled to your opinion.” This utterance often produces the sense that all parties are faultless in their disagreement, and that no-one is rationally obligated to defer to anyone else. Another is deny that your critic is has any entitlement to their opinion since they are in the wrong social position to make a justifiable assertion about some matters of fact (either because they occupy a position of relative privilege or a position of relative deprivation). Strong versions of this approach teach us that it is rational to defer to people just by looking at their social position.

A third, more plausible view is that if we want to make for productive debate, then we should talk about what it generally takes to get along. e.g., perhaps we should obey norms of respect and kindness towards each other, even when we disagree (else run the risk of descending into babel). But even this can’t be right, since mere disagreement with someone when it comes to their vital projects (that is, the things they identify with) shall always count as disrespect. If someone has adopted a belief in young earth creationism as a vital life project, and I offer a decisive challenge to that view, and they do not regard this as disrespectful, then they have not understood what has been said. (I cannot say “I disrespect your belief, but respect you,” when I full well understand that the belief is something that the person has adopted as a volitional necessity.) Hence, while it is good to be kind and respectful, and I may even have a peculiar kind of duty to be kind and respectful to the extent that it is within my powers and purposes. But people who have adopted vital life projects of that kind have no right to demand respect from me insofar as I offer a challenge to their beliefs, and hence to them as practical agents. Hence the norm of respectfulness can’t guide us, since it is unreasonable to defer in such cases. At least on a surface level, it looks like we have to have a theory of warranted deference in order to explain how that is.

For what it’s worth, I have experience with combative politics, both in the form of the politics of a radically democratic academic union and as a participant/observer of the online skeptic community. These experiences have given me ample — and sometimes, intimate — reasons to believe that these norms have the effect of trivializing debate. I think that productive debate on serious issues is an important thing, and when done right it is both the friend and ally of morality and equity (albeit almost always the enemy of expedient decision making, as reflected amusingly in the title of Francesca Polletta’s linked monograph).


A few months ago, one of TPM’s bloggers developed a theory which he referred to as a theory of warranted deference. The aim of the theory was to state the general conditions when we are justified in believing that we are rationally obligated to defer to others. The central point of the original article was to argue that our rational norms ought to be governed by the principle of dignity. By the principle of dignity, the author meant the following Kant-inspired maxim: “Always treat your interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.” One might add that treating someone as worthy of consideration also entails treating them as worthy of compassion.

Without belaboring the details, the upshot of the theory is that you are rational in believing that you have a [general] obligation to defer to the opinions of a group as a whole only when you’re trying to understand the terms of their vocabulary. And one important term that the group gets to define for themselves is the membership of the group itself. According to the theory, you have to defer to the group as a whole when you’re trying to figure out who counts as an insider.

Here’s an example. Suppose Bob is a non-physicist. Bob understands the word ‘physicist’ to mean someone who has a positive relationship to the study of physics. Now Bob is introduced to Joe, who is a brilliant amateur who does physics, and who self-identifies as a physicist. The question is: what is Joe, and how can Bob tell? Well, the approach from dignity tells us that Bob is not well-placed to say that Joe is a physicist. Instead, the theory tells us that Bob should defer to the community of physicists to decide what Joe is and what to call him.


I wrote that essay. In subsequent months, a colleague suggested to me that the theory is subject to a mature and crippling challenge. It now seems to me that the reach of the theory has exceeded its grasp.

If you assume, as I did, that any theory of warranted deference must also provide guidance on when you ought to defer on moral grounds, then the theory forces you to consider the dignity of immoral persons. e.g., if a restaurant refuses to serve potential customers who are of a certain ethnicity, then the theory says that the potential customer is rationally obligated to defer to the will of the restaurant.

But actually, it seems more plausible to say that nobody is rationally obligated to defer to the restaurant, for the following reason. If there is some sense in which you are compelled to defer in that situation, it is only because you’re compelled to do so on non-moral grounds. In that situation, it is obvious that there are no moral obligations to defer to the restaurant owners on the relevant issue; if anything, there are moral obligations to defy them on that issue, and one cannot defer to someone on something when they are in a state of defiance on that issue. Finally, if you think that moral duties provide overriding reasons for action in this case, then any deference to the restaurant is unwarranted.

Unfortunately, the principle of dignity tells you the opposite. Hence, the principle of dignity can be irrational. And hence, it is not a good candidate as a general theory of rational deference.

So perhaps, as some commenters (e.g., Ron Murphy) have suggested, the whole project is misguided.

It now occurs to me that instead of trying to lay out the conditions where people are warranted to defer, I ought to have been thinking about the conditions under which it is unwarranted to do so. It seems that the cases I find most interesting all deal with unwarranted deference: we are not warranted in deferring to Joe about who counts as a physicist, and the Young Earth Creationist is not warranted in demanding that I defer to them about Creationism.


  1. “I cannot say “I disrespect your belief, but respect you,” when I full well understand that the belief is something that the person has adopted as a volitional necessity.”

    If we are honest about the fallibilities of all humans then we can acknowledge that we can all fall for beliefs that someone else does not respect. Unless we want to hold everyone in contempt, including ourselves, why can’t we just say that the contemptible belief is arrived at by a perfectly respectable person, mistakenly.

    I’m not saying it’s easy to be so sage-like. I have difficulty mustering respect for William Lane Craig, mainly because of his ‘apparent’ arrogance (for all I know his persona and his belief may be a cover for deep insecurities); but I do have a great respect for some people I know that happen to be convinced by and hold to his beliefs, because they are persuaded by his arguments. I can honestly say I respect the utter kindness with which a particular group of Jehovah’s Witnesses keep coming to my door. We have really mutually respectful conversations. But they know I think they are batty, and they think I’m destined for hell – no offence taken.

    I always find ‘duty’ a difficult concept to agree to indulge in. The only duties I find I have are self-imposed ones. I’m not saying we can’t or mustn’t buy into publically dictated duties. There are times when they work, to make the wheels run smoothly. I just don’t think we are obliged to abide by them out of some yet higher moral principle.

    I don’t think there is any requirement to defer to anyone, or even to be moral in any regard. If you think about it any argument that says we *should* be *moral* is already presuming a morality in the *should* that is dictating that we be moral. It’s tautological or circular – I can’t decide which, maybe both. It’s kind of like saying “I *should* *should* … [whatever]” Where does this prior *should* come from that dictates what I *should* do? Why *must* I be good? I *must* because I *should*? All very unsatisfactory.

    Our morality, and any deference to the feelings of others, comes about because we choose to be ‘good’; and we choose to be good because we are indoctrinated to be so; and we are indoctrinated by our culture; which in turn goes back in time to whatever biological drives make us care at all for anyone else. In other words, these moral motivations are biological, and therefore physical, but culture has elevated them into abstractions that appear to take on an existence of their own. We are fooled into accepting them, as moral codes, objective moral truths. Lost in the sands of time they are difficult to analyse, and so we come to rely on the speculations and formulations of philosophers, or worse, the musing of theologians. We’re still living with the abstract inventions of the Greeks, with a smattering of the Christian.

    I find ‘warranted deference’ to be one of these abstract formulations plucked out of a philosophical ass and battered into some sort of shape that resembles a profundity – with all due respect, honest.

    “all rational norms ought to be…” – Why?

    “Always treat your interlocutor as being worthy of consideration” – Now that’s generally good pragmatic advice, if you want a reasoned interaction and don’t merely want to piss them off. Of course, as we know, we often get past the stage of being reasonable with the unreasonable and ridiculing their ideas sometimes does the trick in making them wonder why they are being so abused. Worth a shot, perhaps.

    “expect to be treated in the same way” – I’ve learned to expect no such thing, in that one is easily disappointed. But more than that, going back to our regular human fallibilities, why expect too much of each other?

    Note also the deference given to parties involved in terrorism: the British government opening talks with the IRA members which resulted in some of the latter coming back into the democratic process; or the recent talks with the Taliban. Those talks can’t work without deference, given the demand for deference in diplomatic affairs. Of course it might be all a front; as things often are in politics.

    But that raises another problem with deference: how do you tell it’s genuine, and does it matter if it’s not? Can both parties happily live the lie? What does it say for any moral theory that works well if both parties lie? Would you be uncomfortable giving deference where you don’t feel it is deserved even though the theory dictates it? Would that discomfort be the tugging of the moral conscience in a different direction? Moral dilemmas are inconveniences of having abstract moral theories.

    In all I think we adopt protocols that help us achieve our goals. Often we are bounded in those protocols by our cultural indoctrination and biological predisposition; but we can generally learn our morals. They are learned behaviour and not something that can be sensibly subjected to abstract moral theory, no matter how hard we try. They are intuitive and empirical guides. In science a theory is a simplification of reality, a model that approximates reality so that we can understand and predict outcomes. Simplistic moral theories cannot hope to compete with the complexity of human behaviour and the diversity of preferences for behaviour.

    “If there is some sense in which you are compelled to defer in that situation, it is only because you’re compelled to do so on non-moral grounds.”

    I agree, in the sense I explained above. Often for pragmatic reasons that might be counter to one’s learned and intuitive ‘moral’ feelings.

    So, I’d paraphrase your next bit: “In all situations, it is obvious that there are no moral obligations to defer at all.”

    By avoiding warranted deference altogether it makes life much simpler by not clouding it with abstract moral nonsense that fails to fit more than a few simplistic scenarios. When we do defer, or give respect, it seems far more honest to agree that we are being gracious because we are both humans who are interested in discovery of some sort and that our engagement might help each of us.

    There are pragmatic uses for rules. On the internet incessant trolling by an individual can make conversation difficult, and so an admin might ban the troll from the site. There is no reason to defer to the troll. And indeed there is no need for the troll to defer to the site rules, only pragmatic consequences of not doing. Rights are conferred on each other mutually, or conferred on the weak by the strong, on the individual by the group. Often, as in the case of an internet site admin, they are taken by those that have control for the benefit of a group. In such cases, once the rights are established, deference may be demanded. It’s not that the deference is an absolute moral right, but rather an example of control.

    The mistake made by the religious, in the West, and on the internet, is thinking deference is due out of some objective existence of rights and morals. They don’t realise that their right to deference is as fictional as their gods. Creationists may expect deference, but they are going to be disappointed. Perhaps centuries of religious power that has taken rights and demanded deference and got it is deluding them – their expectations are rooted in the past just as their religion is. In Islamic states religious rights to deference are still abstract fictions, but they come with very serious physical consequences for non-compliance. This makes for an illusion that moral codes and demands for deference are concrete realities.

  2. Doris Wrench Eisler

    Bob’s deferring to Joe’s “credentials” as physicist (they are friends?) is not the same as either the community of physicists deferring or perhaps, another individual. If Bob is awed by Joe’s apparent knowledge, so what? There are physicists who no doubt defer to or recognize another’s formal credentials but not a particular position or “belief”. They may defer or not depending on many different factors or situations rendering the action either,cruel,cowardly, brave, prudent, stupid, etc – in some individual’s or community’s opinion.
    Professional ethics often have to do more with professional mutual protection than truth or public good, in which case warranted deference is both good in one sense and bad in another.
    As for deferring to another’s belief system, there is the principle of religious tolerance or freedom of religion which doesn’t imply intellectual respect at all but a practical “live and let live” arrangement. I wouldn’t go up to a Holy Roller or anyone else and argue with him. But I don’t feel any moral necessity to listen with any high degree of respect to proselytizers who come to my door or accost me in a park and tell me that God wants my gender to bend to the other. Over and above, freedom of religious belief is not absolute and doesn’t warrant deference if those beliefs go against human and civil rights, ideas concerning which are ever changing. Where it does no harm, deference is warranted, but isn’t a moral right, and it’s a matter finally of perception and argument.

  3. “Instead, the theory tells us that Bob should defer to the community of physicists to decide what Joe is and what to call him.”

    But here it gets even worse. Since Bob is a complete outsider, not even a keen amateur, how does he know who or what this community of physicists is.

    I think we need to define something else. The opposite of warranted deference. Warranted dismissal.

    In a moment it will get really trippy, But first let’s talk about vitamin supplements.

    Vitamin supplements are sold everywhere – advertised on tv as essential. Your doctor, mother, pharmacist, or even a great scientist, may have advised you to take vitamin C for a cold. I am neither your doctor, mother, pharmacist, or even any kind of scientist. If I tell you that vitamin C does nothing for a cold and all the lemon in cold remedies does is make them taste nice – by my own admission of lack expertise you would be warranted to dismiss me out of hand.

    But, I am correct and your doctor, mother, etc are all wrong. Linus Pauling was a great scientist. Winner of two Nobel prizes. He is indisputably one of the greats. But, he had one little hobby horse that led Paul Offit to describing him as “arguably the world’s greatest quack”. Pauling did some work on vitamin C. He had a cold and he took some, and his cold went away. He championed the use of vitamin C supplements. And from there exploded a multi-billion dollar industry of multi-vitamin quakery and charlatanism.

    If you look up Linus Pauling you will find I am correct. But this does not mean that now on other issues, I should be granted warranted deference, or that Pauling and the pharmacists have earned warranted dismissal.

    On most things with Pauling you can defer, but with vitamin C you must dismiss. The vitamins business is mostly harmless quackery, but why have so many people who should know better fallen for it. Doctors and pharmacists granted warranted deference to Pauling, the double Nobel winning scientist. Mostly harmless. When some qualified and reputable but krank doctor publishes a paper claiming vaccines cause autism. That leads to a panic that is far from harmless.

    Where does it go wrong, and how does warranted deference, and warranted dismissal unravel. And the simple answer is they are heuristics. A proven heuristic can be relied on most of the time, but absolutely never all of the time.

    The idea that there is a physicists community, or that a general consensus of that community means something, is another heuristic. But there is quite some truth in it. Taking a peer-reviewed-paper to be highly rigorous, is a valid heuristic. But again it is not absolute. If too much confidence is placed in the heuristic, the bunkola will flow. And it can get by so many qualified people, that even if a highly qualified expert challenges it, but waits too long, there’s likely to be a lynching.

    Ignaz Semmelweis, derived a heuristic through elimination – that the lack of hand washing was causing the spread of disease and death in hospitals. He did not know how it worked, but it did. His peers of course employed another heuristic, that anyone with an idea that sounds ludicrously simple, must be a krank and insane if they insist on it. He was bundled into an insane asylum. Where he died, possibly from someone trying to beat some sense into him, as they did in those days. But most krank science ideas are krank science.

    Proven heuristics have a value. Never judge a book by its’ cover, is very often true. But so is, if he looks like an idiot and talks like an idiot, do not be fooled, he is an idiot.

    On who you can trust or what you can trust, if the stakes are not too high, use a heuristic. On the other hand, if you need to be rigorous you need to be rigorous.

    Any heuristic without the caveat it is a heuristic will unravel.

  4. The nice thing about Physics is it is heavily dependent on a verifiable shared environment. If someone can demonstrate ideas that have a high degree of agreement with what is known about that shared environment their excursions from what is generally understood may receive some consideration among open minds. That’s how a patent clerk with no Ph.D. was published in Germany’s most prestigious science journal with the four most famous scientific papers ever produced in a single year by any one person.

    If I disagree with someone on a theory my disagreement contains no inherent disrespect of that person. It makes no sense to claim that Charles Darwin was disrespectful of Jerry Falwell because they differ as to the origins of species. Instead each advances a different model for the comprehension of information in the larger environment. We are left to choose between the arguments and the reasons each presents for accepting or rejecting them.

    I choose the Darwinian argument, not because I am disrespectful of Falwell, but because the emergent order process by which Darwin’s model works not only explains what I see in the world better, it provides greater insights into processes like the development of language, culture, and even human intelligence.

    Furthermore, the option Falwell presents makes claims about the nature of a creative entity that clearly are modeled on preconceptions of human intelligence, that seem not even to be insightful theories of how human beings create.

    Is it necessary to make any judgements at all about the people from whom the theories came in advance of addressing the content of their theories? No.

  5. Thanks for comments all.

    Ron asks, “why can’t we just say that the contemptible belief is arrived at by a perfectly respectable person, mistakenly?” There are two key things to keep in mind. One is that we’re referring to vital life projects which impose restrictions on how people act, think, and behave (what has been called a ‘volitional necessity’). e.g., if I say “I can’t drink, I’m a recovered alcoholic”, this is an expression of a volitional necessity. The vital point is that a volitional necessity is somehow unthinkable, given the person you are and have decided to be. So if you say, “I can’t believe that the Earth is 2000 years old, I’m a Young Earth Creationist”, and you really mean it, then my saying “No it isn’t” is and must be something you regard as disrespect to you. I agree that with training and exposure, we mature people can sort of deaden ourselves to disrespect, but that doesn’t moot the point.

    Along similar lines, Lee Jamieson argues that it is not “necessary to make any judgements at all about the people from whom the theories came in advance of addressing the content of their theories”. He gives an example of Charles Darwin (19th century scientist) vs. Jerry Fallwell (21st century evangelist). Of course, I agree that Darwin’s belief in the theory of evolution by way of natural selection, when temporally dislocated, cannot count as disrespectful to Fallwell. But the issue of disrespect only arises just in case Darwin were to recognize Fallwell and his volitional necessities (which of course he couldn’t).

    Ron claims that we only have pragmatic duties, and no moral duties. I disagree completely. I’m a sort of consequentialist, so for me some of our moral duties just are practical duties. So there won’t be much to say there. I do agree that we have self-imposed duties (what I call “autonomic” or “agentic” duties), but believe that they are merely servants to the moral ones.

    Ron also asks: “But that raises another problem with deference: how do you tell it’s genuine, and does it matter if it’s not? Can both parties happily live the lie? What does it say for any moral theory that works well if both parties lie? Would you be uncomfortable giving deference where you don’t feel it is deserved even though the theory dictates it? Would that discomfort be the tugging of the moral conscience in a different direction?” They’re all good questions, though I don’t know if I know what to say at the moment.

    Doris argues: “Where it does no harm, deference is warranted, but isn’t a moral right, and it’s a matter finally of perception and argument.” In reference to harm, she mentions a bunch of plausible rules (e.g., civil and moral rights). This would sound plausible were it not for the issue of harmless delusions. If someone harmlessly believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and that belief has no harmful consequences, then all other things equal it seems like I am still warranted in defying the belief without being at fault.

    JMRC says: “But here it gets even worse. Since Bob is a complete outsider, not even a keen amateur, how does he know who or what this community of physicists is.” The author of the previous post argued that this is not the case. He argued that grasping the concept of a social group involves talking about necessary conditions which are grasped without deferring to the society.

    I still think that’s true, although some of my colleagues have agreed with you that it is subject to challenge. In history, many persons who we think of as physicists were also involved in more occult activities. e.g., Isaac Newton was something of an alchemist, despite being ordinarily taken to be a physicist. I, non-physicist, understand the idea of “physicist” as necessarily having something to do with the physical world, and do not grasp the idea of alchemy as being about the physical world.

    The trouble is that I don’t need to. I do recognize that Isaac Newton was doing some stuff that had to do with the physical world, and that the community of physicists regard him in that way. Whether or not he actually counts as a physicist, and whether or not alchemy counts as physics, and whatever the community of physicists actually thinks, I still must apprehend the necessary conditions of ‘physics’ all by myself. If I find myself subject to challenge (e.g., if the community of physicists tells me that physics is the study of apples and baskets), then the best I can say is: “I am in a state of confusion about ‘physics’.”

    The Isaac Newton case is a direct analogue to the Linus Pauling case. It still seems to me that both ostensibly pass the original theory, even if the original theory is defective for other reasons.

  6. A lot of scientists are nuts outside their specialty. My point was that a good philosophy doesn’t care about that. Werner Von Braun definitely advanced rocket science despite the moral misgivings we should have about his work in W.W.II. What the philosophy should be able to do is draw boundaries around that part of a model of the world and ideas that works to the greater good and separate it from personalities. Rocket science was not Nazi science despite the fact that the people who advanced it most on both sides of the Iron Curtain were alumni of Peenemünde any more than Relativity was somehow “Jewish” science. It was just science.

    Newton’s example gives us another insight into the contribution Philosophy can make. In the case of Physics Newton’s greatest contributions came from two innovations. First he came up with a math that quantified Kepler’s ellipses without really explaining them, and made the additional observation that gravitational attraction was inversely proportional to distance. Secondly, he innovated ways to experimentally ask the universe questions. He would then carefully note everything he could think of that would be significant to the experiment and would seek to establish controls, rather than assuming what he couldn’t perceive was irrelevant. That’s how he discovered infrared radiation.

    Nothing about his alchemy should be embarrassing to us. He was working well within the cognitive structures culturally available at the time. Such structures cover all manner of ignorance even in our own day, much as the brain covers for the absence of information it receives from the connection of our optic nerve with our retinas. Philosophy should not be about attacking people for their limits, but about seeking out how our cognitive models fail us and how we can improve them.

  7. Kevin Henderson

    The vast majority of actions in life are respectful towards one another, whether we are conscious of it or not.

    A religious person may be an acquaintance of mine, he may talk to me about physics or music or what it means to be a great athlete or artist. My interactions with this person are useful and even rewarding. The subject of religion is generally not important, because other discussions are more interesting to both of us. I do not respect this person, in general. He is religious and holds ludicrous and prejudicial beliefs about humanity and the universe. But I do not act disrespectful towards this person. In fact, talking to people like this does have a pleasurful side effect: the religious person, when talking to me, is distracted wholly from their religious dogma and is now considering what it means to think clearly, freely about any subject we wish to discuss. This illustrates that almost anyone, no matter how irrational about transcendental affects on our world, must necessarily funciton as a entity in the real world for most of their lives.

    All of these people exist:
    A respects B
    A sometimes respects B
    A never respects B
    A does not care

    Each case is possible. Does it mean that is is good? or right? I cannot religious people, bue I do not act upon this and I treat them fairly as I would any other human, and in many cases enjoy their company more than secular people. Being respectful is complicated and is something like religion, it is not always engaged in one’s consciousness all the time.

  8. Warranted deference may be necessary to all points of view until the nature of consciousness and light are fully understood, whether they are fundamental, or if they evolved with matter. Materialists believe in the supremacy of matter, which is now understood to be frozen electromagnetic energy, or light. If we were to think in terms of vibration, matter would be energy at a slow rate of vibration.

    Creationists believe that creation happened close to the speed of light, with the universe, planets, and forms materializing in a short span of time. If creation is thought of as analogous to designing a house, the universe would exist first in thought, then in blueprint, and finally over time would be built. Only if there is a causal dimension: thought; an energy dimension: life force; in addition to the material dimension of frozen electromagnetic energy, would this belief be realistic. In relation to the speed of thought (and it is probably faster than the speed of light) or electricity, matter is slow, so its evolution if necessarily long and convoluted.

    The creationist point of view would be considered realistic if there is more than one dimension; the materialist point of view is realistic if there is just one dimension.

  9. In reply to Lee, I should say that I think the Newton case may not be the best for the purposes of the point that was being made to JMRC. Instead, I would revert back to the Linus Pauling case. That case involved someone making unjustifiable statements that were ostensibly within their area of expertise. The author of the original post on warranted deference would have had us believe that the fact that we naifs should not defer to Pauling was in all ways consistent with the theory that he offered at the time (at least, so long as we assume that the community of biochemists on the whole agreed that Pauling’s assertions did not count as proper biochemistry).

    I concede Kevin’s point about there being degrees of (dis)respect, but think this is moot. It is true that by defying a person’s vital projects there is still a sense in which I might not be disrespecting them as persons. There are only three kinds of ways of disrespecting a person: slighting their reputation / self-concept, disrupting their mind, and doing violence to their body. When I attack a person’s vital life projects, there is a clear sense in which I can be seen as slighting their reputation. However, I am not necessarily doing violence to their physical bodies, and I am usually not imposing any long-lasting psychological trauma on them. So even when there is a sense in which I’m disrespecting them as persons, there are other senses in which I am not (bodily, psychological).

    What I suspect, though, is that a person’s volitional necessities only invoke a sense of inner violation when the potential breach of the commitment is perceived to be some kind of threat to the person’s body and mind. There is always a contingent connection between a person’s actions and their existence as thinking, embodied beings — the volitional necessities get their force by the strength of their connection to those things. And if that is the case, then the violation of a volitional necessity will always count as either “very disrespectful” or “completely disrespectful”, depending on the comprehensiveness of the perceived level of threat to their bodies and minds.

  10. BLS Nelson,

    “The Linus Pauling case. That case involved someone making unjustifiable statements that were ostensibly within their area of expertise.”

    That isn’t quite true. These days it very infrequently happens, but a typical piece of bad krank science, will be a highly qualified and reputable scientist making extraordinary claims, without very concrete extraordinary evidence. Like Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann, both highly qualified scientists but their cold fusion was krankery of the highest order – not only did they destroy their own reputations but there was a witch hunt for anyone associated with them. Cold fusion, is a very legitimate area of study, but it’s also a great favourite with the kranks.

    Wilhelm Röntgen spent three weeks in his lab with the lights turned low, and the door locked, photographing his hand over and over again, and not emerging until he was dead certain he was neither insane, nor mistaken. It was the first x-ray photos. You’d feel like you were losing your mind if you were the first person to see a photograph of the bones in your hand, while they were still in your hand. A world changing block buster of a discovery. Even though he didn’t understand the principle of the action (it is simple – but not known for a few years later, a little too simple to have been immediately thought of). Röntgen, knew that if he was going to take something like that to the world, the news would be explosive. So he’d better be right. He had a responsibility to other scientists, and the naive public as well as himself.

    There is also another party waiting malevolently in the wings to take advantage of any new science development and the public. On the discovery of radioactive, quacks rushed out to prepare tonics and mendicants of radio active radium – there was a health crazy that led to the deaths of thousands. There is a connection here between quackery, the haphazardness of real medicine, and what happens later with Pauling and had happened earlier with vitamin C. There were absurd and krank uses for X-rays too. By law in NAZI Germany women over 36 were to compulsorily sterilized – the method was a kind of krank X-ray treatment. It did sterilize the women, but maybe 8,000 to 30,000 died as a result.

    One form of vitamin C is called ascorbic acid. A-scorbic because it was known to stop scurvy, but it was not known how it did that. The body doesn’t produce vitamin C. It’s not in all food stuffs. Deficiency leads to scurvy. Ascorbic acid was something the quacks were already pushing. It’s not really until the post war years that people had decent varied diets. Bread and dripping diets many poor people lived on led to all kinds of vitamin deficiencies, as well as the English medieval method of cooking vegetables that had survived down through the ages; boil carrots (thick cut with, skin removed), and other veg for at least 40 minutes, as if they’re witches, and then discard the water – which of course is where the magic vitamins are. But the heuristic of boiling vegetables to a point they can only be identified by dental records, does have a function. Human feces was once one of the most common fertilizers. As it’s human, it can carry active human pathogens – it’s usage has fallen out of fashion. (but the strange idea of the necessity of peeling vegetables, and those peelings to be poisonous though still fit for a pig, or even that raw vegetables were poisonous – these folk wisdoms persisted leading to malnutrition)

    Linus has to be given the context of the time. Ascorbic acid is a food flavouring, among other things. It is essential. And he took some every day. The kranks took their pre-existing vitamin remedies and granted their products an implied endorsement from a Nobel laureate. But you know, cigarette companies used to hire people who played doctors on TV, to pose in white coats and recommend their brand.

    For both the expert and the naifs, there can be something else; an invisible hand mediating.

    But sometimes the experts do have a purpose in misleading the public – with the best of intentions.

    Newton; his Alchemy, Algebra, and Astrology. The occult arts;

    The good Christian should beware of mathematicians – Augustine

  11. Kevin Henderson,
    May I suggest that the religious person, while he shares a universe with you, doesn’t actually “live” in that universe. Neither do you. Both of you live inside a brain that must interact through the medium of a bio-chemical machine. Neither of you came into this world with an innate comprehensive model for correctly decoding and interpreting the extremely abstract sensory information by which that isolated brain is connected to the larger universe. Both of you have had to contrive such a model. You did this in part on your own and in part in cooperation with others who seemed to use models that functioned in a manner you each found amenable to your experience.

    Doing this is a hard fight. I’m loathe to be disrespectful of anyone whose understanding of the universe does not cause them to do to do harm to others, even if their model of the universe doesn’t look like mine.

  12. Lee Jamison,

    “If I disagree with someone on a theory my disagreement contains no inherent disrespect of that person. It makes no sense to claim that Charles Darwin was disrespectful of Jerry Falwell because they differ as to the origins of species”

    Okay, here is where it becomes very tricky and there isn’t an easy way to resolve this.

    Falwell, may not believe in the literalness of the Garden of Eden. But, the metaphors and allegories have a sacred dimension. Though not literal, their context gives them a literalness. It’s like Catholics and transubstantiation. Catholics do not believe the bread and wine literally turns to blood and flesh – for one thing it tastes like neither. But that the event is sacramental – its’ not a symbolic activity. The metaphoric nature of the bread and wine is removed.

    The young earth is a relatively recent heresy. So its’ literalness is really like the Catholic Eucharist. It has to be professed as literal. The permanent virginity of the Virgin Mary, is also a recent heresy. Once a heresy sticks, you’re pretty much stuck with it. The Sisters of Mercy were wonderfully heretical. Given a free hand they would have removed Jesus completely. They were essentially a pagan virgin cult. And as orthodox as Santeria (The Cuban way of the Saints). They were just short a few drums and a chicken from full on Voodoo.

    Another peculiarity of the sisters was their choice of representations of the crucifix they would adorn the internal walls of their convents with; life like, Jesus is muscular, head cast back in some ecstatic agony. Exquisitely erotic. The sisters; we shall never see their like again. How they got away with it for so long shall be another unknowable and joyful mystery.

  13. JMRC,

    I often speak of what I call cognitive structures. I use that term because, as in the framework of a ship or the joists in a house, “structures” mediate between contrasting forces. The mental models I mentioned in the post just above would be made of numerous such elements more or less strung together. I began to understand some of the complexity of these models in my youth as the experience of teaching drawing cast light on how the linguistic shorthand we apply to our understanding of our visual world would play havoc with people’s capacity to report what was right in front of them.

    People can’t report the appearance of a table because there are things they “know” without question that are not visually true. Teaching them comes down to convincing their minds it is acceptable to report what the eye sees even though that means angles that are square on the real table will be drawn at highly acute angles in the drawing. In that fact is information about how a mind functions. There are ways of knowing things that are not appropriate for all ways of reporting what we know about things.

    As a Protestant I am the heir of people whose minds flew at the idea of Transubstantiation. Some of my dearest friends are very highly educated and Catholic. Generally they take the phenomenon to be one of the mysteries of their faith. For myself, I can see how people could model their communal use of a worldly substance as a communication with God. I can also see how people would not believe such a thing. I can see how people would be put off by it. When I take communion as a Methodist I do it as a witness to my commitment to a community of faith for their benefit.

    The intelligence of the universe, whatever it may actually be, had relationships of some sort with intelligent creatures before there was communion, and will have such relationships long after communion, and human beings, are gone. The minds of some people in this audience will fly from that statement as my Protestant forebears flew from Catholic mysticism. Never mind the fact it is just as clear intelligence-like algorithms are at work in the world around us as it is that intelligence-like algorithms are at work in human behavior.

    Why would this be true? Might it be that, as with the reporting of the appearance of objects by people who are not able to draw, the reporting of what people in various cultural populations report is affected by things they “know” that are in conflict with what other populations “know”? Might it not also be that populations who have succumbed to the illusion they live in the “real” world instead of a best-available-simulation (that would be virtually all of us) would find presentations of these contrasting models psychologically threatening, even insulting?

    It is not a failure of due deference to attempt to point out to others, even others with specialized knowledge, differences in the cognitive models by which we understand the real world. If I wish to construct more accurate models I must know how to rebuild my own and from what points the structures would need to be altered to see the world as others do. Only then could I run the contrasting models side by side to see which works better to describe and predict the behavior of the world.

    Do I have an obligation to defer to the models of others? It certainly behooves me to understand why someone else’s model would allow them to draw better than my model does if my goal is to draw well. Having access to the capabilities of different models of real-world phenomena is like having access to different languages. Each gives one a capacity to operate in a different environment. More than that, if another person’s model fails in some area it is only by being able to operate within its context that I can demonstrate, as I can with errant drawing models, how the function of the cognitive structure leads people astray. So, yes, I benefit from some deference to the world models of others, even if I think they are inaccurate.

    It is then incumbent on all of us to cooperate in devising models that work better.

  14. what this means for you - pingback on September 2, 2013 at 2:42 am

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