Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Summary dismissal

Not every civil court case proceeds to trial. Some are settled "out of court" by the parties involved. Others are settled by the judge in a "summary dismissal" or "summary judgment". The suit is deemed to be unworthy of trial, even without a full hearing. In this way valuable time is saved and litigants are discouraged from bringing frivolous lawsuits.

We often do the same thing with ideas. In fact, a great deal of what appears to be debate about ideas actually takes place in a "pre-trial" phase, in which people discuss whether an idea should even be granted a serious hearing. Many – most? – discussions go no further.

Now, this is no bad thing. A serious logical and factual argument – a full case for trial, so to speak – is not all that easy to put together, even if we are attacking a very bad idea or defending a very good one. And many ideas are so stupidly wrong or so transparently wicked that they do not merit that kind of response anyway.

So I am not opposed in principle to the "summary dismissal" of an idea – a rejection that precedes a full discussion of the factual merits. Such judgments are necessary and inevitable. They are a legitimate part of the practical art of reason. Yet I am uneasy, because this kind of preemptive action carries obvious risks. After all, the idea that I reject might be a good one. If I never grant it a real hearing, how will I ever find out?

But even when this possibility seems remote, there is a deeper snare, a subtler temptation. If we can get the opposing point of view summarily dismissed from discussion, then we win. Our ideas not only prevail, they prevail without challenge. We know this, and the advantages of it are so great that we work very hard to win the preliminary phase of the debate.

The reason I call this a "temptation" is because such "pre-trial" actions take place, by definition, prior to the start of serious factual debate. These actions involve claims of consensus, invocation of social norms, emotional appeals, rhetorical strategies, and so on. The tools used in this phase of a debate remain largely unexamined because the whole point of this phase is to avoid the arduous business of careful examination. And if someone cries foul – if the "motion to dismiss" an idea is challenged as being out of order – then this suggestion itself can be attacked in the same way. The locus of discussion creeps backward to questions of mere form and propriety; and in my experience, it usually happens that the actual issue is never actually engaged.

I do think that "summary dismissal" is the rational way to deal with a great many ideas. But on what grounds should we invoke it? In other words, when should we not discuss the factual merits of a proposition? When is it proper to arrive at a "summary dismissal" without, so to speak, going to trial?

This is a hard question. As a start on it, I've tried to identify some ways in which "summary dismissal" is actually employed in public and personal debates. Imagine that X stands for some proposition, and let SD stand for the summary dismissal of X. That is, SD means, We should not discuss the factual merits of X. It seems to me that SD has several forms.

Weak form

The simplest and weakest form of SD is, A discussion of the factual merits of X is unnecessary. There are a couple of possible justifications for this proposition.
  • It may be that X has already been shown to be false. I should not spend my time logically refuting your proposed angle trisection, because such constructions have been proved to be impossible.
The second justification involves an estimate of likelihood, and this depends on my own rational judgment. That's okay. I'm not looking to get around such judgments; I simply want to understand them.

Strong form

In the previous version of SD, the basis for summary dismissal was that debate of X was a waste of effort. Sometimes a stronger sort of claim is made, however: A discussion of the factual merits of X would be bad and harmful. Again, I see two possible justifications for this position.

  • Some principles are so foundational to civil order or polite society that they must not be contradicted. If the proposition X contradicts them, then public discussion and debate of X – a discussion that presumes, at least in a formal way, that X might be true – is harmful. Examples abound. For instance, even if the thing is easy to refute – or especially if it is easy to refute – it would be harmful to bring up for debate the proposition that Fred is a serial child molester. A discussion of this could be almost as damaging to Fred as an actual accusation, so we should give it a summary dismissal. (The exception, of course, is when there really are serious grounds for believing that Fred is a serial child molester. Since the "pre-trial" action can involve a preliminary look at evidence, such an exception does not undermine our discussion.)
This sort of thing is easiest to see in debates about practical reason – that is, in debates about what should or should not be done. Thus, it would be impolite (at least) to debate the proposition that old Fred should be taken out and shot dead. It would be invidious to give such a suggestion serious discussion, even if we ultimately decide to let Fred live.
  • Another justification for this strong form of summary dismissal is less direct. It may be that a public debate of X might be harmless in theory – X itself does not contradict a foundational principle – but the practical reality could be that any debate of X would almost certainly cross the line. I think that this is how a great many well-intentioned people approach questions of gender or racial differences in IQ. The proposition that Oompa Loompas are on average smarter than Pottsylvanians does not necessarily entail the evils of racial discrimination and so on. It does not contradict the foundational principle that human beings should be equal in dignity and before the law. But in practice (so the argument goes) it will surely be used to rationalize many such evils. Even the proposed debate can awaken them. Therefore it is better to reject the question altogether, to summarily dismiss X without probing its factual basis.
I hope I've made it clear that I do not simply reject this strong form of SD. Nevertheless, we should be aware of the danger: this form recommends that we dismiss debate of X for a reason other than its probable truth or falsehood. Instead we appeal to moral principles or social norms. But what if those principles or norms cause us to reject unheard the case for a new truth? Society may desperately need to recognize and adapt to this truth, but this cannot happen unless the case is made. The history of science has many examples of this – not as many examples as some would claim, but enough to be cause for worry.

Conversely, wrong or bad ideas can persist as prejudices, unspoken but also unchallenged, if they are never admitted to open discussion. In this way, the very action we take to preserve our foundational principles can in the long run weaken them.

Ad hominem form

There is an even stronger and more definite form of summary dismissal, which may be conveniently expressed thus: People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are bad people. Discussion of X should thus be avoided. In this version, the phrase bad people might either mean defective people or wicked people. The underlying justification for this runs as follows:
  • Let us suppose that either the weak or strong forms of SD hold – that is, debate of X should be summarily dismissed on the grounds already discussed. If this is true, then we must question either the intellect or the motives of those who propose X for discussion. Either they are stupid and ignorant, or they are up to no good. Either one is bad. If they are stupid and ignorant, we should not give them the chance to spread their crummy ideas. If they are up to no good – if they are not interested in truth or wish to do harm by damaging a foundational principle – then their wicked intentions should be thwarted at the earliest opportunity.
As an example, consider Holocaust denial. The basic facts of the Holocaust are well established. What then shall we make of those who wish to bring these facts up for challenge and debate? At best, they are complete idiots. More likely, they are anti-Semites and worse. In the latter case, we must regard them as the enemy, and we ought not grant them legitimacy by bringing their ideas to debate.
  • Alternately, it might be that public debate of X is harmless in theory – but a desire to debate X serves as a reliable "dye marker" identifying people with bad and harmful aims. (These people may, in fact, be using X as a "stalking horse" for worse ideas.)
I think this type of SD describes the arguments of certain fierce critics of the Creationists. Because Creationism is so obviously ludicrous as science, the critics argue, those who seek to have Creationism widely debated – to give it "balanced treatment" in the schools, for instance – fall into two groups. There are the ignorant fools and the intellectual charlatans. What they really seek is to promulgate their anti-scientific fundamentalist religion, to close off the space our society affords for free scientific inquiry. The same critics have a similar reaction to "Intelligent Design" theories. Although ID comes in the form of a debatable secular idea, its proponents are actually the same old dumb and deceitful Creationist crowd with the same bad aims.

Even this form of SD, I think, is defensible in some circumstances. Some people might be so completely stupid and wrong that we should not waste time debating their ideas. (I recall one movie reviewer for a university newspaper, for instance, who was wrong so frequently that he was actually quite reliable. If he hated it, you should see it.) I also believe that evil people do exist, and I think that some of them want to use the forms of intellectual discussion to further very wicked causes. We are under no obligation to give them the oxygen to do so.

Yet when I lay this out as a principle, it gives me a queasy feeling. It is too powerful a weapon to be comfortable with.

If I can win a "pre-trial" action on these grounds – if I can have my opponent designated as either ridiculous or reprehensible – then I have won a victory indeed. Not only have I secured my beliefs against the present challenge, but I have also undermined the legitimacy of my opponent. His future standing to insist on debate has been destroyed. It does not matter what he says, because any proposition he advances is tainted at its source. I have not merely won this debate. I have won them all.

A lot of modern political "debate" functions at this level. The actual issues at stake are almost never discussed directly. That would require some costly engagement with facts and logic. Instead, the discussion remains in the messier, more emotional and rhetorical "pre-trial" phase, where everyone is seeking a favorable summary judgment. If I can convince the majority of voters that my opponent is not merely wrong but actually farcical or fiendish, then I win the game, whether or not I can make a coherent case for my own policies.

The example that comes to my mind is sure to irritate some of my friends, but I will invoke it anyway. It seems clear to me that Sarah Palin was the target of exactly such a "pre-trial" attack during the presidential campaign last fall. This campaign was largely successful – completely so in my own social set – with the result that her actual ideas (yes, she does have a few) need never actually be discussed. You can simply ridicule her as a clown or hate her as a witch, according to your taste. I don't think you have to be a fan, or even agree with her at all, to be a little disturbed by the whole thing.

Transitive or associational forms

Believe it or not, I think that there are even more extended versions of SD that are in reasonably common use. Here are two:
  • Proposition X is logically distinct from Y, but X is nevertheless associated with Y in some fashion. (For example, many people who favor one also favor the other.) Proposition Y should be summarily dismissed for one of the reasons above. X "inherits" this property because of its association with Y.
  • People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are associated in some fashion with other people who are bad. (The association might be via agreement on other propositions Y, Z, etc.) This association is itself sufficient for summary dismissal of X.
In each of these, the grounds for summary dismissal of X are transmitted via a chain of association, either between ideas or between people. (Note that people can mediate associations of ideas, and ideas can mediate associations of people.) I'm trying hard to come up with plausible justifications for either of these, but I have to admit defeat. To me, they appear to be nonsense on stilts.

When we humans reason about the world, we often use heuristic strategies that are difficult to defend on a purely "rational" basis. There are many experiments and studies showing that human beings are actors of "limited rationality". Yet I think that our flawed strategies often represent sensible ways to deal with the real world. We are mortal and have a lot to do, so we take a lot of short-cuts. Our own knowledge is limited; so is our intelligence; and at bottom we know this. We therefore take our own abstractions far less seriously than we might, often appearing to act "illogically" or "inconsistently". (Academics like me, who are trained to take abstractions with deadly seriousness, can mistakenly ascribe to folly what really represents practical wisdom.) In any discussion, our overall assessment of a speaker's smarts and sincerity – a type of judgment we are fairly good at – will likely outweigh any logical or factual assessment of his words. All of these things do leave us vulnerable – just ask a successful confidence man – but they are actually necessary adaptations to our real situation in the world. We can't do without the short-cuts; but we must be wary lest we be led astray.

Yet we must also ask how we ourselves – not quite on purpose, maybe, but not wholly by accident either – abuse these heuristic strategies for our own ends. We are, at root, more lawyers than philosophers. We want to win our arguments, and we do not mind doing so by manipulating the quick and informal process by which we and others decide which ideas merit serious consideration. In this regard, our imperfection as rational beings is of a different order. We are flawed, not merely in the intellect, but also in the will and the heart. We are fools, but also sinners.

I cross a threshold

What's new since the last post?
  • I've finished taping the new course for the Teaching Company. Now all I have to do is finish the written materials -- a big job that I'm behind on, true, but a little less of a crisis. The course should be a fun one.
  • A total of four "Friday Afternoon Physics" videos are up, including my favorite, Episode 4 (in which we blow things up). Episode 3 is on quantum physics, and it has some fun computer animations that I made.
  • Mike and I have corrected the proofs of the new quantum mechanics textbook, which is supposed to be out in the US in March. We created the cover image, which was fun. It's a circular diffraction pattern. On one side, it fades into a scattering of discrete dots; on the other side, it turns into 1s and 0s.
  • I gave a talk at a Theological Symposium sponsored by my brother's seminary. To make things weird, the whole thing is posted, in both audio and video formats, on iTunes U. So you can watch my lecture, and my brother's reply, there. This means I've officially crossed the threshold from "user" to "content provider" on iTunes.
I'm hoping all this means that I'll have some more time for blogging and other kinds of writing. The next post should get things going.