Who needs sophistry, anyway?

An old article from 2006. Originally published at Butterflies and Wheels.

Scientists and philosophers need sophistry. This article will show why and how. The argument will need to draw from the history and philosophy of science of Pierre Duhem, as well as the concepts of intellectual property and the science of persuasion.

I. A choice of arms.

As you are reading this, you may hear a popping noise. Do not fret: it is the faint, disquieting sound of science being broken. It is this tiny bit of irksome vibration that really gives content to the name, “pop science”. Well-intentioned hands of varying degrees of competence are to blame for it.

We all know of professional errors. The most recent case that comes to mind is that of Dr. William Hammesfahr, a figure in the Terri Schiavo farce. His credentials are never questioned — he was not a mail-order doctor — but despite his vetting, we were left with impressions of incompetence fuelled by his attempts to engage in patient checkups via
anecdotal evaluation. One may also be reminded of Dr. Bill Frist’s allegations that AIDS could be caught through tears and sweat (though, to his credit, his claims were tentative). Notables may include Ward Churchill’s sock puppet style to academic research. Examples are never hard to find on this score, and it’s hard to have the discipline to carry through a list.

There are also the errors of pundits. Michael Crichton’s war on global warming comes first to mind, relying upon weak arguments to reach the bold conclusion he desired. In June of this year, Eric Muller reviewed an attack upon the purportedly leftist American legal system by jurist-cum-pundit Mark W. Smith. Muller’s question was, “Where is the
academic truth squad?” Why don’t professional intellectuals voice their critiques publicly?

Muller’s question can be rephrased and its scope may be expanded. Whenever science is under attack from the world of the layman, where are the defenses from scientists? Why greet slander with silence?

The standard view seems to be that, if the expert gives a response to folly, they dignify foolishness. This is undoubtedly part of LBJ’s logic when he reputedly asked an aide to spread a rumor that Nixon liked to have intercourse with pigs, just because Johnson wanted to hear Nixon deny it. Whatever Nixon’s answer, it would have been self-defeating. And no doubt this is the tactic which the Go-Go’s had in mind when they sang: “Pay no mind to what they say/ It doesn’t matter anyway / … There’s a weapon we must use / In our defense: / silence.”

A part of this view can be sustained by a certain view of the nature of rationality. According to cooperation theorists, what it means to reason adequately is to cooperate in
conversation. Fallacies of informal logic are paradigmatic examples of problems that arise simply because one interlocutor was either unwilling or unable to understand the other locutor correctly (i.e., ambiguity and amphiboly), or pursued ends in conversation which were other than reaching mutual understanding (i.e., ad hominems). Indeed, in my experience, some (admittedly bastardized) corollary to the cooperative view, the “principle of charity“, is par for the course in contemporary analytic philosophy. So if the purpose of the scientist and scientifically-minded philosopher is to foster and encourage reasoned debate, then it does no-one any good to engage in uncooperative ones, the kind which are inevitably based on toxic gesticulations at a fellow television panellist for the purposes of impressing a bored studio audience. Reason is a lifestyle, in a sense, and getting in a rhetorical firefight chips away at one’s sense of it. Better to just walk away.

However, when the standard view is taken to excess, it involves a kind of intellectual hygiene that can also be consistent with cult-like behavior, or otherwise result in spoiled impressions. After all, this is a tactic that Ayn Rand stressed quite a bit in her work, and thus a kind of mantra which Leonard Peikoff and his friends use to insulate themselves intellectually. It’s a tactic which John Kerry used against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sham — and much to America’s dismay, gave the Vets ground they might not have otherwise had. Many scientists and philosophers have realized the perils of insulation, and taken strides to build a genuine “third culture“.

Another kind of silence is the quieting of thought, and not just of speech. The quieting of the mind takes the form of indecision and apathy. To some ancient Greek philosophers, the state of indifference, called ataraxia, could be a means of avoiding suffering. No doubt, the solid majority of persons who are uninitiated to the minor passions which propel scholarly opinion are largely in this state of contented indecision, letting those things which are merely academic belong to the academy. I think it goes without saying, though, that this sublime indifference is not a thing which will find much purchase among scientists.

If silence seems far from enough, we have at least three ways to speak truth to power. Some methods are more dramatic, some less; some more legitimate, some less.

For instance, if drama is not the forte of scientists, they might (when given the opportunity) appeal to a kind of invitational rhetoric: a tone of conversation which opens up disciplined but free inquiry in pursuit of mutual understanding. This might be what Balthasar Gracian had in mind when he wrote, “speak with the many, but think
with the few”. Nevertheless, regrettably, the demands of situations will take their toll, and in a mass-media environment, invitational rhetoric seems impossible.

On the other hand, if drama can be stomached, the scientist can engage in traditional debates, or in humor-driven mockery, or not-so-humor-driven derogation of the source. Both strategies have the advantage of being mere changes in tone, not necessarily having to resort to outright falsehoods for the sake of making an impression. The downside is that both seem like unreasonable strategies in those situations where error arises innocently.

The final alternative is to engage in well-intentioned sophistry. Sophistry, for my purposes, is characterized by the use of wise exaggerations, or what we might call sophiboles. Use of the sophibole can be catalogued on a spectrum: at one end, a great deal of content is fabricated to convey a few truths, and at the other end, the fabrications are only rhetorical exagerations to make a point. At the one end, to make use of symbolism and allegory in fictional storytelling is to make ample use of the sophibole. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, we have satire. At the other extreme, we have statements which are not strictly true, but which get a message across more forcefully than would be possible by other means. It goes without saying that my analysis for present purposes concentrates upon the exaggerated content of some utterances, and not merely their manner of speaking.

II. Scientific sophibole.

A. The scientific revolution.

What is perhaps neglected in regular analysis of these themes is the extent to which ostensibly competent scientists themselves deviate from reason and careful analysis in their rhetoric, and make strange exaggerations.

In order to understand the force of the argument to follow, we should first pause to ask, “What is science? How is it practiced?”. It seems to me that scientific inquiry can be summarized as the application of logic to the recognition of patterns through empirical research. This generic formulation allows for all kinds of different methods of inquiry to don the cap of “science”, so long as the procedures are an admixture of deduction and induction, with emphasis upon the latter. For instance, the hypothetico-deductive method, inductive classification, and the abductive method are all accounted for. (The
sole worry is that some varieties of pseudoscience seem to fall under that very same heading, but for the purposes of brevity I’m going to ignore that.)

One unfortunate implication of this understanding of science is that it seems to suggest that the conclusions we draw are entirely fallible. For if we rely so much upon induction, almost nothing is wholly certain. We are stuck understanding the fruits of science as mere probabilities, and/or as fanciful constructions open to future review (what the late
and handsomely named Benjamin N. Nelson called “probabilism” and “fictionalism”, respectively). And indeed, despite a history of noble attempts to save scientific certainty without appeal to either of these beasts, these simply seem like the most plausible ways to understand the way science moves.

[Other candidates touted as saviors of philosophical certainty include concepts like the “a priori” and direct causal knowledge of external, but it seems to me they have inspired more confidence than they deserve. Appeals to the a priori are most plausibly defended
by those philosophers of mind who defend theories of innateness. However, so long as they present cases in terms of innate abilities, not innate ideas or thoughts, they miss the point of the empiricist’s dismissal of the a priori. Appeals to direct causal knowledge of
external events seem more plausible — I can see very clearly that my hand causes the pen to move across the table when I will it, with only minimal inference involved — this knowledge is not as reliable as knowledge of the sense-data which saturate my experience.]

What’s quite disquieting to learn is that, according to the estimations of historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem, if you were to ask the canonical Enlightenment scientists (Galileo, Francis Bacon, Pascal, Copernicus, Kepler, or Newton) whether or not
probabilism or fictionalism were scientific, they would have laughed you sober. The conclusions of these greats were bold and assertive statements of truth (usually referred to as a kind of realism). They did not make serious pitstops in hard skepticism. According to Nelson, they had both subjective certitude and objective certainty, propelled (in Galileo’s case; in Il Saggiatore) by a Pythagorean conviction that the universe is understandable only through appreciation of numbers, but yielding a profound certainty.

As Edward Grant (1962) explains:

Modern science has shown a greater affinity with the XIVth century than with the century of Galileo and Newton. In the judgment of Pierre Duhem medieval scholastics had a truer conception of science than did most of the great scientists of the Scientific Revolution… He could not hide his scorn for the naivete of some of the greatest figures of XVIIth century science who confidently believed they could
— and should — grasp and lay bare reality itself…

Duhem is, in general, quite right. Scholastics were most sophisticated and mature in their understanding of the role which an hypothesis must play in the fabric of science. They were not, as we have seen, deluded into believing that they could acquire indubitable truths about physical reality. But it is an historical fact that the Scientific Revolution occurred in the XVIIth century — not in the Middle Ages under nominalist auspices. Despite the significant achievements of medieval science… it is doubtful that a scientific revolution could have occurred within a tradition which came to emphasize uncertainty, probability, and possibility, rather than certainty, exactness and faith that fundamental physical truths– which could not be otherwise– were attainable. It was Copernicus who, by an illogical move, first mapped the new path and inspired the Scientific Revolution by bequeathing to it his own ardent desire for knowledge of physical realities. [from “Late Medieval Thought, Copernicus and the Scientific Revolution” in the Journal of the History of Ideas.]

So, by Duhem’s account, the true defenders of cautious (but logical) science were not the recognized icons of the scientific revolution, but rather, in many cases they were orthodox advocates of the church. In other words: those men who came to totally wrongheaded conclusions about, say, heliocentrism, themselves seemed to make more logical and sensible presentations on the nature of science than the actual advocates of science themselves.

No doubt, Duhem’s claims are worth inspiring volumes of debate. Conventional wisdom seems to be knocked about like a mouse in the paws of a cat. Whatever conclusions
which the reader accepts of Duhem’s, and which they reject, it doesn’t matter, on the whole. What I ask of the reader is to concede a single point on epistemology. All I need to make my day is the concession that, with rare exceptions, scientific investigations most prudently and reasonably merit statements in terms of probabilities, not certainties. Once we accept these rough-and-ready ideas about the state of knowledge, we are in a position to accept that these brilliant, innovative, and informed people really were engaging in sophibolic rhetoric.

B. Pinker and Turkheimer.

So sophiboles, it seems, were historically used. But sophiboles are not just of historical interest. They are used regularly today by the most respectable of scholars.

Take the case of social scientists Steven Pinker and Eric Turkheimer. The latter declared that “the nature-nurture debate is over”, and introduced three laws of behavioral genetics to prove it. They are extremely interesting findings, and in another context, I would consider myself enriched after learning of them. The first law (as presented by Pinker in “The Blank Slate”) is: “All human behavioral traits are heritable.” (By “heritable”, it is meant: “the proportion of variance in a trait that correlates with genetic differences”; by “behavioral trait”, “a stable property of a person”, which can be measured either by standardized psych tests, or by direct testing.) Unfortunately, the first law, as stated, is exactly and explicitly the opposite of what the author means, and so stated, it is the opposite of the truth. Pinker writes two pages later: “Concrete behavioral traits that patently depend on content provided by the home or culture are, of course, not heritable at all”. Thus, some behavioral traits are not heritable. Thus, Pinker admits that the first law is “a bit of an exaggeration”. But one wonders: what for? Why bother
exaggerating? It would only take one measely qualifier in the first law to make it totally accurate. And it seems curiouser and curiouser that Pinker would, another three pages later, write: “More pernicious is the way that the First Law is commonly interpreted [by
leftist critics]: “So you’re saying it’s all in the genes,” or, more angrily, “Genetic determinism!” I have already commented on this odd reflex in modern intellectual life: when it comes to genes, people suddenly lose their ability to distinguish 50 percent from 100 percent, “some” from “all”…

I hope I don’t need to show how ironic his critiques are in context. The first law, again, is “All human behavioral traits are heritable”. Pinker agrees that this is wrong. He then chastizes people who correctly interpret it as wrong, and wags his finger saying that they’ve confused their quantifiers. Meanwhile, that’s exactly what he has done; their interpretation of genetic determinism is totally correct if you look at the law alone. And none of it is mitigated by any special use of terms within the law (as I laid out their meaning in context). Turkheimer simply declares an absurdity and defends a related, but different, claim, and Pinker has his back.

C. Intelligent design.

Among scientists, the most tendentious recent example of sophistic rhetoric is that used in the Intelligent Design debate. I must confess from the outset that, to the extent that we care about metaphysics, the theory of I.D. seems well within the confines of a minimally plausible explanation, simply because it makes a theory which is consistent with (though not supported by) empirical data. I.D. is rightly at the margins of acceptable scientific explanation because it borrows too much from what we can’t observe. This is a perfectly good reason why mainstream scientists tend to fall short of lending it scientific credence. So I.D. makes for bad science, in the sense that it is merely consistent with evidence and not supported by it. But it doesn’t necessarily make for a bad explanation, and thus to be dismissed out of hand.

No doubt, the informed reader will say: “Who cares? Most of those who speak up on this matter, don’t want to ban I.D. from all discussion. They want to show how it makes for bad science.” But the relevance of this point can be shown by comparing it to ideas more congenial to the modern scholarly consensus, but similarly lacking in justification. That is, I presently have as much reason, empirically, to believe in gravitons as I do to believe in the interventions of any gods. To postulate either is to create a neat picture of the universe, with clear causes and clear effects. In neither case have we got any direct
evidence, but both provide enough theoretical implications for a minimally satisfying explanation, albeit not a convincing or scientific one. And an appeal to an in principle difference between the existence of gravitons and God rings hollow. To say that the existence of the graviton is falsifiable in theory, while the existence of God is not, is to come to the table with a number of preconceptions about the latter which aren’t necessarily true. All kinds of unlikely thought-experiments might be made to prove the existence of God — for instance, one might go back in time to before the Big Bang (if that’s even coherant), and see it create the universe. Sure, this will probably never happen, but it defeats a “possible in principle” argument.

Moreover, the I.D. advocates are far from being unique in flying through science by the seat of their pants. Certain researchers in string theory may be imitating the I.D. technique, going far and away beyond what a reasonable, informed, and disinterested observer could claim. Cue Peter Woit: “I would argue that a good first step would be for string theorists to acknowledge publicly the problems and cease their tireless efforts to sell this questionable theory to secondary school teachers, science reporters and program officers”.

Perhaps the reader will not be able to stomach my last few paragraphs. If it seems like too much to bear, then that is your due. But all I meant to suggest in this illustration is to show that respectable and sincere arguments can be quite bold, and in their boldness, make use of sophibole. Moreover, sophibole is used for clear strategic purposes. We must infer that the scientist-cum-sophist genuinely believes that their bold conclusions are apt to be persuasive.

The net effect is to obscure our understanding of the role which metaphysical explanations have in the scientific enterprise. I’m not sure whether this is intentional or not.

None of this is to indicate that these thinkers misunderstand science. Nor is it necessarily to accuse any of them of misconduct. If there is a difference between these folks and the discredited professionals we met earlier, and if my epistemic bearings are well adjusted, then the claims of these persons must involve the difference between words and deeds. That, finally, leads to the set of questions I wonder about:

1. Do scientists need sophistry? If so, why?

2. What are the consequences of being prudent? What would the world be
like today if probabilistic views of science had been adopted by the
canonical figures of the scientific revolution?

III.

A. Intellectual territory.

At first blush, the claim that scientists need to disseminate sophiboles seems like madness. A case can be made to say that scientists do not need to use sophistic rhetoric, nor do philosophers. Rather, it is the process of reasoning and of science itself which must be properly understood, regardless of the particular conclusions which either reach. The point of a third culture should be to popularize a method (or small set of methods) which were designed to make powerful inquiries about life and the world, not about how the particular results of some particular experiment are disseminated. It is not to put forward bold conclusions as if they were indisputable.

But, as attractive as that opinion may be, it doesn’t approach some lingering worries about culture and society. Humans are cultural animals, and scientists are humans. Scientists, as humans, seem to need to interest themselves in the world that they live. And the consequences of disengagement with the wider world could marginalize the very institutions of science themselves.

There are a few ways to make this argument.

First, I might mention the politico-economic argument, which tells us that it is important to have the academic institution legitimized in the popular mind in order to have political and economic opportunities (i.e., increased funding, grants, etc.)

Second, I might also mention the progressive impulse, which tells us that an increase in scientific competence in the layman public will compel innovation within the research industry in order to stay relevant. Powerful arguments can be made for both, and neither seem to be furthered by sophistry. But these arguments are beyond my purpose here.

A third way, what we might call the “cultural argument”, relies upon a certain, perhaps naive, vision of the scientist. I take it that scientists (or at least, the stereotypical scientist) care a great deal about the content of the material they study. [Of course, this can be nitpicked. The scientist is human, situated in a certain social framework, and whose perceptions and motives are both potentially fallible and flawed, and may be imperfect in their reasonings. But none of this impugnes a mere method, and so, all of it has an air of ho-hum to it.]

So it feels intrinsically valuable to have certain knowledge (or at least, well-justified beliefs). Indeed, closeness to certain objects of experience naturally creates a sense of ownership or entitlement over those things. Just as people come to love their home after living in it a while, they may become more attached to certain ideas and facts as their studies progress. This or that fact becomes a miniature shrine, so to speak. Indeed, a summary of the history of scientific development could be described in its entirety as a story of finding wonder in simple things which had previously seemed dull. In the realm
of intellectual property, we can specifically point out that intelligibility and understanding of some propositions will produce a sense of ownership over them.

The distinction between a sense of ownership and actual ownership is the distinction we might make between territory and property. Territory is the subjective sense of proprietorship over some ideas or land which arises out of want; while property is baptized into legitimacy by recognition from others. [This distinction is not novel; Samuel von Pufendorf’s distinction between positive / negative community approaches something of the point. But the terminology may be new, so it’s worth noting here.]

For those who hold their discoveries as things of intrinsic value, it may follow that, to an extent, the ignorance, neglect, and apathy toward these facts and ideas among the body of laymen may motivate those in the research industry to spread the wealth of knowledge. If we take seriously the idea that intelligibility begets a sense of ownership, of territoriality, then it follows that, as more people understand certain scientific or philosophical facts, the more that these facts belong to a culture’s storehouse of ideas, their intellectual territory. [I deliberately avoid using the term “meme” because its formulations presently seem incoherant. Still, it may help to think of intellectual territory as the relationship between a culture and its memes.]

In such cases, the best scientists would seem to favor the conclusions of the method, up and beyond the method itself. The expression and dissemination of content becomes more important than the way of epistemic prudence over the strength of the claims.

This view is not hard to find in print when it comes to ommissions of morals and reason, and not just of science. In reference to editorial handling of a recent court ruling on the Bush administration’s abuses of power, Glenn Greenwald writes: “…not everything has two or more sides. Some issues are complicated, but some are not. And some dangers are
profound and grave enough that putting a stop to them is infinitely more important than engaging in fun, intellectual games designed to show how serious and studious and intellectually dexterous one is. Sometimes, the “destination” matters more than the soul-searching, intellectually impressive “journey.””
This is just to say that, a) when words have consequences, we choose them carefully; and b) sometimes someone just makes arguments that are lousy, and aren’t to be taken seriously. Our present purpose is to wonder about those cases where people are motivated more by a) than by b).

B. Galileo revisited.

To what extent do these case studies exaggerate in order to spark true thoughts in the wider culture? It may be the case that they engage in sophibole because they have no alternative — that popular culture demands insistence and boldness because certain techniques are more persuasive than others. It then behooves us to wonder what the consequences would have been if they had done otherwise.

To predict the range of alternatives they had available to them, we should pay attention to the work of social psychologists. According to what Michener et al. call the “communication-persuasion paradigm”, certain factors will tend to have strong effect upon whether or not a particular person is persuaded of some message. The CP paradigm tells us that, for any speaker who has a strongly argued but shocking viewpoint to impart, those listeners will be more likely to be persuaded of the message if:

  • the speaker is a recognized and credible expert;
  • if it is against the speaker’s own interests to spread the message;
  • if the speaker seems trustworthy to the listener because
    they share similar identities;
  • if the beliefs of the speaker are supported by those of other
    (independent) sources
    ;
  • that failure to heed the message will result in bad (but avoidable)
    consequences, thus provoking moderate fear in the listeners;
  • and that the message is unequivocally one-sided and clear
    (for those who are disinterested / uninvolved), or two-sided and
    well-reasoned (for those who are interested and involved).

Let’s evaluate the case of Galileo, to see how it fares under the CP paradigm.

1. Galileo’s findings were not always taken directly to heart. Tycho Brahe, for instance, attempted to infuse Galileo’s observations into a geocentric model. Nevertheless, he was a respected scholar and scientist, and by 1609 had been offered lucrative academic positions. So he had credibility, at least at the beginning.

2. It was clearly against Galileo’s interests to speak and publicize the truth, if only because it was politically unpopular.

3. Was Galileo originally considered to be a good Catholic, and therefore, trustworthy? It seems so, since he was granted a meeting with Pope Paul V in 1611; and one must doubt that the pope would grant audience with an enemy of the church. Of course, in the subsequent years, all manner of mudslinging would be done against Galileo, but what matters here is that he was not originally considered a heretic out of hand.

4. Despite well-known historical differences, Galileo’s heliocentric findings were famously supported by Johannes Kepler, and were to a large degree consistent with those of Nicholas Copernicus. The opinion was hardly unanimous, but he was not the sole voice in the wilderness.

5. Galileo felt that there were no divine consequences to his conclusions. He wrote: “…since the Holy Spirit did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still… then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind… Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them…?” [Galileo (1615), quoted in Stillman Drake’s “Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo” (1957), pp. 185-186.] This is not to say that he thought there were no secular consequences, however.

6. His message was powerfully argued, almost uniquely so. Copernicus’s theory was not disseminated until Andreas Osiander oversaw the publishing of “On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs” and anonymously wrote a preface, accompanied by the most tentative language and reassurances that it was mere hypothesis. Galileo, by contrast, used unbending language to describe his discoveries. Moreover, though in the “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” he lives up to the title by providing arguments for both sides, a bias toward the heliocentric side is evident.

Many of the model’s expectations for the manner of a persuasive argument are satisfied in the Galileo case. The only clear exception is (5), where Galileo appealed, not to fear concerning divine consequences, but to good sense. It shows us that the conclusions (as with most scholarly matters) were not immediately taken to be worthy of creating popular resistence — this may be in part due to lack of popular involvement with the subject at all.

(6) is borderline, and also the locus of our interest. It shows us that Galileo was trying to appeal to the sense of reason in persons, to at least the extent that he expected persons to choose between two rival opinions on the basis of argument, not mere sentiment. The
appeal to reason is best helped along if the target is presumed to be highly involved in the results of the inquiry, and thus, willing to expend the mental effort to think things through. But the case for this seems weak, considering Galileo’s arguments against the relevance of heliocentrism to matters of the divine (see 5), and thus, to unintentionally discourage the layman to care about the matter.

Still, as mentioned, it was the forcefulness of Galileo’s argument which inspires our interest. And though Galileo presented both sides of the argument, the heliocentric thrust of the argument is strongly evident. His demeanor has been characterized in other respects as well. George Sim Johnston opined: “Galileo was intent on ramming Copernicus down the throat of Christendom” by use of a “caustic manner and aggressive tactics”… Galileo’s attempt to popularize heliocentrism “would never have ended in the offices of the Inquisition had Galileo possessed a modicum of discretion, not to mention charity. But he was not a tactful person; he loved to score off people and make them look ridiculous.” I don’t know how accurate these propositions are, but it seems at least plausible to see that Galileo was interested in getting his message disseminated.

If I may engage in a bit of speculation, it may be that the CP-model misses out on an essential factor in this case. It may be the case that Galileo was intentionally engaging in self-martyrdom in order to popularize his message. Persecution of Galileo would not exactly have inspired fear in the wider populace, but it would have provoked their interest, not through fear, but through sympathy. This might explain why he would have felt and expected people to read and understand a two-sided argument: they were more interested, and so, would investigate the matter more carefully. This is a dangerous road to travel, as likely to produce sentimental response and knee-jerk reaction among people than genuine interest. But it would at least provide that intellectual minority who were capable of interest and investigation into these matters with the option to give a damn.

IV.

It’s tempting to view the question, “Do scientists need sophistry?”, in terms of what communicative goals they’re setting for themselves. If fostering reason and science are our goals, we might want to stick to prudent remarks. If, on the other hand, disseminating particular scientific conclusions are our goals, we might easily say that
boldness arrests the attention far more easily, whatever the subsequent consequences upon the speaker may be.

This, at last, seems to be a sensible answer to our first question. The scientist as scientist needs no sophistry; the scientist as cultural animal does. I can arrive at this general rule with only one caveat. The arresting interest in certain conclusions may provoke curiosity into the method by which those conclusions are reached, and so provoke interest from bold-thinking individuals into the method itself. This is a flimsy sort of side-effect, though, since an audience of the bold and the irritable will only have an impact on those prone to boldness and irritability.

What about our second question? What would the consequences have been if Galileo had stuck to a logical line? It would seem that the discovery would have been continued to be owned by the establishment. By forcing his conclusions with certitude, he made the debate intelligible to the public, and thus gave them a sense of ownership, expanding their intellectual territory.

In sum, use of the sophibole would increase the interested public’s intellectual territory. The cost is the loss of professional integrity, not to mention gross alienation. I feel uneasy to conclude by noting that altruism can sometimes be accomplished by use of lies. These are words that would make Leo Strauss proud. I can only hope that I am wrong; though for the moment, I cannot see how.

One thought on “Who needs sophistry, anyway?

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