Thursday, May 08, 2008

Just give me a reason

A short bit ago Mr. Verb mentioned Susan Jacoby's claim that linguists are to blame for the current plague of anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.

Not long after that I saw her on C-SPAN talking to Nick Gillespie for an hour.

I was waiting for her to start her argument but all she did was complain without reasoning her way to any conclusion. Along the way she tosses around premises and definitions that Gillespie challenges without pursuing them. Her views are full of contradictions.

She says that fundamentalism is a source of anti-rationalism granting that religion doesn't preclude a belief in evolution even tho it would preclude it for her. How does that work? If she doesn't think it's a necessary belief why would it be for her? But that's beside the main point.

Gillespie (agreeing that there is a decline in reason?) asks her why she says this is a key moment in intellectual decline rather than just part of a cycle. She only offers the 24/7 scourge of "infotainment" without answering how that makes it a crucial point. After arguing that the non-stop news cycle is a poor medium she complains that people don't spend enough time with their sources of information. She argues that a newspaper is permanent and stays put so the reader can revisit it if necessary. But so is the TV. The internet even more so.

She claims there is proof that we don't know as much as we did in 1980 because books and newspapers aren't read. There is no way that we don't know as much and I doubt that such a cause could be shown. Just how is any amount of information measured? Is this counting information such as computer skills and familiarity with technology? Is there some tally of the recognition of faces? Are politicians' faces worth more intelligence points than actors' and athletes'? What about statistics? Don't all sports fans have more data to memorize with each passing season?

When Jacoby objects that so much on the internet is junk Gillespie interjects that you could say that about books. She doesn't respond but continues with her point that people are watching junk. Then she backs up saying that the problem isn't just that people are watching TV or are on the internet. The problem is that it's all they do. She's jumping away from her argument that people only use it dabblingly -- and she agrees that's also a problem with books: if it's all you do it's a problem. But then why is she saying only that TV/internet is a problem. She agrees that it's a tool. But she hasn't argued that it is bringing about any result other than that people are not reading books. Another tool.

Gillespie poses the most important question. How can her claims be quantified? He rightly doubts that it can be measured by the number of books read. He believes for instance that people are more skeptical of leadership. Surely that's a good indication.

Her counter offers no rational argument or reason: "It seems to me we are not living in the same universe."

He cites other indicators: the decline of party affiliation as evidence of independent thought: bestseller lists showing "niche" discrimination.

Nowhere does she give a definition of intellectualism. No explanation of how it is measured. More importantly she can't even explain what would be measured.

She makes the undeveloped unsupported and unevaluated claim that there are things that "we all need to know" for some reason. She hasn't given a reason. This view has been out there for a long time but I'm still waiting for someone to give me a reason to buy it.

Then she jumps into that favorite mud pit of elitists -- colloquial language as an indication of intellectual poverty. She closes with this gem.

When you listen even to the way people speak I don't see how you can talk about us having reasonable discourse. I say this and I'll say it here: the word folks embodies -- which you haven't used once -- embodies everything I hate. No presidential speech before 1980 ever used that word. Imagine: We here highly resolve that these folks shall not have died in vain.

On 6 December 1904 in his Fourth Annual Message to the Senate and House of Representatives Theodore Roosevelt wrote:

Others, living in more remote regions, primitive, simple hunters and fisher folk, who know only the life of the woods and the waters, are daily being confronted with twentieth-century civilization with all of its complexities.

OK. So this State of the Union Address was actually written and submitted to congress rather than delivered as a speech. And Roosevelt says folk not folks. But Jacoby's point is just as ridiculous either way.

Her entire argument is maddening because of its vapid presumptions. She's making the old and familiar arguments that a canon of knowledge and the method of investigating it has been determined and must be protected -- but apparently she doesn't care to defend it rationally. The only argument she can come up with against the subject matter of the material in a class on the horror genre is that the movies are "crap". She hasn't defined crap but from hearing the views spewing out of her mouth I think she must assume we can all taste it too.


  1. It's a type of argument in which she's got her conclusion, and she then casts around for what seems to her like evidence for it. The rigor of logic, or even any counter-evidence, is not going to have much impact on the conclusion, because that's actually the starting point.

  2. "When Jacoby objects that so much on the internet is junk Gillespie interjects that you could say that about books"

    95% of everything is crap - Theodore Sturgeon (when asked if it was true that 95% of science fiction was...)

  3. "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." - Abraham Lincoln

    Granted, I don't know if it was a speech...


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