Don't Let the Suckers Grind You Down

Monday, March 07, 2016

Bioethicist Brian Earp writes of a rhetorical difficulty many with scientific training will recognize:

The term "Gish Gallop" is a useful one to know. It was coined by the science educator Eugenie Scott in the 1990s to describe the debating strategy of one Duane Gish. Gish was an American biochemist turned Young Earth creationist, who often invited mainstream evolutionary scientists to spar with him in public venues. In its original context, it meant to "spew forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate." It also referred to Gish's apparent tendency to simply ignore objections raised by his opponents.

A similar phenomenon can play out in debates in medicine... [T]he trick is to unleash so many fallacies, misrepresentations of evidence, and other misleading or erroneous statements -- at such a pace, and with such little regard for the norms of careful scholarship and/or charitable academic discourse -- that your opponents, who do, perhaps, feel bound by such norms, and who have better things to do with their time than to write rebuttals to each of your papers, face a dilemma. Either they can ignore you, or they can put their own research priorities on hold to try to combat the worst of your offenses.

It's a lose-lose situation. Ignore you, and you win by default. Engage you, and you win like the pig in the proverb who enjoys hanging out in the mud. [bold added]
The only sense that this situation -- and it is not limited to disputes in academic science -- really is "lose-lose" is when one's concern begins and ends with numbers of people who take your "side". (The fact that this is a real problem in science stems in large part from the state's near-monopoly on science funding and the consequential importance of prestige.) When one drops such a concern, and focuses on the quality of those on each side of such a "debate," one will find that the people who fall in line with the Gishes of the world (and stay there) are not really interested in knowing the truth: For whatever reason, they want help pretending that they are right or good. As such, they probably wouldn't be moved even if, as Ayn Rand once indicated, one could exhaustively and conclusively show everything a Gish said to be wrong, at best.

Human beings have free will, and some will choose not to think. Bearing that fact in mind, one is best off accepting that there will always be a ready market for what Earp calls "bullshit," and writing off those who want it. Insofar this is encouraged by cultural mores and the political institutions that grow from them (such as a paternalistic government wanting to clothe policy in scientific garb), the answer is two-fold: (1) direct one's intellectual career to reaching those who want the truth (and these will eventually see through your opponents), and (2) work to improve the culture, by encouraging the young to think rationally and independently, to whatever degree is possible.

-- CAV

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