When I was a kid I had a family member who – with out realizing what he was doing – lived like Merlin.
Except that where Merlin lived backwards in time, this family member just lived backwards in logic.
Instead of starting with the facts on the ground and then reasoning forward towards conclusions, he would start with conclusions and then reason backwards to what the facts on the ground must be.
The older I've gotten, the more I realize that there's a lot of that going on.
I find that when standing up for general principles it's often best to pick examples that cut against your normal tribal loyalty (this is why the Good Samaritan from Luke is a good parable; if a filthy, glue-huffing Samaritan is willing to …well, you take my point).
With that in mind, I will now defend Jared Diamond, who I do not have cultural or political affinity with. The topic is this recent dust-up:
It’s happening again, another issue of Jared Diamond vs. the anthropologists. Part of this is surely personal. Diamond has been trading in glib and gloss for years, and profitably so, in both financial and fame terms. There is also a deep scholarly divide. Diamond’s way of viewing historical development is reminiscent of, if not equivalent to, materialism. That is, external material forces (geography) and broad macro-historical dynamics (the transition across modes of production) loom large in his thinking. In contrast, many cultural anthropologists disagree with this paradigm, and see it as outmoded, old fashioned, and false. Not that I can decrypt what they believe, because clarity is not something that seems to be valued by cultural anthropologists in most domains.
I say most, because there is one area where many of them are quite clear: they are the beacons of toleration and justice. And they get to define what toleration and justice is. For all cultural anthropology’s epistemological muddle, its political priors are crisp and dinstict, and strangely insulated from the critique and deconstruction so valued by the discipline in all matters. From The Guardian piece above:
“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”
In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace”. He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as “primitive brutish barbarians” or as “noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes”.
But Survival remains adamant. “The clear thrust of his argument is that there is a natural evolutionary path along which human society progresses and we are simply further along it,” said Mazower. “That’s extremely dangerous, because it is the notion that they’re backward and need to be ‘developed’. That thinking – and not that their way of living might be just as modern as any other way of living – is the same thinking that underpins governments that persecute tribal people.”
The thinking in the Guardian piece is a perfect example of the "X → Y ; I don't like Y; therefore ! X" logical failure.
The first syllogism (from the first paragraph) goes like this:
- If Diamond is right that tribal people are more violent → it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights.
- I don't want tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights.
- THEREFORE Diamond is wrong
…and the second (from the third paragraph) goes like this:
- If Diamond is right that human societies progress along a natural path → governments will persecute tribal people
- I don't want governments will persecute tribal people
- THEREFORE Diamond is wrong
Now, I am not entirely with out sympathy to this sort of thinking. If the situation is dire enough and imminent enough1, I'd let my thinking (or at least my words) be modified in service to the greater good. "Are there any Jews hiding in your basement?" Hmmm. "No, there absolutely couldn't be! [ because if I admit the truth you'll kill them ]".
Maybe Mazower knows that the words he's spouting are not even wrong, and he's bravely making a mockery of his own reputation as someone with an IQ above that of yeast in order to save some primitive tribes.
…but maybe not. Maybe Mazower really has been seduced by the ends that he envisions and has compromised the means of logic and honest debate.
Whether tribal societies are more violent than western societies is a question of fact that can be settled with censuses, direct observation, and archeology. My sense as an outsider is that Mazower is absolutely wrong that violence levels are the same across societies, and that Diamond has not yet proved his point that there is one progressive path forward.
The fact, though, that Mazower is not arguing "X is wrong because we have facts that prove X wrong", but is instead arguing "X is wrong because I dislike the political implications of X" has the stink of pseudoscience, the intellectual lynchings of James Watson and Larry Summers, and – in general – operations of Minitrue.
It shouldn't be necessary to clarify, but I imagine it is, so I'll clarify: I do not assert that I know whether Diamond, Watson, or Summers are right or wrong. I merely know that debate and science proceeds by arguing the facts on the ground, not by declaring that certain facts are impossible because of the political environment.
Facts are facts (and unknowns are unknowns) regardless of whether they hurt feelings or lead to certain undesirable results.
You've been down there, Neo. You already know that road.
Last 5 posts by Clark
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