Massimo Pigliucci Advocates for Virtue Epistemology in Skepticism, Seems to Accidentally Justify Using Ad Hominem Attacks
Since I discussed some of the articles on skepticism in the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer yesterday, I thought it was worthwhile to mention one more, which I saved for a separate post because, while it is on a similar topic, its approach is very different. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has a piece on virtue ethics in skepticism and asks whether skeptics should be experts in the topics they discuss. It’s an interesting argument, and I think one that skeptics as a group need to come to terms with, but which Pigliucci fails to take to its logical conclusions in a couple of different directions.
In his piece, Pigliucci makes the case that skepticism can be divided into three broad areas of increasing complexity. The first he calls “classic” skepticism, and it is what the rest of us think of as the bizarre, the outré, the pseudoscientific, and the paranormal. You know: Bigfoot, UFOs, ancient aliens, etc. As you know, I am biased toward preferring these topics to the other two categories. The second category is “science denialism,” dealing with issues related to creationism, vaccines, climate change, and other areas where denial of science is used to forward a political agenda. The third category is skepticism toward academic research methods, such as doubts about experimental psychology methods, proof of string theory, and the utility of philosophy. Pigliucci claims that skeptics as a whole are experts in the first category and can speak without reservation. They are not equipped to speak to the second category without recourse to scientific literature, he says, and therefore are essentially mediators between scientists and the public. In the third case, which not coincidentally covers Pigliucci’s own academic subject area, “the proper attitude is simply not to open one’s mouth and let the experts sort this out.” He concludes that skeptics must demonstrate “humility and competence” before weighing in.
He clearly missed the better conclusion, which is that skeptical organizations need to have experts. That is to say, the people who serve as skeptics should have detailed knowledge and expertise in their fields, and qualifications in them when possible, in order to evaluate claims with the same or greater expertise than the advocates. Thus, the answer isn’t to sit down and shut up but to become an expert who can speak knowledgably about problems. To do so, one must specialize. “None of us is an expert in everything,” Pigliucci said. Over the past 15 years I like to think that I’ve developed expertise in my area. There is no reason that skeptics can’t specialize in areas except that many of the high-ranking skeptics in the field prefer to portray themselves as jacks of all trades who can go into battle over any subject armed with only Occam’s Razor as a weapon. But just as reporters have beats, developing a narrower field of expertise provides more knowledge and depth and better results.
Instead, Pigliucci recommends the application of Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the subfield of virtue epistemology, which is an area I’ve never been entirely comfortable with. I am no philosopher (as Pigliucci would undoubtedly note), but my brother has a philosophy degree, and I have heard more than my share of philosophical discourses. Virtue ethics asks us to make value judgments about moral actions by considering whether the moral agent (the person making the decision) possesses positive character traits. As you can imagine, this opens the field to cultural biases since what one defines as a “virtue” is dependent on one’s culture. For example, in many East Asian cultures deference to authority is typically a virtue, while in Western cultures it smacks of passivity. The reverse is true for individualism. Similarly, virtue epistemology asks us to evaluate a claimant by examining whether he or she possesses “the kind of practices that make it possible for her to arrive at the best approximation to the truth,” as Pigliucci puts it.
Pigliucci frames this in a positive sense, by imagining the obligations of the skeptic when attempting to evaluate a claim. He cites, for example, the skeptics who offered implausible and evidence-free solutions to UFO sightings without doing the legwork. “The a priori ‘knowledge’ of some skeptics (that the phenomenon couldn’t possibly be what it was purported to be) led to rather unvirtuous, completely unfounded in facts, ‘explanations’….” In his framework, promoting epistemic virtues (honesty, humility, objectivity, etc.) would prevent this type of off-the-cuff pseudo-explanation. But the problem, as I think you can see, is that while it might inspire researchers to work harder (as, say, adherence to the scientific method would as well), it personalizes the argument by placing the moral fault not on the lack of evidence but on the claimant’s lack of virtue in approaching the problem. For him, the bad explanations are bad not because they are objectively wrong but because the skeptic was being arrogant and presumptuous in proposing evidence-free, objectively false explanations. In practice, this means that the argument could be turned around quite easily, and we would be justified in launching an ad hominem attack on a complicated claim, or a bad explanation, by arguing that the claimant possesses “epistemic vices” such as gullibility or dogmatism that render his or her claim unsound. It also has the effect of freeing us from the need to challenge bad claims by evidence. The risk of fallacious argumentation seems to be to be too great to make this a useful method of skeptical inquiry.
But don’t take my word for it: A whole group of philosophers actually argues that ad hominem arguments aren’t just legitimate but can be defended even beyond the system of virtue ethics. Apparently, there is now an entire field of argumentation that seeks to rehabilitate ad hominem attacks as an appropriate and logically sound approach to argumentation by appeal to virtue ethics. Isn’t it a wonderful time to be alive? It is a dangerous path for skeptics of extraordinary claims to remove the field of contest from an evaluation of evidence to the character of the claimant and skeptic alike. It is, however, entirely in keeping with our era to imagine that a person’s moral virtue, judged as it is by culturally specific values, sometimes limited to those shared by the person’s immediate subculture, should impact whether we see a claim as true or false. As far as I can tell, even bad people can sometimes make good points, and all the imaginary virtues and vices in the world won’t have anything to say about whether space aliens and Bigfoot are really out there.
2/20/2017 01:17:35 pm
What has happened to rational discourse? Is this the fault of post-modernism? Or is it the fault of our media (television, internet, everything) that spreads shallow and false versions of ideas - such as the idea that moral and social constructs are relative, which somehow became "truth is relative", which somehow because "there is no truth"? Do we need a major catastrophe caused by those who say there is no reality to discredit the whole lot?
2/21/2017 09:06:33 am
Let's put the Bible to the same critical scrutiny as Scott Wolter and Erich Von Daniken
2/21/2017 11:03:29 am
By the black earth upon which we rest, you are right! Have you heard of the writings of Russel Gmirkin? Fascinating arguments he makes!
2/20/2017 01:32:46 pm
"In practice, this means that the argument could be turned around quite easily, and we would be justified in launching an ad hominem attack on a complicated claim, or a bad explanation, by arguing that the claimant possesses “epistemic vices” such as gullibility or dogmatism that render his or her claim unsound."
2/20/2017 01:55:29 pm
He recommended virtue epistemology, with the explanation that it originates in the virtue ethics tradition that started with Aristotle. So, no, he is not recommending Aristotle.
2/20/2017 03:02:34 pm
In that case we're in complete agreement.
2/21/2017 09:07:59 am
Jason Colavito gives the impression that he is a Roman Catholic homosexual.
2/21/2017 12:24:34 pm
Jeez Louise! Off topic
2/20/2017 02:33:32 pm
"The third category is skepticism toward academic research methods ...
2/20/2017 03:19:44 pm
Category 3 is the case for peer review. But can't we be skeptical of a claim if the claimant declines to adhere to that protocol?
2/20/2017 07:12:09 pm
Sadly, in the present over-commercialised state of academic publishing, we cannot always trust the peer review process; hence the need, if one personally suspects methodology to be dubious, for the acquisition of sufficient relevant expertise to check.
2/20/2017 03:06:03 pm
Colavito is qualified to lecture everyone on philosophy because his brother has a bachelors degree in philosophy.
2/20/2017 05:01:48 pm
It wasn't a lecture on philosophy. Jason was explaining the flaw in determining the validity of claims, and explanations for them, by focusing on the character of the parties involved.
2/20/2017 06:07:56 pm
Septic makes a good point. It's the "my uncle was in the military" argument.
2/20/2017 06:13:36 pm
It's not because I am not lecturing anyone on philosophy. You might notice that I purposely cited actual philosophers who have defended ad hominem arguments on the same grounds. I specifically tell you not to take my word for it. That's pretty much the opposite of asserting something on my own authority.
2/20/2017 06:17:50 pm
Not really as good a point as you think. It's basically making the argument you must be an expert on a subject before you can talk about it. Do you have to be a chef to criticize the food for tasting bad?
2/21/2017 09:53:28 am
DO YOU SHARE THE SAME BED WITH JASON COLAVITO
2/21/2017 12:26:11 pm
Good grief! Take your tantrum somewhere else
2/20/2017 05:53:30 pm
Jason: It is, however, entirely in keeping with our era to imagine that a person’s moral virtue, judged as it is by culturally specific values, sometimes limited to those shared by the person’s immediate subculture, should impact whether we see a claim as true or false.
2/20/2017 06:15:33 pm
"But, if I may poke a finger in the eye of an almost dead horse here"
2/21/2017 01:23:37 am
What they are PROTECTING, my dear idiot, is evidence-based science. You have blinded yourself to any and all possibilities but the one that YOU want it to be, and refuse to believe that your evidence is NOT strong enough to make your case--so instead of going out and looking for more evidence and strengthening your case, you whine that nobody will listen to you.
2/21/2017 05:10:33 am
2/21/2017 12:41:46 pm
Maybe V is a hot-headed Frenchman...or Frenchwoman? Sizzle, sizzle. Charges of racism included. Like the old comic books I used to read...BAM! WHAM!
2/21/2017 03:41:02 am
If there are more than a few asterisk-shaped stone holes in the USA, then all the advocates of early dates for not-quote-circular stone holes really really need to find a reasonably absolute dating method.
2/21/2017 12:53:41 pm
How about "two pictures are worth two thousand words?"
2/21/2017 03:24:50 pm
I don't see any attempt at "reasonably absolute" dating there. Are we seeing a hole 20 years old and a hole 120 years old?
2/21/2017 05:55:20 pm
You missed something, David. The large, "fancy" stonehole was made by late 1800's railroad surveyors, making it about 130 years old or so (you are on the right range on this one, though); however, the other stonehole is classic medieval Norse, as can readily be seen by the many-hundreds-year-old decomposition on the wall of the slightly triangle-shaped hole. The latter stonehole is from the Sauk Lake Altar Rock, likely America's first Christian altar.
2/21/2017 07:05:15 pm
Okay. So how old should this one (in granite) be?
2/22/2017 11:48:19 am
Hi David, I haven't been to that great website for awhile, but that large "star" stonehole is a great example of a machine made hole, designed to look somewhat hand chiseled. Upon close inspection, you can see a portion of the hole's wall that shows it to be smooth. The hole is mostly filled with pine needles, so it's hard to make out. Also, context matters a lot. In this case, other stoneholes are in the same location, from which comparisons can be made to the example you showed. I'll admit that this one was a bit tricky at first, because the rock itself is craggious leading to the inside of the hole.
2/22/2017 02:16:12 pm
"designed to look somewhat hand chiseled"
2/23/2017 10:47:04 am
Thanks for the civil discourse. Well, I said the example you pointed out was craggious to the eye leading to the inside wall, so at first glance, it looks different and less crisp. You skipped over the fact that a portion of the inside wall can be seen (adjust your screen up and down), and it shows a non-decayed wall, like those other star holes in the same location.
2/23/2017 02:58:16 pm
"there is a great variety of these large star stoneholes, and some were obviously purposely made with a flair of artistic design in mind"
2/23/2017 10:09:11 pm
David, a different mindset existed for those who made these MN ridge star stoneholes, a different mindset than those who performed quarrying work in MA and other locations. Different atmospheres and intentions were involved; whereas one group was intent on camping successfully on a windy ridge, the other group was likely more intent on hard work and production.
2/24/2017 03:58:45 am
You're piling on more and more hypotheses. If you wish to overcome the "big disconnect with skeptics and academics" you will need some hard evidence. In the case of your 19th century camp on the stonehole ridge, for example, it would be really useful to find contemporary evidence of its exact purpose.
2/24/2017 02:47:59 pm
DAVID BRADBURY says: If you wish to overcome the "big disconnect with skeptics and academics" you will need some hard evidence. In the case of your 19th century camp on the stonehole ridge, for example, it would be really useful to find contemporary evidence of its exact purpose.
2/24/2017 07:34:30 pm
I studied the Glenwood photo some time ago when you publicised it on Andy White's blog, and I am inclined to agree with those who suggest that the "pole" is a fold in the canvas flap of the tent; the lateral stability of tents is generated by the guy-ropes (which, interestingly, do not spread from the ends of the ridge in these tents, suggesting a ridge-pole design, without any vertical end-poles), and the lump at the "base of the pole" is most likely not a rock but a bag, like the adjacent dark reflective one.
2/27/2017 11:50:38 am
DAVID BRADBURY: As for why set up a camp on a ridge--it would make sense if, for example, it had long views for triangulation purposes.
2/21/2017 04:13:13 am
In my opinion, most human beings, academics included, have a deep-seated and subconscious drive to credit inventions, discoveries, and achievements to a single, heroic figure whether that credit is deserved or not (sometimes it is). Of the many bold navigators who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to reach the Americas, he somehow got all of the credit for it. Although an overwhelming amount of evidence has been unearthed suggesting that the Romans and Phoenicians, among other peoples, reached the Americas centuries if not millennia prior, academics don't want to acknowledge these findings, largely because there is no name or historical personage to which they can tie these findings. It doesn’t make for a compelling narrative. Just as ”Here lies Achilles" is a lot more appealing than "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” Columbus discovered America is a lot more interesting than admitting that some anonymous Roman or Phoenician sailor reached the Americas before him.
2/21/2017 01:40:09 pm
From Wikipedia, oddly enough (real guardians of real history?)
2/25/2017 07:08:35 pm
> Although an overwhelming amount of evidence has been unearthed suggesting that the Romans and Phoenicians, among other peoples, reached the Americas centuries
2/21/2017 04:18:05 am
P.S. I was replying specifically to the closing marks of At Risk's comment, where he said: " What, exactly, are they PROTECTING? The memory of Columbus? Why is this so important?"
2/21/2017 10:09:55 am
I think it would be tough for lay skeptics to reach the level of competence you suggested, although I don't disagree with the notion in principle. You brought up the example of reporters having specific "beats" or niche areas of expertise, but they still don't have the competence level of experts in the field.
2/21/2017 01:17:49 pm
Again, here is what Jason said, above: "It is, however, entirely in keeping with our era to imagine that a person’s moral virtue, judged as it is by culturally specific values, sometimes limited to those shared by the person’s immediate subculture, should impact whether we see a claim as true or false."
2/21/2017 03:29:03 pm
Of course, quite a lot of fantasies begin by posing as realities.
2/21/2017 04:47:59 pm
Of all the goddamn goddamnery I've ever seen, this has certainly taken a weird turn. We got someone claiming his name is "At Risk" complaining about anonymity, "Time Machine" just cutting loose like Elvis in a girl's hair about his fantasy version of Jason's private life...is it all a plot to make Wolter look sane by comparison? Don't know, but I'll ask at the next meeting of Academia.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
2/21/2017 08:59:21 pm
What's absurd is that both of them have been making pests of themselves on this site for three years. They won't go away and keep getting worse.
2/22/2017 11:33:35 am
When ad hominem is your only reasonable retort in basically telling someone that they're an idiot, mentally unbalanced and/or not equipped to continue in further intelligent discourse, it's best to simply keep it to yourself and commit to ignoring them. They come back as they actually enjoy having their cages rattled.
2/22/2017 02:31:56 pm
2/23/2017 11:06:05 am
Joe, I' m thinking about making some stonehole flash-cards....
2/23/2017 11:30:59 am
I was right...it didn't last long. I guess your comment was less painful, Joe.
2/24/2017 01:13:59 am
"When ad hominem is your only reasonable retort in basically telling someone that they're an idiot, mentally unbalanced and/or not equipped to continue in further intelligent discourse, it's best to simply keep it to yourself and commit to ignoring them. They come back as they actually enjoy having their cages rattled."
2/24/2017 12:56:54 pm
Unfortunately we my never know, as someone always takes the bait. Can't be helped really, as folks new to the site may not be familiar with their malevolence and simply respond to inform them of the obvious; that they're not only dead wrong in their particulars, but also unbalanced in their manner.
2/24/2017 02:13:38 pm
Joe, relevent blog histories will show that it was you, yourself, who showed up at Professor White's blog several months ago in order to cause mayhem and disruption...just as you finally showed up here to do. You are sneaky, Joe, even without Mike and your other alias buddies to introduce you and assist you. You're the basic blog troublemaker without much to do now that Wolter has eliminated himself from public scrutiny. Have you no shame in trying to stop the ever-evolving knowledge about stoneholes?
terry the censor
3/1/2017 06:47:40 pm
> many of the high-ranking skeptics in the field prefer to portray themselves as jacks of all trades
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