Bestiary of Bad Arguments #1: Harried History

I’ve fallen behind on my blogging. And writing, generally. Time to change that. This is a somewhat old draft, so forgive the stale source.

For a while I’ve wanted to taxonomize the internet’s worst arguments. I’m not talking youtube-level trash, but poorly reasoned ideas by people who write like they should know better. They share logical short-cuts and sounds-good-but-isn’t-truisms. And there’s value in seeing them dissected like frogs and pinned up for the world to see.

*   *   *

Our first subject is this comment on Hacker News. It’s a response to this article about the usefulness of people learning history. Pretend I quoted the entire thing here. If you’re like me, you’ll skip the actual quotes anyway and just read the response.

bcoates’s argument would be well-served by sticking close to the text. The comment looks like it is doing so (it quotes section titles from the article), but is in reality performing an associative trick, writing about the same broad topic but refusing to engage with the text in any meaningful way. Look for actual quotes from the article, they don’t exist.

It also refrains from naming specific examples where knowledge of history leads to the pitfalls bcoates ascribes to history. This is a rhetorical trick common to internet comments and continental philosophy, where vague generalizations make it difficult to disagree with the comment. The vagueness screens for disagreement, simultaneously allowing readers to project their own details on to the comment while bcoates responds to those who disagree with “that’s not what I was saying at all.”

Whether he is aware of this or not, this is bcoates’s thesis:

[Most educated people] are aware of the limits of science, where there is no practical experiment to falsify a claim and you have to fall back on tentative strategies like Popper’s.

This viewpoint gives cover to ignorance, and it especially gives cover to false ignorance, by which I mean “I am dimly aware my beliefs are factually unsupported but I don’t want to change my mind.” For any study that conflicts with your pre-existing beliefs, you can say “Well, I don’t think that was rigorous enough,” and a veil of scientific mindedness masks an ignorance tightly clutched. And because no one is an expert on everything, yet everyone has an opinion on anything, people can retreat to “the evidence isn’t in” when something is suggested with which they disagree for ideological reasons.

This defense applies to everything, and sometimes it is correct. For example, saying “physicists don’t really understand what is going on in a singularity” is true. The evidence really isn’t in (as far as I’m aware). “There isn’t enough evidence to say Shakespeare wrote his plays” is an example of this argument used for evil. Despite what your acting teacher told you, Shakespeare did indeed write his own plays. Claims of evidence or lack there-of is not, by itself, a sufficient argument for truth.

The thrust of bcoates’s argument is that ignorance is an excuse in favor of the status quo. I admit that might not immediately appear obvious, but let’s look closer at his argument.

His thesis subtly slides from “we don’t know,” to something more pernicious:

if there’s a heuristic for knowing when trying to solve problems with history is worse than nothing, I’ve missed it. Until I figure that out I’m going to have to stick with “always”

Why would a knowledge of history be worse than nothing? This is pretty basic know-nothingism, and is really just a 21st (maybe 20th) century version of this pronouncement by The Economist about a proposed sewer system:

Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient efforts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.

bcoates’s version “We don’t know” plus “science!”

Any argument that discounts broad swathes of human experience is going to default in favor of the status quo. Imagine a world without laws, and someone is proposing that murder be made illegal. The pre-lapsarian version of bcoates would say, “Do you have a double-blind study showing murder has a harmful effect on society?”

Luckily, today murder is already illegal so we don’t have that conversation. But the status quo is shitty in a lot of subtle ways that become more obvious the more historical knowledge you have.

The Voting Rights Act is a good example. The Supreme Court should spend less time looking at voter participation rates and more time looking at the historical reason for why those laws were introduced in the first place.

Moving on:

“History Helps Us Understand People and Societies”, but it doesn’t give us any basis for knowing if that understanding is based on broad stereotype or outright lies, or worse yet, someone else’s interpretation of history

This is a curious statement. The alternatives to historical understanding are basing opinions on personal experience (which has even less context on which to base its assumptions) or decontextualized statistics, which is what I suspect bcoates has in mind.

A major benefit of learning history (and especially the theory of history) is that you get to learn what people a lot smarter than you had to say about precisely this issue. In short, everything a person knows rests on some form of history and so to pretend that the world is some sort of constantly regenerating tabula rasa is an invidious ideology that rests entirely on unexamined assumptions.

Also, I’m not sure why “someone else’s interpretation of history” is worse than “outright lies.”

“History Provides Identity.” Identity, of course, being an organized system for dehumanizing other people.

I’m not sure what bcoates has in mind here, nor is it really clear from the context of the comment. I suspect neither does he, beyond dim misgivings about collectivism. But hey, whatever sounds good, right!

If it really is unavoidable, and history is somehow part of us that we cannot destroy, then maybe we need to fill that hunger with a nice pablum like the US civics curriculum. It’s a harm minimization strategy, like giving opiate addicts a supply of quality morphine so they don’t stick whatever they find on the street into their veins.

What’s interesting here is that he doesn’t think history is some part of people in that it shapes their material (and non) existence, but that people want to learn about history because of some inherent human trait. And a trait that he likens to heroin addiction, so it must be pretty bad.

His solution to this is a high school history class, which in his analogy is the cleanest form of a dangerous substance. Are history books by professors the equivalent of black tar heroin?

Snark aside, nothing he has written before the final paragraph leads to or justifies its conclusion (we need Civics classes); all he’s doing is repeating the same opinion over and over, albeit in different contexts. We have here an essay structured like an argument but that is, in fact, no such thing. The form resembles an argument in that bcoates is trying to convince us his point of view, but there is no cognitive work proceeding from one paragraph to the next. It is really nothing more than a list of assertions. And amongst all those words there is not a single sentence that is anything other than unsubstantiated opinion.

Now, if there were specific examples of what he had in mind when he discusses the dangers of learning history, it might merit a more thorough response. But when is nothing in his comment beyond aired prejudiced and preconceptions. When in doubt, stick close to the text.

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About deconstructionapplied

Writer, freelance editor. Former Occupier.
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