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Erisology, interrogated

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

socrates, drinking hemlock after getting ratioed in the agora

Welp, Jesse Singal has shit the bed again, and it's time for an overeducated and underpaid trans woman to clean up his mess. In his "The New Science of How to Argue — Constructively", Singal proposes a new discipline: "erisology," the study of discord. Ignoring the millennia-old disciplines of philosophy, rhetoric, and psychology, he argues that online flame wars reveal a disturbing rise in acrimonious, unproductive disagreement. People argue past each other, full of passion and conviction, and nobody walks away satisfied. Singal's chief solution to this problem is that we do more "decoupling":

"removing extraneous context from a given claim and debating that claim on its own, rather than the fog of associations, ideologies, and potentials swirling around it."

I tried to imagine how this works in practice, and was quite puzzled. Then I saw his suggestion that hard scientists are particularly good at decoupling, and I was truly baffled. What does it mean to evaluate a claim "on its own," without any "extraneous" couplings? To figure this out, let's take Singal at his word: it is a good rule for thought, especially in the hard sciences, to evaluate each idea alone, without coupling it to any others.

Let's take a look at how science actually works — the "hardest" science we can get — say particle physics. We wanted to know whether the Higgs Boson existed. To do this, we built a rather gigantic machine that collides subatomic particles at fractional-c velocities. Similarly gigantic machines sat waiting to record the energy output of these collisions. Petabytes of resulting data were then crunched by advanced software, applied to extant theories, and finally we said: yes. It exists.

So how on Earth are we meant to decouple "The Higgs exists" from the vast frameworks of particle physics, engineering, computer science, that are required to construct and interpret that experimental apparatus? How do we respond to a Singal-inspired interlocutor who insists on debating the existence of the Higgs but won't allow us to mention the Standard Model, or quantum electrodynamics, or cloud chambers? Contra Singal, coupling — connecting one idea up with others, seeing the connections between distant things — is one of the essential aspects of even the hardest sciences.

Now, if that argument doesn't satisfy you, maybe you'll be interested in a historical excursion. For "decoupling" is not a particularly new idea. In the early 20th century, a group of philosophers hoped to put science on a good intellectual footing. They proposed that good science is built on a foundation of pure observations — sensory experiences that are perfectly decoupled from any prior theory. Using the tools of logic and (controversially) probability theory, a true and rational theory of the world could be constructed on that sturdy foundation. This was called logical positivism.

It did not work. The "basic uncoupled unit" proved impossibly elusive; no good definition of it ever emerged. And even given some half-formed definition, nobody was ever able to replicate even basic levels of scientific reasoning on that basis. The failure of logical positivism as a research program led philosophers to conclude, as W.V.O. Quine put it, that "The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science," ("Two Dogmas of Empiricism," p. 39). The individual ideas that comprise a theory meet the world together, not in starry isolation.

To get back to the main point: what this all shows is that Jesse can't want every idea decoupled from every other. Rather, he wants to decouple science from politics (this is dramatically more obvious in his source material; see note below on the Less Wrong movement). What are politics? Based on his examples, things that impact questions of gender and race. In other words, what we're really looking at is a rant about identity politics dressed up in epistemic language. So let's dig into one of Singal's examples and see if his proposal fares any better than logical positivism before it:

"When scientists bring forth solid evidence that sexual orientation is innate, or close to it, conservatives have lashed out against findings that would “normalize” homosexuality."

Instead, Singal suggests, we should decouple the purely scientific question ("is sexual orientation innate") from the political one ("is homosexuality normal"); this will let us all calm down and have a more productive online experience.

Now you might immediately point out that "innate" is not a term with a rigorous scientific definition. It means "something we can't change," which is a rather political concept that depends quite a lot on who "we" are and what tools we have access to. And you can hardly decouple politics from such an idea!

This is true! But let's save that thought. There's something more important: investigating sexual orientation while decoupling yourself from (ignoring) politics is just bad science. The questions of how you design instruments, recruit subjects, and interpret results are all inextricably tied to political difficulties. Some examples:

i) Rebecca Jordan shows how survey instruments like the Kinsey scale have been used to obscure underlying differences in operant conceptions of homosexuality (as desire, as act, and as identity), allowing researchers to draw unsupported conclusions (Brain Storms). ii) Michael Bailey's much-ballyhooed study that "demonstrated" the nonexistence of bisexual men recruited its study subjects primarily from gay bars. iii) And here is my own discussion on why trans researchers need to listen to trans people if they want to do good science.

The study of human sexuality is fraught with politics, history, difficulty. Ignoring all that stuff makes you a bad scientist who does bad — inaccurate and misleading — research. Decoupling, at least as Singal describes it, is not a recipe for thinking clearly. So what is it for?

If you'll indulge a moment of psychoanalysis, I want to speculate a bit on why Singal wrote this piece. His frequent references to "blood-spattered" Twitter feeds are revealing: people keep calling him an ignorant bigot on Twitter. Since he is a white man, and ipso facto neither ignorant nor a bigot, he's gone searching for another explanation: his interlocutors are "low-decouplers," which is a fancy and modern way of saying "hysterical bitches whose emotions overwhelm their reason." This is just to say: erisology is not a method for seeking the truth. It's a toolbox for explaining why people who disagree with you are delusional. It's a man screaming at the top of his lungs that you're too emotional to understand why he's right. It's a set of rhetorical strategies for avoiding interrogating one's own biases.

What the Greeks knew and Singal would prefer to forget is that we are inherently political creatures. Denying that you have emotions just means letting yourself be ruled by them. Denying that you have a standpoint just means ignoring your blind spots. Ignoring history just means repeating it. Being conscious of these things — what Singal derisively calls "low decoupling" — doesn't mean abandoning truth, let alone objectivity. It's the only way to achieve them. Note 1: As usual, Singal has worked to obscure the intellectual origins of his ideas — in this case, the Rationalist movement (you may know them from Less Wrong, or Slate Star Codex, or Effective Altruism). See this deep dive for a revealing look. For those not familiar with this movement, here's the short version: it is deeply unfortunate that a movement with such noble goals and important insights is also a cesspool of misogyny and sexual assault organized around cult-like worship of brain-genius authority figures. See here for Singal's past attempts to launder terf talking points found on 4thWaveNow, and here for my discussion of the same.

Note 2: I should also note that Singal presents an idiosyncratic reading of history (for those without an academic background: "idiosyncratic" is code for "wrong and dumb"), where acrimonious disagreement is a result of the rise of Twitter and Online; he contrasts this with a Greek-derived golden age. He imagines a society where disagreement was rarely heated, well-known rules were generally followed, and debates generally resulted in persuasion and convergence. But this conception is belied by basically all of Plato's dialogues! To take one notable example, Thrasymachus does not walk away from Republic I calm and convinced! Indeed, Republic as a whole is structured around the utter failure of public debate as a truth-seeking method! Plato's convictions are driven by the fact that the Greek assembly executed Socrates on pretextual charges! Singal's ignorance of all this is astounding, but also no surprise: calling back to an uncorrupted golden age is a staple of reactionary ideology.

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