I think that raising the sanity waterline is a worthwhile goal, but picking your battles is absolutely necessary. It doesn't matter how formidable your argument is if you're arguing in the comments of a youtube video, you've lost by default. So where is the line in the  sand? Where would you feel compelled to take action, and to what lengths would you go to? What price would you be willing to pay?

I'm a psychology student, third year and currently doing a unit called "cultural psychology". The lecturer has advanced notions of "multiple truths" and how "reality is socially constructed". To quote him directly in regards to this:

"There is a tendency for those who believe in one reality to use the physical world as a basis for argument, while those who believe in multiple realities use the social world. Even in physics we have 'reality' changing as you get closer to the speed of light, and the laws of physics don't apply prior to the big bang. These are fairly extreme situations. In this course we are dealing with social realities and the point is that different cultures operate in worlds that can be quite different. To see this purely as a perspective risks the dominant social grouping seeing their reality as the true reality, and others as having a different perspective on that reality. The assumption that cultures can have different realities places every on a level playing field with a dominant culture calling all the shots."

You can see in the last line the conclusion he wants his premises to support. The exercise is not to pick his argument apart, find all the holes and write a crushing riposte (although you can if you're so inclined).

 

The question is, if the goal is to raise the sanity waterline, is this a battle worth picking?

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You could try to see what you can learn from the class. Take the lecturer's arguments seriously, try to translate them from the confused form in which he puts them into the strongest, most plausible version of those arguments that you can create, and see if there are any useful insights in there.

In the quote you gave, you can ignore the nonsense about physics (which isn't really essential to his argument), look past the massive affront to the map/territory distinction in his use of the word "reality," and turn the quote into something like:

When considering the views of different cultures or social groups, students often make judgments about which group is right, which undermines their ability to understand the groups' viewpoints and the processes by which they formed those views. Instead of taking every group's views seriously and looking at the social processes, the goal becomes to explain how their favored group was able to get it right and what is wrong with the other groups who got it wrong. This habit is often problematic even when students' judgment of what social groups got right or wrong is basically correct, and it becomes especially mistaken when they are mistaken about who got it right and are merely aligning themselves with their own cultural group or the dominant culture. In this class we will set aside questions of who is right and wrong in order to avoid these distortions and better understand these processes by which groups develop a framework for viewing the world.

Which sounds pretty reasonable, and similar to what Robin said in his recent podcast about how Democrats misunderstand American politics because they try to explain how Republicans got things wrong instead of trying to understand how these two competing political coalitions arose.

You can still note the problems with his versions of the argument, and with the improved version. For instance, if you set aside right and wrong, it becomes difficult to notice differences between groups in how sensitive they are to external evidence and you're liable to misunderstand social changes which are based on the accumulation of evidence about reality (like the belief in evolution). And it's fine to provide an occasional dose of sanity to class discussions, but you should try to do it tactfully without being a jerk or dominating class time.

I agree with this comment strongly enough that I'm unsatisified with merely upvoting it. I think the lecturer was making a valid point extremely poorly, and the above rewording is a great improvement. If you agree with the lecturer, arguing about word choice is probably a waste of time. If you don't, then frame your disagreement as if it were with the above paraphrase, because that's how it will seem to the lecturer, who (I expect) intended to convey something very like it.

You're making a mistake when you take talk of this sort at face value. This is ideological speech, not scientific or technical speech. It doesn't even try to present a rational argument based on facts and logic, and it doesn't strive for an accurate view of reality -- its purpose is not to do anything like that, no more than, say, a love poem has any such goals.

The true meaning of ideological language can be directly expressed only in the language of power. Like any other ideologue, your lecturer has an idea of what the social order and the relations of power should be like, and what measures should be taken to change the present system in this direction. His ideological language is meant to provide a rallying cry for his co-ideologues in order to sort out who is for and who against him, and to strengthen the passion and resolve within his own ranks. Agreeing or disagreeing with it will in practice signal only your ideological allegiance, and nothing at all about your intellectual standards.

If you want to reply to this ideological drivel, then in all likelihood, this is the only thing that your reply can communicate. It is impossible for you to innocently address only its literal meaning, keeping your hands clean from any implied considerations of power -- both the broader social power relations with which the lecturer's ideology is concerned, and the lecturer's own power in his position as an official institutional ideologist. Your reply will be immediately understood as a challenge and attack in terms of power, as a threat that must be met, not as an interesting contribution to truth-seeking. In this sense, challenging ideological language with logic is similar to what would happen if you tried to defend yourself on a show trial.

Whether you want to pick this battle is your call, but be aware that these are the terms in which it is likely to be fought.

Whatever purpose such texts are supposed to serve according to whatever theory, they still are crazy talk, incorrect reasoning. It might be rational to produce irrational reasoning on occasion, but that doesn't change the irrational character of that reasoning.

Not every human verbal expression falls under the category of "reasoning," under any sensible definition of the term. Nor is it rational in any sense to treat every utterance as such; information conveyed beyond the literal meaning of words is a regular feature of human communication, and often its relevance completely overshadows that of the literal meaning. (If anything, there is such a thing as pragmatics, though I'd say ideological language presents an additional level of distance from the literal meaning than just everyday pragmatics.)

Moreover, the poster's question was whether it's sensible to actively challenge these assertions in the given circumstances, and I think my answer addresses that specific issue, whether or not you agree with it.

It might not be the most relevant question whether the text is crazy, but it still is, even if it's for some impossible reason a very useful and pragmatic thing to utter. Arguing about definitions of "reasoning" isn't relevant, just as arguing about definitions of "rational" doesn't advance understanding of decision theory.

I'm not sure I follow. Are you really saying that a situation where invalid reasoning is a useful thing to utter falls under the category of "impossible"? (By the way, I meant "pragmatics" in the technical sense of the term.)

But more importantly: if you wish to focus on the literal meaning of these words, go ahead; certainly nobody who has the relevant knowledge can honestly disagree that the reasoning is completely invalid. Yet in this case, the intended non-literal ideological meaning expressed by these words is far more important than their literal meaning, and therefore you cannot expect to establish a discourse with the person who uttered them in terms of their literal meaning. These words were simply not intended to convey a logically and factually valid argument in the first place, no more than a casual acquaintance asking "How are you?" is interested in hearing an honest report about your ongoing life concerns.

Are you really saying that a situation where invalid reasoning is a useful thing to utter falls under the category of "impossible"?

I don't believe this particular case is one.

Yet in this case, the intended non-literal ideological meaning expressed by these words is far more important than their literal meaning

Important to whom? The students should insist of firing this fount of deep wisdom to preserve their sanity.

Vladimir_Nesov:

The students should insist of firing this fount of deep wisdom to preserve their sanity.

That is true, under two critical assumptions: that the students' primary goal in this situation is acquiring factually accurate knowledge about reality, and that the events that would be put into motion by placing such a request in practice would further their aims. Considering the reality of the contemporary Western university systems and their broader role in society -- especially their parts that deal with topics of this sort -- both assumptions are questionable at best.

"Sanity" is also not a good choice of word here. It normally refers to having a view of the world that is not so inaccurate that it would damage one's instrumental goals (either by entailing self-destructive action or by strong negative signaling). In contrast, certain types of inaccurate beliefs that have no such negative instrumental consequences can have highly beneficial status- and affiliation-signaling consequences, so it can be in one's interest to acquire them. Assuming that the beliefs promoted by the lecturer in question are in the latter category, I'm not sure if I would characterize resistance to his propaganda as "preserving one's sanity."

[-][anonymous]11y -1

Not every human verbal expression falls under the category of "reasoning," under any sensible definition of the term.

I can understand the text fragment cited in the post as reasoning, and according to this understanding, it's erroneous reasoning. You are arguing about definitions of "reasoning" now, which isn't at all relevant to my point.

Do you know of any good language of power-based answers to that sort of thing?

I'm not sure what exactly you mean by "good" in this context. What precise goal should be achieved by these answers?

Adjusting the power balance to something I'd approve of,.

That depends on your own position from which you're answering. If you're a student in class, there isn't really much you can do: after all, you're just an individual faced with an institutionally backed career ideologist. Whatever happens, next year you'll be gone, and he'll have another generation to propagandize.

However, there are all sorts of incredibly fun ways to be subversive. A rich source of inspiration could be the writings of people from the former Soviet Bloc who described their own experiences with the obligatory Marxism lessons at school and work. Especially considering that the risks of disobedience are much smaller here, so the creative opportunities are much greater too!

If SeventhNadir is really interested in sticking it to the man instead of nodding with a poker face, I'd recommend this latter course of action rather than open disobedience, which is unlikely to do any good.

I'd be tempted to ask the lecturer to rephrase the whole paragraph tabooing 'reality' - I get the feeling they're not actually saying anything controversial, they're just choosing to use 'reality' in a non-standard way. Of course, maybe I just don't spend enough time with the sort of people who genuinely believe this sort of stuff.

Even in physics we have 'reality' changing as you get closer to the speed of light, and the laws of physics don't apply prior to the big bang.

This isn't even close to being true. 'Reality' doesn't care what equations we use to approximate it.

If I were trying to say something like that tabooing "reality" ...

There is a tendency for those who believe that there is only one framework in which to integrate all observations to use the physical world as a basis for argument, while those who believe in using multiple frameworks use the social world. Even in physics we see the framework we use - our implicit and explicit assumptions - changing as you get closer to the speed of light, and the current frameworks of physics don't apply prior to the big bang. These are fairly extreme situations. In this course we are dealing with social frameworks and the point is that different cultures operate in worlds that can be quite different. To see this purely as a perspective risks the dominant social grouping seeing their framework as the only one which can be used to evaluate observations, and others as having a different perspective but that their perspective should still be analyzed using the same framework. The assumption that cultures can have different frameworks places every [sic] on a level playing field with a dominant culture calling all the shots.

which makes a point like that of Can You Prove Two Particles Are Identical?.

Edit: Except that the last sentence doesn't make sense - is there a typo?

If the lecturer agrees with this rephrasing and agrees that the word "reality" can indeed be tabooed for this purpose, then there is hope, but I'd expect he won't (you don't phrase things in confused terminology if you understand how to phrase them in a much more reasonable manner). It's probably a decades-old argument about definitions (that doesn't realize that it's an argument about definitions), which learned to protect itself from most patterns of rational argument, and most of the subject matter is about how to not notice the error at the center of it all.

This was exactly what I was going to do but you've done it much more elegantly.

To answer a question you didn't ask: I'm not sure that raising the sanity waterline is a battle worth picking. Adding water to the sea connotes futility because the sea is so vast; and while it may be that the benefits are correspondingly vast, it seems probable that we can achieve other vast benefits for much less effort, by targeting groups that are especially receptive and especially influential.

Is it worth your time and effort to be the lonely voice of dissent in this class? Does the format facilitate persuading other people in the class? Will you enjoy picking the fight anyway?

Considering the amount of time and effort I regularly waste procrastinating, my time doesn't seem to be worth that much. I think there is a very strong chance that if I speak out, other people might too. The well was poisoned early on in the unit where it was declared that "racist people generally have problems with this unit", now most people feel that they'll be vilified if they disagree with any of the coursework. I kind of agree with that assessment too.

Would I enjoy picking the fight? Yes, but I'm also working to change that fact about myself. The fact is, most people in the unit just don't care, they don't see it as an issue. Rather than counter the arguments, they're much more likely to ignore them, leaving me wondering why I bothered trying.

Does it have value as an experiment?

Well it is a problem I face a lot, so I'd like to find the best solution.

Try going meta. Other people must have thought of doing the same battle in the past, since this particular disagreement is not a new one. Imagine how these arguments might have went, given what you know about what generally goes on and has went on in the university. What kind of outcomes do you think there have been, and what have their frequencies been. It's probably easy to imagine a "wasn't worth it" outcome, which involves energy spent on your part, and nothing much changing. What kind of positive outcomes can you imagine?

As for this particular case, I'd figure developing a solid written defense for your stance would be a good academic exercise, regardless of how the battle with the lecturer goes.

Actually - a well written defense (aka 'tearing him a new one') might be a fun project, and I for one would upvote it as a front-page post.

Sure, everybody here knows that his argument is bullshit, but seeing it laid out in excrutiating detail would be amusing the same way RedLetterMedia's 2 hour long reviews of the Star Wars prequel movies are amusing.

Besides, it's always useful to have a go-to argument against X, Y, and Z forms of idiocy.

Who is the more irrational: the lecturer, who utters the gibberish, or the student, who pays to hear the lecture?

Well keep in mind the golden rule of game theory, players payoffs = players payoffs, not the values you assign them.

So students as a whole go to university to get a degree. As this is a core unit that must be completed, gibberish or not, a rational university student will aim to pass the unit. The lecturer (I've no idea what his payoffs are) makes a career out of advancing his own gibberish viewpoint, so he's also rational. Clearly, while I see a clear failing of the university system, all players are achieving their goals. All players are rational in the game theoretic sense.

But the student in uncertain of the value of the degree, especially since that value is function of how others evaluate the quality of the education. You could consider that the gibberish is evidence that the degree might be of low value, or only of value for careers where spouting gibberish is considered a desirable trait.

One of those careers is teaching cultural psychology, but obviously not all students of cultural psychology can become teachers of cultural psychology, which is why some people call higher education a pyramid scheme.

It's also possible that some companies value the ability to unthinkingly accept gibberish as a valuable loyalty signal. It does seem quite likely that loyalty is valued more often than critical thinking.

If you're 80% of the way through a degree in a field that you care about, I see two options, continue or stop. If I stop, I've wasted time, effort and considerable amounts of money. If I continue, I have to put up with my lecturers unpolished set of beliefs.

Continuing the degree is a perfectly rational course of action. Even assuming that my degree was complete bollocks, there is a market for lemons.

If I stop, I've wasted time, effort and considerable amounts of money

No. If the degree is not valuable, you've wasted time, effort, and considerable amounts of money, and that's true regardless of whether you continue from the present point or not. Your prior investment doesn't actually have a logical bearing on the best course of action after the investment has already been made.

Your reasoning is correct IF AND ONLY IF the degree is not valuable. The degree however is clearly valuable since it will increase my employment options. If you believe that degree is not valuable, I'll ask that you give your line of reasoning.

Apparently some people here look down on a psychology degree. I don't blame you, the curriculum doesn't do the subject matter justice. The condescending attitude is something you might want to examine though.

What Sniffnoy said. I don't have any opinion at all about your degree--I just started one myself, and being new to the thread didn't know what yours was in. I was just trying to point out that you were committing the prior investment fallacy in a more polite way than saying "you're committing the prior investment fallacy." The point was not "the degree is useless, bail," it was "don't factor what you've already spent into your calculation about what to do next, just include what you may or may not spend in the future."

Is there a way I could have phrased that which would have made it more clear to you that the comment wasn't personal?

On reflection, you're right. I wasn't aware that the prior investment fallacy existed and I was certainly committing it. Thank you for pointing it out, I'm going to have a look at it in more detail to avoid falling into the same trap in the future.

I think I was a little irked at Daniel Burfoot's comment and those feelings bled through into how I interpreted your post. I feel a bit silly now.

No worries, it happens. :) Glad I could help.

Huh? It looked like Relsqui just pointed out a pretty straightforward instance of the sunk-cost fallacy. How close you are to completion is relevant, how far you are from the start is not.

It depends partly on your fellow students. What's your impression of their open-mindedness?

You're bringing back memories of a class I took where I thought the teacher was wrong about a number of things (sorry, details forgotten), and being told a number of times by fellow students that they were there to listen to the teacher and not to me.

I'd say that what you're dealing with is not an emergency, and if you want to oppose those ideas to a large extent (if you want to do disagreement in class now and then, I'm not going to argue with you), post it at a social website where students are likely to see it.

My impression of their open mindedness is that it really is an individual thing. Some people agree with me because they want to please people (which isn't what I'm after),

Some people disagree with me and hit me with a confident "but that's just your opinion" (which drives me absolutely insane, what can you even do here?)

Some people listen to my arguments, think about them (this is what I'm after), then come to some sort of conclusion.

I suppose its the second group of people that really frustrate me and make me want to not bother. I say that the idea of "multiple truths" implies that anything can be true. If anything can be true, then nothing is false. If this was the case, why bother coming to University to learn at all? According to what multiple truths implies, if you think it, it's true.

If I'm talking to someone from group 2, I'll get variations on "No you're wrong.", "That's just your opinion" or "I don't care."

All three responses really push my buttons.

Some people disagree with me and hit me with a confident "but that's just your opinion" (which drives me absolutely insane, what can you even do here?)

You could try pointing out that it's an opinion about the subject, which isn't related to an opinion about your opinion about the subject, with only the latter being brought up by that argument.

The relevant skill is focusing on a specific topic and not lumping everything in a single connotational soup. I believe it's important to have a clear understanding of specific reasons why even the most abysmal errors are not correct arguments.

If someone tries the just an opinion gambit ask them if it is just an opinion whether gravity exists. (Ok, so I'm advocating hitting one cached thought with another cached thought. It works surprisingly often.)

Remember Cached Thoughts: people might dismiss your arguments at the time by saying "That's just your opinion, LOL!" Just don't finish off by leaving a bad taste in their mouth ("Oh yeah? Well it's also my opinion that you have a questionable genetic lineage, wherein your conception inolved a freelance contract on the part of your mother, which required her to bring a second set of underpants!") Let them off with a "Fair enough, dude," or similar platitude.

Six months later your ideas will have percolated through their (evidently) thick skull, and you're likely to stumble upon them voicing your very argument to someone else, and thinking that they invented it.

I've experienced this many a time.