Sham Inquiry

A bit from an essay of Susan Haack’s in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, page 8.

And to inquire is to try to discover the truth of some question. But pseudo-inquiry is a phenomenon no less common than pseudo-belief…Peirce identifies one kind of pseudo-inquiry when he writes of ‘sham reasoning’ [Collected Papers, I. 57-58]: making a case for the truth of some proposition your commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof.

Yes. A neat summing-up. Also a neat expression of the basic, the as it were foundational principle of B&W – which could be called identification of and opposition to sham inquiry.

Also a neat, succint description of how Margaret Mead went wrong. I’ve just been re-reading Derek Freeman’s book on the subject, as well as a brilliant long article on Franz Boas in The New Yorker last year (not online, unfortunately) by Claudia Roth Pierpont. It’s an interesting and somewhat conflict-inducing subject – because Boas was so right, from a moral and political view; he was so admirable, and often so isolated. And yet. From an epistemic point of view, he did get things backward. And yet – what else can one do in a situation like that? When racist ‘eugenic’ ideas are sweeping the intellectual landscape and you’re convinced they’re both harmful and false, what can you do but look for evidence to back up your conviction? And yet – if you do that, you are getting things the wrong way around, and you are very likely – you may indeed be consciously determined – to ignore any evidence you don’t want. Politically, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do (and I’m sure I do it all the time); in terms of inquiry, it’s just not the way to go.

Haack goes on,

He has in mind philosophers who devise elaborate metaphysical underpinnings for theological propositions which no evidence or argument would induce them to give up. I think of Philip Gosse’s tortured efforts to reconcile the evidence Darwin adduced in favour of the theory of evolution with the literal truth of the book of Geneisis – and of the advocacy ‘research’ and politically motivated ‘scholarship’ of our own times. The characteristic feature of sham inquiry is the ‘inquirer’s’ prior and unbudgeable commitment to the proposition for which he tries to make a case.

Something to watch out for.

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