A commenter raised an interesting point on the pontifical post, a point that I’ve been pondering on and off (mostly off) ever since JS cc’d me his replies to the HERO interview.

The point the commenter raises is the same one JS raises: the idea that it’s good to teach pseudoscience in universities because otherwise people get smug and lazy. Bridget in comments:

Students who are not exposed to a range of theories with stronger or weaker truth claims, do not develop the ability to critically judge the validity of what they are taught – they become lazy thinkers.

JS in the interview:

I’m not comfortable with consensus, so I think if it turned out that the kinds of views that B&W advocates became mainstream and taken-for-granted, then I’d have to adopt alternative positions. This isn’t just bloody-minded contrarianism; I think there is value in dialectical engagement. It inoculates against the possibility of a smug complacency over our truth-claims.

I told JS that I’d tell him why I disagreed with his replies if he had more time (if he weren’t working on 57 books), but he doesn’t have more time (because of working on 57 books), and my thoughts on the subject are as it were burning a hole in my pocket. I feel dissatisfied and irked keeping them to myself. It’s kind of like keeping a sexual urge to yourself, only different. I have informed one or two people I know about my thoughts on the subject, and they were immensely pleased and thankful, but I find I still want to air them some more.

One problem I think that idea has is that it contradicts what JS himself wrote about B&W on the About page when we first set it up.

There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour.

There’s a reason for that thought, surely. The reason is that preconceptions get in the way of telling the truth about the world (and of finding out what the truth about the world is) because they are extraneous. They impede, they get in the way, they detour, they introduce the irrelevant, they distort. (Of course, we’re all only human, and we can’t get rid of all our preconceptions, but that doesn’t mean we should just shrug and let them run riot.) They replace the endeavour to find the truth with the endeavour to find whatever matches up best with one’s preconceptions – and that’s the wrong way to go about trying to find the truth. And it seems to me that deciding in advance to ‘adopt alternative positions’ when the views one thought were true become mainstream, is simply bringing another preconception to the endeavour. It seems to me that displaces asking to the best of one’s ability ‘are these views true?’ in favour of asking ‘are these views mainstream?’ and that that is the right way to get at what is or is not mainstream, but the wrong way to get at what is or is not true. It seems to me to be introducing an irrelevance.

I’m not very fond of conventional wisdom and received opinions and the tepid waters of the mainstream myself, but the fact remains that in scientific or factual matters, popularity is irrelevant to truth. It is of course relevant to ‘truth,’ to what passes for truth, as Susan Haack puts it; but it’s not relevant to actual truth. So I don’t quite see why concerns about potential smug complacency should trump concerns about telling the truth about the world. Smug complacency is irritating stuff, no doubt about it, but is it really worse than lying? And does it make sense to lie for the sake of avoiding smug complacency over our truth-claims? And then of course there’s the obvious problem that resisting consensus and the mainstream can lead to smug complacency over our truth-claims at least as easily as simply going along with consensus can. So maybe it’s more sensible just to do one’s best to get at the truth with whatever methods seem to do the job and not worry about smug complacency, rather than deciding to talk nonsense and risk being a smugly complacent anti-consensus rebel.

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