Who needs sophistry, anyway?

Scientists and philosophers need sophistry. This article will
show why and how. The argument will need to draw from the history and
philosophy of science of Pierre Duhem, as well as the concepts of
intellectual property and the science of persuasion.

I. A choice of arms.

As you are reading this, you may hear a popping noise. Do not fret: it
is the faint, disquieting sound of science being broken. It is this
tiny bit of irksome vibration that really gives content to the name,
“pop science”. Well-intentioned hands of varying degrees of competence
are to blame for it.

We all know of professional errors. The most recent case that comes to
mind is that of Dr. William Hammesfahr, a figure in the Terri Schiavo
farce. His credentials are never questioned — he was not a mail-order
doctor — but despite his vetting, we were left with impressions of
incompetence fuelled by his attempts to engage in patient checkups via
. One may also be reminded of Dr. Bill Frist’s
allegations that AIDS could be caught through tears and sweat
(though, to his credit, his claims were tentative). Noteables may
include Ward Churchill’s sock
puppet style
to academic
. Examples are never hard to find on this score, and it’s
hard to have the discipline to carry through a list.

There are also the errors of pundits. Michael Crichton’s war on global
warming comes first to mind, relying upon weak arguments to
reach the bold conclusion he desired. In June of this year, Eric
Muller reviewed
an attack
upon the purportedly leftist American legal system by
jurist-cum-pundit Mark W. Smith. Muller’s question was, “Where is the
academic truth squad?” Why don’t professional intellectuals voice
their critiques publically?

Muller’s question can be rephrased and its scope may be expanded.
Whenever science is under attack from the world of the layman, where
are the defences from scientists? Why greet slander with silence?

The standard view seems to be that, if the expert gives a response to
folly, they dignify foolishness. This is undoubtedly part of LBJ’s
logic when he reputedly asked an aide to spread a rumor that Nixon
liked to fuck pigs, just because Johnson wanted to hear Nixon deny it.
Whatever Nixon’s answer, it would have been self-defeating. And no
doubt this is the tactic which the
had in mind when they sang: “Pay no mind to what they say
/ It doesn’t matter anyway / … There’s a weapon we must use / In our
defense: / silence.”

A part of this view can be sustained by a certain view of the nature
of rationality. According to cooperation
, what it means to reason adequately is to cooperate in
conversation. Fallacies of
informal logic
are paradigmatic examples of problems that arise
simply because one interlocutor was either unwilling or unable to
understand the other locutor correctly (i.e., ambiguity and
amphiboly), or pursued ends in conversation which were other than
reaching mutual understanding (i.e., ad hominems). Indeed, in my
experience, some (admittedly bastardized) corollary to the
cooperative view, the “principle of
“, is par for the course in contemporary analytic
philosophy. So if the purpose of the scientist and
scientifically-minded philosopher is to foster and encourage reasoned
debate, then it does no-one any good to engage in uncooperative ones,
the kind which are inevitably based on toxic
gesticulations at a fellow television panellist
for the purposes
of impressing a bored studio audience. Reason is a lifestyle, in a
sense, and getting in a rhetorical firefight chips away at one’s sense
of it. Better to just walk away.

However, when the standard view is taken to excess, it involves a kind
of intellectual hygiene that can also be consistent with cult-like
behavior, or otherwise result in spoiled impressions. After all, this
is a tactic that Ayn Rand stressed quite a bit in her work, and thus a
kind of mantra which Leonard Peikoff and his friends use to insulate
themselves intellectually. It’s a tactic which John Kerry used against
the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sham — and much to
America’s dismay, gave the Vets ground they might not have otherwise
had. Many scientists and philosophers have realized the perils of
insulation, and taken strides to build a genuine “third

Another kind of silence is the quieting of thought, and not just of
speech. The quieting of the mind takes the form of indecision and
apathy. To some ancient Greek philosophers, the state of indifference,
called ataraxia, could be a means of avoiding suffering. No doubt, the
solid majority of persons who are uninitiated to the minor passions
which propel scholarly opinion are largely in this state of contented
indecision, letting those things which are merely academic belong to
the academy. I think it goes without saying, though, that this sublime
indifference is not a thing which will find much purchase among

If silence seems far from enough, we have at least three ways to speak
truth to power. Some methods are more dramatic, some less; some more
legitimate, some less.

For instance, if drama is not the forte of scientists, they might
(when given the opportunity) appeal to a kind of invitational
: a tone of conversation which opens up disciplined but free
inquiry in pursuit of mutual understanding
. This might be what Balthasar
had in mind when he wrote, “speak with the many, but think
with the few”. Nevertheless, regrettably, the demands of situations
will take their toll, and in a mass-media environment, invitational
rhetoric seems impossible.

On the other hand, if drama can be stomached, the scientist can engage
in traditional debates, or in humor-driven
, or not-so-humor-driven derogation of the source. Both
strategies have the advantage of being mere changes in tone, not
necessarily having to resort to outright falsehoods for the sake of
making an impression. The downside is that both seem like unreasonable
strategies in those situations where error arises innocently.

The final alternative is to engage in well-intentioned sophistry.
Sophistry, for my purposes, is characterized by the use of wise
exaggerations, or what we might call sophiboles. Use of the
sophibole can be catalogued on a spectrum: at one end, a great deal of
content is fabricated to convey a few truths, and at the other end,
the fabrications are only rhetorical exagerations to make a point. At
the one end, to make use of symbolism and allegory in fictional
storytelling is to make ample use of the sophibole. Somewhere in the
middle of the spectrum, we have satire. At the other extreme, we have
statements which are not strictly true, but which get a message across
more forcefully than would be possible by other means. It goes without
saying that my analysis for present purposes concentrates upon the
exaggerated content of some utterances, and not merely their
manner of speaking.

II. Scientific sophibole.

A. The scientific revolution.

What is perhaps neglected in regular analysis of these themes is the
extent to which ostensibly competent scientists themselves deviate
from reason and careful analysis in their rhetoric, and make strange

In order to understand the force of the argument to follow, we should
first pause to ask, “What is science? How is it practiced?”. It seems
to me that scientific inquiry can be summarized as the application of
logic to the recognition of patterns through empirical research. This
generic formulation allows for all kinds of different methods of
inquiry to don the cap of “science”, so long as the procedures are an
admixture of deduction and induction, with emphasis upon the latter.
For instance, the hypothetico-deductive method, inductive
classification, and the abductive method are all accounted for. (The
sole worry is that some varieties of pseudoscience seem to fall under
that very same heading, but for the purposes of brevity I’m going to
ignore that.)

One unfortunate implication of this understanding of science is that
it seems to suggest that the conclusions we draw are entirely
fallible. For if we rely so
much upon induction
, almost nothing is wholly certain. We are
stuck understanding the fruits of science as mere probabilities,
and/or as fanciful constructions open to future review (what the late
and handsomely named Benjamin
N. Nelson
called “probabilism” and “fictionalism”, respectively).
And indeed, despite a history of noble attempts to save scientific
certainty without appeal to either of these beasts, these simply seem
like the most plausible ways to understand the way science moves.

[Other candidates touted as saviors of philosophical certainty include
concepts like the “a priori” and direct causal knowledge of external,
but it seems to me they have inspired more confidence than they
deserve. Appeals to the a priori are most plausibly defended
by those philosophers of mind who defend theories of innateness.
However, so long as they present cases in terms of innate abilities,
not innate ideas or thoughts, they miss the point of the empiricist’s
dismissal of the a priori. Appeals to direct causal knowledge of
external events seem more plausible — I can see very clearly that my
hand causes the pen to move across the table when I will it, with only
minimal inference involved — this knowledge is not as reliable as
knowledge of the sense-data which saturate my experience.]

What’s quite disquieting to learn is that, according to the
estimations of historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem, if
you were to ask the canonical Enlightenment scientists (Galileo,
Francis Bacon, Pascal, Copernicus, Kepler, or Newton) whether or not
probabilism or fictionalism were scientific, they would have laughed
you sober. The conclusions of these greats were bold and assertive
statements of truth (usually referred to as a kind of realism). They
did not make serious pitstops in hard skepticism. According to Nelson,
they had both subjective certitude and objective
, propelled (in Galileo’s case; in Il
) by a Pythagorean conviction that the universe is
understandable only through appreciation of numbers, but yielding a
profound certainty.

As Edward Grant (1962) explains:

Modern science has shown a greater affinity with the XIVth
century than with the century of Galileo and Newton. In the judgment
of Pierre Duhem medieval scholastics had a truer conception of science
than did most of the great scientists of the Scientific Revolution…
He could not hide his scorn for the naivete of some of the greatest
figures of XVIIth century science who confidently believed they could
— and should — grasp and lay bare reality itself…

Duhem is, in general, quite right. Scholastics were most sophisticated
and mature in their understanding of the role which an hypothesis must
play in the fabric of science. They were not, as we have seen, deluded
into believing that they could acquire indubitable truths about
physical reality. But it is an historical fact that the Scientific
Revolution occurred in the XVIIth century — not in the Middle Ages
under nominalist auspices. Despite the significant achievements of
medieval science… it is doubtful that a scientific revolution could
have occurred within a tradition which came to emphasize uncertainty,
probability, and possibility, rather than certainty, exactness and
faith that fundamental physical truths– which could not be
otherwise– were attainable. It was Copernicus who, by an illogical
move, first mapped the new path and inspired the Scientific Revolution
by bequeathing to it his own ardent desire for knowledge of physical
realities. [from “Late Medieval Thought, Copernicus and the
Scientific Revolution” in the Journal of the History of Ideas.]

So, by Duhem’s account, the true defenders of cautious (but logical)
science were not the recognized icons of the
scientific revolution, but rather, in many cases they were orthodox
advocates of the church. In other words: those men who came to totally
wrongheaded conclusions about, say, heliocentrism, themselves seemed
to make more logical and sensible presentations on the nature of
science than the actual advocates of science themselves.

No doubt, Duhem’s claims are worth inspiring volumes of debate.
Conventional wisdom seems to be knocked about like a mouse in the paws
of a cat. Whatever conclusions
which the reader accepts of Duhem’s, and which they reject, it doesn’t
matter, on the whole. What I ask of the reader is to concede a single
point on epistemology. All I need to make my day is the concession
that, with rare exceptions, scientific investigations most prudently
and reasonably merit statements in terms of probabilities, not
certainties. Once we accept these rough-and-ready ideas about the
state of knowledge, we are in a position to accept that these
brilliant, innovative, and informed people really were engaging in
sophibolic rhetoric.

B. Pinker and Turkheimer.

So sophiboles, it seems, were historically used. But sophiboles are
not just of historical interest. They are used regularly today by the
most respectable of scholars.

Take the case of social scientists Steven Pinker and Eric Turkheimer.
The latter declared that “the nature-nurture debate is over”, and
introduced three laws of behavioral genetics to prove it. They are
extremely interesting findings, and in another context, I would
consider myself enriched after learning of them. The first law (as
presented by Pinker in “The Blank Slate”) is: “All human behavioral
traits are heritable.” (By “heritable”, it is meant: “the proportion
of variance in a trait that correlates with genetic differences”; by
“behavioral trait”, “a stable property of a person”, which can be
measured either by standardized psych tests, or by direct testing.)
Unfortunately, the first law, as stated, is exactly and explicitly the
opposite of what the author means, and so stated, it is the opposite
of the truth. Pinker writes two pages later: “Concrete behavioral
traits that patently depend on content provided by the home or culture
are, of course, not heritable at all”. Thus, some behavioral traits
are not heritable. Thus, Pinker admits that the first law is
“a bit of an exaggeration”. But one wonders: what for? Why bother
exaggerating? It would only take one measely qualifier in the first
law to make it totally accurate. And it seems curiouser and curiouser
that Pinker would, another three pages later, write: “More
pernicious is the way that the First Law is commonly interpreted [by
leftist critics]: “So you’re saying it’s all in the genes,” or, more
angrily, “Genetic determinism!” I have already commented on this odd
reflex in modern intellectual life: when it comes to genes, people
suddenly lose their ability to distinguish 50 percent from 100
percent, “some” from “all”…

I hope I don’t need to show how ironic his critiques are in context.
The first law, again, is “All human behavioral traits are
heritable”. Pinker agrees that this is wrong. He then chastizes people
who correctly interpret it as wrong, and wags his finger saying that
they’ve confused their quantifiers. Meanwhile, that’s exactly what he
has done; their interpretation of genetic determinism is totally
correct if you look at the law alone. And none of it is mitigated by
any special use of terms within the law (as I laid out their meaning
in context). Turkheimer simply declares an absurdity and defends a
related, but different, claim, and Pinker has his back.

C. Intelligent design.

Among scientists, the most tendentious recent example of sophistic
rhetoric is that used in the Intelligent Design debate. I must confess
from the outset that, to the extent that we care about metaphysics,
the theory of I.D. seems well within the confines of a minimally
plausible explanation, simply because it makes a theory which is
consistent with (though not supported by) empirical
data. I.D. is rightly at the margins of acceptable scientific
explanation because it borrows too much from what we can’t observe.
This is a perfectly good reason why mainstream scientists tend to fall
short of lending it scientific credence. So I.D. makes for bad
science, in the sense that it is merely consistent with evidence and
not supported by it. But it doesn’t necessarily make for a bad
explanation, and thus to be dismissed out of hand.

No doubt, the informed reader will say: “Who cares? Most of those who
speak up on this matter, don’t want to ban I.D. from all discussion.
They want to show how it makes for bad science.” But the relevance of
this point can be shown by comparing it to ideas more congenial to the
modern scholarly consensus, but similarly lacking in justification.
That is, I presently have as much reason, empirically, to believe in
gravitons as I do to believe in the interventions of any gods. To
postulate either is to create a neat picture of the universe, with
clear causes and clear effects. In neither case have we got any direct
evidence, but both provide enough theoretical implications for a
minimally satisfying explanation, albeit not a convincing or
scientific one. And an appeal to an in principle difference between
the existence of gravitons and God rings hollow. To say that the
existence of the graviton is falsifiable in theory, while the
existence of God is not, is to come to the table with a number of
preconceptions about the latter which aren’t necessarily true. All
kinds of unlikely thought-experiments might be made to prove the
existence of God — for instance, one might go back in time to before
the Big Bang (if that’s even coherant), and see it create the
universe. Sure, this will probably never happen, but it defeats a
“possible in principle” argument.

Moreover, the I.D. advocates are far from being unique in flying
through science by the seat of their pants. Certain researchers in string
may be imitating the I.D. technique, going far and away
beyond what a reasonable, informed, and disinterested observer could
claim. Cue Peter Woit: “I would argue that a good first step would be
for string theorists to acknowledge publicly the problems and cease
their tireless efforts to sell this questionable theory to secondary
school teachers, science reporters and program officers”.

Perhaps the reader will not be able to stomach my last few paragraphs.
If it seems like too much to bear, then that is your due. But all I
meant to suggest in this illustration is to show that respectable and
sincere arguments can be quite bold, and in their boldness, make use
of sophibole. Moreover, sophibole is used for clear strategic
purposes. We must infer that the scientist-cum-sophist genuinely
believes that their bold conclusions are apt to be persuasive.

The net effect is to obscure our understanding of the role which
metaphysical explanations have in the scientific enterprise. I’m not
sure whether this is intentional or not.

None of this is to indicate that these thinkers misunderstand science.
Nor is it necessarily to accuse any of them of misconduct. If there is
a difference between these folks and the discredited professionals we
met earlier, and if my epistemic bearings are well adjusted, then the
claims of these persons must involve the difference between words and
deeds. That, finally, leads to the set of questions I wonder about:

1. Do scientists need sophistry? If so, why?

2. What are the consequences of being prudent? What would the world be
like today if probabilistic views of science had been adopted by the
canonical figures of the scientific revolution?


A. Intellectual territory.

At first blush, the claim that scientists need to disseminate
sophiboles seems like madness. A case can be made to say that
scientists do not need to use sophistic rhetoric, nor do philosophers.
Rather, it is the process of reasoning and of science itself which
must be properly understood, regardless of the particular conclusions
which either reach. The point of a third culture should be to
popularize a method (or small set of methods) which were designed to
make powerful inquiries about life and the world, not about how the
particular results of some particular experiment are disseminated. It
is not to put forward bold conclusions as if they were indisputable.

But, as attractive as that opinion may be, it doesn’t approach some
lingering worries about culture and society. Humans are cultural
animals, and scientists are humans. Scientists, as humans, seem to
need to interest themselves in the world that they live. And the
consequences of disengagement with the wider world could marginalize
the very institutions of science themselves.

There are a few ways to make this argument.

First, I might mention the politico-economic argument, which tells us
that it is important to have the academic institution legitimized in
the popular mind in order to have political and economic opportunities
(i.e., increased funding, grants, etc.)

Second, I might also mention the progressive impulse, which tells us
that an increase in scientific competence in the layman public will
compel innovation within the research industry in order to stay
relevant. Powerful arguments can be made for both, and neither seem to
be furthered by sophistry. But these arguments are beyond my purpose

A third way, what we might call the “cultural argument”, relies upon a
certain, perhaps naive, vision of the scientist. I take it that
scientists (or at least, the stereotypical scientist) care a great
deal about the content of the material they study. [Of course, this
can be nitpicked. The scientist is human, situated in a certain social
framework, and whose perceptions and motives are both potentially
fallible and flawed, and may be imperfect in their reasonings. But
none of this impugnes a mere method, and so, all of it has an air of
ho-hum to it.]

So it feels intrinsically valuable to have certain knowledge (or at
least, well-justified beliefs). Indeed, closeness to certain objects
of experience naturally creates a sense of ownership or entitlement
over those things. Just as people come to love their home after living
in it a while
, they may become more attached to certain ideas and
facts as their studies progress. This or that fact becomes a miniature
shrine, so to speak. Indeed, a summary of the history of scientific
development could be described in its entirety as a story of finding
wonder in simple things which had previously seemed dull. In the realm
of intellectual property, we can specifically point out that
intelligibility and understanding of some propositions will produce a
sense of ownership over them.

The distinction between a sense of ownership and actual ownership is
the distinction we might make between territory and property.
Territory is the subjective sense of proprietorship over some ideas or
land which arises out of want; while property is baptized into
legitimacy by recognition from others. [This distinction is not novel;
Samuel von Pufendorf’s distinction between positive / negative
community approaches something of the point. But the terminology may
be new, so it’s worth noting here.]

For those who hold their discoveries as things of intrinsic value, it
may follow that, to an extent, the ignorance, neglect, and apathy
toward these facts and ideas among the body of laymen may motivate
those in the research industry to spread the wealth of knowledge. If
we take seriously the idea that intelligibility begets a sense of
ownership, of territoriality, then it follows that, as more people
understand certain scientific or philosophical facts, the more that
these facts belong to a culture’s storehouse of ideas, their
intellectual territory. [I deliberately avoid using the term “meme”
because its formulations presently seem incoherant. Still, it may help
to think of intellectual territory as the relationship between a
culture and its memes.]

In such cases, the best scientists would seem to favor the conclusions
of the method, up and beyond the method itself. The expression and
dissemination of content becomes more important than the way of
epistemic prudence over the strength of the claims.

This view is not hard to find in print when it comes to ommissions of
morals and reason, and not just of science. In reference to editorial
handling of a recent court ruling on the Bush administration’s abuses
of power, Glenn
writes: “…not everything has two or more sides.
Some issues are complicated, but some are not. And some dangers are
profound and grave enough that putting a stop to them is infinitely
more important than engaging in fun, intellectual games designed to
show how serious and studious and intellectually dexterous one is.
Sometimes, the “destination” matters more than the soul-searching,
intellectually impressive “journey.””
This is just to say that,
a) when words have consequences, we choose them carefully; and b)
sometimes someone just makes arguments that are lousy, and aren’t to
be taken seriously. Our present purpose is to wonder about those cases
where people are motivated more by a) than by b).

B. Galileo revisited.

To what extent do these case studies exaggerate in order to spark true
thoughts in the wider culture? It may be the case that they engage in
sophibole because they have no alternative — that popular culture
demands insistence and boldness because certain techniques are more
persuasive than others. It then behooves us to wonder what the
consequences would have been if they had done otherwise.

To predict the range of alternatives they had available to them, we
should pay attention to the work of social psychologists. According to
what Michener et al. call the “communication-persuasion paradigm”,
certain factors will tend to have strong effect upon whether or not a
particular person is persuaded of some message. The CP paradigm tells
us that, for any speaker who has a strongly argued but shocking
viewpoint to impart, those listeners will be more likely to be
persuaded of the message if:

  • the speaker is a recognized and credible expert;
  • if it is against the speaker’s own interests to spread the message;
  • if the speaker seems trustworthy to the listener because
    they share similar identities;

  • if the beliefs of the speaker are supported by those of other
    (independent) sources

  • that failure to heed the message will result in bad (but avoidable)
    consequences, thus provoking moderate fear in the listeners;

  • and that the message is unequivocally one-sided and clear
    (for those who are disinterested / uninvolved), or two-sided and
    well-reasoned (for those who are interested and involved).

Let’s evaluate the case of Galileo, to see how it fares under the CP paradigm.

1. Galileo’s findings were not always taken directly to heart. Tycho
Brahe, for instance, attempted to infuse Galileo’s observations into a
geocentric model. Nevertheless, he was a respected scholar and
scientist, and by 1609 had been offered lucrative
academic positions
. So he had credibility, at least at the

2. It was clearly against Galileo’s interests to speak and publicize
the truth, if only because it was politically unpopular.

3. Was Galileo originally considered to be a good Catholic, and
therefore, trustworthy? It seems so, since he was granted a meeting
with Pope Paul V in 1611; and one must doubt that the pope would grant
audience with an enemy of the church. Of course, in the subsequent
years, all manner of mudslinging would be done against Galileo, but
what matters here is that he was not originally considered a heretic
out of hand.

4. Despite well-known historical differences, Galileo’s heliocentric
findings were famously supported by Johannes Kepler, and were to a
large degree consistent with those of Nicholas Copernicus. The opinion
was hardly unanymous, but he was not the sole voice in the wilderness.

5. Galileo felt that there were no divine consequences to his
conclusions. He wrote: “…since the Holy Spirit did not intend to
teach us whether heaven moves or stands still… then so much the less
was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same
kind… Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us
propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is,
to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take
sides on them…?” [Galileo (1615), quoted in Stillman Drake’s
“Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo” (1957), pp. 185-186.] This is
not to say that he thought there were no secular consequences,

6. His message was powerfully argued, almost uniquely so. Copernicus’s
theory was not disseminated until Andreas Osiander oversaw the
publishing of “On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs” and
anonymously wrote a preface, accompanied by the most tentative
language and reassurances that it was mere hypothesis. Galileo, by
contrast, used unbending language to describe his discoveries.
Moreover, though in the “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World
Systems” he lives up to the title by providing arguments for both
sides, a bias toward the heliocentric side is evident.

Many of the model’s expectations for the manner of a persuasive
argument are satisfied in the Galileo case. The only clear exception
is (5), where Galileo appealed, not to fear concerning divine
consequences, but to good sense. It shows us that the conclusions (as
with most scholarly matters) were not immediately taken to be worthy
of creating popular resistence — this may be in part due to lack of
popular involvement with the subject at all.

(6) is borderline, and also the locus of our interest. It shows us
that Galileo was trying to appeal to the sense of reason in persons,
to at least the extent that he expected persons to choose between two
rival opinions on the basis of argument, not mere sentiment. The
appeal to reason is best helped along if the target is presumed to be
highly involved in the results of the inquiry, and thus, willing to
expend the mental effort to think things through. But the case for
this seems weak, considering Galileo’s arguments against the relevance
of heliocentrism to matters of the divine (see 5), and thus, to
unintentionally discourage the layman to care about the matter.

Still, as mentioned, it was the forcefulness of Galileo’s argument
which inspires our interest. And though Galileo presented both sides
of the argument, the heliocentric thrust of the argument is strongly
evident. His demeanor has been characterized in other respects as
well. George Sim Johnston opined:
“Galileo was intent on ramming Copernicus down the throat of
Christendom” by use of a “caustic manner and aggressive tactics”…
Galileo’s attempt to popularize heliocentrism “would never have ended
in the offices of the Inquisition had Galileo possessed a modicum of
discretion, not to mention charity. But he was not a tactful person;
he loved to score off people and make them look ridiculous.” I don’t
know how accurate these propositions are, but it seems at least
plausible to see that Galileo was interested in getting his message

If I may engage in a bit of speculation, it may be that the CP-model
misses out on an essential factor in this case. It may be the case
that Galileo was intentionally engaging in self-martyrdom in order to
popularize his message. Persecution of Galileo would not exactly have
inspired fear in the wider populace, but it would have provoked their
interest, not through fear, but through sympathy. This might explain
why he would have felt and expected people to read and understand a
two-sided argument: they were more interested, and so, would
investigate the matter more carefully. This is a dangerous road to
travel, as likely to produce sentimental response and knee-jerk
reaction among people than genuine interest. But it would at least
provide that intellectual minority who were capable of interest and
investigation into these matters with the option to give a damn.


It’s tempting to view the question, “Do scientists need sophistry?”,
in terms of what communicative goals they’re setting for themselves.
If fostering reason and science are our goals, we might want to stick
to prudent remarks. If, on the other hand, disseminating particular
scientific conclusions are our goals, we might easily say that
boldness arrests the attention far more easily, whatever the
subsequent consequences upon the speaker may be.

This, at last, seems to be a sensible answer to our first question.
The scientist as scientist needs no sophistry; the scientist as
cultural animal does. I can arrive at this general rule with only one
caveat. The arresting interest in certain conclusions may provoke
curiosity into the method by which those conclusions are reached, and
so provoke interest from bold-thinking individuals into the method
itself. This is a flimsy sort of side-effect, though, since an
audience of the bold and the irritable will only have an impact on
those prone to boldness and irritability.

What about our second question? What would the consequences have been
if Galileo had stuck to a logical line? It would seem that the
discovery would have been continued to be owned by the establishment.
By forcing his conclusions with certitude, he made the debate
intelligible to the public, and thus gave them a sense of ownership,
expanding their intellectual territory.

In sum, use of the sophibole would increase the interested public’s
intellectual territory. The cost is the loss of professional
integrity, not to mention gross alienation. I feel uneasy to conclude
by noting that altruism can sometimes be accomplished by use of lies.
These are words that would make Leo Strauss proud. I can only hope
that I am wrong; though for the moment, I cannot see how.

Comments are closed.