Oh who cares about truth

Okay so people like rationalists and humanists and similar are supposed to value reason and truth and accuracy and getting things right, right? Or am I confused.

I ask because of some comments on Jeremy’s post on The British Humanist Association’s opinion poll. They make me wonder.

So, less of this ivory tower disdain, please, for the honest labours of those who are trying to defend the secular principle in the face of sustained attack by the most religious government for over 100 years…In the real world of politics you cannot always be academically nice – your opponents will make mincemeat of you if you try…On rationality and truth – come down out of your ivory tower! The BHA is a campaigning organisation, not a university department.

So the response to criticisms of a flawed poll is to say that such concerns are ivory tower disdain, being academically nice, the result of high-altitude occupation of that ivory tower, confusion between campaigning and a university department? In other words, criticism of a flawed poll is pedantic and (as it were) elitist, and campaigning organizations needn’t and even shouldn’t worry about rationality and truth? But if rationality and truth aren’t the issue – then what is? Why are they humanists at all? Are they just allergic to communion wafers or something?

This comment is if anything even odder.

As a Marketing professional, I notice something distasteful about the not so subtle prejudice against marketing in the casual dismissing of a professional study. Yes, I’m aware that the profession has a mixed reputation but Philosophers and Sociologists, are in no position to throw stones either. On a professional level, I would expect you to rally to the support of fellow professionals, undertaking quantitative research to support the defence of the secular freedoms which we have enjoyed to-date.

Five uses of the word ‘profession’ or ‘professional’ in four lines, and the whole concept deployed as some sort of loyalty imperative; I find that very strange. Why are professionals supposed to rally to the support of fellow professionals? Is that how the world is carved up? Do all professionals support each other? And what exactly is a ‘professional’ anyway? And why is it seen as some sort of hurrah-word?

Jeremy replied to the replies, and asked this question among others:

[W]hether people should applaud quantitative data depends (partly) on whether the data is any good. This poll’s data is hopeless. Therefore, it should not be applauded. Do you think that we should applaud the quantitative data that predicted a win for Thomas Dewey in 1948 US Presidential Election? It’s a famous polling error. Truman, having won, appeared on the news holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune, which had printed “Dewey Beats Truman” on its front page on the basis of polling data.

Yeah, it’s a famous polling error all right, which I mentioned in my comment on the first post. That famous polling error was part of the background of my childhood; it was my uncle’s outfit that made it most conspicuously, and the mistake haunted them. They bent every nerve to figure out how they’d got it wrong, they revamped everything, and they sweated bullets over subsequent elections. I hung out there once on the evening of a presidential election – it was like being at NASA during a mission: hours of huge tension, followed by shrieks of euphoria. But what they did not do was shrug and pout and say it was no big deal. They didn’t bother murmuring about academic niceties or ivory towers, they just turned everything upside down to correct the mistake. (They probably turned my father upside down. He was their director of statistics. Hmm…)

Julian makes much the same point on the New Humanist blog.

Is it really the case that none of my fellow humanists can see and admit that this poll was frankly flaky and there is a real issue here of how much a movement committed to rationality can be prepared to say, “let’s not worry too much about the niceties of truth – let’s just get campaigning.”

Well exactly.

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