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July 01, 2007

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Gerry

Nice post at Gall and Gumption, thanks for pointing it out.

Feynman loved his subject. There’s a moment in What Do You Care What Other People Think? when he describes himself, at last, standing really on the edge of the known universe, the outer boundary of knowledge of physics. His response was to write a poem. He was moved. And one of the consequences of intellectual dishonesty is the loss of that pleasure, that delight and wonder, because you cut yourself off from it when you choose to live inside of your own self-serving fictions.

I enjoy how you taunt Bill and the rest of the think tank gang (where has Tigg gone off to?) with this. It is really sad when a person is called to a work and maybe even has some genius, and then cannot be true to the calling and the gift. For what? A few more dollars? You'd think someone of substance would be able to find honest work.

I really like what he says towards the end about active commitment to principle, to the actual practice, not the theory. Like education, it (intellectual integrity) isn't something you have, it is something you do, something you keep on practicing because the learning never ends.

Gerry

Oh man, Bill won't be happy about this. On a hunch, I Googled "schambra intellectual integrity" This post is fourth. Good work GiftHub. Thanks to Candidia for her generous sponsorship.

Phil

Does politics govern science? Yes, when it comes to Creationism, Global Warming, and so many other topics. Is social science a a science, or congealded ideology? Can social science be funded so as to consciously craft and promote an ideology while masquerading as an acedemic treatise? That whole question of "objectivity" and "science" is one that Bill treats. He sees the traditions of liberal philanthropy as drawing upon a pseudo-objective social science. His answer is, apparently, to embrace ideological studies, like the Bell Curve, and to put aside any objective study of the root causes (Candidia), in order to focus philanthropy on ameliorating the conditions that global capitalism creates. Knowlege, as in postmoderm theories, becomes Power/Knowledge, the "framing" of issues to enhance the power of the framer's party at interest. This should be considered despicable, it seems to me, whether funded by left or right. As you say, very often the mind of the propagandist seems to die in the process. Our intellectual traditions are endangered by Lysenkoism.

Albert

As a child I was attracted to the sciences and mathematics in part because I thought they were the most democratic disciplines. While I intuited the biases and prejudices of middle class English teachers, there was little a bigoted math teacher could do to shift the logic of arithmetic more to his liking. It would be years before I would learn a little more about the sociology of the sciences and the degree to which power affects its conclusions.

The social sciences are especially vulnerable to cooptation, I think, relying as they do on multiple explanatory and interpretive modes and traditions. Schambra understands these vulnerabilities. He exploits the weaknesses of these "softer" sciences to ingratiate himself to the anti-intellectual masses who harbor deep suspicions about, and prejudices against, ivory tower academics.

He trashes the social sciences out of one corner of his mouth, and praises Charles "Bell Curve" Murray out of the other. Somehow only the conservative sociologists manage to get it right.

Phil

You can demolish "objectivity" by proving it always falls short of purity. Having done that, you are then free to be as biased as you wish.

Gerry

What is this objectivity you two are speaking of? Feynman is a hard scientist and the quote is about poetry. Hard scientists no less that social scientists are motivated by Truth and Beauty. The theories that Schambra and his think tank buddies spout are ugly, they lack rigor. Objectivity is not the test that is being applied here, it is integrity.

Do you have an objective definition of objectivity?

Albert

The two are connected in many ways, I think. A person who has integrity doesn't subsume objectivity to ideology, for starters. (The objectively true is anything that sticks out in some persistent way. And it sticks out far enough for you to hang a hat on it, even if it's a very small hat.)

Phil

What sticks out is that funders pay for political return on investment. That is an objective and demonstrable thing you can hang your hat on, or a career as a sophist.

klaus

This may seem like old hat, but when liberals valorize objectivity, "objectivity" is merely a malaprop propping up the noble cause of fencesitting. "Ideologue" is the term used to describe an active citizen not so recumbently bifurcated. A progressive, if he ever wishes to act, should probably make an effort to subsume his objectivity to ideology. The mathematical does not map onto the social. When you try to do that, look out, you get social network theory, which, as far as I have been able to discern, is only useful to bombardiers and assassins, who tend to be conservative in their politics and liberal with their munitions.

Phil

Klaus, you make my point, really. The deconstruction of objectivity, ethics, ideals, sacred texts opens a large hole through which propagandists then wriggle. When you answer the question, What is Truth, with "a noble lie," as did Nietzsche, Strauss follows, with Rove not far behind. We cannot remake the late 20th century, but we can at least see how we did ourselves in. The alternative in the realm of the moral imagination is not just sermon, but satire. I mean that pretty seriously. When the theorist chatters, you can see what kind of creature he is, even after you have ceased to follow the intracies of his argument. Among lies and noble lies, I prefer farce, banter, raillery, foolishness, because they foreground the lie, rather than passing it off as a truth. Theory lies in being so leaden, heavy, and interposing itself in such a showy and opaque way, as if that could protect the theorist from the question, "What kind of man are you?"

Albert

By their fruits ye shall know them. Doesn't say anything about their theoretical apparatuses.

We've had this discussion many times before, Phil. I advocate a pincer movement with satire substantially weakening the target, the "soulless scalpels" of analytic philosophy cutting them off from their pointy-headed colleagues, and their own children finishing them off by joining the Krishnas.

Gerry

Better yet, their kids become "inspired philanthropists" and use the family fortune to address "root causes".

I want to call your attention again to what the linked article with reference to Feynman gives for the substance of the scientific method. Theoretical treatment of objectivity is far from core consideration. The concern is for the practice of science and the rigorous application of core principles proven by time to ward off self-deception.

This impeaches the philosophy of Strauss et al from the start. To practice the deception of the public is the first step to self-deception. To do so in the service of money and power is reprehensible. It is not worthy of consideration to a mind as fine and Feynman's.

Phil

Gerry, you are speaking as is Feynman from within a social practice, in which the experimenter has a sense of honor, about data, method, reasoning, fairness, one that is constantly reinforced by peers. The social practice that has grown up around think tanks looks superficially like an academic field, of institution, but is wholly different.

Phil

Albert, the roots of analytic philosophy are entagled with moral philosophy, political theory, and the style that descends from the Augustans and Scottish Enlightenment, and that style was often dryly satirical - as is the language even today of analytic philosophy, though in attenuated form. Wittgenstein, I believed, acknowledged a debt to Karl Krauss, perhaps the best satirist of the 20th century. Analytic philosophy deflates, as does satire. Analytic philosophy deflates pretense and "sublimity," as does say Alexander Pope. These traditions are separate now, but in a figure like David Hume they formed one sensibility. But today, I believe, analytic philosophy is still sincere, or candid. It presupposes a language game in which all participate in good faith. A tank thinker does not. Hence, it is not the game within the frame that is contested, but the frame itself - writers like Strauss, deMan, let alone Nietzsche, disrupted the sincere style and opened the way for another kind of insurgent masquerade, in which the masker hopes to pass. I am afraid that when a real thinker countenances a think tank hack, the real thinker has in his very acceptance of the other as real interlocutor already lost the game. When Schambra gets you or me on one of his panels, he has already done the deed, getting us to accept his bona fides, and attest by our presence that we consider the game legit. You will note, that as a wily player, he will not comment here. He knows that the first art of warfare is to bring the adversary to your own ground, not to go to his. Were he to get involved here he would be countenancing our presumption of equality, and our presumption to shake his frame. He will instead invite you or me to Hudson, or to have a chapter in a book he edits. We will be flattered, and so the game goes. Behind it is a check from Bradley to Bill fund this charade.

kia

You put it so nicely, Phil. Here's my version of it from a few months ago, with apologies for quoting myself to total strangers.

"It's the old, "When I said you lacked basic human decency what I really meant was 'Here's a coupon for free ice cream'' defence. Notice how it expands the reach of the writer's right to talk rubbish while narrowly constraining your right to object to it. He sets the meanings, and you agree.

But the vagueness of the language is also cover for an agenda, which is to get consent and countenance for the big lie (sorry, basic principle) he's pushing. Later, the reader's silence becomes "agreement for the sake of argument" which becomes "agreement" which becomes "Oh, yes, I assure you, you signed the deal; here's your signature in blood, and my Dark Lord Satan's signature right next to it, you see.""

Phil

Using language as the "framers" of discourse do at the think tanks is the greatest of sins against the Holy Spirit. Against it literature and prophecy will rise. The one ground on which these liars will lose is lying. For the best liars are the artists and they will roast their Satanic imitators for the sheer joy of seeing the skin bubble and split as the think tank thinker cries in agony for the relief that will not come. To be a think tank thinker is already to be in hell, "Myself am hell, nor am I out of it," as Marlowe's Faust cried out. Dante meet Machiaveli.

Albert

I remember the first Bradley Center event I attended. It was a panel titled "Unpatronizing the Poor?" (notice the accommodating question mark) and it was based on some egregious monograph by Michael Hartmann. The thesis was so absurd, and the panelists were so polite with one another, that I thought I had stumbled into some weird corporatist opium den. Rick Cohen challenged his fellow panelists with great intelligence and grace, I tried to help by asking an impolitic question or two, but all to no avail, in my view (here’s a transcript of the charade ). The basic frame remained unchallenged: essential federal programs for the poor = patronization of the poor.

Yes, the game was lost before the panel began. But imagine if Bill Schambra hadn’t been able to convince a non-conservative interlocutor to join the panel. The message would have been that liberals are unwilling to engage in constructive dialogue, and the panel would simply have added further confirmation to the prejudices of the mostly conservative audience. I know there were others in the audience who thought the monograph was a hideous joke. But we were hoist on our own petards: our overweening politeness and the weakness of our convictions.

These are tiny, endgame skirmishes in a much larger battle that is all but lost, in my view. In the coming presidential election we will once again go through the motions of choosing between Tweedledee (product A) and Tweedledum (product B). The frame of the discussion has all but been decided by Madison Avenue, by Wall Street, and in the boardrooms of the large media conglomerates. There is no conspiracy – none is needed. It’s just business as usual as we float about in our consumerist trance. Schambra and his fellow think tankers represent a kind of rear guard for the victorious army.

And yet I’m hopeful.

klaus

Disbelief in objectivity has been around for a long time. There's nothing postmodern about it. It's just cynicism. On the other hand, incredulity towards claims to objectivity, a provisional interrogation of those claims, well that's just plain common sense, and it's been around a long time, too - but it's also a platform for postmodern philosophical speculation, thirty years ago they called it incredulity towards meta-narratives.

Now, the main strategy of politicians and other public figures these days is to foreclose the political space. Party politicians are always talking about the evils of partisanship. They'd rather move that type of activity over to the culture war, because in the culture war nobody votes, there's a thousand parties, there is no mutual frame, and winner gets all just by standing back letting it all play out. Whereas old fashioned partisanship presupposed a mutual frame within which attachment to an ideology did not preclude a person from access to the truth (rather it motivated them to explore it) or confer on them its exclusive ownership.

So, the strategy of the current breed of non-political politicians is harness postmodern sublimity to the service of base cynicism because the more cynical the public is, the more hijinks the ruling class can get away with. Or that's the cynical view. A more objective person might say that nobody really knows why this is occurring at this point in time.

That's how you can get both a conservative Schambra (the Sean Hannity of giving), and an avowed "socialist" like Tony Blair decrying the "totalizing ideologies" of the left and right. See, they're both borrowing the language of postmodernism (remember, postmodernism is characterized by an "incredulity" towards truth claims, not their negation), removing it from the interrogative, and repurposing it as a factual description of reality in order to confer upon base cynicism the authority of "deep" thought: interrogation is recast as disbelief.

It's not really about quietism vs. sublimity. Any kind of speculation - formal, or wild and woolly - can be hijacked in the pursuit of power for its own sake.

Phil

"What kind of person is this? What actor in what play? What is his (or her) self-image? How close is what he avows to what he evinces or betrays?" Those questions arise in every conversation, public or private. In the early 80's when I was still in academics doing "theory," books began to be published with titles like, "Strategic Discourse." I believe we are seeing the victory of that. (Discourse which impersonates a truthful or sincere speaker as a strategem to achieve an end in view against an interlocutor who is treated as a dupe or enemy not to be convinced, but tricked, outwitted, wrong-footed.) A Rick Cohen or an Albert or a Phil Cubeta drawn into the Hudson frame may participate in good faith, may be sincere, but all the while Shambra is laughing out of the side of his mouth. He knows the frame is rigged. That is his job. Whether you come or not, whether you are sincere or not, he wins since it is his frame.

I am pleased and interested that in years of blogging about him every shot has gone unanswered. Reminds me how vulnerable liberals once were to deconstruction, or the conservative counter-reformation. Raillery, banter, chaff, parody, satire, antic obeisance - those are proven strategies for entering and demolishing a rigged set up.

"Cakewalk at the big house."

Gerry

Where/what are the institutions that have a different frame? For whom a "Strategic Discourse" is a counter to to sophistry of the typical think tank? Where truth claims are taken seriously, not just as positions on a chess board.

I've been thinking about how my friend Eugene calls his organization a "Think Tank for Collaboration". What would it mean to have "think tanks" where the commitment was to truth and rigorous thinking and intellectual work and not sophistry for hire?

We may have that in the informal spaces in blogs, etc., but I'm also starting a speculation about how this might unfold in time.

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