When Should Intellectuals be held Accountable for Popular Misrepresentations of their Theories?

Often an academic will articulate some very nuanced theory or ideological belief which arises out of a specialized discourse, and specialized background knowledge, of their discipline. It is not too surprising that when her theory gets reprinted in a newspaper by a non-specialist journalist, taken up by a politican to support a political agenda, or talked about on the street by the layman who doesn’t possess specialized knowledge, the intellectual’s theory will be poorly understood, misrepresented, and possibly used for purposes that are not only not justified but the exact opposite of her intentions.

This happens all the time in any discipline. Any physicist who reads a You Tube thread about the theory of relativity, an economist who opens a newspaper, biologist who reads the comments section of a Facebook post on GMOs, psychologist who hears jokes about Freud, or philosopher who sees almost any Twitter post about any complex world-historical thinker knows what I’m talking about. Typically, it is assumed that a popularizer or layperson who misunderstands such complex nuanced academic theories always must be answerable to their most intellectually responsible, academic articulation. It is usually assumed that an intellectual theorist should never be concerned with the fact that her theories are being misunderstood by popular culture, and certainly, she shouldn’t change a theory just because it is being misunderstood.

For many disciplines in many contexts, this seems to be true. The theory of relativity shouldn’t be changed just because most people do not possess the technical knowledge to understand it and popularizers often oversimplify it. Just because people do not understand that climate change means more than rising temperatures doesn’t mean it is not true. The fact that some young earth creationist thinks that the existence of monkeys disproves revolution doesn’t mean an evolutionary biologist should care.

Further, it’s not just natural sciences to which these apply. Just because methodological individualism is often misunderstood as atomistic, reductive ethical individualism doesn’t mean economists should abandon it any more than people’s various misunderstandings of statistical methods mean scientists should abandon those methods. Likewise, the fact that rational choice theory is misunderstood as meaning people only care about money, or that Hayek’s business cycle theory is misunderstood as meaning only central banks can cause recessions, or that a Keynesian multiplier is misunderstood as meaning that all destructive stimulus is desirable because it equally increases GDP does not mean that economists who use them should abandon those theories based on non-substantive criticisms based on straw-manned versions of their theories.

On the other hand, there are other times where it seems that popular misunderstandings of some academic writings do matter. Not just in the sense that a layperson not understanding science leads them to do unhealthy things, and therefore the layperson should be educated on what scientific theories actually say, but in the sense that popular misunderstandings point out some deficiencies in the theory itself that the theorist should correct.

To take an example (which I’m admittedly somewhat simplifying) from intellectual history, early in his career John Dewey advocated quasi-Hegelian comparisons of society to a “social organism.” For example, in an 1888 essay he defended democracy because it “approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other.” Though Dewey never meant such metaphors to undermine individuality and imply some form of authoritarian collectivism, he did want to emphasize the extent to which individuality was constituted by collective identifications and social conditions and use that as a normative ideological justification for democratic forms of government.

By 1939, after the rise of Bolshevism, fascism, and various other forms of Hegelian-influenced illiberal, collectivist, authoritarian governments, he walked back such metaphors saying this:

My contribution to the first series of essays in Living Philosophies put forward the idea of faith in the possibilities of experience at the heart of my own philosophy. In the course of that contribution, I said, “Individuals will always be the center and the consummation of experience, but what the individual actually is in his life-experience depends upon the nature and movement of associated life.” I have not changed my faith in experience nor my belief that individuality is its center and consummation. But there has been a change in emphasis. I should now wish to emphasize more than I formerly did that individuals are the final decisive factors of the nature and movement of associated life.

[…] The fundamental challenge compels all who believe in liberty and democracy to rethink the whole question of the relation of individual choice, belief, and action to institutions, and to reflect on the kind of social changes that will make individuals actually the centers and the possessors of worthwhile experience. In rethinking this issue in light of the rise of totalitarian states, I am led to emphasize the idea that only the voluntary initiative and voluntary cooperation of individuals can produce social institutions that will protect the liberties necessary for achieving development of genuine individuality.

In other words, Dewey recognized that such a political theory could be easily misunderstood and misapplied for bad uses. His response was to change his emphasis, and his use of social metaphors, to be more individualistic since he realized that his previous thoughts could be so easily misused.

To put a term to it, there are certain philosophical beliefs and social theories which are popularly maladaptive, that is regardless of how nuanced and justifiable it is in the specialized discourse of some intellectual theorist they will very often be manipulated and misused in popular discourse for other nefarious purposes.

To take another example, some “white nationalist” and “race realist” quasi-intellectuals make huge efforts to disassociate themselves with explicitly, violently racist white supremacists. They claim that they don’t really hate non-whites and want to hurt them or deprive them of rights, just that they take pride in their “white” culture and believe in (pseudo-)scientific theories which purport to show that non-whites are intellectually inferior. It is not very surprising, to most people, that in practice the distinction between a “peaceful” race realist and a violently racist white supremacist is extremely thin, and most would rightly conclude that means there is something wrong with race realism and race-based nationalist ideologies no matter how much superficially respectable academic spin is put on them because they are so easily popularly maladaptive.

The question I want to ask is how can we more explicitly tell when theorists should be held accountable for their popularly maladaptive theories? When does it matter that public misinterpretation of a somewhat specialized theory points to something wrong with that theory? In other words, when is the likelihood of a belief’s popularly mal-adaptivity truth-relevant?  Here are a few examples where it’s a pretty gray area:

  1. It is commonly claimed by communitarian critics of liberalism that liberalism reduces to atomistic individualism that robs humanity of all its desire for community and family and reduces people to selfish market actors (one of the original uses of the term “neoliberal”). Liberals, such as Hayek and Judith Shklar, typically respond by saying that liberal individualism, properly understood, fully allows individuals to make choices relevant to such communal considerations. Communitarians sometimes respond by pointing out that liberalism is so often misunderstood publicly as such and say that this shows there is something wrong with liberal individualism.
  2. It is claimed by critics of postmodernism and forms of neo-pragmatism that they imply some problematic form of relativism which makes it impossible to rationally adjudicate knowledge-claims. Neo-pragmatists and postmodernists respond by pointing out this is misunderstanding their beliefs, the idea that our understanding of truth and knowledge isn’t algorithmically answerable to correspondence doesn’t mean it’s irrational, postmodernism is about skepticism towards meta-narratives not skepticism towards all rational knowledge itself, and (as Richard Bernstein argued) these perspectives often make hardcore relativism as incoherent as hardcore objectivism. The critic sometimes responds by citing examples of lay people and low-level academics using this to defend absurd scientific paradigms and relativistic-sounding theories and this should make us skeptical of postmodernism or neo-pragmatism.
  3. Critics of Marxism and socialism often point out that Marxism and socialism often transform into a form of authoritarianism, such as in the Soviet Union or North Korea. Marxist and socialists respond by saying that all these communist leaders misused Marxist doctrine, Marx doesn’t really imply anything that would lead of necessity to authoritarianism, and socialism can work in a democratic, more free context. The critic (such as Don Lavoie) will point out that the incentives of socialism lead of necessity to a sort of militarism due to the economic incentives faced by socialist governments regardless of the good intentions of the pure intentions of the socialist theorist, in other words they claim that socialism is inherently popularly maladaptive due to the incentives it creates. The socialist still thinks this isn’t the case and, regardless, the fact that socialism has turned authoritarian in the past was because it was in the hands of the wrong popularizers and that isn’t relevant to socialism’s truth.
  4. Defenders of traditional social teachings of Christianity with respect to homosexuality claim there is nothing inherently homophobic about the idea that homosexual acts are a sin. In the spirit of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” they claim that being gay isn’t a sin but homosexual acts are the sin, and Christians should show love and compassion for gay people while still condemning their sexual behavior. Secular and progressive Christian critics respond by pointing out how, in practice, Christians do often act very awfully towards gay people. They point out it is very difficult for most Christians who believe homosexual acts are sinful to separate the “sin” from the “sinner” in practice regardless of the intellectually pure intentions of their preacher, and that such a theological belief is often used to justify homophobic cruelty. Since you will judge a faith by its fruits (a pretty Christian way of saying that popular mal-adaptivity is truth-relevant), we should be skeptical of traditional teachings on homosexuality. The traditionalist remains unconvinced that it matters.

It is important to distinguish between two questions: whether these beliefs are popularly maladaptive empirically (or, perhaps, just very likely to be) and whether the possibility of them being popularly maladaptive is relevant to their truth. For example, a liberal could respond to her communitarian critic by pointing out empirical evidence that individuals engaging in market exchange in liberal societies aren’t selfish and uncaring about their communities to undermine the claim that their individualism is popularly maladaptive in the first place. But that response is different from a liberal saying that just because their individualism has been misunderstood means that they shouldn’t care about it.

We should also distinguish the question of whether beliefs are likely to be maladaptive from whether their mal-adaptivity is relevant. For example, it is conceivable that a popularized atheism would be extremely nihilistic even if careful atheists want to save us from nihilism. An atheist could say that appears unlikely since most non-intellectual atheists aren’t really nihilists (which would answer the former question), or by saying that people’s misunderstanding of the ethical implications of God’s non-existence is not relevant to the question of whether God exists (which would answer the latter question). For now, I am only concerned with when mal-adaptivity is truth-relevant.

There are a couple of responses which seem initially plausible but are unconvincing. One potential response is that positive scientific theories (such as evolution and monetary economics) do not need to worry about whether they are likely to be popularly maladaptive, but normative moral or philosophical theories (such as liberal individualism or theological moral teachings) do not.

However, this confuses the fact that scientists do often make normative claims based on their theories which seem irrelevant to their popular interpretation. For an instance, it’s not clear that a monetary economist, who makes normative policy conclusions based on their theories, should care if the layman does not understand how, for example, the Taylor Rule, Nominal Income Target, or Free Banking should work. Further, there are philosophical theories where popular maladaptively doesn’t seem to matter; for example, Kantians shouldn’t really fret if an introductory student doesn’t really grasp Kant’s argument for the synthetic a priori, and analytic philosophers shouldn’t care if most people don’t understand Quine’s objections to the analytic/synthetic distinction.

I’m unsure exactly how to answer this question, but it seems like answering it would clear up a lot of confusion in many disagreements.

Some problems with postmodernism

Despite its contributions, postmodernism is also the subject of much criticism. One of the most recurrent is its tendency to nihilism, that is, to pleasure for nothing. Postmodern deconstruction may be efficient at demonstrating the randomness of many of our concepts, but it can lead us to a point where we have nothing but deconstruction. We find that the world is made up of dichotomies or binary oppositions that cancel out, without any logic, leaving us with an immense void.

Another weakness of postmodernism is its relativism. In the absence of an absolute truth that can be objectively identified one gets subjective opinions. There is an expectation of postmodern theorists that this leads to higher levels of tolerance, but ironically the opposite is true. Without objective truths individuals are isolated in their subjective opinions, which represents a division of people, not an approximation. Moreover, postmodernism leads to a concern that all claims may be attempts at usurpation of power.

But the main weakness of postmodernism is its internal inconsistency. As mentioned in previous posts, postmodernism can be defined as unbelief about metanarratives. But would not postmodernism itself be a metanarrative? Why would this metanarrative be above criticism?

Another way of defining postmodernism is by its claim that there is no absolute truth. But is not this an absolute truth? Is it not an absolute truth, according to postmodernism, that there is no absolute truth? This circular and contradictory reasoning demonstrates the internal fragility of postmodernism. Finally, what happens if the hermeneutics of suspicion is turned against postmodernism itself? What gives us assurance that postmodern authors do not themselves have a secret political agenda hidden behind their speeches?

It is possible that postmodernists do not really feel affected by this kind of criticism, if they are consistent with the perception that there is no real world out there, or that “there is nothing outside the text”, but that the Reality is produced by discourses. That is: conventional theorists seek a truth that corresponds to reality. Postmodernists wonder what kind of reality their speeches are capable of creating.

Be that as it may, in spite of the preached intertextuality (the notion that texts refer only to other texts, and nothing objective outside the texts), postmodern theorists continue to write in the hope that we will understand what they write. Moreover, postmodernists live in a world full of meanings that are if not objective are at least intersubjective. Perhaps our language is not transparent, but that does not mean that it is opaque either. Clearly we are able to make ourselves understood reasonably well through words.

As C.S. Lewis said, “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see”. This critique fits very well to postmodernism.

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

Alethic relativism and modern physics

As the treasurer of the philosophy club at Chico State, I help organize weekly meetings to either explore topics from class more in-depth, or just argue with each other until the majority wins. As anyone will tell you, a group of philosophers is called a disagreement.

In this century, positions like absolute idealism, transcendental dualism or “free” free will are very marginal, and outside of those that favor the continental and those that favor the analytic schools, philosophy talk at a state college can tend toward groupthink.

One position that never fails to attract criticism is relativism, whose adherents persist to this day about morality. Someone will even come along now and then and claim truth itself is subjective (alethic relativism). Although at least the latter notion seems outright preposterous — it too easily leads to contradictions — Marvel Studios, of all places, recently gave me some insight into this debate.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, says “the truth is a matter of circumstance.” Before I’m kicked off this site for talking about mainstream cinema twice in a row, I want to argue that this off-hand sentiment raises some powerful and plausible connotations.

Truth does sometimes seem to be circumstantial. I don’t want to get grouped into the alethic relativists or skeptics quite yet, but sometimes truth at one level (or circumstance) becomes falsity at another. The most obvious example is our dual systems of mechanics. Newtonian physics describes the physical world we function at with excellent approximation, including planetary motion. After its creation, it defined the paradigm for over two hundred years, improved upon by greats like Faraday and Maxwell, until experiments with optics wore heavily on our common sense and prevailing calculus. The nature of light was questioned, and so a new theory of optics was necessary (and thence truth). This would be theorized by Einstein. 

Albert Einstein formalized light as quanta, and went on to pen special relativity to understand bodies approaching the speed of these sometimes-packets, sometimes-waves. And he went on again to redefine our understanding of gravity. Arthur Eddington’s eclipse expedition in 1919 corroborated Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which predicted light, traveling along the indenture of space-time by massive bodies, would appear curved. In the eclipse observation a star which should have been hidden was shifted outside of the eclipse — confirming that starlight itself, which is massless, had been affected via light deflection. It was a dramatic event in scientific history, akin to Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric universe, or the abandonment of Aristotelian innate qualities.

Just like this early test of light deflection helped cement general relativity a century ago, physicists with LIGO just confirmed gravitational waves, another Einsteinian prediction. Stephen Colbert recently featured Brian Greene (whose online courses I used to learn special relativity) on his show to discuss the pivotal discovery, and Greene does an excellent job modelling the experiment in three dimensions. So exactly a century after Einstein first thought up his theory of the workings of the universe, scientists have transformed the mysterious and radical postulates into the popularly tangible.

The theory of general relativity explained the flaws and limits of Newtonian physics, but did not completely retire the mathematics. It became the new theory of truth for new areas of study. The problem being that general relativity doesn’t work for everything.

Albert Einstein never thought we would be able to practically test for gravitational waves, and he also denied a fundamental discovery of the fresh field of quantum mechanics: nonlocality. After the 19th century two-slit experiment, in which electrons were found to behave with wave-particle duality, quantum probability and nonlocality were introduced, to which Einstein proposed multiple solutions to avoid. These tenets have since been generally accepted. However, quantum mechanics, for all its brilliant complexity, works only to describe the extremely small scale, and fails to describe the universe we live in, which Newtonian mechanics excels in practically predicting, but which in turn fails to with true accuracy describe cosmological characters, like black holes and spacetime itself, in turn best explained by general relativity. The issue of gravity has been a key dissonance between the theories, as the other forces (electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear) have their explanations in quantum field theory on the fundamental level at certain speeds, but a quantum explanation of gravity has been empirically evasive. Scientists must utilize classical or relativistic or quantum mechanics or quantum field theory, and each has its own domain of validity.

All of our current presiding and college-instructed theories, though compatible in certain contexts, war with each other at others, and ultimately fail to describe everything in every scenario… which is where “the truth is a matter of circumstance” comes to play. What can indisputably be said to be true for one scenario becomes false in another. Meaningfully saying that this is certainly true here, and anything else would be false, but then there, speaking of the same “this,” is false and an anything-else is true, seems to be only a reward of the past century of physics. Truth has a context within our understanding of the scale it admits to. It’s important to notice that, within these conflicting physical theories, a truth doesn’t become a falsity in its same context; it is only when the truth is examined through a different circumstance that, in light of the new circumstance, the truth no longer applies. It would sound like alethic relativism, except that in the example of physics, there are three or so set systems or rubrics from which to evaluate truth-values, instead of the complete toss-up commonly theorized by global relativism, in which there are as many systems as there are individuals or methods of viewing a given system.

The most obvious opposition would be that though we use these distinct theories to describe our reality based on our early place in scientific progression, we don’t assume they are necessarily correct; a final, accurate picture of the nuanced intricacies of the universe is singular and still beyond our experimental comprehension. In which case, parallel to the idea of circumstantiality, there is a vagueness whose truths are still humanly inaccessible (the idea that there is a definite but forever unknowable quality to outwardly-vague systems of speaking or discernment has been defended as epistemicism). This doesn’t get us anywhere closer to truth, however, and for practical purposes it’s as if to say truth is a convention of any given, temporary system of thought: a social construct.

That there is a discoverable and definite system of truth is still hoped for by theoretical physicists. The popular, almost celebrity theory — that one-dimensional oscillating “strings” make up fundamental particles — has most of the platform, as compared to the alternative loop quantum gravity. However, much criticism directed at string theory centers on its nonempirical evidence (perhaps epitomized in the polemic “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit that chastises the theory for a purported lack of testability). The use of nonempirical arguments is very controversial in 21st-century science, but they could possibly shed light on truth; in any way we may be forced to accept this consequence of not having the adequate technology to make observations, or retire particle physics altogether.

Now, how concerned should we be with what occurs on a quantum level, as applicable to our own lives? This is relevant for truth as well as our conception of free will. The answer is that the quantum level is just as true as the functional human level, and dismissing it as less valuable or irrelevant is absurd. Not only are special relativity and quantum mechanics necessary for much of our modern technology, they speculate about the very processes that comprise all experience and function and moreover, what it’s like to exist.

I noted at the beginning that mechanics is the most obvious example of a circumstantiality of truth. At this moment I’m unsure of others. But here would not consist of an example of circumstantiality: at a ski resort, someone traveling up the lift might say they were high. However, to the skier already at the top of the mountain, the person in the lift is low and they are high. So we might say the truth is a matter of either of their circumstances; this is not the case however, because in either situation the quality that is being examined for truthfulness (high, low) is a relative quality, and this will be for every example of the sort. A claim we might expose to Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics (e.g., the body is moving forward) is subject to criteria concerning momentum, space-time, reference point, locality, and a whole conglomerate of standards to evaluate what’s actually happening. In this sense it takes on a less subjective tone than what is high or low, which can, like the first point about global relativity, be examined by a myriad of individual viewpoints. (Also, from an outsider context, high and low are meaningless.) High and low are dependent on their correlatives, and also dependent on scale for their truth; quantum mechanics without any other size would still have truth, and general relativity without any other size would still have truth, and so on.

So, what does all this mean? It’s support for the idea that truth can be evaluated through different systems, and not just like using the tools of sociology, or psychology, or feminist theory, or Marxist history to read and analyze the same event in different interpretations; physics is a physical science, and its truths are not contingent on lived humanity. The circumstantiality of truth on the scientific level might have some consequences for objectivity and vagueness, allow exploration into what the conditions of truth are, and could be formed into a rubric for evaluating all truth and falsity; all that is work for another day though. Right now, all it tells us is sometimes Marvel can say meaningful things in philosophy.

[Update (6/28/2017): I no longer believe much of what I wrote here, having learned much since.]