Scott Alexander writes on the intellectual equivalent of trying to pick on the shortest kid in the playground…
What annoys me about the people who harp on moon-hoaxing and homeopathy – without any interest in the rest of medicine or space history – is that it seems like an attempt to Other irrationality.
(yes, I did just use “other” as a verb. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Continental types too much lately.)
It’s saying “Look, over here! It’s irrational people, believing things that we can instantly dismiss as dumb. Things we feel no temptation, not one bit, to believe. It must be that they are defective and we are rational.”
This reminded me of Michael Oakeshott’s assessment of Thomas Hobbes…
[B]rilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment…Like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition.
Our relationship with error is love-hate. We disdain mistruths, and dislike misdeeds, but there is an extent to which they are rewarding. We would not read half the columnists we do if this were not the case. To criticise, of course, is entertaining. Comedians joke about things that annoy them, not about things they admire, for it is easier to be amusing in a state of disgust than of enthusiasm. It is also attractive as a means of affirmation. We enjoy flaunting our superiority, for the sake of our egos or the benefit of onlookers.
To defend something as true or virtuous is more difficult. Theories are destroyed with greater ease than they are constructed – and in an age in which the truth is seen as being the preserve of the natural sciences this is especially true of ethical and cultural ideas. Moreover, enthusiasm can be humiliating in that it exposes more of oneself than disdain. Thus, I think that modern Westerners often define themselves far less by their beliefs than the beliefs of their opponents. Liberals and leftists might not have a good idea of how progress will appear but, by God, they are not like readers of the Daily Mail. Conservatives might have little idea of what to conserve but, by God, they are not like readers of the Guardian.
There is always a need for opposition. Grave harm is done by people with sincere and passionate beliefs. To resist, however, has defensive implications. There must be something of value that is under threat. Until one has something to value one has little idea of what to resist. Without it one’s pleasures are as idle as those of wannabe Carl Sagans ragging on creationists.