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Q U I C K   L I N K S

Learn more about the American school of Pragmatism at Wikipedia.

She-philosopher.com’s detailed study of California’s flawed “Good Neighbor Fence Act of 2013” (California Assembly Bill 1404) includes my clarion call for a new kind of democratic governance rooted in a revival of “passionate public deliberation and persuasion” (reasoned argument).
  I believe that a classical agonistic politics of persuasion — not the polling and data-driven demagoguery (calculated appeals designed to manipulate us) which controls policy-making today — best serves the type of pluralist democratic society to which many of us aspire.

I also believe that critical pluralism (a rhetoric of dissensus) offers a much-needed alternative to the sort of decorous “civility” which so many of us are pushing today.
  Too often, “civility” means avoiding the very arguments we ought to be having, because they are so disconcerting, especially in social settings.
  This is how I interpret the fevered response to a discussion between syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review Executive Editor Reihan Salam, with Judy Woodruff moderating, for the PBS NewsHour (“Shields and Salam on Trump-Putin Summit Aftershocks,” first aired 7/20/2018).
  Substituting for the more congenial David Brooks on two occasions that month, Reihan Salam’s second performance provoked an extraordinary 585 (when I viewed the discussion section on 8/2/2018) impassioned comments from (mostly discomfited) posters.
  I personally found Mr. Salam’s intellectual energy refreshing, and although he did not persuade me to his point of view, I still find myself ruminating on his argument even today, as recent events in Jan.–Feb. 2019 — and the growing divide between protean presidential words vs. acts — bolster Reihan Salam’s view of the week’s news in July 2018.
  But my generally positive response to Salam’s rhetorical performance is unusual. The majority of those posting to the NewsHour website — evidently as flustered as Mark Shields by Salam’s desire to engage in a spirited clash of ideas — were so unnerved by the moderated exchange, that they unleashed a flurry of ad hominem attacks, accusing Salam of everything from stupidity, illogic, arrogance, zealotry, boorishness, rudery, and narcissism ... to racialized aggression & thuggery.
  Only rarely does one of Salam’s critics meaningfully engage him on the issues: e.g., “Relax, people. The [weekly Friday] segment isn’t sacrosanct. I enjoyed Salam’s passion for his theories and watching smug Judy and blustering Mark speechless for a change. But the idea that Trump’s speech doesn’t represent his administration isn’t an intentional strategy, it isn’t reassuring, it’s just scary. Trump thinks he’s a businessman negotiating a deal when he is supposed to be a statesman formulating national policy. That ‘actions speak louder than words’ doesn’t fix the problem. There shouldn’t be a dichotomy and Trump isn’t the boss.” (comment posted by “G. Sheldon”)
  Reading through so many intolerant viewers’ remarks, many of which demanded that Salam never again appear on the PBS NewsHoure.g., “Mr. Salam is so rude! I watch Newshour for civil, balanced discussion. Mr. Salam does not meet the minimum standard of civility. HE SHOULD NOT BE INVITED BACK ON THE PROGRAM! Surely, Newshour can find a conservative to politely articulate their point of view.” (comment posted by “suzanne johnson”) — I began to wonder if I had watched the same broadcast as everyone else!
  In particular, I was struck by the number of comments demanding that future PBS NewsHour guests adhere to a particular “code of civility” almost always equated with the more anodyne “civility of Shields and Brooks,” which favors scripted, pat answers (at least on Shields’s part) over the less predictable give-and-take of a rigorous critical encounter.
  As far as I’m concerned, this kind of viewer-preferred “civilized conversation” — designed to tame the assertive man of color for polite society — is no model for the “stunning and unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy” envisioned by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States (see sidebar entry). For this, we need more meaningful contestation: real critical pluralism.
  Also of note: a few of the comments on this NewsHour segment voiced concern about the 50+ newcomers — “liberal trolls in a rage!” over Salam’s disputatious performance — posting for the first time to the NewsHour’s discussion forum. E.g., “The advent of foreign Governments using internet trolls to divide us is rather insidious. We know they exist, but far too often, opposing opinions are mocked, belittled and cast aside by labeling people as a Russian troll.  ¶   Obviously I can’t say for sure that all these first time commenters are Russian trolls but it is obvious that it’s some kind of organized thing. I’d say it has something to do with his [Salam’s] connections to National Review.” (comment posted by “guitarman121”)
  This kind of sophisticated, data-driven demagoguery (by no means unique to the Russian government) presents a real challenge for those of us pushing for a revival of critical pluralism in the postmodern digital public square.
  Honest, probing dialogue with alternative points of view is hard enough for “We the People” without adding unscrupulous, anonymous trolls & bots — which manipulate ratings as well as public sentiment — to the mix.
  At this point, it’s impossible for me to separate the fake outrage in this PBS NewsHour discussion thread from the real.
  And for those of us who still believe in crafting effective persuasion and policy on the basis of shared public values, such manufactured audiences and distorted rhetorical situations — which impair human judgment — are a nightmare scenario come true.

Quoting David Hume — “Truth springs from argument among friends.” — Jay Heinrichs (aka Figaro), author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion (2007), also writes about the demise of passionate public deliberation in the U.S.: specifically, “Why Americans Can’t Argue” about public affairs, and why a democracy needs “educated citizens who accept the uses of debate, who want to be persuaded, and who have the sophistication to avoid being manipulated.” (n. pag.)
  To speed our education along, Heinrichs practices witty rhetorical analysis at his Figures of Speech Served Fresh blog.
  And his essay critiquing the neglect of rhetorical education, “Why Harvard Destroyed Rhetoric” (2005), offers an interesting explanation for the sorry state of much contemporary political rhetoric, which privileges the epideictic (the discourse of praise/blame) over the deliberative (the discourse of truth & justice).

Katha Pollitt is skeptical that the art of persuasion can fundamentally change hearts & minds in her column, “A Convert’s Zeal? Why changing the minds of conservative white women is a losing game” (The Nation, 17/24 December 2018, vol. 307, no. 15, pp. 6 and 8).
  Pollitt argues here that our experiences influence us more than does the deliberative rhetoric of political antagonists: “Mostly, what changes people’s minds about important convictions is experience: something new and unusual that shakes their settled views. One of the evangelical Beto fans profiled by the Times was moved by her time meeting with a family separated at the border; it could just as easily have been new friends, a religious experience, falling in love, a charismatic teacher, or being surrounded by people with different beliefs.” (Katha Pollitt, 6)
  This comports with some scientists’ rethinking of nurture, and how it — interacting with nature — shapes us. E.g., in Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are (2018), the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin argues that “What makes us different environmentally are random experiences, not systematic forces like families.”

She-philosopher.com’s LIBRARY page includes a brief commentary on “the old model of the respublica literaria (Republic of Letters), wherein diverse voices discussed a range of interesting issues ... with all ‘the heat and abstracted passion of intellectual inquiry.’”
  A related discussion of Margaret Cavendish’s limited tolerance for divinely-inspired human “variety” adds historical perspective to our own studies of “how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences.”

Throughout history, there have been instances when the rough-and-tumble of scientific debate turns ugly — and decidedly personal.
  For instance, Robert Hooke was involved in multiple acrimonious disputes over priority (“most notably ... with Newton over the discovery of the principles of gravity and orbital motion,” and with Oldenburg plus Huygens “over the invention of the spring-regulated watch and some other devices”). (Patri J. Pugliese, n. pag.)
  But Hooke’s exchange of animadversions with Hevelius “over the accuracy of plain versus telescopic sights, in the midst of which Hooke remains free in his praise of Hevelius’s accomplishments” (Pugliese, n. pag.) was a model for peer review — “disputes and debates over the facts and the analysis of the facts” conducted with all the heat and abstracted passion of intellectual inquiry.
  Today, this academic ideal is under siege as experts seek to bypass such candid confrontations with one another, and instead resolve their differences by way of litigation in the courts. See Michael Hiltzik’s column, “Professor Didn’t Debate his Critics — He Sued Them” (Los Angeles Times, 11/26/2017, pp. C1 and C6). Also, “Professor Sues Critics of Article on Renewables,” by Rob Nikolewski (San Diego Union-Tribune, 11/3/2017, pp. C1 and C4), who points out that much was at stake here, as Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s “peer-reviewed scientific article ... has very large implications for our future energy system in California and the United States.” (Rob Nikolewski, C4)
  Jacobson’s lawsuit against the National Academy of Sciences and the lead author of a critical paper was later dropped. SeeA Stanford Professor Drops his Ridiculous Defamation Lawsuit against his Scientific Critics,” by Michael Hiltzik (posted to the website for the Los Angeles Times on 2/23/2018); and “Lawsuit Over Energy Analysis Withdrawn: Professor filed $10M suit against other researchers who disputed his findings,” by Rob Nikolewski (San Diego Union-Tribune, 2/24/2018, pp. C1 and C3).
  But the strategic threat of legal action has had a chilling effect on scientific debate and peer review.
  Learn more about the controversy over Jacobson’s energy research and the $10-million lawsuit he filed in response to contentious peer review at Wikipedia.

The need for new models of specialist argument — especially when it comes to disputing politicized topics like energy policy and climate science — is the starting point for the book by David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
  In his book review of The Uninhabitable Earth for The Washington Post, “Destruction from Climate Change Will Be ‘Worse, Much Worse, than You Think’” (posted 2/21/2019), Fred Pearce argues that Wallace-Wells’ polemic — which “scares us with tales from a future climate-changed world that transcend climate science” — is long overdue: “Here is a modest proposal: Climate scientists should shut up about global warming. The gatekeepers for what we know and think about climate change should take a vow of silence and let some other people get a word in edgeways. Because, important though the science is, we need to stop defining the great issue of the 21st century in scientific terms.  ¶   If climate change is, as this book successfully argues, a game-changer for everyone, everywhere, all the time, then let’s reflect that in the discourse. We’ve got the science. Let’s bring on the philosophers and playwrights, lawyers and priests, economists and comedians. Society’s response depends on it.” (F. Pearce, n. pag.)
  At least one reader of Pearce’s book review has noted that “defining the great issue of the 21st century in scientific terms” is not really the fundamental problem Pearce and Wallace-Wells suppose it to be: “None of this matters to my neighbors who deny climate change and hate scientists (like me). For them, Wallace-Wells’ future is far, far preferable to a victory by the liberal mob to bring a socialist collapse. They are not at all motivated by scientific skepticism. They are terrified that the Real America is being murdered by liberals, including scientists, who don’t really care about the climate. For them, we just want to use climate change as a vehicle to end their way of life.” (comment posted by “wbjones,” n. pag.)
  Wallace-Wells was interviewed about his book, which critics fault for being unscientific (“alarmist, imprecise and misleading”), by the PBS NewsHour: “Why Climate Change Is an ‘All-Encompassing Threat’” (first aired 3/1/2019). The NewsHour also provides an excerpt from The Uninhabitable Earth, which drew a number of comments, including the following exchange concerning if/how true believers (in the scientific consensus on climate change) should engage with non-believers, rouse a complacent public, and persuade people to take radical action (Wallace-Wells’ mission in writing his book):
  • “[comment posted by “aziel13”:] they [non-specialists and denialists] also dont have to understand it [“the actual science”].  ¶   If its the current product of rigorous scientific research, which it is, then its Most likely true even if they dont understand or believe it.  ¶   But it would be nice if they would admit its a personal belief so we can write them off as having a opinion of no value.” (n. pag.)
  • “[response posted by “fed-up-Redhead”:] Dismissing people who disagree with you or with ‘facts’ merely alienates them rather than trying to find ways to turn them into allies. As with trump — convince them they can financially gain by changing their ways.” (n. pag.)
  • “[to which “aziel13” responded:] Yes... but fighting with them also wastes alot of energy.” (n. pag.)
  • “[to which “justsayin” responded:] Adopting the ‘Go it Alone’ method is not the answer. The more people you can get on board with the realities of global warming and its consequences, the more apt you are to make headway in the fight.” (n. pag.)
  As long as political ideology (more than science) frames the facts for the US public, it’s not at all clear that changing the messenger, or the style of science communications, is going to turn opponents into allies. “fed-up-Redhead” is right: socioeconomic appeals, which bridge the real divisions and differences between us, will be a lot more effective, as reported by Geoffrey Mohan in “Slush Gets Buried in Ideology” (Los Angeles Times, 11/30/2014, p. A2), retitled “Neither Rain nor Snow nor Heat Sways Views on Climate Science” for online posting.
  Mohan here points to a study by a Duke University social psychologist showing “he could strongly shift conservatives’ skepticism about climate change by associating the science with policies that either were antagonistic to their core beliefs (such as small government and unfettered markets), or aligned with them. Skepticism was higher when facts were presented in a context of government regulation, and lower in the context of free-market solutions.  ¶   Study co-author Troy Campbell, a doctoral student at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, showed a similar shift in credulity among liberals with respect to crime statistics and gun ownership policies.  ¶   In other words, it appears that Americans are not coldly weighing the facts, then arguing over policy. Our ideologies and political affiliations are altering how we process facts. This example of ‘motivated’ cognition appears to be driving denial of climate science, according to Campbell.  ¶   ‘People often say that we disagree about the facts, so that leads us to disagree about the solutions,’ Campbell said. ‘But what’s actually happening is that people are disagreeing about the solutions, so we can never really have a good discussion of the facts. That’s a tragic story.’” (G. Mohan, A2)
  For more re. Wallace-Wells’ polemic, The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), see the sidebar entry, added to She-philosopher.​com’s study of California Assembly Bill 1404, re. the extravagant concrete design of the V&A Dundee (design museum in Dundee, Scotland, opened September 2018).

Similar confrontations abound in the health care field, where a growing number of militant, non-specialist activists, riled up by the “fake health news” propagating on social media, are challenging the medical scientific establishment.
  Again, ordinary folks — having to evaluate competing truth claims in difficult, specialist disciplines — are caught in the middle, as documented in the PBS NewsHour feature, “Measles Outbreak Sparks Fears, Renews Tensions over Mandatory Vaccination” (first aired 3/5/2019). SUMMARY: “Over 200 cases of measles have been confirmed in the U.S. in the past few months. About half of them occurred in the Pacific Northwest, leading Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare an emergency and the state legislature to propose further restricting, or even eliminating, inoculation exemptions. Nonetheless, opposition to mandatory vaccines remains fierce. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.”
  Ironically, one of the first casualties of the vociferous debate over mandatory vaccination is debate itself. As pointed out in a comment on the NewsHour piece by “sandra m,” researchers are responding to the clamor by self-censoring in all the wrong ways: “PBS Newshour should report on the growing censorship of vaccine questioners. Writing in the NY Times (Aug. 2018), science investigator Melinda Wenner Moyer complained ‘When I tried to report on unexpected or controversial aspects of vaccine efficacy or safety, scientists often didn’t want to talk with me. When I did get them on the phone, a worrying theme emerged: Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects. Those who break these unwritten rules are criticized.’ We’re hearing about future censorship of Facebook and Amazon posts that question vaccine policy. How can that help? Hesitant parents need to know that the science behind vaccine policy is good.” (n. pag.)
  And when we become fearful of engaging with dissent like this, there are other repercussions for medical science, as pointed out in a comment posted by “Diana Moses”: “I also want to add my personal complaint about the current atmosphere over vaccinations: it makes it much harder to have a nuanced discussion even about adult vaccinations (flu, shingles) with a doctor if you have a history of adverse reactions to vaccinations, because there’s apparently an assumption that if you have any concerns about vaccination, you must be an anti-vaxxer (as opposed to someone wanting to plan ahead, say, to rearrange your schedule in case you end up again with a high fever for a week after receiving a vaccination — apparently there are some base compounds in some vaccines that some people’s bodies react to).” (n. pag.)
  Also see the comment posted by “Borderlord,” who calls for the right kind of self-censorship, for the right reason (more nuanced, culturally-sensitive messaging): “Vaccination is a good idea, and I support it, but consider the public health people to be complete idiots when they talk about ‘herd immunity’. The phrase plays to the anti-vax crowd’s beliefs that ‘the government’ views us as sheep.” (n. pag.)
  You don’t have to be a rampant individualist or libertarian or anti-vaxer to feel that most of us are being “herded” by a bureaucratic medical establishment that cares more about profits than people. Medical science needs to engage with and dispel this fear, not feed it.

Anyone calling, as I am, for an ethical art of engagement & confrontation, born of respect for difference must, of necessity, take up the challenge posed by the meteoric rise of its opposite: the style of specious confrontation (generating more heat than light) perfected by talk radio, reality TV, and social media.
  There is no getting around the fact that such fake confrontation is endlessly entertaining and has great audience appeal. The real deal (generating more light, less heat) is far less dramatic, and the resulting deliberative spectacle much harder to watch unfold over time.
  IMO, a good case study of early-21st-century fake confrontation is Donald Trump, whose finely-tuned persona as a pugnacious, politically-incorrect outsider and change agent (combative, independent, can’t be bought) has taken him all the way to the White House. Whether it will be enough to keep him there is another matter. Already, there are enough contradictions in his performance of the assumed identity to raise questions about its true power.
  As explained by Scott Jennings in his op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “Why Republicans Will Never Quit Trump: He has earned their forever loyalty for two simple reasons: attitude and gratitude” (3/10/2019, p. A19), the new Republicans coalescing around Trump are filled with enthusiasm by his ability to stick it to the liberal establishment: “Unencumbered by the pablum that traps most politicians, Trump is a perfect mirror when he takes the rally stage. The attendees see themselves in him; they don’t talk or think like politicians, either. And though their lives don’t permit them to attack those they find aggravating, they can live vicariously through a president who does it for them. This is especially true for rural folks, looked down upon as hicks and rubes by the coastal elites for a very long time. Bless your hearts, we do cling to our guns and religion because they are a deeply meaningful part of our heritage.” (S. Jennings, A19)
  Jennings taps into the “actual consumer demands of the Republican marketplace” and reports that, for this segment of the electorate, symbolic shows of strength (and the ability to spin everything as a “win,” whether it is or not) now take precedence over policy and political principle. It is simply assumed that President Trump will continue “doing basic Republican stuff,” so no one need sweat the details (or dollars!).
  I agree that symbolism is important (e.g., it can be helpful to encapsulate the Republican-Democrat debate over immigration in the 2 parties’ choice of symbols: for the Republicans, a forbidding wall stretching the length of the US southern border vs. a welcoming Statue of Liberty for the Democrats). But I also believe that we lose more than we gain when we start substituting symbols (and slogans) for substance.
  According to Jennings’ op-ed, what the rural Republicans who control the Electoral College really want is to be heard and taken seriously: they want their rightful place at the table. But it’s hard to see how Trump’s cartoonish style of confrontation will win for them the respect & influence they crave.
  There is mounting evidence that Trump avoids real confrontations with the establishment. E.g., see the provocative exchange between Shields & Brooks airing on the PBS NewsHour for Friday, 3/1/2019:
  “[DAVID BROOKS:] I spoke to a friend of Trump’s a couple months ago. And he said, you have to remember, this guy hates conflict. He will do it over Twitter. He will never do it face to face.  ¶   And so he’s there with North Korea.
  “[JUDY WOODRUFF:] He said that about President Trump?
  “[DAVID BROOKS:] Trump, yes.  ¶   And so he’s there with North Korea. He doesn’t want to offend the people in the room with him, because he just hates that sort of thing. So he will just kiss up to anybody in the room, and then tweet about them behind their back.
  “[MARK SHIELDS:] Well, he kisses up, but he kicks down. I mean, that’s the character — a lack of character of the man. In other words, you’re nice to people up here, but people who are below you, there’s a mistreatment and a maltreatment.” (n. pag.)
  Others besides Woodruff responded with incredulity to Brooks’ insight: “... Anyone who saw him [Trump] in the room with Schumer and Pelosi, bragging about how proud he would be of shutting down the government, knows that’s not true.” (comment posted by “John Haas,” n. pag.)
  But others developed on it: “Trump avoids confrontations. He wants everyone to admire him — insecure child with a need to be ‘liked’. However, his big mouth and ego will frequently push him over the edge. Chuck and Nancy played him like a cheap fiddle.” (comment posted by “fed-up-Redhead,” n. pag.)
  I, too, thought Trump came off as out of his league in the staged confrontation with Pelosi and Schumer, where the president blustered and talked around and past the others (e.g., he never engaged Pelosi in argument when she challenged his assertions, telling him repeatedly he didn’t have the votes he claimed to have). Unable to keep up with her on the issues, he lost control of the narrative, backing himself into a corner by resorting to his usual hyperbole ... hardly the sort of bold, visionary win-win solution we’ve come to expect from an expert negotiator, whether in business or politics.
  In his LA Times op-ed, Jennings describes Trump as a “marketing virtuoso” who “knows his competitors better than they know themselves” (S. Jennings, A19).
  But this kind of competitive edge is wasted if you can’t use it to grow your market share.
  I see little evidence of that, thus far, and would caution Trump Republican enthusiasts that manipulating the antiquated Electoral College system to foist on this country a president who has twice lost the national popular vote will prove a Pyrrhic victory.

And for an organizational psychologist’s take on constructive confrontation that produces change, that drives the story forward: see the PBS NewsHour Brief But Spectacular episode, “How to Give Feedback So People Hear You’re Trying to Help,” by Adam Grant (first aired 8/9/2018).
  His video op-ed opens: “I read a study not long ago which showed that highly creative adults grew up in families where their parents argued more. Not only argued more, but argued in front of their children, which, as a dad, I just thought was something you’re never supposed to do.  ¶   And yet, the more I read about this research, the more I realized that if you never disagree in front of your kids, they think there’s one right answer to everything, whereas if they see you argue, they realize there might be multiple perspectives on a problem, and they have to learn to think for themselves.  ¶   It’s not how often parents argue that affects kids’ well-being. It’s how constructively they argue.” (n. pag.)

To learn more about the engraver of the 17th-century head-piece pictured to the left, see the IN BRIEF biography for Wenceslaus Hollar.

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First Published:  August 2012 (under different file name)
Revised (substantive):  10 April 2019


Opening quotation markA great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.Closing quotation mark

 WILLIAM JAMES (1842–1910)
physician, psychologist & philosopher associated with the American school of Pragmatism

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S O R R Y,  but this page — promoting a rhetoric of constructive engagement and confrontation in which “social groups with differing interests encounter each other in a struggle that produces change, that drives the story forward,” enabling us to live and work together with differences — is still under construction.

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^ 17th-century head-piece, showing six boys with farm tools, engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677).

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