Sunday, October 30, 2005

Elites, experts and the like ...

The other day, in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan had a piece about our "elites" making "A Separate Peace". Today Glenn Reynolds links here and here to commentaries on Noonan's piece.
I admire Peggy Noonan immensely, but I tend to agree with much of what Phil Bowermaster and Justin Katz have to say in response. The "experts" the maninstream media has come to rely on tend to be experts in ... commentary and little else. As Katz points out it was genuine experts in typography that put the lie to Dan Rather's fake documents. And asI have suggested here, much public discourse these days has to do with the "meaning" of something without any real reference to what was said in the first place. I listened the other night to a blogger on a panel bloviate about the mainstream media's complicity in the administration's "lies" about WMDs. Well, I can be as critical of the MSM as anyone, but I'm sorry: U.S., British, Israeli, French, German, and Russian intelligence all indicated that Iraq had WMDs. Iraq had used WMDs twice -- against Iran and against the Kurds. Hans Blix wanted more time look for WMDs because ... he suspected they were there. Even the fact that they have not been found does not in itself demonstrate that they were not there. After all, the reason people hide things is to keep them from being found. But even if we grant that they were not there, that would only indicate that all the experts in this matter were wrong, not that anyone lied.
Which brings me to a point I have been meaning to get at for a while regarding th level of public discourse. Calling mistakes lies is bad, to be sure, and lowers the level of discourse. But there are more fundamental problems in this regard: the failure to define terms, for instance, which one sees all the time in the Darwinism/Inteligent Design debate (such as it is). Evolution and Darwinism are not equivalent terms; neither are intelligent design and creationism. More and more, arguments tend to be framed incorrectly. The Inquirer recently had something devoted to "What If." What it amounted to was a collection of counterfactual conditionals (which, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, always lead to correct conclusions, precisely because the propositions themselves are false -- running, as they do, counter to fact). Time and again, in public discourse, correlation is presented as causation and weak correlation as strong. If the media spent more time dispassionately sorting out the faulty argumentation that takes place frequently on both sides of any debate -- rather than taking sides in any of them, however covertly (in fact, especially covertly) -- it would perform a public service consumers might well find indispensible.

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