Where Is the Thoughtful Critic?

Joshua Youngkin

Professor Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher and evolutionary biologist, recently typed up an open letter to his people, “the community of reason,” to urge rationality on them.
Whether you belong to this ironically named tribe or not, Pigluicci’s honest “self-assessment” is worth a look. In the letter he says about his tribe’s leaders (astutely, he names no names) what we’ve said of them for years — that they critique their opponents in the least rational and least productive way imaginable.
Pigliucci puts the point this way:

Gone are, it seems, the days of the Carl Sagans, Martin Gardners, and Bertrand Russells, and welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can.

To organize his thoughts on the problem, Pigliucci makes several lists, like a good philosopher. His last list, including the following items, suggests a remedy: return to philosophy and its virtues.

iii) Apply the principle of charity, giving the best possible interpretation of someone else’s argument before you mercilessly dismantle it. (After which, by all means, feel free to go ahead and mercilessly dismantle it.)
iv) Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind).
v) Treat the opinions of experts in a given domain with respect, unless your domain of expertise is reasonably close to the issue at hand. This doesn’t mean not criticizing experts or worshipping their pronouncements, but only to avoid anti-intellectualism while doing it.
vi) Read more philosophy, it will do you a world of good. (I am assuming that if you are a member of the CoR you already do read quite a bit of science. If not, why are you here?)
vii) Pick the right role models for your skeptics pantheon (suggestions above, people to avoid are left to your keen intuition).
viii) Remember what the objectives are: to learn from exposing your ideas to the cross-criticism of others and in turn help others learn to think better. Objectives do not include showing the world how right and cool you are.

In Pigliucci’s call to an ethic of mutual understanding, you may catch an echo of Hegel who wrote long ago that:

The genuine refutation must penetrate the opponent’s stronghold and meet him on his own ground; no advantage is gained by attacking him somewhere else and defeating him where he is not.

The Hegelian critique works because it proceeds from the trusted “inside” of a community, its distinctive views and values. Pigliucci performs this move on his brethren as he commends its use to them.
At Discovery Institute, we don’t expect our critics to always be or even act as philosophers. But every now and then there is a surprise.