Closing meta-arguments

I don’t blog much, but something about the reaction to the first Bret Stephens NYT column got under my skin enough to write two posts about it (1,2). I woke up this morning thinking about why.

At first glance, this all seems like a very minor kerfuffle, given the broader political context. I’m thinking in particular of the fact that the president is willfully ignorant, thin-skinnedhighly impulsive, and has little to no regard for the constitutional foundations of the United States. This is much more important than widespread overreaction to a NY Times column, right?

Well, sure. But yet another voice shouting into the void about Trump’s shortcomings is extremely unlikely to contribute anything useful to the world. Plus, it’s easy to be concerned about both the broader political context and the specifics of a relatively minor controversy.

Most importantly for my purposes, I think this relatively minor controversy is representative of the sorry state of political discourse in general, and the sorry state of political discourse in general is directly related to the fact that we elected Donald Trump president.

In Authority and American Usage, one of my favorite David Foster Wallace essays (pdf), he argues for the value of a Democratic Spirit. He writes (on p. 72 of the book the linked pdf is scanned from, and sorry in advance for the length of the quote, but hopefully it will be obvious why it’s so long):

A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.

This kind of stuff is advanced US citizenship. A true Democratic Spirit is up there with religious faith and emotional maturity and all those other top-of-the-Maslow-Pyramid-type qualities that people spend their whole lives working on. A Democratic Spirit’s constituent rigor and humility and self-honesty are, in fact, so hard to maintain on certain issues that it’s almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp’s line on the issue and to let your position harden within the camp and become inflexible and to believe that the other camps are either evil or insane and to spend all your time and energy trying to shout over them.

I submit, then, that it is indisputably easier to be Dogmatic than Democratic, especially about issues that are both vexed and highly charged.

This essay is about language and usage, not climate change, and it was originally published (in a much shorter form) as Tense Present in Harper’s in 2001 and in the linked form in the book Consider the Lobster in 2005. (Since I’m trained, in part, as a linguist, I’m fully aware that there are… let’s say problems with some of Wallace’s ideas about language. Nonetheless, I think there is a lot of value in the essay, but if you want a long rebuttal, here’s languagehat “demolishing” Wallace at length.)

Linguistic specifics aside, it’s difficult to imagine a better diagnosis of the ills of modern political discourse than the quote above. The response to the Bret Stephens column was unabashedly, sometimes gleefully, Dogmatic.

With me so far? Good. Let’s turn to peer review. (Sorry.)

When I read reviews of my papers, I put a lot of effort into maintaining a Democratic Spirit. As Wallace says, it’s not easy. Sometimes my initial reaction to a reviewer’s comments is intensely emotional. I can get remarkably worked up. I’ve developed strategies to prevent this from influencing my response to the reviewers, the main one being that I read the reviews, then I set them aside for a few days, and then I only begin responding and revising a paper after a more dispassionate re-read. It takes real effort to let my initial emotional response dissipate, to let the less important issues settle out and the more important issues clarify.

This allows me to approach the process of revising and resubmitting papers with the rigor, humility, and self-honesty that constitute a Democratic Spirit.

In the interest of rigor, humility, and (self-)honesty, though, I have to admit that I do this more for the sake of my own mental health than for the sake of Democratic Spirit. I stumbled onto this approach to responding to my peer’s reviews after I got really absurdly worked up about a particular reviewer’s responses to a recent paper of mine (possibly not 100% current arXiv pdf).

For any number of reasons, it’s typical to not sit down and revise a paper immediately when you get the reviews. I wrote that paper over a very short period of time, largely in response to two papers, the latter of which I reviewed (non-anonymously), only to find that my reviews were, as far as I can tell, completely ignored. The first author of those two papers reviewed the recent paper of mine, and I put aside pretty much everything else I was working each time I got his (and the other) reviews back.

The utility of putting reviews aside for a while before responding became very clear to me with this paper. I would normally do this just out of necessity, because there’s always a large number of other things to deal with. But my heightened response to these particular reviews made it clear to me that I would benefit personally from a deliberate delay.

Okay, so, at a personal level, I have good reasons to act this way. But this experience also made it very clear to me that the personal benefit of calming down before responding improves the scientific quality of a paper. It allows me to maintain a high level of rigor, humility, and self-honesty. It allows me to approach the whole process in a Democratic Spirit.

The effects on the scientific quality of my work illustrate, indirectly at least, that there are interesting Kantian implications here. Maybe I’m way off base, but it seems to me that you could make a case for this general approach to responding to peer review as a categorical imperative. Would the modern scientific enterprise be sustainable if responding immediately and emotionally were a universal rule governing researchers’ behavior?

Okay, maybe modern science wouldn’t totally collapse, but it’s easy to see that a universal rule to approach the process in a Democratic Spirit would work out just fine.

How does this relate to the reaction to the Bret Stephens column? Scott Alexander recently made a pretty strong case that the Democratic Spirit has been eroding for a long time in the realm of political discourse. It seems inarguable that the rapid churn of the news cycle and the widespread use of social media make it even more difficult than it normally is to maintain a Democratic Spirit.

The response to the Stephens column is, I submit, symptomatic, and emblematic, of this general failure of the Democratic Spirit in the US (and probably elsewhere).

The Gizmodo piece I linked to in my last post is, by current standards, pretty even-handed and reasonable. But it is also distinctly lacking in rigor (see my last post for some illustrations of this). Similarly, the third segment in yesterday’s Culture Gabfest was one of the more reasonable, calm, and collected discussions I’ve heard about this controversy, yet it included fairly effusive praise for the Matthews piece that got me started writing about this. It also included a description of the first part of Stephens’ column as being all about scoring points with conservatives by illustrating how much “we all hate Hillary,” claims that the second part of the column insidiously employs post-modernist philosophy to argue that nothing is truly knowable (in climate science in particular), and it ended with calls for Stephens to be fired.

Trump got elected because millions of people were willing to overlook his numerous, serious flaws and vote for him. I didn’t vote for Trump, and I very much wish he hadn’t won, and I can’t claim to understand the myriad reasons people had for voting for him. Probably lots of Trump voters would never have been persuaded not to vote for him, but I imagine quite a few had to hold their nose in order to do so. And the kinds of failures of the Democratic Spirit exhibited in the reactions to Stephens’ column may well have provided a convenient excuse for some number of these voters to vote against smug liberalism rather than voting affirmatively for whatever they thought Trump represents. (There is no small irony in the fact that Stephens’ column was trying to make more or less this exact point with respect to climate science and environmental activism.)

Perhaps unfortunately, the only idea I have for how to combat this apparently global failure of the Democratic Spirit is to simply insist on maintaining it locally myself.

This entry was posted in language, SCIENCE!. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.