The Liberal Gospel

My friend Bob Subrick posted this article to Facebook today. Excerpt:

"There should never be any constraint on that sort of debate, however heated. We always need more speech rather than less to clarify arguments and to let people choose their own idea of the truth."

Where is the evidence that "more speech" "clarifies arguments"? Non-existent, I'd say: this is simply an article of faith declared by the prophet Mill and accepted without any evidence ever since.

When challenged on this point, liberals will sometimes point to science as  the model of discourse on which it is based. What nonsense!

Science works by ruthlessly filtering out nonsense speech from truth-seeking speech through the peer review process. Can you imagine a mathematician defending his disproven theorem by claiming it is "my own idea of truth"? Or physics journals repeatedly publishing papers on perpetual motion machines since we need "more speech" to "clarify" this matter?


  1. slightly off-topic: "my own idea of truth" is tantamount to "I have a right to my opinion". It seems to me that this can mean two very different things. a) don't try to change my mind. You sharing your ideas with me is like an assault on my person because you want me to end up sharing your beliefs. b) go ahead and share your ideas with me, but don't try to change my opinions by any other means, such as threats of violence, guilt-tripping, peer pressure, etc. Ideas only, please. Certain people (Eliezer Yudkowsky comes to mind) criticise "I have a right to my opinion" on principle, but they seem to think it means a) whereas I assume people usually mean b).

    That said, I do think some people will make an explicit case for a) when it comes to their religious beliefs (I'm not claiming all religious people do this). The argument is usually to the effect that the deepest truths of the universe are not really knowable through normal means, so any one set of beliefs is as good as any other in the abstract, but I want to stick with the ones that fit my identity and social context best (e.g. the creed of the church that I belong to), so you sharing ideas with me that might cause me to experience doubts would be ultimately fruitless and yet troublesome. So don't bother.

    Returning to your topic for a moment, neither a) nor b) constitutes any kind of argument for the thing I believe in. That is, they both say something about me not changing what I believe; neither says anything about you changing what you believe. So I of course agree that neither would ever be a valid scientific argument.

    One last comment that is on-topic, but very vague: existing, as I do, on the fringes of the scientific enterprise (I am not an insider in any academic area, but there area few topics that I know well enough to read and mostly understand the research that is being done, which means I can see the process happening), I have found that it is a wilder and woolier place than most people would imagine. An individual researcher is not a reliable arbiter of what is true and what isn't. Like any human, they develop emotional attachments to their ideas very easily, and these are intense because they relate to the researcher's livelihood and public identity. The process can't work if there is not a certain kind of openness but of course it must also sharply limit and focus the range of who can say what, just as you say. This is a difficult balance.

  2. I play a game called Town of Salem (an online version of the popular party-game Mafia), in which there are 15 players. The goal of the game is for the town to kill the mafia and the mafia to kill the town, but the twist is that each person's role is only known to himself. You try to gather up evidence to figure out who the mafia is and share that information with the other town members. One common mafia tactic is simply to talk a lot or distract the town with irrelevant information. In other words, the purpose of speech here is precisely to make poor arguments and make it more difficult to figure out the truth.

    While real life doesn't operate exactly like that, it certainly has its share of sophists who will grab whatever shoddy argument they can to convince you of their side. None of these folks give a damn about "clarifying arguments."

  3. Ironic that you should cite a refuted mathematician to deny that more speech ever clarifies the truth. One assumes the refutation was more speech.

    1. Who cited a refuted mathematician? And who said more speech NEVER clarifies the truth? That would be completely dumb. The clean being disputed is that more speech is ALWAYS the solution.

    2. His point is that the Millian assumption that we shouldn't outlaw certain kinds of speech because we might be wrong about the truth of that speech is self-refuting. I also realized this applies to objections to the death penalty on the grounds that we're never "fully certain" about a guilty sentence by way of this resting on the certainty that a person couldn't come back to life.

    3. Wow.
      Gene then: "Can you imagine a mathematician defending his disproven theorem ..."
      Gene now: "Who cited a refuted mathematician?"

    4. Wow Ken. Calling that "citing" is such an odd use of the word that I had no idea what you were talking about. When I cite a mathematician, it is like (Godel, 1936, p. 157).

  4. Well, I think it's clear from context. One cites examples. But I grant you this wording would be clearer:
    "you cite the example of a refuted mathematician ..."