November 6, 2002

This is just a

Filed under: Archives — mhoye @ 12:00 pm

This is just a test. In the event of
actual interesting content you will hear
approximately half an hour of silence, followed by the honking of seven
really loud trumpets

I’ve read another Harpers this weekend, and it pissed me off again. I
talked my problems with it out with Nick, and I think I nailed
down what was bothering me about it; the articles in question did
not make what you would call an “argument”, per se. That is, they
(by which I mean almost all the magazine’s content) do not make an
claim and then examine the merits of that claim. Even the article
called an “essay” avoids this obviously dated approach.

Instead, the trick is apparently to first tell a little story
about yourself and some related “life experience” that leads up to
the point that, in little baby steps, you eventually get around to
making. It’s a variant of the previously-described Rootham Technique,
writ large; the idea is not to actually make an argument, but to
seduce your audience away from your argument and into a sympathetic
mindset. Then, when you actually get around to making some kind of
a claim, the critical faculties that readers would normally employ
to realize that the writer is talking out of their ass are busy
dwelling on the fact that boy, this author has had a tough life,
and I guess he’s justified in feeling this way, gosh.

To me, this is like listening to a squeaking door hinge or a whining
computer fan; once you’ve noticed it you can’t ever go back to being
unaware of it, and it gets more irritating the more you notice. My
problem is that I see it everywhere; it seems not so much like a
lapse in judgement, but like the whole idea of judgement
has lapsed. A “good essay” apparently doesn’t need to support its
claims; all it needs to do is convince its readers not to fight

While this is no doubt old news to anyone who follows this kind
of thing for a living, it reminds me of the great “Science
Wars” debate from the mid-nineties; A professor of physics
named Alan Sokal wrote a fantastic parody that was eventually revealed to be a hoax after its publication in a prominent
journal of cultural studies. It is, I think, a two-step process;
the victims of Sokal’s hoax had already been sold on the idea that
everything is just a discourse, a “text”, and once you’re there
it’s apparently trivially simple to sell you anything that doesn’t
conflict with that belief. Sokal himself says it very well:

“The results of my little experiment demonstrate,
at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American
academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of
Social Textliked my article because they liked its conclusion: that
“the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful
intellectual support for the progressive political project.” They
apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence,
the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments
to the purported conclusion.”

This kind of thing drives me nuts. I get frothy and I start
to twitch, I really do. Between that and the tooth-gnashingly
glib Harper’s Index, it’s no wonder to me that the
U.S. government is going to be 100% Republican for at least two

On a wildly unrelated note, I had a great conversation the other
day with some fellow geeks about the fundamental differences between
the nature of computer simulations versus real-world experimentation.
The conversation ranged over questions of experimental controls,
determinacy, repeatability and so forth, but it eventually degenerated
into a jokefest on the great and terrible things you could do if
there was good overlap between those worlds:

  • “Who are you? How did you get in here?” “I dereferenced your business card.”
  • “…It didn’t work. Just a sec. I’ll try it again.” “No, wait! Don’t!” “…It didn’t work. Just a sec. I’ll try it again.” “Break, man! Break!” “…It didn’t work…”
  • “I didn’t kill him, your honour – he’s just been suspended. I can get him back.”

Those of you who don’t know why, or even if, any of that is funny can
console yourselves with the fact that you’re probably right.

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