So, I’ve been reading a bit more on “Butterflies and Wheels” because of a good discussion on civility there: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2011/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant/
Today I poked around in the comments of other posts, and particularly the one about Chris Mooney and Playboy, just to see what people were saying, and came across this comment:
In the last part of it, Russell Blackford says this:
“And I’m totally with Abbie (ERV). Kirshenbaum has always struck me more as anti-sex, or at least squeamish about human sexuality, than as concerned in a serious way about sexism. Same with Mooney, actually. Look at the way they freaked out when some people made the innocent mistake of assuming they were a couple. Anyone else would just have laughed it off, but they got all earnest and hurt. (Those who don’t recall this incident can look it up for themselves, though. I spent enough time last night doing another commenter’s homework.)”
Now, this comment would be enough for me to start making my point, but wouldn’t explain why this actually bothered me enough to make a whole blog post out if it. But the other commenter he’s referring to is almost certainly me, from the thread referenced above. And a short history of the issue is that I made an out-of-hand comment that Richard Dawkins says that teaching children religion is child abuse. Blackford took exception to that — perhaps not just from me though, since there were others saying that too, or at least supporting me on it — and said that there were a lot of examples in interviews where Dawkins clarifies it and that I had it wrong. I don’t want to go through that again, but suffice it to say at the end of all of that I agreed that at the very least the statement should be that Dawkins things that some of the accepted ways of teaching children religion are child abuse, but not all of them. But the subtext is what I’m after here.
In my first reply to Blackford, I went through — quickly — my copy of “The God Delusion” to try to support my case. I then said this:
“(BTW, if Dawkins has clarified this in more detail elsewhere, I would appreciate seeing it; I haven’t read that much of him outside of the book.)”
Now, if I was going to go on about tone, I’d have an issue here because someone else also asked for links and Blackford might have been replying to him and not me. Fortunately, I’m after the content, as we’ll soon see. And Blackford replied:
“He’s clarified it repeatedly in interviews and speeches, many of which are available on YouTube or on his site. He’s also said things in articles and on his TV programs. It would take me days of work to track it down for you. But you see, you have to do some of your own research before you make wild allegations, as you did in this thread.”
Well, see, the thing is … I had done my own research. I read “The God Delusion”. More than once, in fact. Now, in hindsight I can’t remember if I formed my opinion of that statement from the book itself or from hearing what other people say about the book (so I might have fallen into the misconceptions and just never had it shake loose), but then it seemed to me to be not inconsistent with that stance. What reason would I have to do that extra research? Why was it my responsibility? This might be debatable, but the rest isn’t.
So I, rather annoyed at this point, replied more strongly on that point:
“Russell Blackford: If it would take you days to find one good example — which is all I asked — then it’s a bit much to say that I’m in any way dishonest or lacking in research for not having seen it.”
Actually, on reflection, I was actually nicer on that that I thought I was; I basically just said “stop calling me dishonest for not having seen it”. And Blackford replied:
“Verbose Stoic It would take me days partly because there is so much of it, not because there is so little of it, as I made clear. Yes, I could go and rewatch television shows and look at YouTube to find you examples, but why should I? “
“Why should I?”.
See, I’ve heard this sort of thing before in informal discussions on other groups a few times. Someone will be trying to defend someone or some claim or idea on policy or whatever, and will say that there’s lots of evidence to support it. I’ll say “Where? I’d like to see it.” And the person will reply “Search for it/do a Google search/whatever” and will invariably, when pressed, reply exactly as Blackford did in the first comment above, with some sort of variation on “Why should I do your homework for you?”. And this has usually been met with silence from everyone, even those most insistent on the burden of proof.
Which is what surprises me, because to me the chain of events always seems to be: I say something. You say I’m wrong, and that you have proof. I ask for the proof, and you say that you don’t have to provide it since I can “search for it”. But if you have the proof, why am I obligated to go out and look and search for it? Why is that my job? If you claim that the truth is out there, shouldn’t you be the one obligated to find it? Heck, even if I did look there’s no guarantee that I’d find the same thing you did, and so my doing so is quite likely to lead to this:
“I found this and it doesn’t prove your point!”
“Oh, that’s not the one I meant.”
“Oh, so which one did you mean?”
“Go search again”.
This could lead to a lovely recursive argument that never ends, an infinite loop of my looking for something that I can’t find. If it isn’t actually there — not just because the person is lying, but because it’s the result of a particular impression they had but not fully stated — then it’s a wonderful waste of time for me. If it is there, then it may take a long time for us to settle on the right one and for you to, then, finally convince me.
Now, sometimes this can happen. Someone vaguely remembers something and realizes that they’ll have a hard time finding it, and they don’t have time to look for it. But in that case, you shouldn’t say “It’s not my job to find it”. You should accept that it is your job — since you made the claim — and then say “But unfortunately I don’t have time to look for it right now. You might be able to find it if you search for X in Y”. At least give where you’d start and start specifically, and then leave it up to them. If they decide to do the search, great. If not, and even if they maintain the view that you claim to be able to prove wrong, that’s not a strike on them. It’s not their job to provide the evidence you’re claiming supports your contention.
The first quote about Kirshenbaum’s position on sex (hey! Stop sniggering!) is a prime example of this. Blackford says that he considers her more anti-sex than anti-sexism, and uses the example of their reaction to being called a couple. Which he doesn’t provide. But how can he claim that that is one of his main examples if he isn’t prepared to back it up by providing it? How is providing that evidence doing someone else’s homework for them? Ultimately, someone would be quite within their rights to demand that he show his work, and every teacher knows that showing your work is part of your homework, not anyone else’s
Asking someone to show their work, especially in philosophy, is not calling them a liar or expressing disbelief, as Blackford suggests. It’s simply a matter of “I want to make sure I agree with your interpretation”. Maybe I’ll see it differently. Maybe my view is different than you think it is and the clarifications might support my position (but eventually lead us to figuring out what our positions actually are). It’s something that all critical thinkers should have as an automatic reaction. It’s not in any way bad or to be taken as an insult.
Now, to give Blackford credit, the rest of the comment was the result of an hour+ examination of the relevant chapter in “The God Delusion” to support his interpretation, which would on its own have been enough to get me to accept that I my statement was an oversimplification of his position (although we still disagree on particulars). So it’s not that he was completely unwilling to show his work, just not by digging up interviews. Which makes it more puzzling, actually, but that seems to be more a matter of tone than anything else.
But, to sum up, if you claim evidence exists you have to provide it. If you can’t do it readily, cop to it. But don’t ask those who disagree with you to do it for you.
Personally, I don’t usually have issues with that; my first reaction is to take the time to try to find it. My problem would be that sometimes even when I don’t find it I don’t let up on the idea as easily and quickly as I should. I’d make that a New Year’s Resolution if I did that sort of thing …