This is a philosophical post of sorts that's been knocking around in my head for a while. I've briefly defined here before the type of intellectual bullying that goes on that I've always referred to in my real life as baffling with bullshit. A more detailed example can be found in this blog post. Today I want to talk about another tactic prevalent in the works and writings of pseudoscience journalists and bloggers. It's the use of the concept of whether or not someone understands something, basically taking advantage of the general lack of knowledge in the population as a whole to make them feel stupid. This, too, is a form of intellectual bullying folks, there's no doubt about it. I'm sure there's some fancy Latin phrase for all of this, but I just want to point out how it is used against folks in debate and encourage would be victims to stick up for themselves and not fall for it!
You guessed it, one of the biggest names to employ this tactic is none other than Gary Taubes. For a very long time I would listen to his various lectures and interviews and wonder just what it was, aside for the heaps of misinformation, that I found so annoying about his presentation. And then one day it hit me. Taubes is very fond of using the following phrase: When you understand that ... (fill in theory)
So let's use one of his theories to complete that sentence. When Taubes says something like:
When you understand that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior, then you realize that mainstream beliefs about obesity are wrong.He is doing three things:
- He implies that obesity as a disorder of excess fat accumulation is a settled fact, and
- He implies that anyone who doesn't accept it as fact simply doesn't understand, and
- By inference, he calls you stupid - or at least not as smart as all the others who do "understand"
Pretty nice trick, eh? Ever so subtle, but intellectual bullying nonetheless. What the above statement should read like is something like this.
When you accept the theory that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior, then you realize that mainstream beliefs about obesity are wrong.
But then, unlike the previous version, it remains incumbent upon Taubes to support his theories and address the points made by those who are critical of them. Something he's demonstrated he's not so good at. Now to be fair, this sort of usage of the word is so prevalent, apparently, that Taubes' usage is actually cited as a definition in none other than Merriam Webster's dictionary:
2: to accept as a fact or truth or regard as plausible without utter certainty [we understand that he is returning from abroad]Nonetheless, most of us hear understand, and interpret that word in this context by the first definitions:
1 a : to grasp the meaning of [understand Russian]
b : to grasp the reasonableness of [his behavior is hard to understand]
c : to have thorough or technical acquaintance with or expertness in the practice of [understand finance]I contend "a" in general, or "c" in the context in which Taubes uses this.
d : to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of [understands children]
It is very easy, especially when one is out of their realm of expertise and not familiar with all of the facts, to fall prey to this tactic. I find myself rather lost in some of the conversations on Paleo boards about this or that society or this or that era and such. Because it's just not something I've studied. That doesn't mean I'm not capable of understanding it. I think the same holds true for the general population for whom science is a long ago memory of a class or two in high school, or perhaps college. Science, and math, are rather intimidating subject matters for a lot of people. But most of the concepts can be boiled down to plain English (or your language) for you to actually understand. This tactic, rather, plays to the insecurities of feeling lost simply because you don't know enough about something, and ultimately encourages intellectual laziness -- just "understand" it ... accept it as the truth ... then you don't have to actually *understand* any of it ... as in having a thorough knowledge and grasp of the facts.
Ya know, I hear all the time: Well, it works so I don't care how. This is fine! If you want to accept a theory as correct because it seems to make sense in your personal experience and is working for you, by all means I'm not going to beat you over the head with a high fiber low carb stick and send you off on an intellectual low carb goose chase to go read 1000 journal articles. Indeed I was taken a bit to task for displaying a bit of intellectual laziness myself when I discovered selenium magically cured my insomnia and expressing my thoughts that "I don't care" why. That's fair enough, but my basic philosophy in life is that when something's working for me, I guess I don't need to go looking for all those Popper white swans. And lots of low carbers (ahem, myself included) share their experiences of how it helped them lose weight and other things. But, most of my readers realize by now, what bothers me is those who merely accept a theory and don't really care about the validity of it going around brow-beating others into submission. These are the people who channel Taubes' use of "understand" as they argue in favor of his theories and eventually go away or storm off because: "you'll never understand". It is reprehensible, frankly, to run around saying that it doesn't matter if Taubes gets this or that wrong because "his theories" worked for me ... all the while joining in on the derision of all of those who supposedly are "wrong". It doesn't work that way. Present a cogent evidence based argument as to why they are wrong and you are correct.
So ... the next time someone bullies you with this line, take a deep breath and think about it before succumbing to the bullying. Do you really not understand? If so, ask for a better explanation or take a bit of time to gather more background knowledge if you need to. If you understand but aren't buying it, don't fall for this line.