Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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September 19, 2010
Mixed Nuts

What should count as nutty?

Two of my recent posts dealt with the question of whether Christine O'Donnell, currently the republican nominee for senate in Delaware, is a nut. That raises a more general question of some interest: What counts as nutty? . . .

Pretty clearly, it isn't enough to merely hold mistaken beliefs; . . .

I don't have any solid basis for my own moral beliefs, any way of proving to a reasonable and open minded skeptic that they are correct. That puts me in a poor position to condemn as obvious nonsense someone else's moral beliefs. . .

But the special problems of moral beliefs don't answer the more general question. There are lots of people who disagree with me on factual questions whom I don't consider nutty either. So where do I, where should I, draw the line? . . .

Once you accept the practical necessity of relying heavily on second hand information, you have to modify your view of what a reasonable person would believe to take account of what those around him believed. . . .

So what does qualify one as a nut? I think the best answer I can come up with is holding beliefs that no reasonable person with your intellectual background could hold. In practice, since one rarely knows enough about some else's background to apply that criterion, it comes down to observing how someone holds and defends his beliefs. Someone who argues for creationism and against evolution in a coherent, consistent, intelligent fashion isn't a nut, even if there are lots of facts he doesn't know that contradict his argument, even if he bases his attack on a mistaken (but widely believed) account of the contents of the theory he is attacking.

It is at the point when the argument depends on ignoring facts he does know, on defending inconsistent positions, demonstrates that he is committed to the conclusion whatever the evidence and the arguments might be, that the balance begins to tip. The clue is not what he argues for but how he argues for it.

I read something in passing today that turned the O'Donnell nut issue around: why are we thinking about this when being a nut - Al Franken was used as the example - is an asset for Democrats, a way of signalling to the base that a candidate is all-in, a true believer, reliably a Democrat? Another example is Jimmy Carter, whose sexual and religious views were even more exaggerated than O'Donnell, and were stated in the prime of his political life rather than when he was twenty-something, a decade or two before he sought high office.

Consider this related issue:

On scientific questions where I am orthodox (eg, alternative medicine, evolution), I notice that the heretics use precisely the same sorts of arguments as I do in those fields where I am a sceptic (eg, climate projections, crop circles). There seems to be no easy answer to the problem: when should you go for a heresy.
Politicians, activists, advocates and dark siders in general don't think about such things, don't, as Friedman does, wrestle with the truth that his own moral values are as ungrounded as everyone else, or as Ridley does, admit that he has no certain way to distinguish between true and false heresies.

I have a very low opinion of politicians, activists, and advocates; and it grows ever lower.

Posted by back40 at 07:36 PM | cognition

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