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Negative evidence and the village idiot syndrome

March 5, 2009

One of the interesting (but sadly neglected) questions on Wikipedia at the moment is that of negative evidence. If you have a look at the debates on intelligent design you will see aspects of this which generally take the form:

  • You can’t say absolutely that you (science) are right, it is therefore possible that you are wrong.
  • You say that I am wrong, but you may be wrong it therefore follows that I may be right
  • Please teach intelligent design as an alternative theory.

Now I doubt that anyone who takes that argument seriously is a reader of this blog, and its one of the issues around ideas of coherence to avoid the dichotomy of relativism and empiricism. Another manifestation is the Is Ayn Rand a philosopher argument which has occupied far too much of my time, may earn me a topic ban and motivate me in consequence to withdraw from WIkipedia editing as a hobby. Not so much as a result of the ban, but the failure of the community to deal with key questions of evidence and also single topic editors using WIkipedia to promote obscure cults.

Now Ayn Rand is a minor US author, a lot of people read her novels in their teenage years then grow up. She doesn’t even appear in the Oxford references books on American Literature. She created a philosophy called objectivism which is pretty nasty (Chomsky called her evil) and based on unbridled pursuit of personal self interest. At a West Point lecture she basically said that Native Americans didn’t look after their property so got what they deserved. Some of her followers believe the current financial crisis is because of too much state regulation and the failure to bomb Iran. Now some sources, one US encyclopaedia of philosophy and various objecivist institutes call her a Philosopher so we have citable, authoritative material.

However all other dictionaries and encyclopaedias of philosophy ignore her completely Now if someone is not called a philosopher in multiple places where you expect a reference, and if even objectivist philosophers basically say they like her political position but consider her at best an amateur/inadequate then what do you do? Just as hardly any serious scientist takes intelligent design seriously (other than as an ideological movement and political problem), no serious philosopher with the odd exception (several of whom are funded by Rand research institutes) considers Rand to be one of their number. Just to show how bad it is, she and some of her follows argue that she is the greatest philosopher since Aristotle and Kant the source of all eveil in the world.

So how do you prove a negative? I admit to a European incredulity at some of the ideas that have to be taken seriously by intelligent friends and colleagues who live and work in the US. Cultism seems to be an endemic danger there just as class based distinctions are in the UK. Normally you can tolerate the village idiot because everyone knows the idiot, no one takes them seriously and they are (with apologies to Douglas Adams) mostly harmless. However when the villiage idiots can assemble on line, and give apparent weight to blatant absurdities; what do you do?

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