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Principles of Applied Epistemology (APPLIED EPISTEMOLOGY)
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Mick Harper
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Principles of Applied Epistemology No 1

What do we mean by 'orthodoxy', against which you must strive night and day? Technically speaking, an orthodoxy is established as soon as two people are agreed on something. This is the origin of the Applied Epistemological mantra 'Everything you say must be original to you (or it isn't worth saying)'.

To an extremist, and all AE-ists are extremists, if you say something completely original except that you said it last week, an orthodoxy has been formed, and you shouldn't say it. But this is a counsel of perfection and, so as long as you feel a little uncomfortable spouting something you said last week, that is usually enough since it will force the brain to put a slight spin (even a literary flourish) on such a hackneyed thought.

Obviously you would rip your own tongue out rather than repeat what somebody else said last week. This is quite important because unless you keep reminding your brain, by these little bursts of unhappiness, it will actually end up repeating what was in last week's Guardian thereby forcing you back into the ranks of the ordinary intelligentsia. Though not for long obviously because realizing that you would have no option but to blow your own brains out.

So an orthodoxy is sort of anything that is not original to you, freshly minted. But for everyday purposes, it is usually sufficient merely to grade orthodoxies and to strive night and day to avoid the higher reaches. As long as you get your brain used to constantly 'diving down' you will eventually bottom out ie actually start being compulsively original.

Clearly the first among orthodoxies, the worst among orthodoxies, is the ruling orthodoxy of your local intelligentsia. Not, you will note, the majority opinion. An example of the difference came up on the website recently when discussing some aspect of racism and one of the newer, younger members incautiously offered up some routine piece of liberal conformism.

He was summarily denounced for being an 'anti-racist'. On the face of things being a 'racist' might be thought an equal and opposite position but this is of course not so. When an AE-ist embraces racism it is generally a forward move. A downward move. A move towards the unexplored. The fact that the population at large might dwell in these nether reasons is neither here nor there. They didn't get there by the processes of thought. Though they did get there, and this is what makes it important to the AE-ist, by experience.

Racism is some kind of manifestation of truth, anti-racism is merely an ideology.
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Grant



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So an orthodoxy is sort of anything that is not original to you, freshly minted. But for everyday purposes, it is usually sufficient merely to grade orthodoxies and to strive night and day to avoid the higher reaches.


What's the definition of "higher reaches?"
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Mick Harper
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In this context it would be The Guardian, Newsnight and other organs of the official intelligentsia. But that is assuming the reader is a) British and b) of a liberal cast of mind. A conservative Briton would probably substitute The Times or the Telegraph and (possibly) would not be watching Newsnight, at least not for ideological guidance.

It is each reader's duty to look at his or her own ruling intellectual framework. As Mao said, the sea the fish swim in.
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Mick Harper
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Principles of Applied Epistemology No 2

Let's dis-establish an orthodoxy. We can do this by the simple expedient of getting two people to disagree. For instance, you and me. What does this actually mean when, say, dealing with matters of public policy? Clearly, only three possibilities can be present:
1. I'm right and you're wrong
2. You're right and I'm wrong
3. We're both wrong.

So immediately you're in a bit of trouble. Whenever we disagree, and all other things are equal, the chances are you're wrong. Now look back on your life and tell us how often, when you have found yourself to be in disagreement with another person, have you said to yourself, 'Gee, the chances of me being wrong are better than fifty-fifty'?

Of course the answer is 'Never, nada, it ain't gonna happen'. Since this situation has occurred about a zillion times in your life (it happens sixteen times on every Newsnight) there must be a formidable mechanism that converts just over half of zillions to zero.

The best defence is not to watch Newsnight. The point about Newsnight is that you are guaranteed to have some zombie from a political persuasion that is not your own grinding his meretricious guff into your face, so why bother? Well, actually, that is one thing that distinguishes the intelligentsia from the mob: the former actually rather enjoys listening to the other side because they are confident they can confound them with their own intellectual resources.

Ordinary people would rather not have the bother. But in practice you, as a fully paid-up member of the intelligentsia, mostly would rather not have the bother either. It is all very well preparing yourself for a set-piece debate on Newsnight but you don't want those smug Tory/whatever bastards curled up in your living room with your friends, the wife-and-kids and other manifestations of your actual daily life. No, you make damn sure your nearest and dearest think remarkably like you.
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Mick Harper
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Principles of Applied Epistemology No 3

Since I am no friend of yours we may take it that we shall be disagreeing about a great variety of things, and every time this happens there will be--all other things being equal--a better than even chance that you are wrong.

But of course other things are rarely equal so let us agree some of the more acceptable ways you can avoid error, or at any rate the contemplation of error. The first time it happens you can safely use probability. After all what's a shade over fifty-fifty but the toss of a coin. It just so happens, on that issue, you were right and I was wrong. Damnit.

You can use the same line of reasoning for the next couple of times as well since though we are now up to, say, ten to one against you being right every time you've always been a lucky sort of a cove. But what of the next time? Well, nobody's that lucky so you'll have to start quoting cases.

As it happens, on that occasion -- what, our fourth disagreement ? ... the argument happened to be on whether the current government's paying off of the National Debt was quick enough to avoid our triple-A rating being besmirched but too quick to avoid a double-dip recession. I can't for the life of me remember who was arguing what but I do remember the reason you put forward for our disagreement. You had an economics degree and I didn't.

And that's fair enough. Even though I have a reputation for polymathy (which saves me from all kinds of intellectual dilemmas I can tell you) it is perfectly reasonable for you to account for our different prognostications about budgetary policy by reference to your superior data set in this field.

But then came disagreement number five which, if I recall, was about policy in Afghanistan. I didn't point out that I had a degree in International Relations whilst yours was in Economics but anyway you had the decency not to claim superior knowledge in this field. No, it was because -- well, I don't think you gave a reason but anyway, no harm done, I expect you have a better overall grasp of these things than I do. You being something of a man-of-the-world.
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nemesis8


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Mr Orthodoxy isn't such a bad old fellow, he tells a good story, and can 'scientifically' defend his ideas. You could in fact safely welcome him in, and show him round... so you do...he is after all, harmless enough....

Its just you have a problem...You show him out the front door....

And he climbs in the back window...

You can't get rid of him....

Eventually you lose your temper..

Mr Radical is young and incredibly charming, he comes round, and attacks Mr Orthodox for his basic conservatism, hey if you are lucky.. he might even help remove the old buffer.

Mr Radical has a massive library of books. All of which reflect the prevailing lunacy of the moment. Mr Radical quotes these with great authority. After a while though you suspect he is showing off--so you ask him to show you his very own ideas . At this point he makes an excuse and leaves .

But of course he then comes round the following day to show you a new idea he has googled....

After many wasted years you finally realise that Mr Orthodox had more to offer than Mr Radical --.and you have in fact been a tad harsh going for that restraining order with power of arrest ....

You feel guilty and ashamed....

What you really need is to injunct Mr Radical...

Doh.....
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Mick Harper
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If you are saying that Radicals are just Minority Orthodoxists then, yes, that is correct but of course you personally won't be able to pin down Radicals or Orthodoxists because these are just terms of abuse (or endearment). For instance, I guarantee you won't be able to say which you are.
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Grant



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Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swans fame says that it is impossible to be an expert on something that moves. I think by "moves" he means a system.

So your medical degree and experience in surgery makes you an expert in opening up bodies, but your economics degree means sweet FA when trying to tell the economic future.

That's why your principle won't work when you talk to your car mechanic.
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Mick Harper
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What principle? And why is it people always choose examples that never occur in the real world. In the real world nobody 'talks to their car mechanic', they talk to the bloke on the front desk who is there precisely so that you don't talk to the car mechanic.
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Ishmael


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If a discipline isn't predictive, it just means it's operating under false paradigms.
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Mick Harper
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You're all entirely missing the point. I must redouble my efforts.
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Mick Harper
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Principles of Applied Epistemology No 4

And so we come to abortion. Or any 'social' issue that does not require specialised knowledge. Now fortunately for you (as in you-and-me disagreeing) both answers are correct! Although we have diametrically opposed polices as to whether abortions are to be (easily) allowed by the state or not, we can both walk away saying 'Well, I was right on that one!'.

And thereby the chances of you being wrong, judged over the long haul, have not changed. If only this 'moral' clause could be obtruded into every political question then you could disagree with me on every political question and the wretched fifty-fifty toss-of-the-coin can be stopped at source. You would no longer be under the baleful rule that during your last ten political disagreements the odds that you must have been wrong with at least one of them will not be an unavoidable 1023 in 1024.

But before we see how far the moral clause can be extended we have to tot up the price. In order for you to walk away thinking you were right in the Abortion Debate on moral grounds, it follows that in your view I must have walked away on immoral grounds. In other words, it required you to think I was wicked.

I cannot have been decent-but-misguided because that would mean the source of our disagreement would be something rational and therefore subject to the fifty-fifty rule. Your rational reason can only trump my rational reason if you have access to some data store or reasoning power that I do not have and, apart for it already being agreed that abortion doesn't require this, there is the small matter of my position being supported by some of the finest minds around and ten, twenty, thirty etc per cent of the population in general.

Can we all be wicked? It turns out that the answer is 'Yes' and it also turns out that the conscience clause can be applied to all kinds of questions. You've got a fighting chance of bucking the odds.
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Grant



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But before we see how far the moral clause can be extended we have to tot up the price. In order for you to walk away thinking you were right in the Abortion Debate on moral grounds, it follows that in your view I must have walked away on immoral grounds. In other words, it required you to think I was wicked.


Really? Don't we just assume that we are less biased, more intelligent, learned or experienced? I never think my opponents in an argument are actually evil.

Perhaps this is because since I was thirteen my opinions have run the gamut from Marx to Hitler.
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Mick Harper
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Actually you do but you have trained yourself not to think this way because it doesn't bear examination. I had the following experience just last night, talking to an old-line leftie and trying this particular argument on him. He kept denying he thought 'the right wing' was wicked but his reason for disagreeing with 'the right wing' was 'because they are organised deliberately to take money from the poor in order to enrich themselves'.

When I challenged him that this was obviously a wicked policy he had the decency to look slightly embarassed because, wearing another hat, he thinks this indeed to be wicked (as would, of course, all right wing people).

Really? Don't we just assume that we are less biased, more intelligent, learned or experienced? I never think my opponents in an argument are actually evil.

OK, well choose someone on the other side of the abortion debate who is roughly on a par with you in terms of bias and intelligence and tell us on what basis you disagree with him or her other than the standard 50/50 as to which of you is right.
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Ishmael


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Mick Harper wrote:
Actually you do but you have trained yourself not to think this way because...


Pay no attention to Mick.

This is what happens to former leftists as they age, when they can't quite bring themselves to condemn the foolishness of their youth and embrace the right. They become "wise liberals." Mick thinks he's bravely tracking a new political course when, in reality, he's just blindly following the same path trod by every half-intelligent old left-winger before him.

He has no idea how people on the political right actually think. He simply mirrors his leftist experience and assumes it holds true.
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