Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Ethics of False Attributions: A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

What follows is the continuation of a discussion with Massimo Pigliucci and I over at Rationally Speaking. You can view the original discussion here.

I may have addressed this matter in too much detail, but I want to make this point clear: it is wrong to attribute an idea to someone which they do not adhere to. But what's very wrong is to, when you are informed of this, provide a paltry and dismissive defense of your error and then proceed with it, anyway. If the figures involved were two anonymous persons in a debate forum, then perhaps it would be silly to blow up about it. But we're talking here about two important public intellectuals, both of whom are ostensibly dedicated to promoting truth and reason. It is these figures, most of all, who have an obligation to publish accurate words and who should invite scrutiny of the kind and detail I offer here.


It is fairly clear that you have misattributed the phrase “root of all evil” to Dawkins, when you said the following:

“We both agree that religion has absolutely nothing to do with morality, though I don't think of it as "the root of all evil" either, to use Richard Dawkins' phrase, which Harris seems to endorse with glee throughout this (and his previous) book.”

This isn't Richard Dawkins' phrase. He has repeatedly, publicly repudiated this phrase as being “ridiculous” and “indefensible". He has stated as much in several venues. Here is one example.

The right thing to do would have been, from the start, to say “whoops”, and remove it. Nobody could fault you for a minor mistake. I am now in the position of feeling obliged argue that there is something unethical about publicly misattributing ideas to others when you have been given good reason to believe they are, in fact, misattributions. Thus, I will now argue that you have, first, inaccurately attributed this idea to Dawkins, second, that you have compounded this error by presenting such unconvincing arguments that it's not even clear to me that you care very much if what you said was true, and, third, that it is unethical for you to continue in this way. It is my hope that in light of the arguments I present, you will present a compelling rebuttal, or, if you believe you are unable to do so, accede to the arguments.

My first point has been established in previous posts, and I don't want to rehash what I've already said in entirety, and will only do so where I feel necessary. Instead, I will address some of the specific replies you have made, and move directly into my second argument.

Your first defense was that Dawkins is “big enough” that had he wanted the title changed, it would have been. The evidence supports this claim for a very peculiar reason: the title WAS changed in subsequent broadcasts to the same name of his book (The God Delusion), yet you blew over this point entirely. Furthermore, Dawkins has made a point of noting in multiple interviews that he was unable to convince the filmmakers to change the title, but was able to insist on them at least a “?” to the end of the title. So, to reiterate, it would seem your position requires that Dawkins be repeatedly, publicly lying, something you have yet to acknowledge. The evidence in this case does not support your attributing the quote to Dawkins – all the evidence suggests he never liked it, forced a minor concession, and that it was later changed entirely, likely in part due to his misgivings about the title. Your first argument requires us to consider your reasoning alone sufficient to override all the evidence and reasons to the contrary. I don't find this compelling, and I don't think anyone should.

Your second point was that if he really objected to the title so much, he could have withdrawn from the project. While this is technically true, we, firstly, don't know all the details of the project. It could be that he couldn't withdraw without there being more problems and complications than there would be with allowing the title to go through. But, more to the point, even if he could do this, from our position as observers, I find this suggestion entirely unconvincing, and have already stated why: just because you object to the title doesn't mean you necessarily object to it so much that you think the best solution is to cancel or withdraw from the project. All things considered, it might be best to allow for an unfortunate title and a widely broadcast release critical of religion, than to disallow both.

Your second argument is such a weak point on your part it shocks me that you made it. It's like suggesting the United States must endorse North Korea attending specific meetings simply because the U.S. chose to go to meetings North Korea attended. There's absolutely nothing inconsistent or ridiculous about allowing a minor misgiving to go on because it is inextricably linked to what you perceive as a higher priority. Given Dawkins’ projects of late, it seems pretty obvious that criticizing religion is such a high priority it appears ludicrous to suggest he cancel the documentary over the title.

You went on to make the irrelevant point that religion being the root of all evil is in line with Dawkins’ views on religious education being child abuse. I explained why this was irrelevant. It is irrelevant because someone can maintain the view that religious education is child abuse even if they do not endorse the view that religion is “the root of all evil”, so the fact that Dawkins endorses that view says next to nothing about whether or not he believes religion is “the root of all evil”, or anything close to it. In fact, even a very religious person could consistently maintain that religious education of children is wrong because they are incapable of consenting to such instruction and it therefore denies them their autonomy.

You then went on, in your next reply, to say this:

“I don't wish to dismiss your points, but I think you are making too much out of this.”

This seems like a pretty impressive rhetorical strategy – to openly state you don't want to dismiss someone's points, while doing exactly that! You DID dismiss my points, and you substituted this sort of apology and downplaying strategy in the place of a rebuttal.

You then say this:

“First, I have experience in publishing and productions, and I can assure you that if someone the caliber of Dawkins "vigorously fought" against a title, there is an excellent change the title would be changed.”

To reiterate what I've already argued, briefly, the title WAS changed to include a “?”, and then changed entirely, so what you're suggesting here seems to entail that you're completely ignoring actual facts about the naming of the film.

If anything, your comments only show that Dawkins wasn't entirely effective in changing the title of a release from the beginning. But perhaps the strongest point made against your attribution is the fact that even if he never disputed the title, it wouldn't follow that therefore he endorsed it or believed that the answer to the question posed by the title was “yes”. There is absolutely nothing about a person's failure to change a title that indicates that they endorse the ideas behind that title, so using the fact of a title as a basis for attributing an idea to someone is quite ridiculous without evidence corroborating that attribution. In this case, virtually all of the outside evidence suggests that Dawkins explicitly objected to the title.

You proceed to say:

“Second, I don't take the phrase literally, even if Dawkins believes that religion is the root of most evil, my original point stands.”

Maybe you don't, but that's unclear to your readers, and it's rather misleading to attribute an idiom like “the root of all evil” to someone else, which many of your readers are likely to take literally, and are therefore likely to draw incorrect conclusions about Dawkins. Many of your readers are at risk of taking the phrase literally, and insofar as it is taken literally, it is a caricature. So, even if you don't maintain a caricatured view of Dawkins beliefs, your review could promote them, and to promote misconceptions of that kind is a bad thing. To do it knowingly is downright unethical. I'll note that his seems to me another attempt at downplaying my criticisms rather than seriously addressing them.

In your last reply to me, you said the following:

“I simply think that his tone is too often too harsh, and I've said that many times on this blog, including some detailed posts where I quote specific passages in The God Delusion. If you disagree, fine, we have different perceptions of Dawkins.”

The caricature I am referring to is slipping in the suggestion in your review of Harris's book that the phrase “root of all evil” is “Dawkins'” phrase, something he claims intellectual adherence to. What you're saying here is irrelevant and serves to throw us off track.

Indeed, this appears to me to be an attempt at changing the subject. We are not talking about tone or our perceptions of Dawkins. I am talking about a particular and clear case of you attributing a very specific notion to Dawkins – that religion being the “root of all evil” is a notion Dawkins ascribes to. I don't give a hoot about your criticisms of Dawkins elsewhere or your misgivings with his tone. You're a professional philosopher; you should know better than to use ploys like this. I feel like I'm in quite the ridiculous position when I have to scold a professional philosopher for blatant prevarications.

Lastly, I'd like to address the ethical side of this matter. You say this to Gray Wizard:

“If you really want to use it, perhaps you should apply it to Dawkins' obligation to withdraw from a project the official title of which he allegedly so strongly objected to, no?”

Well, perhaps, or perhaps not. This looks like a tu quoque, to me, though. Perhaps Gray Wizard does think Dawkins should have withdrawn from the project; but that's irrelevant. You whitewash his point, which is that honest people have a moral obligation to present the views of others accurately whenever possible, and that, insofar as you have failed to do so, and have put thousands of readers at risk of coming to believe falsehoods, you have in fact done something unethical or at least unknowingly harmful.

My argument is very straightforward. I am claiming that you have misattributed an idea to Dawkins. I have provided reasons for this being the case. Unless you can counter those reasons – and you have not – you do, I agree with the Wizard, have a moral obligation to retract those attributions. You should know better than any of us, being a professional philosopher, the importance of accurate attributions of ideas to others, and I suspect you do indeed regard it as unethical to knowingly misattribute, publicly, ideas to other people.

That you have instead taken the route of defending those misattributions causes me to question your willingness to concede error. In light of this, it is my sincere hope that you either provide a reasonable justification for your attribution, or you concede that you're in the wrong here. What I won't take as your honest position is that a potentially widely publicized misattribution to Dawkins is not a big deal. It is, and I expect this matter to be addressed. I look forward to your reply.