New clothes for Shakespeare and Sondheim: on the arrogance of ignorance

Leiva headshotby Steven Paul Leiva

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” 
-Charles Darwin

I was once driving around with a colleague, an actor of sorts who I will call Harry Hotdoggen, when the subject of William Shakespeare came up.

“Shakespeare is the Emperor’s New Clothes,” Harry said in a statement so definitive that I thought I could perceive the stone tablet he was burning the words onto.

“What?” I said, never really liking stone tablets.

“Everybody thinks he’s this great writer, but his plays are really crap,” Harry said, happy to elucidate. “You know, it’s just that English teachers and intellectuals tell you Shakespeare is great, so everybody has to believe it, when, really, his plays are crap. I know, because I’ve done some Shakespeare, and I’m telling ya, ya can’t understand what the hell he’s talking about.”

“What?” I said again thinking maybe some carbon monoxide had leaked into the car and I was just imagining this conversation.

“And Sondheim too, he’s also the Emperor’s New Clothes. The only people who like his musicals are effete snobs, and they don’t really like his work, they’re just pressured to say they do, refusing to admit that his tunes are not singable — they’re awful.”

I love Sondheim. I love Shakespeare. I would have said, “What?” again, but What? was the use?

Harry Hotdoggen is an actor with a particular talent — some might call it a peculiar talent — and what he does, he has wanted to do from a very early age, and he has known success doing it. Because he was convinced from that early age that he would achieve this success, he paid little if any attention in school, did not achieve any academic standing at all (and is proud of it), and has never considered for a minute wasting time suffering “higher” education — except that which he could achieve through AM talk radio. William Shakespeare has been judged the greatest writer of the English language, and possibly any language; Stephen Sondheim is considered by his fellow professionals and devoted fans as the greatest composer and lyricist of the last fifty years of musical theater. But the ill-educated Harry, a man and talent with his own fans to be sure, but one not destined, I would be willing to wager, to go down in history; Harry, with unshakable conviction in his assessment; Harry has spoken the Word: Both Mister S’s are nothing but frauds and shams.

Harry Hotdoggen’s greatest role may be as a stand-in for the Great American Anti-intellectual. He is the perfect example. I do mean anti-intellectual, not nonintellectual; there are people who are nonintellectual but not, necessarily, willfully ignorant. The Harry Hotdoggens of the world are not the type who, when confronted with a complex idea or a challenging work of art, say, “Wow, that’s hard for me to get my head around, I’ll have to give that some thought, but, jeez, interesting if nothing else.” Harry Hotdoggens are the type who immediately resent the idea or work of art. I have known Harry (and Harriet) Hotdoggens who take other people’s intelligence as a personal insult, as if they (the intelligent) have passed through their (the anti-intellectuals) lives only to diminish them by example. Which, if you think about it, is a bit of a backhanded compliment.

Harry Hotdoggens don’t see it that way, of course, their egos — as strong, individualistic, and inwardly directed as all of our egos are — will not allow for such a vision, nor allow that those more intelligent than they may truly be intelligent. The Harry Hotdoggens are not saying, If you can’t say something stupid, then don’t say anything at all. They are saying, If I don’t get it, it ain’t got nothing worth getting.

This arrogance of ignorance is especially true if an idea, some knowledge, a few well-established facts, or an intellectually rigorous conclusion goes against a deeply held belief, either social or religious. This arrogance of ignorance rests at the core of the proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design, and gives spines of steel to homophobes defining marriage as only the type they have or wish to have; shouters for small government who still happily cash their unemployment, disability, and social security checks; climate change deniers who stand in the storm like a million mad Lears and shout, “It’s not our fault!” It is the arrogance of ignorance displayed by all those who would rather take the revelations of ancient, antiquated, and inadequate, supposedly written-in-stone, yet much too open to interpretation, “sacred” texts; rather than the most current understanding of the workings of the universe that we have wrestled from nature by the scientific method, which is not open to interpretation, but always open to refinement and even — if new data justify it — falsification.

This arrogance of ignorance leads to ideology, not ideas; madness, not method; hate, not the humane.

We talk often about how America is divided between the Right and the Left, the Red and the Blue, the Conservative and the Liberal. But is that the true divide that is doing us harm — if it is doing harm and is not just a reflection of normal differences in human nature? Could the real harm possibly be coming from the divide between the ignorant and the knowledgeable?

I am not implying by placement that all Red Right Conservatives are ignorant and all Blue Left Liberals are knowledgable; neither ignorance nor knowledge discriminates, especially regarding specifics. Certain conservatives may reject the facts of climate change; certain liberals may reject the facts of the benefits of animal experimentation. I have very consciously not used the words “Stupid” and “Smart.” Stupid and Smart come with each individual’s biological territory. Ignorance and knowledge come from actions taken and not taken; effort, or the lack thereof, is the telling factor here.

By ignorance I mean the willful ignoring of facts. By knowledgable I mean quite specifically, that which we have learned by the application of the scientific method.

I’m specific in the type of knowledge I’m speaking about here because not all knowledge is equal, although all knowledge comes from experience. I can best illuminate this point by defining the difference between information and knowledge, which are not the same thing, as information comes from the outside and knowledge is born on the inside. For example: when you tell your young child that the stove is hot and that if she touches it she will burn her fingers, she now has that information. But it is not until she, despite having the information, touches the stove and burns her fingers that she has the knowledge. Information can be wrong — you could be lying to your child, or be misinformed yourself. And knowledge can be subjective and biased — the stove may only be warm, but the child may have a low threshold of pain, or desire the sympathetic soothing of a parent, and therefore reports a burn where none has occurred.

In his book of essays, The Identity of Man, Jacob Bronowski speaks about self-knowledge or, better said, knowledge of the self, and how such knowledge can be engendered by each of us living with (experiencing) our own consciousnesses, and, interestingly, through art, whether music, pictorial or, most ideally, literature. For art is, after all, nothing but manufactured and manipulated experience that, if it is honest and true, can speak to us by allowing us to share the experiences it provides, giving us a possibly more refined, if generalized, knowledge of ourselves. But if that art is either difficult (Shakespeare, writing in an English that is now archaic, can be extremely difficult upon first reading), or challenging (Sondheim made a career of challenging the conventions of musical theater), then it can, if no effort is made to appreciate the art, be a bad experience that leads to no knowledge of the self but does become a highly biased knowledge of the work of art itself. Unfortunately such knowledge is often expressed as an opinion that demands to be taken as fact — and so the artist is “crap” and wears the Emperor’s new clothes.

This is just the way things are concerning us as individual selfs with our individual tastes, and it may always be this way. While it really does no harm for people to have their personal biases regarding art, in the larger context, in a world we all share as members of the same species, and in communities of which we are all members  — from townships to cities to states to nations — toxic ignorance, false information, and highly subjective and biased knowledge can do much harm both locally and globally.

To stave off ignorance (and to combat it when we haven’t) it’s not just information we need, but accurate information; it is not just knowledge we require, but knowledge as objective and true as we can achieve. Such information and knowledge can only be derived from the scientific method, which, like art, manufactures experience, but unlike art, does not or should not, ever, manipulate it. This is the case because this method of inquiry (through observation, exploration, and experimentation) into reality, into nature, into, as Douglas Adams put it, Life, the Universe and Everything, guards against false information and is intolerant of biased and subjective knowledge. It is a method that reveals information and knowledge that, unlike ancient, antiquated, and inadequate information and knowledge revealed in “sacred texts,” are revelations that beg to be questioned, challenged, put on the spot, and tested. Science does not look for sacred truths, but elegant truths that effortlessly fit the facts no matter what one may prefer the truths to be.

The scientific method is not arcane, even if it takes much hard study to master the details of any one science, and a great deal of patience, thought, attention to details, and often mind-numbing, even back breaking grunt work to rigorously apply the method.

In the quest to understand Life, the Universe and Everything, this is a method that has proven over the last three hundred or so years to work remarkably well. Our understanding of L, U and E has grown rapidly if not exponentially, the highly technological world we live in being only the obvious manifestation of that growth, the one most happily embraced. The copious number of successes science has had in unlocking Nature’s secrets has made it worthy of a high degree of confidence, in contrast to strictly opinion-based belief systems or philosophies, and certainly to the irrationality of faith, whether in the tenets of one of the three major Abrahamic religions, or any of the many other religions that dot the face of our planet.

When faced with such advocacy for the scientific method over belief systems or faith, people often accuse the advocate of being, “Just the same as us, you just believe in science; you just have a faith in science.” But the hallmark of science and the method that makes it strong is neither belief nor faith, but trust. Science relies on dispassionate and objective (as far as it is possible) evidence and has thus proven itself. Beliefs and faith rely only on the passions of their adherents. As passions can and often do differ, no one belief or faith has universally proven itself, even if certain beliefs and faiths may claim they have simply by the number of their adherents.

Since the core of beliefs and faith is opinion and not an evidence seeking method, any strength they have can come from only one thing: authority. In most of human history authority has been derived from either one of two methods, or often a combination of both: convincing people that you are tapped into the mind of the Divine, or demonstrating for them the strength of your armies. Emperors, popes, priests, monarchs, dictators, and the self-deified have relied on these two methods for millennia. In recent history a third way has been added, authority derived from “the people.” Democracy, it is called, although it has never really been pure, and so we have constitutions to codify and politicians to execute that authority, relying on a majority to keep it intact. The good or bad exercise of that authority, then, depends on the quality of the majority.  The quality of the majority relies on the information and knowledge it has. If the majority consists of Hotdoggens, the willfully ignorant — for false information and biased and subjective knowledge amounts to the same thing as ignorance — then the exercise of that authority has a good chance to be bad. But if the majority has information and knowledge that can be trusted, because it has come from a method that can be tested, then the exercise of that authority has a much better chance of being good. To put it another way: information and knowledge should not come from authority; authority should come from information and knowledge.

It should be simple. Information and knowledge that can be trusted because it has come from a rigorous method that has as little room for biases and as little tolerance for subjectivity as possible seems much the better basis for an authority and the decisions it needs to make, especially in this world of ours that is currently facing so many obstacles. And yet, so often, the Harry and Harriet Hotdoggens of the world seem to rule it instead.

Why? The arrogance of ignorance. What can be done about it?  Now there is a question to contemplate.


Steven Paul Leiva is a novelist, essayist, and a refugee from Hollywood. His latest novel, Traveling in Space, a science fiction first contact novel written from the point-of-view of the aliens, deals much with knowledge and ignorance, and the tensions between them.

143 thoughts on “New clothes for Shakespeare and Sondheim: on the arrogance of ignorance

  1. Well said, Robin. I think sharing your experience here adds a lot to the conversation.

    It seems to me that one tactic that could be useful in quelling anti-intellectualism would be not to expect everyone to share the same tastes, and not calling those who don’t share “correct” tastes ignorant. That kind of condescension is likely only to encourage an equal and opposite disdainful reaction which may bleed into other fields such as a rejection of science and philosophy.


  2. Mr. Livea, to be honest, when I read your post–and I’ve read it more than once–I could not shake the feeling that there was something not quite right or satisfying about it. Much of it I think is in your point of departure, for in your opening example Hotdoggen is an actor who makes a brash judgement of Shakespeare’s value as an artist. But it is also apparent that in addition to his assertion that Shakespeare is “crap,” he intends to dismiss any purported authoritative position (such as “English teachers and intellectuals”) on the subject except his own, which appears to be grounded in his self-professed inability to understand Shakespeare (presumably as an actor). Then Hotdoggen proceeds to throw Sondheim in the same trash heap with the Bard and supports his position by claiming that the artisitic system is rigged. (About which he could probably make a strong case.)

    Having created a straw man and having already posited that it would be pointless to engage Hotdoggen further than an occasional, exclamatory “What,” you appoint him as the representative of the “anti-intellectual.” The problem here is, and perhaps I’m splitting hairs, that he probably better fits the model of an anti-authoritarian. Nowhere in his comments does he specifically attack an intellectual position per se, he simply dismisses all such positions as “crap.” Nowhere does he challenge himself or you to disprove his evaluation. So without further ado we can ascribe his assessment to self-serving confabulation.

    From here you eventually attribute Hotgoddenism to the “arrogance of ignorance.” (Well, to me, Harry seems simply glib, histrionic, and juvenile.) You abruptly switch gears as you go downhill to pick up some creationists, intelligent designers, homophobes, and libertarians (no doubt with Harry along), and while they cross-talk, everyone disagrees with everyone else, and Harry proclaims that they’re all full of crap, and you make a case for evidence based reasoning and the scientific method.

    What derailed your essay was (1) using Harry as your straw man to start and (2) confusing artisitic objectives and assessments with (3) scientific methodology. In the end, you are just preaching to the choir. The vast majority of those who live today are simply trying to put food on the table and trying to accomplish rather commonplace, menial tasks. Intellectual positions are not of paramount importance to them. Those in positions of authority are no longer trusted. What meaningful authority is on the table? The opportunity to be other than arrogantly anti-intellectual? Wormwood. There is an obvious political dimension to this discussion that many intellectuals feign dirtying their hands with. By all means, let’s be detached. So, you end your piece:

    “Why? The arrogance of ignorance. What can be done about it?” Well, for starters, you can think of something besides “What!” to ask Harry. And realize that you are engaging in the same stereotypical thinking for which you blame him.


  3. ”I would have been pleased and delighted to have gotten your comments, you musings, your contemplations, your reflections on this problem, and ways it might be countered. Surely you have some thoughts on the matter.

    Let’s start by stating the problem. “How do we lessen the influence of wilful ignorance in the world?”

    That is how I understand it, but someone can refine this if necessary.

    To counter a problem we first need to look for the reasons for the problem. It is unlikely that people are simply saying “I am going to be ignorant today”. It is unlikely that even that someone who holds a false belief does so in the conscious knowledge that they hold a false belief.

    So let me define a wilfully ignorant person as someone who holds a false belief when they have every opportunity of testing that belief and finding that it is false.

    So the problem is, how do we convince people to recognise that they should test their beliefs, and give them the opportunity of knowing how they can go about this.

    Let me put my first hypothesis. The reason that people are unwilling to test their beliefs is that society demonises ignorance.

    So let me come out myself – I am ignorant. I struggle with “Quantum Physics for Dummies”. I don’t get the General Theory of Relativity. I could not give you an account of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics or even tell you what the hell heat has to do with orderedness. I have never read any Proust whatsoever.

    Does that make me feel bad? No. Even though there are some who tell me that my ignorance of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is something negative.

    But I see ignorance differently. I see ignorance as an opportunity to learn something I don’t know. It doesn’t matter that I will still be ignorant relative to someone who knows more. That is just more opportunity for me. I didn’t even get the Special Theory of Relativity until recently. The penny finally dropping was a joyful feeling.

    So that is my first positive suggestion. Let us promote the joy of ignorance, just so long as that ignorance is fully recognised and that it would be remedied as soon as the opportunity arose. Let us promote the filling of our ignorance with knowledge as one of our greatest sources of joys and fulfilment.

    As long as we connive at the idea that ignorance is regrettable or shameful we will be supporting the need people people have to avoid feeling ignorant.

    Of course the above hypothesis would need to be supported and tested, but I think that it is at least plausible.


  4. Perhaps this whole question of being in a group in which one is looked down on for liking artist X or not liking artist Y could be understood by considering that humans are perpetually forming “in-groups” and “out-groups,” since it is very important for most humans to know how they stand with respect to other humans, especially ones whom they think are or might be important to them as allies or enemies in present or future conflicts.

    Thus, if I don’t like Sondheim but I find myself in a group of Sondheim lovers, I might feel strongly or not so strongly motivated either to cover up my dislike of old Steven or leave the group at the first opportunity, depending on how much I wanted to stay in the group.

    Part of my motivation for leaving might be that I sensed that the group was getting ready to beat up anyone they suspected of not being a Sondheim-lover, whereas I might want to stick around because I had made the acquaintance of a potential love interest in the group and I wanted to impress her or him with my good taste in composers of musicals.

    Usually, Sondheim fans are not the sort to turn violent, I suppose, but some groups, such as certain sports fans, patriotic citizens, or members of religious denominations, might pose more of a threat. In any case, where things like art are concerned, it’s probably best to seek out groups that have as wide a range of appreciation of literature, music, painting, or whatever as one can find. Unless one is the sort of person who loves stirring up arguments with everyone one meets.


  5. Dawkins has said that teaching children religions is a species of child abuse, or something like that, but I don’t recall his endorsing infanticide. In any case, I think he has a personal habit of sometimes speaking more harshly than he really intends. At least, I hope so.


  6. Robin,

    Yes, there is a very widespread view these days that ignorance (especially of certain matters) is very shameful, and many people react to the shame they feel by reacting rather strongly against people they think are flaunting their superior knowledge or intellect. Confessing one’s ignorance and appealing for help in remedying it is regarded as a weakness, like men crying in public. Perhaps we can organize a movement of support groups for folks who want to come out as ignorant, as you have just courageously done. I would certainly join one. (I’m trying to do something about my ignorance about quantum theory right now.)


  7. Mr. Leiva may be right about “Harry.” But his reply still leaves us no clue as to why we should believe that a science fiction novelist knows more about theater than an experienced actor.

    If “Harry” were to have announced that scifi novels were puerile fantasies with crude character depicted in a clumsy style, would that be the arrogance of ignorance? If he announced that pornography was a perversion of the artistic impulse and a debasement of the character of the user?

    Or to turn it around a little, suppose Mr. Leiva was at a party for an unknown composer. Would he insist on announcing Mr. Sondheim’s incontestable superiority?


  8. DM,
    Steven was being ironical and I responded with an even heavier dose of irony. It’s just my warped sense of humour, I am afraid. I was tempted to carry on with the theme by pointing out that ‘Planned Parenthood'(ahem) already had a fine killing machinery in place and that this could quickly be adapted to his purpose. But really, that would have been pressing irony too close to the edge.

    As it happens, I agree there is a serious problem and I also agree with his closing comments that we should be actively looking for the solution.

    I think his diagnosis of the problem is very badly wrong. He has, I think, written a cliched piece about red state, blue collar workers which is so far off the mark that the only response is irony. Having made that harsh criticism I know I should state my alternative thesis and defend it. Perhaps I will but I need some time to assemble my ideas.

    Let me give you a clue. In your opinions of Shakespeare you too became Harry Hotdoggens. I mean that kindly because I have worked with the Harry Hotdoggens of the world(of the kind described by Steven). Amongst them I have found a world of warmth, kindness and sincerity completely unlike Steven’s ugly cliche.

    The world has changed radically in the last 40 years and everywhere around us we see Harry. He is one of us, he is our colleague, friend or boss. He is liberal, conservative, academic, professional, office or blue collar worker. We need to understand this and not take refuge in simple cliches.

    Steven was surprised that the conversation became all about Shakespeare and yet it was perfectly on point because it demonstrated how we can all become Harry Hotdoggens.

    Steven, in his comment above said:
    But let me propose the possibly radical idea that they may well not have a right to their opinion if their opinion has no basis in accurate or, at least, compelling, information and knowledge.

    Here we have the most pernicious idea of all, the proposal that non-approved opinions should be silenced. I shudder at the sheer perversity of the idea. The bad news is that this is already taking place in a multitude of little ways. Silencing as a tactic is spreading and being applied in deadly earnest.

    To sum up, Steven has pointed to an important problem, his diagnosis is far off the mark and his solution is pernicious.

    DM, I hope you don’t take offence at me labelling you as Harry in the debate about Shakespeare. You stepped into the breech just when I needed a good example, thanks! My point was that an intelligent, thoughtful, well read and informed people(as you are) can also become Harry Hotdoggens. He is not just a red state, blue collar worker. Quite why this happens is an important discussion in its own right and I will return to the subject.


  9. Thomas,
    you waited a long time before joining the discussion. That was wise move and it has given you a good perspective as your insightful summary demonstrates. I am impressed.


  10. @ Disagreeable Me — “That smacks to me of elitist bullshit”

    Notice your assumption that elitism is bullshit. I’d like to challenge that. It seems to me to be merely a broad brush that is used to smear anyone who is “not of my tribe”. If by elitist you mean there is or should rightly be a ruling class of those objectively superior to the lower class then yes, that is bullshit. But I think that in this discussion people are conflating elitism with the meritocracy. If I need open heart surgery then you bet I want the most “elite” heart surgeon I can find. I don’t want my surgeon to just think he is better than the ordinary surgeon. I want him to actually be the best there is. I want him to have an elite status *AND* I want him to merit that status.

    Just as I should want the opinion of a surgeon to be based on his merit, his quality, as a surgeon, I should also want the opinions of professors of English Lit. to be based on their just merit as professors of their field.of study. It benefits me to live in a society where merit is rewarded. Such a society is not elitist, it is a meritocracy. Our mutual friend Harry makes no such distinction. We should.

    “that disagreement should be tolerated” — No it shouldn’t be tolerated. Harry is not in mere disagreement. His rejection of anything he can’t understand is unthinking and purely reactionary. Harry is a bigot. Bigotry is evil and should not be tolerated.


  11. Robin,
    Let us promote the joy of ignorance, just so long as that ignorance is fully recognised and that it would be remedied as soon as the opportunity arose. Let us promote the filling of our ignorance with knowledge as one of our greatest sources of joys and fulfilment.

    That is such an interesting comment. To paraphrase, I think you are extolling the virtues of curiosity, saying that we should promote an active, seeking curiosity. Curiosity is the force that fills the vacuum of ignorance. Indeed, we should be doing just this, promoting curiosity as the driving force in our culture.


  12. “Let’s start by stating the problem. “How do we lessen the influence of wilful ignorance in the world?””

    Well we first have to understand the true nature of the problem. There exist a subset of people who posses an authoritarian personality. For them a statement is true if and only if someone in authority says it is true. Thus we have the spectacle of someone saying that if the Bible said 2 + 2 = 5 he would believe it. Or take the example of the women in a recent Koch funded anti Obama care add. When she was approached and questioned they showed her that she was in fact saving money and paying less with Obama care than before without it. It was simple addition. They showed her the paper work. Laid it right in front of her and yet she denied that she saw any benefit.

    Why is this? It is not new. It is something that researchers have been finding in their research of the conservative mind. They have experience similar willful ignorance in their study subjects. Some people, certain personality types, reach epistemic closure prematurely. Fear triggers it. Other people know this and use it to their advantage. Glenn Beck is a con artist, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, the rest of the right wing radio hosts are for the most part deliberately exploiting this to their advantage. Perhaps simply to enrich themselves or perhaps also for political effect. They know exactly what they are doing and why.

    So how can we lessen the influence of willful ignorance? Well, simple ignorance is easily corrected by education. Willful ignorance however is triggered by fear and exploited by others. I think we need to bring back the fairness doctrine. How many people know that Fox News has the right to deliberately lie to the American people? They were sued and the Fox lawyers argued before the court that they not only had no obligation to tell the truth but that they had the right to willfully lie in their broadcasts. They won. I think that ruling needs to be reversed.


  13. ” I would encourage you to divorce yourself from the attitude that because English teachers and intellectuals say something it is immediately suspect.”

    But this was never my attitude, Brenda. I think there is something suspect about the way Shakespeare is revered not because English teachers and intellectuals say he’s great but because he is regarded as such a unique case and because of the improbability of such a unique case being born centuries ago and because I know about the effects of positive feedback loops. I think that what intellectuals say about Shakespeare explains much about why he is revered, but I certainly don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that intellectuals are talking nonsense.


  14. labnut:

    Sam Harris has claimed that it can be justified to kill people for their beliefs.

    Yes, if those “beliefs” are plotting terrorism.

    Dawkins has even gone on record as saying that infanticide can be justified.

    This is the usual misrepresentation of Dawkins.


  15. From the Editor:

    All, the discussion so far has been interesting and productive, in the spirit of Scientia Salon. However, I have noticed some posts and exchanges that were borderline acceptable in terms of civility or constructiveness. Be warned that they will not be tolerated much longer.

    The point of Scientia Salon is to offer a variety of in-depth essays to stimulate conversation among readers and, when possible, between readers and writers. (As you know, I always engage in discussions pertinent to my own essays, and I encourage – though of course cannot obligate – other authors to do the same.)

    But this isn’t meant to be your run of the mill blog infested with trolls and anonymous commenters who feel empowered by that anonymity to bring down the level of discourse. That is why commenters have to register and provide me with their email address. I fully intend to use my prerogative as editor in chief of Scientia Salon to see that the dialogue remains civil and productive.

    Thank you for your understanding, and keep your contributions coming!


  16. labnut, my comment still leaves me unsatisfied. I don’t believe it articulates my difficulty with Livea’s post as a coherent piece to support his thesis regarding anti-intellectualism or his subsequent comment: “I maintain that opinions not based on such information and knowledge, but rather based on biases and prejudice, hardly deserves the term, opinion.”

    It is this kind of overreach that fails to address certain situations and topics in an adequate fashion. How seriously should we take Harry’s “opinions” on the artistic merits of Shakespeare and Sondheim? Whenever we seriously address artistic endeavor and intent, we must draw on a whole body of opinion and tradition that has grown culturally over time. Authority in this area is not final or absolute, but is more seriously to be considered if there is consensus opinion by the so-called authorities in a field. This doesn’t always work out to the satisfaction of the artist’s intent or goal in producing what he considers a serious work of art. Stravinsky unveils a symphony for the first time, and the patrons riot. There is certainly bias and prejudice in their reaction, but their reaction is also based on information and knowledge. They simply don’t get it until some authority or expert explains it to them. They can then make an effort to understand the value of Stravinsky’s artistic aim while at the same time legitimately claim not to “like” it. There is no reason why a patron of the arts cannot simultaneously understand argument that a piece or artist is great and at the same time reject the argument. What is expected in such instances is that the patron demonstrate bone fides or simply admit that he doesn’t understand.
    Otherwise, he is simply being arbitrarily dismissive of the artist, the work, and the body of opinion surrounding them.

    How the scientific method comes into play here (in aesthetic matters) is not clear to me. I doubt its usefulness in resolving such issues. In much the same way, this can be said to enter argument in areas of religiosity, ethics, and politics. Opinion in these areas draws on authority too. So, if we are arguing the abortion issue (about which I’m pro-choice), fox example, a pro-life advocate offers what we call “his/her” opinion, but that pro-life opinion cannot be simply reduced to one of bias or prejudice. It is not necessarily anti-intellectual or ignorant, but may be based on a body of tradition and authority that the pro-lifer ascribes to. If this is glibly passed off as simply blind faith or superstition, the conversation is likely to be brief. Ultimately then I suppose I have yet to come to a satisfactory answer to Livea’s question: “What can be done about it?” At the same time, I don’t think we can lay this at the doorstep of ignorance alone.


  17. Massimo,
    First, congratulations on an encouraging start, though the salon will not always be easy to manage.
    In another interchange DM expressed the wish for more controversial subjects and I replied by cautioning that they can easily get out of hand, rather like a loud barroom argument. Clearly this is your concern.

    The NY Times has a nice format in their Room For Debate and I thought that might make an interesting experiment. It could work as follows. You invite up to four authors to write a 1500(for example) word piece on the same subject, all to be submitted in the same post to Scientia Salon. The authors would be chosen for their contrasting viewpoints. The usual debate follows. A week later the same four authors write a rebuttal, to be posted as one on Scientia Salon. The rebuttal would address both the other posts and the comments.

    In this way we could introduce more varied viewpoints to Scientia Salon, attracting a wider readership and stimulating an informed debate. As things stand, there is a danger that the salon will represent a narrow and predictable point of view and so will attract only a readership that identifies with this point of view. This may be your wish and if so, I will gracefully accept it.

    I find that I enjoy reading the NY Times Room For Debate as I am always pleasantly surprised by the insights from contrasting viewpoints.


  18. Thanks for the suggestion, it is appreciated. I know of the NYT format, and I may try it, at the least occasionally. However, as a non-paying, low-profile outlet, it’s not easy to find good writers willing to contribute. Still, I am committed to a variety of points of view, and am actively working on it.


  19. Hi labnut,

    I actually don’t think I’m being Harry Hotdoggen by not thinking Shakespeare is necessarily any better than the best contemporary writers. I think I have a good argument to back this up, whereas Harry Hotdoggen is dismissing Shakespeare as crap only because he doesn’t understand it. That’s not the same thing.

    And if you want to dismiss my argument so easily without actually answering it on its own terms simply because you don’t like my conclusion, I think that this is more of a Harry Hotdoggen move.


  20. The problem with warnings like these is it’s hard to know if your behaviour needs to be adjusted if you don’t know if you’re one of the people who has stepped out of line. I can see how it might appear that I have (e.g. when zenner called me out for accusing Brenda of “elitist buillshit”), but I also think that I actually stayed within acceptable boundaries (as zenner accepted when I explained).

    In any case I welcome any plans you have to keep the conversation civil and productive.


  21. DM, you did not step out of line. But I don’t want to single out people by name publicly. What I’m doing now (in fact, just did) is to block what I consider an inappropriate comment and email the author inviting him to resubmit a more constructively phrased version of the same. I can’t promise something won’t slip my guard, since sometimes I have to just glance at comments before accepting them; but I’ll definitely try to stay away from draconian measures. I think we can all take a bit of heat once in a while, just not so much that the discourse degenerates.


  22. So I agree with the sentiment of the Darwin quote. And this is backed up with all sorts of cool evidence, even from police witnesses – the ones that are more sure, are less likely to be correct in their observations.

    However, the arguments around Shakespeare don’t cut the mustard.

    I find Shakey’s plays dull too. I’ve read maybe four, and find them trite, tiresome, and two-dimensional.

    Is that a display of ignorance? Or simply of a taste that differs to yours, and the received wisdom?

    I don’t follow the crowd for the point of it.

    I could say, well, I went to university and got a post-grad degree, therefore I’m ok to say such a thing, but that’s not cricket – nothing more than an Appeal to Authority.

    Do I have to have read all 37-odd plays to be able to pronounce judgement?


    Maybe you think I should equivocate with my negative view? Alas you seem to be unequivocal in your praise of The Bard.

    So in short, great thesis, but a better example could have been chosen to illustrate it.


  23. I know we’ve been beating this horse for a while now, but I’d like to try to take a step back and summarize, possibly even set this in the context of what Mr. Leiva was really trying to say with the allusion to Harry Hotdoggen’s disdain for Shakespeare.

    It’s not about his evaluation of his art. Art is evaluated subjectively by everyone to a large degree. What thrills and inspires one person will do absolutely nothing for another. I know I’ve run into this a million times. I get crazy about a writer or a musician and think the world of them and want to talk them up to everyone I know and I just get blank stares and sometimes blatant resistance. “still going on about so and so?” they say, and I’m stunned by their blindness and sometimes it’s hard not to take it personally. What I think is important about Harry Hotdoggen’s attitude is that he was contemptuous of what he knew nothing about because it simplified his worldview and allowed him to amplify his own self image. Shakespeare in particular was irrelevant to this dynamic.

    I think the important thing to consider in trying to solve the problems associated with a significant proportion of the citizenry – the voting citizenry – holding such attitudes is to understand where these kind of feelings originate. There has to be a way to engage and at least partially enlighten them without threatening their self image and hardening their resistance. I loved the idea Aldo referred to with the video games designed to encourage critical thinking. I have a 17 yr old son who loves video games but is also a very free thinker and would be the perfect target, not to receive and use such tools, but to build them. The biggest problem with the rationalist community in my opinion is too much energy is expended in self-congratulation that we’re not as stupid as those irrational people who hold to such childish and ignorant views. Rather, it would be worthwhile to examine why this situation exists and what realistic, achievable steps can be taken to reach these people and moderate their certainty of the views they cling to. This is the potentially fruitful direction the discussion could go in, but I see very little interest in heading that way.


  24. Reading through the article (and it was a very good read), I did wonder what the difference between being anti-intellectual and being sceptical of pretension to knowledge is. For the latter, the sceptical movement is built around it. Yet if we take Massimo Pigliucci’s sentiment in Nonsense on Stilts of “How is it even possible to become an expert in nonsense?” the same kind of response comes – that it’s closed-minded, that it’s arrogant to think that the way we understand the world is the only way of understanding the world, that we are being anti-intellectual, etc.

    Yet how do we tell the difference? That same scepticism, just so slightly misapplied, seems the difference between dismissing what would be considered nonsense on stilts and dismissing legitimate claims of knowledge. And it is hard to tell at times, art being a prime example. If people didn’t know any of art history, would we still see the same consensus on what counts as quality art over mediocre? Would the same writers get praised, would the same musicians? In other words, who gets to define what is good art? Would be be right in declaring de gustibus non est disputandum, or are we meant to keep the idea that there is an intellectual debate to be had?

    The arrogance of ignorance notion seems to cut both ways.


  25. Coel, you said
    if those beliefs are plotting terrorism
    But what did Sam Harris say?

    As it turns out, he is clearly and unambiguously on record as saying
    Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.

    Source: Sam Harris – The End of Faith, page 53″

    Note that he says, talking of propositions, “it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them

    Now Sam Harris chooses his words very carefully, and what he does not say is that it may be ethical to kill people for plotting.

    I would say that is a crucial distinction and he admits as much when he goes on to say “This may seem an extraordinary claim

    Indeed it is an extraordinary claim but it is more than that, it is a profoundly shocking claim. I am astonished that you can defend this viewpoint.


  26. Coel,
    perhaps the most horrifying fact of all is that Sam Harris concludes that killing people for their beliefs is ‘an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.


  27. Coel, you may want to know how Dawkins so ably misrepresented himself. It seems that he wanted to employ the services of a stand-in double for himself in the video. This would give him plausible deniability.

    Unfortunately, no-one in the acting community would agree, so he decided to assume the role of the stand-in double for himself. Thus, by playing the role of the stand-in double for himself he is assured of plausible deniability and is only guilty of misrepresenting himself.

    Simple, isn’t it?


  28. I’m aware of the video. Dawkins is discussing the morality of a range of topics, including the possibility of mercy killing of sick infants. It’s a sensible thinking though of reasons, not an advocacy.


  29. As much as I’m often critical of Dawkins, I must side with Coel on this one. Indeed, this isn’t really Dawkins’ original position, it is Peter Singer’s. And Singer is one of the most thoughtful and humane philosophers I know, despite espousing some very controversial positions (like the one you guys are discussing). You might be interested in my interview with him for the Rationally Speaking podcast.


  30. And again you ignore the context. If the *belief* is that you have an over-riding imperative to conduct terrorism acts then you would be plotting them (if you were not then it would not be the case that you believed you had an over-riding imperative to do so).

    You strip out that context in order to be outraged by it. Note, also, that I am not “defending” the viewpoint, I am explaining it.


  31. Which it is. Drone killings of members of extremist groups are indeed an “ordinary fact” about our world. Thus, if your beliefs and imperatives as so strong that you participate in such groups then the US government would consider it has the right to kill you, even if no terrorist act is imminent. That is what Harris was saying,


  32. Err, what?? What’s your source for this “he wanted to employ the services of a stand-in double for himself in the video” stuff?


  33. “This is the potentially fruitful direction the discussion could go in, but I see very little interest in heading that way.”

    Because it’s easier to knock things down than build them up. It’s easier for me anyway to nitpick at flaws I perceive in the original post than to add anything constructive, because adding anything constructive is hard!

    Still, I think nitpicking as its place. Without nitpicking I don’t think you’d find any more constructive commentary. You’d just have less commentary.

    On games, I think Minecraft is an interesting example. It’s being used by teachers around the world to encourage students to experiment and learn about all kinds of stuff. There are mods allowing exploration of everything from digital logic to quantum mechanics. I think that’s pretty cool.


  34. “Notice your assumption that elitism is bullshit.”

    That’s not what I said. “There is bullshit that is elitist” is not the same statement as “elitism is buillshit”. And in any case I’m certainly not talking about meritocracy. I’m talking about groups of people using shibboleths to identify each other as members of an elite in-group.

    I agree with the rest of your comment until your next misunderstanding of my point.

    ““that disagreement should be tolerated” — No it shouldn’t be tolerated. ”

    It should be tolerated because art is subjective and because sometimes the consensus can be wrong. I’m not talking about Harry Hotdoggen necessarily, I’m talking more about the points I have made.


  35. Sorry, it can be hard to spot such jokes, given that about 90% of criticism of Dawkins is based on things he hasn’t said/done.


  36. ” I did wonder what the difference between being anti-intellectual and being sceptical of pretension to knowledge is.”

    The difference is prejudice. Harry is prejudiced against anyone he judges to be “elitist” and I’d be willing to bet he has no clear idea what an elitist is. He simply rejects out of hand opinion that he doesn’t like. That isn’t skepticism. Skepticism is the application of critical thinking skills and rational debate. Harry isn’t interested in rational debate. He wants to end debate. I think that if Harry had concluded he didn’t like Shakespeare after prolonged exposure and rational discussion, like what you’d get in university, then I think people would respect his right to his opinion. They might think he was wrong but wouldn’t judge him that harshly. But to just knee-jerk reject something for no reason at all is the very definition of anti-intellectualism and I think we are right to criticize that.


  37. Hi, Brenda. The term elitist has been used frequently throughout this discussion when it may be that Harry’s criticism has its roots in a belief that those who would hold Shakespeare or Sondheim in high regard are effete. This term has more and more come to be used interchangeably with elite, but I think of effete as suggestive of artsy-fartsy highbrowism while elitism as conoting social, political, or economic privilege. This may not be much of a distinction anymore. But Harry seems to be taking a position against what he perceives to be effete. Just a thought that I think you are trying to make. But I may be wrong.


  38. So what would be the difference between such prejudice and what skeptics do? Why shouldn’t astrologers, homoeopaths, theologians, and psychics label sceptics as similarly prejudiced? As far as I’m aware, almost all skeptics have not studied these beyond a cursory glance at the claims, yet treat them as pretensions to knowledge all the same.

    “But to just knee-jerk reject something for no reason at all is the very definition of anti-intellectualism and I think we are right to criticize that.”
    We are right to criticise that, I agree, but what I’m trying to get at is something tangential. If Harry is simply going to represent an unreflective dismissal of knowledge, then the example risks becoming trivial. How would it be if Harry expressed a similar attitude towards palmistry or divination? Would practitioners of both be right to see Harry as exhibiting anti-intellectualism by not spending the years necessary to learn the disciplines before he came to a judgement on it?


  39. Hi kelskye,

    Although I have been defending skepticism of Shakespeare’s primacy as an English language writer without basing my arguments on familiarity with his work, I think there’s a difference between Harry and skepticism of homeopathy, and that is that there are a wealth of authorities who have done the work to debunk homeopathy and explain exactly why it is nonsense. The same is not true for Shakespeare, so Harry’s confidence that Shakespeare is crap is unjustified.


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