Friday, January 8, 2010

Schopenhauer and Opposition to Nuclear Power

I am reposting a somewhat revised version of this 2008 essay, because it still is relevant to debates about nuclear power. While I was studying for an MA is Philosophy, I taught university freshmen logic and thus became better acquainted with informal fallacies. Failure to teach informal logical fallacies is a major weakness of modern education. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, nuclear critics resort to the use of informal logical fallacies to make their case.

The Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was the bad boy of 19th century German Philosophy. Schopenhauer attacked the sober, serious world views of the philosophic followers of Kant and Hegel and helped set the stage for the 20th century post-modern movement among scholars in the humanities.

Schopenhauer was aware of the limitations of knowledge and of the human capacity to know, and those limitations of knowledge are certainly at the heart of his thinking. In particular Schopenhauer offered to the will a central role in knowledge, and indeed suggested that the will and our mental representations of the wprld were one in the same. Thus knowledge itself has non-rational foundations. Schopenhauer knew what he was doing, and was capablle of joking about it. In a text called The Art of Controversy, he jokingly suggested that
"We must regard objective truth as an accidental circumstance, and look only to the defence of our own position and the refutation of the opponent's . . . Dialectic, then, has as little to do with truth as the fencing master considers who is in the right when a quarrel leads to a duel."
In the third chapert of his book on arguments Schopenhauer discusses thirty-eight sure fire argument techniques or stratagems. All 38 are fallacious, and thus the chapter is an incomplete catalogue of logical fallacies and practical advice on deploying them in argument. Schopenhauer was probably not entirely serious in his argument, because most of his philosophical writings was the sort of tightly reasoned, logical arguments that he advised his readers to reject. it should be noted however that the same tightly reasoned, logical arguments would suggest that argument was an exercise in social one upsmanship that had nothing to do with truth, and therefore low blows were permissible, because it was impossible to stop them.

There are however limitations to fallacious opinions. Truth, while often not carrying a great weight in society, does offer certain usefulness in dealing with a factual world. I would never turn the repair of my car over to a mechanic whose chief claim to fame was his ability to craft clever but fallacious arguments, to back up his theories about what is wrong with my car. Fallacious arguments to often repeated, tend to be treated as facts, and the confusion of fact and fallacy can have humbling consequence.

Fallacious arguments often begin with lazyness or incompetence. When Ralph Nader did not understand an ORNL discussion of "defence in depth" in reactor safety, he did not assign his incomprehension to a limitation of his own knowledge, but to the use of meaningless jargon by the scientists. Thus Nader uses a fallacious argument move to cover his own ignorance and to discount the chance that the Oak Ridge scientists might have been offering an important insights into nuclear safety. This trick is noted by Schopenhauer:
If you know that you have no reply to the arguments which your opponent advances, you may, by a fine stroke of irony, declare yourself to be an incompetent judge: “What you now say passes my poor powers of comprehension; it may be all very true, but I can’t understand it, and I refrain from any expression of opinion on it.” In this way you insinuate to the bystanders, with whom you are in good repute, that what your opponent says is nonsense.
In responce to criticisms by Michael C. Baker, a Los Alamos scientist, self styled nuclear expert Helen Caldicott snipped
Should I defend myself against attack by members of the nuclear industry from Los Alamos where new and better nuclear bombs are currently being designed for use in third world countries now that the Cold War is over? Why is this evil thinking and action countenanced by you people when such weapons would invoke the incineration and vapourisation of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings?
Caldicott solves the argument about facts by insisting that her critic works at a wicked place and therefore must be a wicked person, and therefore argues only for wicked purposes, and therefore must be wrong. Caldicott frequently if not habitually makes use of such ad hominem attacks to answer her critics. Schopenhauer advises his readers that
Another trick is to use arguments ad hominem . . .
Nuclear critics claime that nuclear power is dirty, that despite the safety record of nuclear plants it kills, that is is dangerous not only now but for millions of years,. For example Canadian anti-nuclear critic Jim Harding claims:
Nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and expensive — and it won't solve global warming either.
Yet the only dirt he mentions in connection with nuclear power is
the two dirty coal-fired plants at Paducah, Kentucky.
Some of the power from those plants power the Department of Energy's obsolete and soon to be closed gaseous diffusion plant at Paducah. Thus the use of the word is "dirty" is not tied to any facts or actual evidence of dirtiness of nuclear power. In fact the dirt comes not from nuclear power itself, but from coal fired power plants that produced electricity for a soon to be closed cold war uranium enrichment plant. Harding is not the only nuclear critic to use the word dirty to describe nuclear power plants. in late 2008 the NEI Nuclear Notes posted an account of the term the "dirty energy sector" by anti-nuclear writer Dave Giza. Needless to say Dave did not say why he classified nuclear power as dirty energy, but he is clearly intent on slurring clean nuclear power by limping it with CO2 emitting energy sources Coal and Oil. Interestingly Giza did not lump CO2 and Radon emitting natural gas in the durty energy sector even though radioactive and chemical pollutants from natural gas probably kill far more upwards of 20,000 people. I guess "clean" means what Dave Giza chooses it to mean. Lewis Carroll wrote:
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'
`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'

`Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

`Ah, you should see 'em come round me of a Saturday night,' Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, `for to get their wages, you know.'
By using the words "Three Mile Island" and "Chernobyl" as proof, nuclear critics tell us over and over how "dangerous" nuclear power is. Schopenhauer tells us,
you must begin by choosing a metaphor that is favourable to your proposition. For instance, the names used to denote the two political parties in Spain, Serviles and Liberates, are obviously chosen by the latter. The name Protestants is chosen by themselves, and also the name Evangelicals; but the Catholics call them heretics. Similarly, in regard to the names of things which admit of a more exact and definite meaning: for example, if your opponent proposes an alteration, you can call it an innovation, as this is an invidious word. If you yourself make the proposal, it will be the converse. In the first case, you can call the antagonistic principle “the existing order,” in the second, “antiquated prejudice.” What an impartial man with no further purpose to serve would call “public worship” or a “system of religion,” is described by an adherent as “piety,” “godliness”: and by an opponent as “bigotry,” “superstition.” This is, at bottom, a subtle petitio principii. What is sought to be proved is, first of all, inserted in the definition, whence it is then taken by mere analysis. What one man calls “placing in safe custody,” another calls “throwing into prison.” A speaker often betrays his purpose beforehand by the names which he gives to things. One man talks of “the clergy”; another, of “the priests.”
I will not contend here that anti-nuclear critics rely only on fallacious arguments to advance their position, but they frequently make use of fallacious arguments. The fallacies have, of course, been pointed out on numerous occasions, but there are never retracted by critics by nuclear power and continue to be repeated. Thus at the very least many of the best known critics of nuclear power deliberately use fallacious and irrational arguments to further their case. Thus the case against nuclear power is not presented in a truthful fashion. Nuclear critics simply resort to dishonest and deceptive arguments to further their case. The word "lies" would not be inappropriate to describe some antinuclear arguments.


Marcel F. Williams said...

What the opponents to nuclear power successfully do is to isolate the conversion totally to what they view as the negative aspects of nuclear power without reference to other energy producing systems which are usually far more expensive and harmful to human safety and the environment.

Its like describing a world championship professional baseball team as: a team that lost 61 games during the regular season including 14 games during the month of June and lost an additional 7 games during the post season.

Of course, that leaves out the fact that the baseball team that lost only 61 games had to have won 101 games during the regular season and then went on to win each series that it played in the post season until it won the world series.

So I think when nuclear opponents argue that nuclear power is dirty, dangerous, and expensive, we have to counter, "compared to what alternate energy systems". And that's when the anti-nuclear folks arguments begin to completely fall apart.

Marcel F. Williams

Charles Barton said...

Marcel the flaw is even bigger, because the critics of nuclear power do not feel obliged to explain why it is dirty, and appear to believe that the words "Three Mile Island" and "Chernobyl" are sufficient to establish beyond all doubt that nuclear power is supremely dangerous.

DV8 2XL said...

Not to nit-pick, but the linked chapter is more a list of rhetorical vices, than pure logical fallacies, although there is some overlap between the two. Worse, when I went to a management seminar several years ago, these were being taught as techniques for manipulating your underlings.

How I wish that rhetoric was still taught in schools. The best defense against propaganda, is a well educated population.

Charles Barton said...

Any argument technic that is not logically valid is fallacious. What Schopenhauer discusses is the use of informal fallacies, or as you called them rhetorical vices. While I was studying for an MA is Philosophy, I taught logic and thus became more acquainted with the informal fallacies. Failure to teach logical fallacies is a major weakness of modern education.


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