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  • Nowadays, anyone putting forward a valued judgment -

  • that is, anything other than a rock solid scientific fact,

  • is likely to come across the following complaint pretty soon after:

  • "Who are you to say that?"

  • You might hear it if, for example,

  • you try to argue that Shakespeare is probably a lot more interesting as a writer than the guy who wrote prose on the back of the cereal packet.

  • Or if you say that Louis Kahn Salk Institute is for sure better looking than an average Holiday Inn.

  • Or that Bach's Mass in B Minor is more technically accomplished than Abba's Super Trouper.

  • Or that The Economist is a better news source than the Daily Mirror.

  • Quite early on in the discussion,

  • anyone who doesn't agree is simply likely to shut things down

  • by saying that no progress on these questions can ever be made,

  • that no one knows how to settle such disputes,

  • and that, therefore, anything goes and any further attempt to persuade is just bullying

  • or those electrifying and awkward words "elitist" and "snobbish".

  • And if you're not careful,

  • there might also quite quickly be a Twitter deluge coming your way.

  • To understand why such responses are so common,

  • we have to look back at history

  • and some pretty unfortunate developments which have led to a collective trauma

  • from which we're still suffering.

  • For most of the history of humanity,

  • we're intimidated by some pretty dodgy purveyors of half-baked valued judgments.

  • Religions used to sell us all sorts of nonsense under the notion that God told us it was so.

  • Kings and dictators would justify their abuses by spurious notions of their inherent right to authority.

  • And members of elite groups,

  • like doctors and academics or just wealthy people,

  • would justify all manner of odd practices on the basis of their authority and fancy uniforms.

  • As societies have gradually become more democratic,

  • and people have learned to stand tall in the face of authority,

  • So too that patience for valued judgments has collapsed.

  • So much so that now anyone who lays forth an idea with any kind of confidence

  • or simply says anything about this or that being good or bad,

  • can swiftly re-evoke the worst of the traumatic old days

  • and will therefore stand to be shut down at once.

  • The only exception to this is science.

  • Here, respect remains paramount.

  • We'll accept an idea if it's a scientific truth.

  • If it's come from a lab result,

  • we'll take it on trust.

  • But anything else when we're in the area of relativity

  • and, who are you to say that is?

  • Now, unfortunately, this is really problematic,

  • as there are some very important questions out there

  • that lie utterly outside the realm of science

  • and can't ever be settled with a formula or experiment.

  • For example, you're always going to struggle to mount a scientific argument when trying to make progress with these sorts of questions:

  • What should children learn at school?

  • What's a good relationship?

  • How should we build nice cities?

  • What's an attractive building?

  • What should businesses concentrate on?

  • How should bosses behave towards workers?

  • Unfortunately,

  • these are essential questions to try to reach intelligent conclusions on.

  • And yet, because by their very nature, these questions admit to doubt and disagreement,

  • it can seem as if nothing solid can ever be said around them.

  • But here's our line:

  • That a question can't be answered definitively, with 100% accuracy,

  • shouldn't be a reason not to try and address it.

  • There IS such a thing as a good and a bad argument outside of science.

  • One can speak better and worse answers to big questions.

  • No one's talking about trying to impose conclusions on anyone else in the way that the Pope or the emperor used to do.

  • It's all about trying to make sound arguments, proceed logically,

  • and attempt to persuade others of your cause through reason and a bit of charm.

  • Rational, democratic discourse depends on people engaging with one another,

  • trying to figure out ideas and not running away from complex issues

  • by dogmatically shutting everything down with the insidious and slippery retort,

  • "who are you to say that?"

Nowadays, anyone putting forward a valued judgment -

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B1 UK valued authority scientific persuade justify democratic

Who are you to say that?

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    Kristi Yang posted on 2016/07/03
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