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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?"
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Who are you to say that?

42158 Folder Collection
Kristi Yang published on July 4, 2016    Clément translated    Kristi Yang reviewed
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