Hume’s Problem and the Weaponization of Doubt

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote something to the effect of “With subjectivism in philosophy comes anarchism in politics.” (I’m too lazy to go hunt up the proper quote, so this may be way off base, but my getting the quote right doesn’t change the basic argument here.) As someone who rejects objectivism in philosophy, who recognizes inevitable subjective elements in all reasoning, and who wants political stability as well as some element of democratic rule, this sentence struck me as problematic, even wrong. Of course, Russell lived through the Nazi era, when big lies were spread to create an alternate reality that inspired horrific acts of violence. I had not yet seen the weaponization of doubt employed by too many, but especially the big business interests and many political actors.

David Hume is perhaps most famous for his framing of the problem of induction. Induction is the process of making generalizations from specific examples. So, for example, suppose you are looking at trees, and every tree you see has green leaves. Induction takes those many observations and makes a general rule: “trees have green leaves.” The problem of induction is that there is no guarantee that future observations will resemble past observations. To Hume, this was mostly important in distinguishing what we know (with absolute certainty beyond doubt) and what we believe (with good reason, but only as a conclusion from experience, which is necessarily fraught with the problem that the future might not resemble the past). Unfortunately, this basic logical problem has become used to much effect (and, in my opinion, much harm).

Much of science proceeds, to some extent, on the basis of “the best-tested theory”—on theories that have been tested and passed those tests, but are subject to further testing. According to the theories of Karl Popper—a philosopher who developed a famous response to Hume’s problem—we can have some certain knowledge in science: we can know (with certainty) that things are false. Because we can know that things are false, we can test and disprove theories, and thus eliminate bad ideas.  This basic structure is common in many fields, where a “null hypothesis” is shown to be false (or at least highly improbable), and an “alternate hypothesis” is therefore accepted.

In the hands of reasonable people who are interested in discovering the truth, this basic structure allows for progress, and thus scholars develop a general consensus agreement about the basic facts. It is not a fully-determined consensus—there is debate and there are those who reject some or most of the consensus, but there is a general acceptance of most basic ideas.

But in the hands of those who have some agenda other than truth, Hume’s problem becomes a weapon to paralyze an enemy and seize power.

It has been widely reported that in the 1970s, scientists at Exxon identified the problem of global warming, and, seeing that such knowledge might hurt their business, the company developed a strategy of questioning global warming science. (It should be noted that Exxon was not necessarily at the forefront of this. For example, check out this article from 1965.) Hume’s problem makes it possible to question every theory, no matter how much evidence: “well,” you say, “that is suggestive, but it can’t be considered conclusive.” In many cases you can offer some alternative explanation. This has been happening less with climate change over the last several years, as evidence becomes even more overwhelming, but it used to happen much more often. I remember one man asking me “well, if it’s caused by humans, why are the polar caps on Mars melting” (implying, I presume, that the Martian polar caps melting showed some solar-system-wide force was at work).

But the most extreme weaponization of doubt that I have ever seen is the current GOP assault on the credibility of the American election systems. Let’s start by admitting that the American election systems are imperfect: there are mistakes made, and some of those mistakes may even impact the outcome of votes. That is why, in addition to systems for gathering and tabulating votes, there are systems already in place for checking the results of an election. Of course, these systems, too, are imperfect. 

Like any knowledge based on observation, the election-checking systems can always be challenged by the question at the heart of Hume’s problem: just because we haven’t observed something (vote fraud) yet, doesn’t mean we won’t observe it in the future (if we run another audit). What the GOP keeps doing, in calling for further investigation into the election, is relying on the basic logic of Hume’s problem. This is the argument that is driving the current audit of votes in Maricopa county: “sure, there were already multiple audits, but just because they didn’t find fraud doesn’t mean the fraud doesn’t exist; it just means that the audits didn’t look for the right things.”  Whatever checks you might carry out, you can make up some new claim and say “You haven’t proved this didn’t happen.” Case in point, the Maricopa county audit has apparently been looking for traces of bamboo to prove that fake ballots were introduced into the election count by sinister Asians. “Sure, you didn’t find any local interference, but what about the Chinese? They managed to inject thousands of fake ballots into the system to help Biden.” And, yes, I’m sure that no one has checked to see if the ballots were faked and forged from China” (And let’s just forget the fact that they did check that the counted ballots were from registered voters, and that no voter voted multiple times, so for the Chinese scheme to work, they must have somehow managed to make fake ballots only for people who were registered but who did not  vote without making any ballots for people who were not registered or who registered and voted.)

Hume correctly pointed out that we cannot prove with certainty the claims we make based on observation. But, while this is logically correct, when that doubt is used in bad faith to ignore the vast preponderance of evidence, there’s a big problem.

I’m no big fan of the Democrats; I think they have been too complicit in many of the worst failures of the USA during my lifetime. And, in my heart, I am conservative (not politically conservative, but actually conservative in that I would like to mostly keep things as they are—there are things that need changing, but let’s only change those things and keep all the rest). But in contrast to the Republican party, it can at least be said that the Democrats are apparently interested in truth, evidence, and data based on observations, all of which are really good things. During my adult life, it seems to me that the Republican party has consistently strayed farther and farther from the truth.  I only remember Watergate from a child’s perspective, but obviously the honesty of Nixon was an issue. And the GOP—at least some members of it—called on the president to step down when it became clear he was a criminal (and apparently, those people were willing to vote to impeach). The Reagan administration at least tried to cloak its work in theory—the Laffer curve was at least an academic theory promulgated by an academic. Stuff like The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray at least tried to give an intellectual defense to GOP perspectives. I don’t think much of the way Herrnstein and Murray handle data (I think they confuse correlation with causation), but I would give them the benefit of a doubt that it’s just bad data analysis, rather than intentionally deceitful analysis. The investigation of the Clintons was a preliminary weaponization of doubt—it started with a supposed real estate fraud (Whitewater), but reached out in any direction it could to find reason to attack Clinton, ultimately resulting in Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. There were no real limits on an investigation that said “we haven’t found any fraud yet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The second Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction and many other things, but they seemed to be trying to come up with realistic alternate hypotheses. But the GOP since is all about baseless conspiracies that no evidence set to rest. No matter how much evidence there was that Obama was born in the US, the birther conspiracy just rolled on.

GOP attempts to “find the truth” about the 2020 election are bad faith arguments.  They have nothing to do with finding the truth. They are weaponization of doubt to gain political power. Whenever confronted with actual evidence that there wasn’t fraud (like recounts of votes and audits of votes), the GOP answers, “well, you just haven’t found it yet.” It’s not a reasonable search for truth; it’s an attempt to gain political power by reducing people’s faith in the electoral system.

It should be noted that my primary interest is in finding the truth. The fact that I prefer Democrats to Republicans follows from my interest in the truth. I do not prefer Democratic policies because they are proposed by Democrats (Indeed, I loathe many Democratic policies). Instead, I prefer policies that are based on the truth, and then prefer the party that shows closer adherence to the policies that I would espouse. My objection that the GOP is arguing is bad faith is not based on my preference for Democrats, but rather on my observation that they are weaponizing doubt and engaging in intentional deflection, distraction, and disinformation. I believe in the truth. And that belief shapes my preference for politicians who respect and respond to the truth.

Sophistry vs. Reason and Partisanship vs. Principle

In my previous blog post, I lamented the absence of logical certainty and the problem created by the absence of objective truth, where each person/group believes that they hold the truth and that therefore their political choices are necessary and correct while the choices made by others are based on falsehood or error.

I lament this unavailability of objective truth particularly because I believe there is a fundamental reality—that even if we cannot recognize or discover objective truth, there is a real difference between truth and falsehood.

Because of the political nature of knowledge—because people act on what they accept to be true—political actors have motivation to control knowledge that is disseminated in order to manipulate the behavior of other people.  This is obvious on the large scale: political propaganda is often deceptive. And on the small: people lie to shape the behavior of others (“I didn’t cheat on you, honey. I swear!” is meant to deflect anger, for example).  In this light, although we may not be able to find objective truth, we can certainly recognize at least one dimension on which we can differentiate truth from falsity.

Honesty vs. Deceit

Some people try to deceive, and I don’t want to focus my attention on them, that’s why I didn’t title this post “honesty vs. deceit.”  Some people willingly and knowingly try to obscure what they actually believe is the truth.  Take the tobacco industry, for example.  We know from the record that has been made public, the tobacco companies actively and publicly promoted cigarette smoking as healthful, even while their internal documents clearly indicated their knowledge in the deleterious effects of their product. Or take Exxon, whose scientists internally agreed upon the dangers of climate change in the 1970s, but whose public discourse was to promote doubt about those very conclusions. In these cases, the companies involved presented ideas to the public that were at odds with information that they had internally.

Cases of intentional deception are sadly too common. But I don’t really want to talk about intent so much as I want to discuss issues relevant to recognizing patterns of argumentation that are not based on reason or principle and hence are often used to avoid reason or principle.

Sophistry vs. Reason

This blog is mostly aimed at discussing ideas to help academics negotiate academia. In that context, I want to talk about the presentation of ideas and different things that one can look for as good or as problematic in the work of others, and things to avoid as a matter of principle.

There is a difference between arguments built on reason and arguments built on sophistry, and regardless of the whether or not there is an objective truth, the difference between sophistry and reason can often be recognized. A good speaker or writer can often effectively hide sophistry, at least from casual glance.  The art of rhetoric is often disparaged for its role as a tool for obfuscation—a matter of sophistry not reason—but rhetoric can also be used in service of truth (or at least the intention to tell the truth rather than to deceive). Even if you believe in the truth of your message, you may still struggle to get others to accept those ideas, and persuasion is valuable.  Understanding how to convince an audience is worthwhile.  But some of the tools of persuasion can be deployed to both honest and to deceitful ends, while others are generally only deceitful.

One well-known tool of rhetoric that falls largely outside the bounds of reason is the ad hominem argument: which is to focus on the person who makes a claim rather than on the claim itself.  This can work in two ways: it can be used to attack a claim by arguing that the speaker is generally untruthful, or it can be used to support a claim by arguing that the speaker is generally truthful. The story of the boy who cried wolf is an insight into the issue of the ad hominem argument. Once people have decided that the boy is a liar, they do not check his claim that there is a wolf, even though there was, in the end, a real wolf.  A liar can make a claim that is true. And a generally honest person can make a claim that is false.  It is reasonable to consider the veracity of a speaker (or lack thereof) as an interesting piece of evidence indicative of the truth or falsity of a claim.  It is sophistry to consider the veracity of a speaker as the only indication of a claim’s truth, especially if there is other evidence that can be used to judge the claim in question. If someone tries to avoid discussion of the actual claim and instead they try to focus on a person, then they’re probably engaged in deceitful sophistry. If a claim’s veracity is in doubt, an answer should not be sought in reference to the person who made the claim.

Partisanship vs. Principle

It is well-documented that in situations that should involve reasoned judgement, people show strong biases related to people involved.  This is known as reactive devaluation.[] So, for example, one study in the 1980s showed American participants an arms treaty between the US and USSR and asked them whether they approved of it. One group of participants was told the plan was proposed by Ronald Reagan, one group was told it was proposed by unnamed policy experts, and a final group was told it was proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev.  The same plan was shown to all groups.  If people were making their decision based on the principles laid out in the treaty, then all three groups should have had similar approval rates. The results showed 90% support amongst those told it was proposed by Reagan, 80% support in the group told it was proposed by policy experts, and 44% support in the group told it was proposed by Gorbachev.  The same exact plan got a vastly different reception on the basis of partisanship.

I don’t think decisions should be made on the basis of who your friends are.  Or at least, I think that partisanship—supporting your friends attacking your enemies—should not be a sole consideration when making plans.  For all my concerns about the limitations of research and the general limits of human knowledge, I believe/wish/hope that decisions—mine, yours, and those made by groups, including political bodies—should rely heavily on actual principles, not on partisanship.

There are times when making a decision based on friendship is appropriate. If you decide to go to the restaurant your friend wants even if you read a really bad review, go for it. The ramifications are small. If you’re a researcher, however, and you ignore your data to support some friend’s work, that’s a very different thing altogether.  And if you’re a policy-maker, and you reject actual evidence and your principles for the purpose of supporting your ally, that’s a gross violation of basic ethical behavior. If you tout the principle of honesty or fairness, but then put aside those principles for your friends, then you are abdicating principle in favor of partisanship.  This general observation is obviously applicable to politics, but it’s also true in research.

In research it may not always be partisanship—desire for fame and money may prompt researchers to abandon principles—but whatever the motivation, it’s important to try to return research discussions to the principles that provide a foundation for research.


As I said in my previous post, I lament the absence of objective truth on which all can agree.  But I still believe that there are foundations on which people can build that will help ideas and discourse rise above the level of partisan sophistry while striving for the elusive fruits of principled reasoning.

Pursuing principles—and focusing on principles, like the principle of testing claims based on evidence, not on the character of the person who made the claim—is one way to both move towards shared ideas and shared knowledge nd a way to recognize when others are engaging in sophistry rather than partisanship.

Courtesy, Truth, and Political Correctness

My previous post, “Who Gets to Say What Is Offensive?”, basically argued that it’s always appropriate to respect the opinions of those who say they are offended.  If you say something and someone is offended by it, you are generally violating a basic and important principle of human interaction—to respect other people. The argument that someone should not be offended because other people reveals a basic disrespect for the person who has expressed offense.  In most cases.

There are times when it is important to say things that offend people.  The search for knowledge and understanding can reveal things that offend people, but that search should not be limited by the attempt to avoid offending people. (Ironically, my attempt to write about this is hampered by my desire to avoid offending anyone.)

Many opponents of the theory of evolution were offended by the suggestion that humans were related to other primates. Nonetheless, we don’t want to stop researchers from discussing evolution, do we? The Copernican revolution—the notion that humans and the earth were not at the center of the universe—was offensive to many. All the same, we want to continue to pursue research based on the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. On a more personal level, many people with addictions will be offended if their illness is pointed out.

Some truths need to be stated, even if people get offended.  

Stating the “truth” can get treacherous because there are more than a few disagreements on what constitutes truth.

One principle to keep in mind as a writer is the intention: if your intention is to offend, truth is little excuse.  If you are trying to offend someone, that’s behavior outside the bounds of academic ethics. Writers in other fields may have more ethical leeway on whether they try to offend people, but trying to offend people certainly violates the moral precept captured in Christianity’s Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12).

A scholar or researcher ought not try to offend, but at the same time, the scholar cannot allow him or herself to be stopped by the possibility of offending others. Given the diversity of voices in any debate, and the fact that people often get offended when others disagree, any one message is likely to offend someone. If you say that TheoryX is bad, then some of the people who think that TheoryX is good will be offended. Research will not move forward productively if researchers are unable to challenge accepted ideas for fear of offending people.  This, in fact, is what tenure status in universities is about: providing scholars freedom from political pressures related to unpopular theories.

Speaking abstractly, a scholar/researcher (or other writer) is caught between two conflicting forces: on the one hand there is the abstract search for understanding, or “Truth,” and on the other there is the principle of courtesy.  There is, I think, a balance that can be found between these two forces.

There is an additional motivation relevant for writers/speakers, but it is a motivation that is typically backgrounded in academia, and that is the motivation of wanting speech/writing to change how people act. 

The question of motivation is, I think, part of what makes the idea of “political correctness” unpalatable to many.  The care for being “politically correct” can be interpreted not as courtesy or an attempt to care for others (or, from another perspective, an attempt to be treated with respect), but rather as a hypocritical attempt to gain some political advantage. If we think about the attempt to avoid offending from that perspective, it’s far less palatable. If my interest in avoiding offensive terms is that I am motivated to treat all people with respect, that is a very different thing than if I am merely trying to avoid offense to gain a political advantage.  And it is certainly the case that some people are concerned with gaining political advantage.

But are we all so jaded to assume that gaining political advantage is the only motivation that people have?  If someone shows concern to avoid offending others, it could be that they’re just trying to get the support of people they secretly hate (e.g., an anti-semite who courts Jews to get their votes), but couldn’t it also be true that the person actually respects others and tries to avoid offending out of respect? Or, from the other side, it is certainly true that someone might pretend to be offended in order to gain political advantage, but isn’t possible that the person is actually offended?

I have no simple summary here.  We all have to do the best we can, and life is complex. Despite our best intentions, we can err. Different principles may compete in the paths of action they suggest: the desire to respect others and avoid offending may be at odds with the desire to be truthful. The desire to persuade may be at odds with the desire to respect and the desire to be truthful.  And a variety of motivations that might lie hidden behind any action make it hard to interpret right and wrong. Maybe that concern for careful language is a reflection of a honest caring desire, or maybe it’s a reflection of insincere rhetorical manipulation.

It would be nice to have universal principles, but in the end, I suppose that even though principles like respect, caring, and honesty may be universal in the abstract, in reality they sometimes conflict leading to difficult choices.  It’s not good to offend, and it should be avoided, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially with emotionally charged issues, where people have strong opinions. Courtesy is sometimes at odds with truth, and sometimes its necessary to choose truth over courtesy (with the caveat that identifying “truth” is problematic, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions, and to be open to learning that what one has previously accepted as truth might be wrong).

Who gets to say what is offensive?

This particular post was sparked by the recent Megyn Kelly blackface controversy in which Kelly said (among other things) “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” while defending blackface costumes as “OK” because, basically, they used to be (among the people she knew or remembers as important). The controversy brought into the foreground a debate that every writer or scholar needs to consider: whether or not their words offend others.

Kelly’s defense of blackface was offensive to many people. Whether she revealed total ignorance that some people are offended by blackface or dismissal of those people’s concerns, I leave to the reader to decide.

Kelly’s position highlights something that should be in the foreground of discussions: “offensive” behavior is something that different people judge differently, and the fact that one person is not offended does not mean that another is not offended.  When we are concerned with offensive social behavior, the question is who, if anyone, is offended? No behavior is offensive if no one is offended. And if someone is offended, then the behavior is offensive. My general answer to the question asked in this post’s title–who gets to say what is offensive–is “anyone and everyone.”

When someone is offended, one way to respond is to argue that person should not be offended because people at some other specific time and/or place don’t find it offensive (e.g., “no one thought it was offensive when I was young, so it can’t be offensive now!”). And/or to question the right of the people to be offended (e.g., “they shouldn’t be so sensitive!”).  Those are essentially the elements of Kelly’s defense of blackface. 

Instead of questioning whether a person is right to be offended, or has a right to be offended, another way to address the question of what is offensive is to take a standard like that suggested by the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, which is basically that if someone is offended by what you have written, then it is offensive.  (There is, of course, the understanding that factual statements are not bound by this rule. Research has to be able to challenge accepted truths: plenty of people were offended by the idea of evolution.) 

Personally, I believe that the APA standard is much the better one.  If someone is offended by something I write, the fault lies heavily on me. I am willing to offend people in some circumstances (which circumstances are a matter for another discussion), but it certainly is to be avoided. This is a matter of courtesy, a matter of respect, and, certainly with respect to the expectations of the academic community, and in wider contexts, too, a matter of ethics. 

If you respect other people, you do not willingly offend them. The idea that you should respect other people is a very old one (I would say it was a “conservative” principle, except for the willingness, and even glee, with which people who currently call themselves conservative flout it).  The idea that we should respect other people is a principle we can find in religions through history. According to the Bible, 2,000+ years ago, Jesus stated the Golden Rule: “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). Basically, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or, in this specific context: “if you don’t like people saying things that offend you, then don’t say things that offend others.

When thinking about this version of the rule (“If you don’t like other people saying things that you find offensive; don’t say things they find offensive”), it must be framed in terms of the emotions of the person who is affected: it’s not honest to say “well, I don’t mind being called a ‘girl’, so it’s totally cool if I call other people ‘girls’.” (I chose ‘girl’ as term that is offensive to some people—e.g., many boys and men; many adult women—but not offensive to others—e.g., many little girls, some adult women.) Saying that things are only offensive if they offend you is true from a grossly egocentric point of view: if you’re only concerned with whether or not you’re offended, then you miss the fact that someone else might be offended.  You may not care if someone calls you a ‘girl’, but that doesn’t mean that the term isn’t offensive to others. Context and perspective matter.  

Applying the Golden Rule propounded by Jesus requires understanding what others want, not just applying your own standards to everyone.  You may love to eat pork, but the Golden Rule doesn’t therefore suggest that you force everybody else to eat pork. If you love to eat pork then the Golden Rule should lead you to try to provide others with things that they love to eat.  

The principle known as the Golden Rule is echoed across many religions. In Hinduism: “One should not behave towards others in a way that is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish nature” Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8). And in Judaism: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). Buddhism, Islam, and others also have scripture that extols these same values (;

The place to start, according to this basic principle, is not with arguing whether someone has a right to be offended, but with whether they are offended. By this standard, Kelly’s argument that at a certain place in time people were not offended, therefore no one should be offended is clearly flawed because it is essentially egocentric: “The people from whom I take my standard are not offended, and therefore other people shouldn’t be offended.”  The idea that you treat others with respect means that you take them and their concerns as seriously as you take yourself and your interests; it doesn’t mean you dismiss their concerns because they don’t seem important to you.

Society depends on people treating each other with respect and care. Large social groups depend on the willingness of their members to make decisions for the good of the whole group, and to show a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of the whole group.  This need for a social awareness and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good does not preclude competition; it does not preclude seizing personal opportunities or having success beyond the common person; it does not preclude capitalism or personal liberty. It does, however, call on people to be willing to give up some things to help other members of their society, and thus their society as a whole. Sometimes these sacrifices are large: many have given their lives for their nation or their community. Sometimes the sacrifices are rather smaller: giving up that blackface costume is a pretty small sacrifice; giving up callous insults also seems like a pretty small sacrifice.

To Kelly and others who would argue, “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” let me suggest that if by being “normal” you offend people, you might try to be better than normal.  The principles espoused by religions—the Golden Rule and its relatives—are rules to which people should aspire, they are not descriptions of normal behavior. If being normal means callously offending people, I, personally, don’t want to be normal. I want to be better. That’s what it means to live up to ethical standards. The people who follow ethical standards consistently are rightly held up as exemplars; the fact that “normal” people don’t live up to that standard is a poor excuse for not trying to do better.

There are times when other concerns override the interest in being considerate to others, and there are times when people are offended without good reason, but those are outside the scope of this post, which is already overly long.