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.