Pundits and Scholars

I have been thinking about the difference between punditry and scholarship. In one of his novels, Richard Jefferies wrote of an argument which was not a true discussion because each protagonist attacked only the weak points of the other’s position while only putting forward the strong points of their own. This stuck in my mind. It reminded me also of the sociologist Max Weber’s definition of science as the practice of rendering problematic what is conventionally self-evident. So, we have two wise people enjoining us to self-criticism. Another clever person, A J P Taylor, a historian, once described himself as a person of extreme opinions, weakly held. Why weakly? Because the scholar should appreciate how provisional is the knowledge from which one draws conclusions. Why extreme? Because we can try to extend our reasoning to the limit of our temporary knowledge.

So much for scholars, what about pundits? It seems to me that pundits bang on about the strong points of their own argument and only consider the weak points of their opponents’ arguments. It seems to me that pundits appeal far too easily to common sense. It seems to me that pundits enjoy having extreme opinions which they hold all too tenaciously.

In 2007 (Irish Independent, 8 March), Kevin Myers puffed a book that questioned Darwinism on the grounds that the creation of the necessary proteins for life was too unlikely to have occurred by chance. Attacking the “dogma of evolution, natural selection and Darwinism,” Myers sneered at the “hooting condescension” visited upon Intelligent Design. Asserting his own mind to be open on the question (“I don’t know”), he went on to suggest that expecting life to evolve by chance was like claiming that if you threw “enough rubble and jewels into the air often enough, it will sooner or later come down as the Taj Mahal,” which would be, he suggested, “simply preposterous”.

Pundits are not always this entertaining. But is it true that evolutionists have never considered this question about the plausibility of random initiation of proteins? No. For one accessible description of this line of research, reporting on research dating back to a Science article of 1993, see Dave Deamer’s blog.

In 2003 (Irish Times, 9 June), John Waters attacked the feminisation of society. His claim was that society had once rested upon male authority. He characterised authority as the “capacity to endure unpopularity in the interest of good.” Waters identified this authority as patriarchal, “tough, straight, straight-talking,” making clear what its expectations are, and even offering itself as a “punchbag” to those it would direct. Without this external focus, people turn their anger in upon themselves. Without this form of direction, society finds itself feminised as “tolerant, indulgent, talkative.”

The use of an idealised family as model for society raises all sorts of questions that Waters does not consider. Is patriarchal authority really so benign? Too often it turns others into its punchbags. In 2011, Safe Ireland helped 8,000 women and 3,000 children who sought refuge from violent men at home. Are gender characteristics really this stable or definite? There is an extensive scholarly literature that argues otherwise, see for example the work of Judith Butler.

Of course, the separation I am drawing is too neat and John Waters and Kevin Myers are extreme, and thus easy, targets, but there is a difference we need to respect between trading in the currency of controversy and shaping work which is, and recognises itself as being. empirically vulnerable.

Gerry Kearns


One comment

  1. […] I have explored some of these issues in a blog on Pundits and Scholars (27 May […]


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