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Bad Manners and Good Gossip

« Anthony I. Okoh: The Trenches Are Not Empty | Main | The Sad Song of "Johnny One Note", or Professor Moore Explains Himself »

March 02, 2007


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Michael D. Harold

To have that image leading off an essay on Chomsky's use of post-structuralist philosophy as part of an argument against the type of research ( i.e., scientific method) practiced by scientists like Duesberg is a trip!

Chomsky knows as much about the social dynamics of consensus formation as anybody and has spent a career warning us of its corporatist tricks and traps. To present a moral argument on the economic utility of "AIDS" drugs distribution by davos countries to third world countries without including any discussion of the marginal utility of alternatives such as food, water, education and preventive healthcare for those same third world countries is not the Chomsky I know.

And to suggest that those scientists who rigorously pursue an alternative path to knowledge despite the disapproval and consensus of a majority of their peers are somehow failing in their moral obligations is too weird even for me. I can only believe 2-3 impossible things before breakfast.

I've been reading Chomsky's work on language since my 20s. I agree with him that the rules of language are generative and species specific. Sometimes I'm almost smug in my certainty where that particular belief is concerned. But right this minute, after reading his arguments against dissent from "mass media-AIDS", I feel more like the dog in the Dirk Vekemans' poem.

I've always held Chomsky's work in the highest regard. I still do. I think he's awesome. This just totally weirds me out. It's like he's taking the side of those who agree that anything that doesn't forcibly maintain control of global natural resources and human capital by "rational" western society is off the table. Everything else is on the table.

It's like the mugger who politely asks you after he robs you if you would rather be shot in the left knee or the right knee (for your own good, so you can't run looking for a cop - he's doing it to save your life). God forbid that you suggest he doesn't shoot you at all. If you do that, he's liable to shoot you in the head for being so stupid as to argue with a mugger with a gun.

But I *know* that Chomsky's not that way. He's the opposite. He's one of the good guys. That's why i'm still shaking in disbelief.

Darin C. Brown

Chomsky exemplifies the belief among academics and the public in the "fairy tale" that *only* scientists have developed a correct method for arriving at the truth about reality. But when Chomsky was so vocal against the war in Vietnam, wasn't he going against the "experts" who "should know better"? Isn't the decision whether troops should stay in Vietnam based upon arguments that follow from logic and empirical data? And who should "know better" to have made those decisions, than the military leaders themselves? They had more experience, more knowledge, and more access to hard data than Chomsky.

Yet, Chomsky felt no moral qualms about coming out against the war. What makes AIDS any different? According to Chomsky's argument, he had *ZERO* right to speak up about the war. *NONE*. The *ONLY* way he can say he was justified and remain consistent is to claim that the military leaders were not acting as "scientists" at the time. But this is just the "fairy tale" (as Feyerabend would put it) that only people who are labelled "scientists" by society (given degrees, titles, careers, etc.) are capable of working by a correct method of arriving at truths about reality.

Among mathematicians, there's a saying, "Everyone is a mathematician...they just don't know it." (yes, not everyone is taught how to write proofs, or group theory, but everyone counts, everyone has some kind of number sense, everyone has some kind of spacial sense etc.) If only "scientists" felt the same way. The kind of "method" that scientists use is not their sole province, dreamed up by a bunch of old men 300 years ago sitting around a's just a refinement of the common sense and problem-solving ability anyone is capable of.

To say that one can question military leaders but not scientists not only ignores the political influences in modern science, more importantly, it ignores the "scientific" decision-making that underlies almost all public policy debates we care about.

A Less Naive Prof. Chomsky

"And what of the incredible sequence of lies on the part of our government and its spokesmen concerning such matters as negotiations in Vietnam? The facts are known to all who care to know. The press, foreign and domestic, has presented documentation to refute each falsehood as it appears. But the power of the government's propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact... Is the purity of American motives a matter that is beyond discussion, or that is irrelevant to discussion? Should decisions be left to 'experts' with Washington contacts—even if we assume that they command the necessary knowledge and principles to make the 'best' decision, will they invariably do so? And, a logically prior question, is 'expertise' applicable—that is, is there a body of theory and of relevant information, not in the public domain, that can be applied to the analysis of foreign policy or that demonstrates the correctness of present actions in some way that psychologists, mathematicians, chemists, and philosophers are incapable of comprehending?... American aggressiveness, however it may be masked in pious rhetoric, is a dominant force in world affairs and must be analyzed in terms of its causes and motives. There is no body of theory or significant body of relevant information, beyond the comprehension of the layman, which makes policy immune from criticism. To the extent that 'expert knowledge' is applied to world affairs, it is surely appropriate—for a person of any integrity, quite necessary—to question its quality and the goals it serves. These facts seem too obvious to require extended discussion." ("The Responsibility of Intellectuals", New York Review of Books, 23 February 1967)

Harvey Bialy

Is Prof. Chomsky aware of the significant intersections between the sets containing HIV/AIDS "scientists", government operatives, corporate board rooms and media lackeys?

If not, a look at the Real Rogue's Gallery on the Bulletin Board will quick like a bunny, or a bad Speedy Gonzales joke, set him straight.

And is the professor aware that many of these same persons have been carefully preparing "bird flu" to replace HIV/AIDS when the gravy train finally comes to a grinding halt?

Lastly, if Dr. Chomsky's interest instead of his ire has been aroused by today's page, some unhurried time attending to a few (randomly chosen even) of the other articles on these pages will allow him to fill some of the holes in his knowledge of a subject he feels so free to pontificate about without having any.

Jon Rappoport


Chomsky lays out three choices when faced with a consensus scientific hypothesis:

Re-do the technical work yourself, to find out if the consensus is accurate.

Accept the consensus.

Assume one’s own GUESS to the contrary is correct.

Of course, his third choice is wrongly framed. One does not need to guess. One does not need to be a virologist to find holes in virologists’ logic. Logic is about valid and invalid inference, and inference is the connective tissue of argument, in case Dr. Chomsky has forgotten. On top of that, it can be easy to spot scientists breaking their own rules. Koch’s postulates come to mind. This method of determining disease causation is either satisfied or it isn’t. In the case of HIV, the postulates have not been fulfilled. A layperson can perceive this. The 200 or so chimps intentionally infected with HIV over the last decade or more have remained healthy.

So Chomsky’s third choice sets up a ridiculous straw man: a random subjective GUESS would, of course, be of no use---but guessing is distinct from pointing out inferential errors and pointing out the breaking of traditional rules.

Beyond all that, any list of choices which forces one to accept professional consensus as the pragmatic gold standard is grossly unscientific. The scientific method is not about sheer consensus numbers. It is about rigorous confirmation (or rejection) of a conclusion, carried out by many minds. Consensus numbers and confirmation are not necessarily the same animals. We can determine whether a consensus was arrived at in a rigorous or error-ridden fashion.

For example---the San Francisco Men’s Study, the most wide-ranging attempt to track HIV-positive status on to full-blown AIDS. This long-term study was, indeed, part of the consensus that purported to establish the dangers of HIV infection. However, there was no useful control group, because the tracking of HIV-negative men was desultory. Further, a significant number of HIV-positive men who never took AZT or stopped taking it remained healthy for at least 10 years. The Study researchers chose not to broadcast this fact widely, even though it was a crucial discovery.

Although I am not a trained virologist, I managed to find out these facts.

When confronted by people who claim to have key evidence of a massively wrong professional hypothesis, Chomsky tends to desert any semblance of rationality. He retreats into sheer garble.

A rational scientist would carefully examine evidence that could constitute a refutation of the accepted hypothesis. Instead, Chomsky typically pleads technical ignorance and goes on to accept the consensus.

Consensus is never solid ground for the automatic acceptance of any proposition. It never was, and it never will be. Chomsky is offering an epistemological argument for consensus---“what can we as laypersons know?”---“what can we, without technical knowledge or know-how, do?”

Epistemology does not recapitulate logic. It’s a sophomoric way to cover up logic, where logic is available. Chomsky is framing his own helpless personal brand of epistemology, for his own purposes.

HIV is not the first time he has followed this strategy

Frank Lusardi

Long years ago the linguist Wayne O'Neil interrupted one of my aimless strolls and hauled me off to a lecture by one Noam Chomsky. Fateful encounter. Thereafter, and forever more, I did occasionally pause the perambulations to consider the fine points of why O'Neil, Chomsky, Louis Kampf and other teachers had risked everything on a "call to resist illegitimate authority." It is passing strange, it is sadly pathetic, that today Chomsky would pander to that doddering sham, The Appeal To Authority. Wayne would have smiled at such jejune illusion. Louis would have snarled.

Samba Diallo

All right, all right: The wise old man was, he himself, fooled... Pity, what a formidable ally he would be! But in this fight, though he may not be a comrade in the trench, he is not an enemy. And in how many other, important/essential causes he has thought/taught/fought, and continues to think/teach/fight?


Lee Evans

I do not know Prof. Chomksy as a linguist, and am only slightly familiar with some of his books on how the US government and the media constantly lie and manipulate us.

So I cannot be as disappointed in his anti-intellectual position on HIV/AIDS as the others who have commented on the article by Mr. Jensen.

But like Mr. Diallo, I do not think he should be punished to no limit for missing the boat and being fooled by the almighty authorities that he has to face every day in Cambridge.

He would not be the first public figure to adopt such a contradictory position.

And I am not only thinking of my 'friends' Oprah and Obama.

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