I haven’t read Ann Coulter’s newest book – in fact I haven’t read any of her books – but I’ve read a lot about it recently. And I’ve read lots of quotes. (Check out this post and others at Talk Reason and The Panda’s Thumb for discussions of this book.)
I find it hard to be very impressed or interested with books of this kind, and it doesn’t really matter whether they present the ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ point of view. There’s just something that bothers me about a book which first takes a point of view, and then comes up with arguments to support it, while disregarding anything contrary.
This is just not how good reasoning is supposed to work. One is supposed to do research, find facts, make an hypothesis that fits the evidence, and then go searching for evidence to support and disprove that hypothesis. Sounds kind of like the scientific method doesn’t it? Well guess what? I think that’s the ideal of sound thinking and sound argument.
So the point is that these books tend not to do that. Usually the point of view comes first (‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’) and then you accumulate all the data you can to support your point of view, while also finding evidence to belittle the opposing point of view. If you even bother to address criticisms of your own arguments, it’s usually just for the purpose of showing why those criticisms are irrelvant, or uninformed, or whatever. Criticisms rarely seem to be given real consideration or thought.
There are all kinds of problems with this, I think. First, of course, it makes the assumption that there are only two points of view: A or Z, ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. It ignores all the shades of grey in between – what about N and M, or F? (Is that mixing metaphors?) An argument that doesn’t affirm the idea that there could be various shades of opinion, all with rational bases of belief, just inherently seems wrong and unlikely to be true to begin with.
Second, it’s not really discussion, or even true argument. These would include the possibility that an arguer can be mistaken, or that a line of belief can be shown to be untrue. If the proponent is unable to admit these possibilities, then how can you trust anything that he/she says? In my view, the inability to admit error makes the arguer less trustworthy. They are too likely to cherry pick, resort to ad hominem attacks, or to create straw men. How can you trust any argument from someone like this?
Third, it means the whole process of supporting your argument is forced. You’re going into the research process, finding the facts to support your argument, with bias and with inflexibility. That’s just not kosher. Now I realize that to a certain extent it’s impossible to search for any kind of facts or data without having preconceived notions; that’s just the way humans work. But one has to acknowledge this possibility in oneself at the very least. And one has to at least make an effort to understand opposing points of view and to seek evidence that might disprove your own.
None of these books – and for that matter a lot of political discourse – seem to make any effort at this kind of argument, and I think we suffer for it. It contributes to the polarization of our political parties, and to the inability to find areas of compromise and common ground.
Ann Coulter’s latest book, ‘Godless’, certainly seems to be a great example of this. From what I have read, the book is just several hundred pages of ridicule, ad hominem attacks, and standard party-line arguments. Apparently she takes on ‘Darwinism’ in the last 4 chapters of the book, and these sections are rife with bad arguments, bad research, failure to acknowledge evidence that disproves her hypotheses, and misrepresentation of opposing points of view. I guess it’s entertainment to some extent, but real argument? Not really.
I don’t just blame ‘conservatives’ for this by the way; certainly the ‘liberals’ are just as guilty. Just look at Michael Moore or Al Franken. I tried to read one of the latter’s books, and even though it was kind of entertaining and certainly made good points, it got old very quickly. And I saw Fahrenheit 9/11. Same thing. A few good points and moments of ‘wow, I don’t believe they did that’, but also a lot of moments where you just say , ‘that’s just not a good representation of the argument from the other side. There’s more to it than that.’
It would be refreshing to have a political writer start with a problem, investigate, and come up with conclusions on their own, without preconceived thoughts or a prior political viewpoint. There must be works like this out there, but you sure don’t see them on the best-seller list.