The Standing Invitation

Arrogance and Respect

with 6 comments

Is it always arrogant to tell people they are wrong?

Arrogance is a common accusation levied at scientists when they declare that, actually, x is the case, and anyone who believes otherwise is simply incorrect. And, yes, there is an arrogance associated with any kind of absolute certainty, since there is very little, if anything, of which anyone can be truly certain. This is something that scientists know (or should know) better than anyone. Scientists are generally very candid about what they do not know, where their areas of expertise are and what lies outside it, and their claims are always tempered by error bars, confidence levels, and the fact that correlation does not imply causation; and that’s before you get down to the real philosophy of science stuff with the problem of induction, unreliability of the evidence of senses and so on.

Nevertheless, there are some things about which scientists’ feelings come so close to certainty that there isn’t much reason calling it anything else – certainty in the existence of atoms, or that the Earth is an oblate spheroid orbiting a main-sequence star, or that humans and broccoli share a common ancestor. The evidence of these things is overwhelmingly good, and anyone who believes otherwise is wrong.

But is it arrogant to say so?

The concept of arrogance is bound inextricably to the idea of respect: to be arrogant is to not respect another person’s opinions.

Now I’m just going to come right out and say it: some people’s opinions are pretty dumb. The idea that the Earth is 6000 years old deserves no respect whatsoever. But then, neither does the idea that the Earth is 4.5 billions years old. No opinion deserves respect, or protection from criticism.

But is disrespecting an opinion the same as disrespecting the person who holds it? Sometimes, if it’s not done properly. And here lies the meaning of arrogance.

Respect, as applied to an intellectual, means that, if this person says something that is totally opposed to your own opinions, you still listen to hear what she has to say. It’s tempting to dismiss people who say that trial by jury should be abandoned; but when Richard Dawkins says it, I sit up and pay attention, because I know he’s thought hard about it. I respect the man, and so I listen.

To respect someone means to assume that his opinion is founded on careful thought that is worth taking on board; it also means to assume that he is amenable to rational argument, and is not so inflexible that he cannot be persuaded otherwise, if he is wrong. One should always make this assumption, and frame one’s arguments as though to someone who will listen to them; if nothing else, it is good exercise. To treat one’s opponent as unreachable by logical discourse is arrogant in the extreme.

So next time you see a conversation in which one debater calls the other arrogant, ask yourself this question: who is showing the least respect? The one who is hears a deeply-held belief and demands evidence for it? Or the one who’s deploying the A-word as a get-out-of-argument-free card and hoping to stop the debate in its tracks?


Actually, Dawkins makes good points about trial by jury. Worth reading.

Written by The S I

October 29, 2011 at 11:59 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I wouldn’t put an opinion like “maybe we shouldn’t have trial by jury” in the same basket as “the earth is 6000 years old”. There are very compelling reasons to abandon trial by jury and it isn’t just a few people on the fringe who say so. Most issues regarding how our society should organise itself are hardly straight-forward or black and white and you can’t compare them to science.

    I do agree though that having a debate with someone who holds the opposite view is, even if you think they’re nuts, a good exercise in persuasion.

    Sheeple Liberator

    October 30, 2011 at 1:05 am

  2. Hi there. Yeah, I admit I was stuck for examples of things where people I respect say things I disagree with — because usually, I respect people precisely because they say little I disagree with!

    As an aside, I do have a lot of time for the idea of scrapping trial by jury, for precisely the reasons enumerated in Dawkins’s essay. A case study in persuasion by rational argument.

    The S I

    October 30, 2011 at 9:40 am

  3. Usually, I respect people because they say things I hadn’t thought about in that precise manner yet, and they give me something to think about!

    Tamara van Ree

    October 30, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  4. And rightly so! My point is that I wouldn’t call arrogant someone who could phrase arguments in such a way, even if I ultimately disagreed with what the person said. It is more respectful to disagree with someone, providing reasons, than it is to dismiss them as unworthy of rational argument. That is where the distinction lies.

    The S I

    October 30, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    • I have immense admiration for thinkers who are able to have calm, respectful conversations with those who are staunchly opposed to their view. In my opinion, there are not many people who truly possess that skill. If one’s response is along the lines of “you are an idiot, there’s no point arguing with you”, I think the cause is sometimes just human nature and not necessarily arrogance. Those people (being the majority, and probably myself at times) simply don’t know how to engage the other person. It is very challenging and we are only human.

      Even if you’re a good debater, there comes a point where you need to withdraw from the conversation. If you encounter someone who genuinely believes that the earth is 6000 years old and no amount of reasoned argument will persuade them, you need to get away from that conversation ASAP without getting emotional. In my experience, a person like that often holds that view because it is tied to some deep seated emotional or ideological belief (such as creationists; there are all sorts of ideological and political issues at play that can’t be overcome by reasoned scientific argument).

      Sheeple Liberator

      October 30, 2011 at 7:17 pm

  5. I completely agree. You can’t expect to convince everyone; nor should anyone expect you to have the patience to do so. My concern with this post was how to attack an idea people hold strongly while doing everything possible to avoid arrogance; and I think that the assumption, in the first instance, that a dialogue can take place is enough. You can give up and call the difference irreconcilable whenever you feel your spirits flagging or the anger rising, but assuming that your interlocutor can provide evidence for her claims, and will respond to reason, is at least common courtesy.

    The S I

    October 30, 2011 at 7:35 pm

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