The Tribunal of Revolutionary Empirical Justice

The blogosphere as Gellner’s Anglo-Austrian Tribunal of Revolutionary Empirical Justice

A post on Crooked Timber debunking a flimsy report that Hungarians talk and presumably think faster than Americans (and why not, they have better schools and a long history of foreign oppressors to outmanoeuvre) led me to a marvellous paragraph by Cosma Shalizi, reviving a conceit by Ernest Gellner in praise of Karl Popper:

Instead of conferring patents of epistemic nobility, lawdoms and theoryhoods, on certain hypotheses, Popper hauled them all before an Anglo-Austrian Tribunal of Revolutionary Empirical Justice. The procedure of the court was as follows: the accused was blindfolded, and the magistrates then formed a firing squad, shooting at it with every piece of possibly-refuting observational evidence they could find. Conjectures who refused to present themselves might lead harmless lives as metaphysics without scientific aspirations; conjectures detected peaking out from under the blindfold, so as to dodge the Tribunal’s attempts at refutation, were declared pseudo-scientific and exiled from the Open Society of Science. Our best scientific theories, those Stakhanovites of knowledge, consisted of those conjectures which had survived harsh and repeated sessions before the Tribunal, demonstrated their loyalty to the Open Society by appearing before it again and again and offering the largest target to refutation that they could, and so retained their place in the revolutionary vanguard until they succumbed, or were displaced by another conjecture with even greater zeal for the Great Purge. (The whole affair was very reminiscent of The Golden Bough, though I don’t know if Popper ever read it; also of Nietzsche’s quip that “it is not the least charm of a hypothesis that it is refutable.”) As Popper famously said, better our hypotheses die for our errors than ourselves…

Shalizi, reviewing Deborah Mayo, goes on with a learned discussion of the limitations of the Popperian Tribunal in statistical inference. Another well-known problem is that it removes moral judgements from the domain of rational argument.

I’m interested rather in the Tribunal as a model of the blogosphere, or a single blog like this one. Here the Tribunal is run by anarchists not Bolsheviks: think Barcelona in 1936. (Those condemned to die were taken to the cliffs at Sitges to be shot romantically at dawn.) There’s a chairman (Mark) barely in control; no set procedure, so anyone can join in, including friends of the accused and the victim, assorted obsessives, and the occasional person who knows something germane; there’s a large and shifting audience munching popcorn and reading the newspaper, truants from school, people who have just dropped in out the rain, and the young couple in the back row who don’t seem very interested in the proceedings at all … dear me! are they really … ? It wasn’t like that in Great-Uncle Kropotkin’s day.

Some of the people who dislike the blogosphere object to its anarchism: it doesn’t have the checks and balances of scientific peer review or the conventions of print journalism. That’s fair enough, though these also fail – the latter repeatedly. Others just dislike the idea of the Tribunal, of epistemic democracy. They were the enemies of John Milton too when he pleaded in 1644 for freedom of the press:

That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

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