Roger Scruton thinks relationships on the Internet are not as good as those in real life:
In real life, friendship involves risk. The reward is great: help in times of need, joy in times of celebration. But the cost is also great: self-sacrifice, accountability, the risk of embarrassment and anger, and the effort of winning another’s trust. […] I can avoid the risk and still obtain pleasure; but I will never obtain friendship or love.
When I relate to you through the screen there is a marked shift in emphasis. Now I have my finger on the button. At any moment I can turn you off. You are free in your own space, but you are not really free in mine, since you are dependent on my decision to keep you there. I retain ultimate control, and am not risking myself in the friendship as I risk myself when I meet you face to face.
This is a load of bollocks. As Norm Geras points out:
Scruton could have said something about: how you can make friends on the internet with people you otherwise would not have met; how you can then consolidate and extend these friendships offline; how, even if you don’t (because of distance, say), having electronic friends can be a rewarding experience in itself; how old (real-world) friends who live far apart can now be in touch with one another with much greater facility and regularity than formerly; how, the internet being (when all is said and done) part of the real world, friends can also cease to be friends because of what happens there; and how anyone whose friendships are wholly confined to the internet probably has problems aside from an addiction to their computer. But he doesn’t touch on any of this.
Indeed he doesn’t touch on any of this. Why not? I think the root cause is that Scruton is just not very clever.
Academic disciplines are either testable if their results are tested against reality, or non-testable if they are not. For example, civil engineering is testable because if you build a bridge and it falls down, you know you’re done it wrong. Computer programming is similarly testable; if there is any subtle flaw in the logic of your program, it won’t work (and bugs can be very subtle indeed). All science, with its requirement of falsifiability, is by definition tested against reality.
Practitioners of testable disciplines that are on the whole cleverer than practitioners of non-testable disciplines. There are two reasons for this. The first is that testable disciplines tend to attact cleverer people, and the second is that testable disciplines actually are a discipline: you’re continually testing your ideas and theories against reality, and reality disciplines your mind by telling you when you are wrong. You can’t bullshit nature; as Richard Feynman said “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
To consider whether practitioners of testable disciplines are more intelligent than those of non-testable disciplines, Paul Graham conducts a thought experiment:
Try this thought experiment. A dictator takes over the US and sends all the professors to re-education camps. The physicists are told they have to learn how to write academic articles about French literature, and the French literature professors are told they have to learn how to write original physics papers. If they fail, they’ll be shot. Which group is more worried?
Graham also points to the Sokal Hoax:
We have some evidence here: the famous parody that physicist Alan Sokal got published in Social Text. How long did it take him to master the art of writing deep-sounding nonsense well enough to fool the editors? A couple weeks? What do you suppose would be the odds of a literary theorist getting a parody of a physics paper published in a physics journal?
What does this have to do with Scruton? If you read his bio, he seems never to have spent any time getting to grips with any testable discipline, instead he writes articles for newspapers, a job that doesn’t require any real understanding of the subjects one writes about.
So I hereby posit Cabalamat’s Rule of Intellectuals: a person can only be a true intellectual if they have mastered a testable academic discipline; if they haven’t but call themselves an intellectual anyway, they are instead a pseudo-intellectual bullshitter.
So for example, I would class Alan Kay and Peter Norvig as intellectuals, because of their work in the field of software, as well as their ability to make sensible public pronouncements on general topics.
To be fair to Scruton, he is not as bad as some in talking bullshit. Others have elevated it to an art form, using bullshit as a smoke screen so that it’s not easy for the uninitiated to tell whether it is in fact bullshit. Consider these examples taken from Richard Dawkins’ review of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont:
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.
If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of context. It could be said that the subject is contextualised into a textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense, the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that reality comes from the collective unconscious.
One of these is by the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, the other is by a program designed to spew out impressive-sounding nonsense. Can you tell which is which?