Social critic’s theory is strong, his execution is weak

Hoggan's contempt for the public is only matched by his lack of understanding of the scientific method

james hoggan

TORONTO, Ont. Dec. 10, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The title of a new book encourages the reader to dive in: [popup url=”http://amzn.to/2gkiCM0″ height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up[/popup] by James Hoggan.

The premise is sound – we need intelligent discourse. Yet the author doesn’t practise it, or make the case. Stating a case is easy. Making a case is hard. An assertion is not a proof. A proof has a laborious, and detailed process.

“Polarization is dangerous …,” writes Hoggan. No so for Jesuits, who employ a thesis and antithesis to expand knowledge and reach a synthesis. For Hoggan, “Without consensus, we cannot take effective action.”

Ironically, he’s a lawyer and must have seen the adversarial (polarized) system in which judges rule without being concerned about consensus. Without consensus, women were rightly deemed persons under Canadian laws, and schools were integrated in the U.S. – effective action, I’d say.

Hoggan advocates “dialogue rather than debate.” The two words mean much the same – the value of looking at all [polarized] sides, synthesis, and such. This is an undeveloped thought – a distinction without a difference.

The author bemoans the fact that “we have highly educated scientists communicating with poorly educated citizens.” This flies in the face of the highest education levels in history and of science itself. Good scientists have taken themselves down a peg since theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg noted that the instrument measuring something affects measurement. Historian Thomas Kuhn noted that scientists pick evidence that supports their thesis.

Hoggan’s is the ‘empty vessel’ approach by which members of the public lack useful information and must be filled up by scientists. This has been nicely quashed by Brian Wynne of Lancaster University in his essay [popup url=”http://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/~sallen/jayne/Wynne%201996%20sheep.pdf” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]May the Sheep Safely Graze?[/popup] Scientists didn’t believe Cumbrian farmers about the effects of radiation on their sheep. It turned out the farmers were right. Lay knowledge is powerful enough to hoist a few scientists.

Hoggan may be using ethnography-interviewing subjects. But many quotes are unattributed, interviewees’ alleged quotes go unchallenged, and so do apparently made up quotes from hypothetical oil and pharmaceutical company spokespeople – ersatz putativeness.

Did “[m]any” unnamed readers of Hoggan’s last book ask him “why people try to discredit scientists”? In fact, it’s scientists who try to discredit scientists with the scientific method, using the null hypothesis.

One interviewees notes that, “Twenty years ago, to be homosexual was laughable, disgusting and strange – but now everybody knows gay people.” Really? In the late 1990s? Almost 30 years after the Stonewall riots spawned gay-liberation? And how about that illogical construction – knowing gay people negates the concepts of “laughable, disgusting and strange.” Really?

Spotting logical fallacies makes for a better discourse. Hoggan may be the person he is trying to reform.

Another interviewee notes that “corporations have limited legal obligation to be concerned about the environment.” Except for the hundreds of environmental laws and regulations, including EPA, OSHA, CEPA, WHMIS, Clean Air, Clean Water acts, TDG, and so on in most jurisdictions. I’d enjoy hearing from this lawyer/author just how limited – no teeth, no funding, not enforced, ambiguous, or non-existent. And, do laws yield concern or compliance?

I skipped to the bibliography. Hoggan has a couple of the icons of the field of risk communication – conveying scientific and medical information to a lay audience. But he’s missed many or the best – Covello, Sandman, Fischoff, Tversky, Cohen, Kasperson, and others.

James Hoggan runs a PR agency in Vancouver and is past chair of the David Suzuki Foundation. Among the positive reviews is one by David Suzuki who terms the book a “monumental study.” Dr. Suzuki and I will not achieve consensus about this book.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner, DBA, was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management.  His legal studies were at Osgoode Hall Law School. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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