Nicholas Carr had a post in MIT’s technology review that is skeptical of the role that social physics can play in engineering a better social future. Rather than touch directly on either his arguments or what is put forth by the author he is reviewing, I’d like to touch on the role of skepticism as illustrated by this case.
Lets get the junk out of the way. The topic for his article is the kind of topic that will produce friction and presumably viewers and his approach to the topic clearly wants to heighten that friction. Fair enough.
Has he done the job of the skeptic, which I think of as tinkering with the idea and finding the holes that give us a sense of how much weight we should give to notion? Sort of, maybe, not really. He hasn’t really given a fair hearing to the original author’s work. Perhaps it can best be said that he reports what he read accurately though that is an assumption given that I haven’t read the original work. It is clear from his writing that he purposefully distances himself from the original author’s work but distancing should not be read the same as objectivity. There is never the sense that he is trying the ideas on for size and pushing them to see where they might go within the original author’s framework or in a framework of his own creation. Rather, he is reporting what he read and there is a sense that he is in a hurry to get to his own arguments, which is where he anticipates the fun happening. In his own arguments the strong sense is that of ‘I don’t like this and here is some stuff that supports (I don’t like this)’.
The issue here is that skepticism is a very valuable service in the idea space. It isn’t done frequently enough as it is. Unfortunately, it then needs to stand up to skepticism in its own right about whether it is doing the job fairly and well.
PS – Inside joke – “and what do you call assassins who accuse assassins, anyway… my friend?”