Straw men and the death of ideology

I made the mistake of confusing  Tim Ferriss with Timothy Ferriss, so I was surprised to be disappointed with an article on Wired, “Timothy Ferriss: The World of the Intellectual vs. The World of the Engineer”. I often read Tim’s blog, I’m fascinated by his approach to self-experimentation. So the over-simplification and scientism of the article surprised me.

The comments of other people on the article itself are interesting – both supporting and criticising Ferriss.

The title sets up the binary that Ferriss pursues through the article: intellectual bad, engineer good. Taking a rather unique definition of intellectual (“Being an intellectual had more to do with fashioning fresh ideas than with finding fresh facts.”) in order to contrast it with scientists and engineers who dealt only with hypotheses that they could check with lab tests. Ferriss goes on to intellectuals sought only to create ideologies that were based on imagined utopian dreams rather than any real experience and that they were all failures. He takes a slightly different route to the standard critique of modernity but ends at a similar place: modern ideologies are empty and we must leave them all behind. The have (without exception, apparently) only caused damage to humanity, while technology and science have exclusively benefited us.

There’s plenty to critique in his argument (which my summary has probably not perfectly represented – which, as you’ll see, will be deeply ironic!) Some commenters have been upset with people saying there are straw men to be found in the article. A straw man is a weak or misrepresented summary of someone else’s argument or work, which then makes your argument look strong. It’s an analogy from somehting like martial arts, where knocking down a straw man is easier than taking on a real opponent.

An example (one of many) is Ferriss’ treatment of Marx. “Karl Marx studiously ignored the improving living standards of working-class Londoners — he visited no factories and interviewed not a single worker — while writing Das Kapital, which declared it an “iron law” that the lot of the proletariat must be getting worse.” Now I’ve not studied Das Kapital, but to suggest that Marx was anti-fact and did not research seems a very unfair accusation. Imperial Russia allowed the publication of Das Kapital because it was not just ideology, but a ‘scientific’ work of political economics. Marx should be seen as one who straddled the binary of this article – mixing ideology and scientific technique, as many scientists do, especially those who are pioneering new fields. And Marx cannot be blamed (as Ferriss later suggests) for the failure of communism in the Soviet bloc – commenter Jon Munger says that’s like blaming Darwin for eugenics.

The article is even more flawed than just containing straw men. Ferriss’ style of argument and his shallow treatment of sources puts him firmly in the camp of idealogues (which he conflates with intellectuals), ironicaly arguing that this approach (the one he is practising) is fatally flawed.  He is constructing a new ideology, not based on verifiable hypotheses that can be falsified by experimentation, but constructed from a few opinions and comments of hearsay. Scientism (the ideology that science and technology provide unrelenting progress and benefit for humanity) has been in doubt for decades. The ultimate demonstration of the power of science to affect people are the nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of the early and middle part of the last century. Scientism is just as dangerous as any ideology in the hands of people who will do absolutely anything to defend or advance their way of life.

When we talk about the end of ideologies, the lack of resonance there is now with the big ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries, we need to be careful how we do it to avoid creating new (or re-stating old) ideologies that are just as flawed. We choose the direction we take our world in, science is just one tool (one particularly effective tool) to move us in that direction. Science is not morally superior to other approaches, nor is it the only tool we should use, as Ferriss proves. As a writer I am sure he knows that his rhetoric is not scientific. It is a tool, we must choose how we use all the tools available to us to do good, rather than harm.