I’m reading Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking despite not being a fan of his. It is difficult to recommend this book to anybody, but I’m yet to get to the biscuits so that opinion might change. What I am finding very interesting, on the other hand, is that Richard Dawkins is such a big fan of the book.
A short section of Dennett’s book is dedicated to Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. Dennett (rather uncritically) adopts the view that we should, as a rule, only engage with the 10% of stuff that’s not crap. What Dennett doesn’t explore is that this immediately creates two problems. The first is reciprocation, most easily demonstrated by Dawkins himself:[tweet https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/statuses/333467684190695424]
If one should only engage with the 10%, then the people who represent and espouse that 10% of good stuff ought only to engage with the rest of the 10%. In other words, a person like Dawkins — who is very much in the 90% — will never find the 10% if it refuses to engage with him (as Dennett says that it should).
The second problem is judging the 10%. Both Dennett and I are straight, white, affluent males. We are going to have very different understandings of what makes the top 10% of a field than a person from an entirely different background.
Applying Sturgeon’s Law in this way isn’t helpful or sensible.
The problem is that, in order to engage with the best ideas, we need to make some kind of assessment about what sort of ideas we want to engage and how we engage them. That’s not to exclude the 90%, but it is to say that, if you think you’re engaging with crap, why engage it?
But this requires a change in the way we approach conversations. If the point is to shoot something down in flames, go for the 10%. If the point is to understand why you and the person next to you disagree about something, then you are going to have a more meaningful conversation and it doesn’t matter if it’s in the 90% or the 10%.
Sturgeon’s Law is still probably correct, but Dennett’s application is only suitable if you’re interested in being a gung-ho flame warrior.