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Charlatan
  • SimonSimon May 2012
    From www.dictionary.com:

    noun a person who pretends or claims to have more knowledge or skill than he or she possesses; quack.

    So in having various science/faith discussions I keep on coming across people who use some sort of argument from authority to justify their strange views. "I have a PhD in xxx therefore if I say pigs fly then they fly!". Perhaps the people I have in mind most are the Intelligent Design lot who spout the utmost nonsense under an attempted veneer of academic respectability. But if I want to call these people charlatans, how can I justify it? I've had a crack at some criteria of what a charlatan is not:

    To be taken seriously you need:

    1) An academic qualification from a respectable secular university.
    2) A position of authority within secular society.
    3) A respect of, and knowledge for, the literature.
    4) No attempt to talk authoritatively about subjects you have no training in.
    5) Willingness to engage robustly and appropriately without an "everyones out to get me" attitude.

    I think YECs fall down on almost all of these (although one or two meet criteria 1 &2). IDers are normally OK on 1 & 2, occasionally manage 3 & 4, but never manage 5. Whilst new atheists are probably strong on 1 & 2, ropey on 3 & 5, but never manage 4.

    Me, of course, I'm perfect!
  • I think if you want to call someone a charlatan, you really ought first to have a PhD in quackery ;)

    Just a bit of honesty and humility should be enough. "I have a PhD in xxx, so I have no expertise in the flying abilities of pigs, but from what I've read, and from talking to a couple of friends who are experts in pigs, I think it's fair to say that pigs can't fly." I think if someone made a claim about something in that kind of way, I'd be likely to believe them.

    Agree with 1-3 and 5 (though I'm not sure "secular" is needed). I would perhaps rephrase (4) as: "No attempt to pretend that your training in one field gives you authority to make pronouncements about a totally different field." The person above who speaks about pigs in a humble and honest way is attempting to talk authoritatively about a subject they have no training in - and succeeding in doing so, I would say - but isn't saying "Believe me because I have a PhD!".

    Maybe the real problem is the popular perception that if you have a PhD, or are a professor, or wear a white coat, then you know about everything? Some academics do genuinely seem to know quite a lot about lots of things, but part of progressing as an academic is to learn what you don't know as well as what you do know. (Some would say the purpose is to learn gradually more and more about less and less until...)

    And yes, it's definitely a problem in the science/faith area: scientists talking nonsense about philosophy or theology or a completely unrelated scientific field, philosophers and theologians talking nonsense about particular sciences, etc.
  • exchemist May 2012
    My elderly OED gives 2 original, narrow, meanings to do with a purveyor of quack medicine (etym. Italian ciarlare, to babble, patter, act the mountebank) and then a broader meaning, which I think is the modern sense: "an assuming empty pretender to knowledge or skill: a pretentious imposter."

    I think the imposter element is key. A charlatan is not innocently ignorant, or even someone who erroneously thinks he knows more than he does, but a deceiver, a deliberate misrepresenter, dishonest.

    As to Simon's criteria, I agree with Anthony these are too heavy on academic reputation. My perception, as an outsider, is that there is too much stress in a lot of intellectual argument today on established academic reputation. It comes as across as inward-looking, pompous and self-protective, and invites the challenge from those outside that the academic community has built barriers, within which its thought becomes conventional and ultimately ossified. The IDers have not been slow to spot this and make out they are victims of it. Of course I know one needs a filter to screen out cranks and charlatans, of whom there are plenty (doesn't the Patent Office receives over a hundred applications a year for perpetual motions machines?), so I can understand how it comes about, but it is unfortunate. 

    Simon what you are really driving at, surely, is what the grounds are for taking someone seriously. 

    One ground would certainly be not being a charlatan, by which I mean having integrity, refraining from pretence and deception. This might take time to establish of course, but as with any walk of life you take someone increasingly seriously as a reliable track record develops. I agree with Anthony that a degree of humility, about areas acknowledged to be outside the expertise of the speaker, is invariably a good sign. 

    A second and in my view separate one is having expert knowledge in the field under discussion. This might come via academic reputation, or it might come from experience, or from some other claim to expertise, by which the individual is able to convince his interlocutors that he deserves a hearing. 

    The first criterion I would say is non-negotiable. The second is perhaps optional. It can be insightful from time to time to listen to honest, intelligent people who make no special claim to expertise, or who have had no formal training. Sometimes they express themselves with a simple clarity that, sadly, academics nowadays are almost trained to be incapable of.(Try reading a paper by an American lecturer in English, for example. It can be a eye-wateringly ghastly experience.) 

    But neither of these explicitly covers what may be another category; cranks. Or is a crank just someone who fails on one or both the above criteria and seems, subjectively, to be a bit bonkers into the bargain?