Steve Patterson and Jason Brennan

Both are smart guys, and I haven’t read the book or the review, but I am fascinated by the social dynamic, which follows a common pattern: What could be an engaged and productive argument devolves quickly into insults, exasperation, uncharitable interpretations about who said what, claims of immoralities, and suggestions of lawsuits.

Also fascinating is that in this case the heat is generated—not by the usual antagonizing topics of politics, religion, or failed romance—but by epistemology.

My scanning of the Facebook threads (here and here) easily raises a dozen questions that range across sociological, historical, philosophical, and business issues:

  1. Are many or most academics snobbish about who can do quality intellectual work?
  2. Are non-academics able to do quality intellectual work?
  3. Do some or many non-academic intellectuals have chip-on-their-shoulder resentments of those in the academic world?
  4. What is the book trying to accomplish?
  5. What is the overall quality of the book’s arguments?
  6. Is the book original?
  7. Does it reference the existing literature?
  8. Is the review fair-minded or a hatchet job?
  9. Who proposed the paid review—the author or the reviewer?
  10. Was the agreed-upon payment made in a timely fashion?
  11. Who has the formal publication rights to the review?
  12. Was there an informal agreement not to post the review until after attempts to publish it in journals?

Some of those strike me as interesting content questions, but my thoughts are about how the discussion has gone, for its negative pattern occurs repeatedly in every field that I’ve read in extensively. Off the top of my head: philosophy (Rousseauians, neo-Kantians, and Objectivists, especially), music (Beethoven and Tchaikovsky critics), education (Dewey’s and Montessori’s followers), psychology (Freudians and Jungians), politics and economics (Marxists and Austrians), architecture (Wright’s schools).

So my question is, independent of  this particular book and its review, is this: Why does this pattern of dysfunctional discussion repeat so often and so easily, even among intelligent people who care about the same things?

[Related: The Russell/Ryle dispute over a book review for Mind.]


7 thoughts on “Steve Patterson and Jason Brennan

  • February 21, 2017 at 4:15 am

    Here’s a concept that may have relevance, whether a little or a lot (or none) I don’t want to hazard yet: the Drama Triangle, mostly applied to psychology, about the structure of many if not most dysfunctional relationships:

    In ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem,’ the first book that made me feel I understood the Israeli-Palestinian morass (deeply sympathetic to both sides), Tom Friedman says when the conversation goes to the Middle East people temporarily go insane. He also quipped that there is no truth in the Middle East, only versions.

    I find the same increasingly the case with American politics, with attempts at discussion quickly turning into “shouting heads.” All are characterized by a quality of hysteria. I think hysteria is always a cover for evasion and denial, to self and others, at times for very understandable reasons such as trauma. But it is not effective in the long term.

    My view is that in all of these both sides harbor serious errors and on some level know it but are not prepared to deal with it for a variety of reasons.

  • February 21, 2017 at 7:03 am


    If you’re going to post about this, let’s set some facts straight. Patterson is the one making multiple hour-long videos complaining about me. He’s sending his followers to screenshot my Facebook feed. He’s obsessing over me. I’m approaching this entire thing with bemusement. I spent yesterday writing other stuff. I’m no more feuding with him than I am with the garbage I put to the curb this morning.

    The comment about a “lawsuit” was over a simple matter: Patterson posted my review on his website despite my explicit instructions not to do so, and despite his agreement that he would not do so, before he had paid me. Someone asked what I would do if he didn’t pay me, as promised, and I said I would take him to small claims court. After I pressed Patterson, he relented and paid me. I also joked on Facebook that perhaps ARI or whoever owns Ayn Rand’s IP should sue him for plagiarism. But that was clearly a joke. Patterson is passing off Ayn Rand’s arguments as his own and without attribution.

  • February 21, 2017 at 8:10 am

    With regards to “discussions” on social media, you are committing an error by calling them arguments. These media do not facilitate discussion; rather, they facilitate preaching. Each side says what it believes, as loudly as possible, and the winner is the one who’s beliefs go viral. You can tell because in an argument both sides need to at least pay lip service to listening to the other side, while on these platforms discussions actively discourage understanding what the opposition says.

  • February 21, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Thanks, Ed. I’ll check out the Karpman Dynamic.

  • February 21, 2017 at 8:57 am

    I hope everyone involved can make progress in getting the underlying facts straight, Jason, though I will limit my participation to once asking about the social dynamic. I’d really like to see all of those who are I think trying to do good work do better at engaging with each other, so it really is an open question for me why it goes badly so often.

  • February 21, 2017 at 8:59 am

    I agree that the average is low, James, but I’m not as pessimistic about social media’s potential, as I’ve also seen a considerable number of productive discussions and civil arguments.

  • February 21, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    I’ve also had a number of productive discussions. However, actual discussion is not what the system was built for. Social media is built for SAYING things, not DISCUSSING them–built that way from the ground up, with many mechanics in place to emphasize that. It’s not an issue of pessimism on my part, but rather a conclusion drawn from how social media platforms allow users to interact with them.

    To illustrate the this by way of contrast, a forum is built for discussion, and the contrast shows how the mechanics of social media aren’t. When someone reads a Facebook post they may skip the comments entirely, and many Twitter posts and other social media posts are intended to be stand-alone. Even the terminology alludes to this, such as “status update”. A tweet is a thing–a self-contained entity. In contrast, in a forum format posts only exist in relation to some discussion. You may skip posts but it’s obviously against the intent of the medium and hampers your participation therein (soft self-bannings are an amusing consequence of this). Threads that don’t generate discussion are considered failures, outside of some basic housekeeping threads intended as references, and are soon swept away. On social media what keeps you in the limelight isn’t discussion, but sharing. These are just some of the specific mechanics built into how social media function that at minimum do not facilitate discussion, and at worst discourage it.

    But it’s not just social media (though my use of “platform” confused my intended message). Social media didn’t create this issue; just look at political debates of the past! Even the word I uses implies this is an old idea; preaching was around before writing. The issue is how one approaches an argument. A preacher approaches it from the perspective that anyone who disagrees are by definition wrong, that there’s nothing to learn, and that any concession to the opposition is not just dangerous, but openly evil. And that’s how far too many approach discussion today. Add in the mechanics of how social media work, and you get a feedback loop that rewards the loudest preachers.

    None of that is to say social media is bad. Like I said, I enjoy it! But it’s got some flaws we need to look at openly and rationally.

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